Monday, August 17, 2009

The Power Behind the Throne: The Legalization of Corporate Personhood

By Mark Karlin

Of course, there is no simple analysis to understanding the forces lurking beneath the surface of political conflict in America today.

But a good place to start would be with the legal enshrinement in the late 1800s of a concept called "corporate personhood." In essence, this means a business institution has the same -- indeed, currently enhanced -- legal rights as individual American citizens.

Thom Hartmann outlined this brilliantly in his under-appreciated book of a few years back, "Unequal Protection."

As noted in a description of "Unequal Protection":

Hartmann then describes the history of the Fourteenth Amendment--created at the end of the Civil War to grant basic rights to freed slaves--and how it has been used by lawyers representing corporate interests to extend additional rights to businesses far more frequently than to freed slaves. Prior to 1886, corporations were referred to in U.S. law as "artificial persons." but in 1886, after a series of cases brought by lawyers representing the expanding railroad interests, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were "persons" and entitled to the same rights granted to people under the Bill of Rights. Since this ruling, America has lost the legal structures that allowed for people to control corporate behavior.

As a result, the largest transnational corporations fill a role today that has historically been filled by kings. They control most of the world's wealth and exert power over the lives of most of the world's citizens. Their CEOs are unapproachable and live lives of nearly unimaginable wealth and luxury. They've become the rudder that steers the ship of much human experience, and they're steering it by their prime value--growth and profit and any expense--a value that has become destructive for life on Earth. This new feudalism was not what our Founders--Federalists and Democratic Republicans alike--envisioned for America.

Yes, the pockets of Republican and Democratic elected officials on Capitol Hill get stuffed with campaign contributions from corporate backers, but what is equally alarming is that corporations are equal to us in terms of their legal role in the legislative and legal process.  Backed with huge war chests and legal funds, corporations are actually able to fix the system to where they have greater legal rights and legislative impact than people.

A new book expands upon Hartmann's incisive legal and historical analysis about how corporations used the legal system to leverage their power by gaining "personal rights" for businesses.  In the just released "Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back," we learn how we have come to accept the worldview of corporations, even progressives.  They have become the power behind the throne that controls D.C. and that even the President of the United States cannot force to heel.

It's very abstract for most people to get their arms around this concept, but we are going to have to choose between the interests of corporations and the interests of the American people.

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