Saturday, January 23, 2010

In a Blow to Democracy, U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Corporate Personhood

Ten years ago I was quite the anti-corporate globalization activist. Note: I wasn’t against globalization, but rather corporate-led globalization.

During that time of what I see now as my political and social awakening (1997-2003), I documented much of my involvement in the justice and peace movement through an online photographic exhibit that I entitled Faces of Resistance: Images and Stories of Progressive Activism at the Turn of the Millennium.

One part of Faces of Resistance focuses on “Confronting Corporate Globalization,” and documents protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the International Society for Animal Genetics (ISAG), and the notion of “corporate personhood.”

This section of Faces of Resistance also highlights individuals, organizations and events that proactively offer alternatives to corporate-led globalization. Individuals highlighted include Vandana Shiva (right), David Korten, Marjorie Kelly, Rev. Robert Jeffrey, Tom Taylor, Larry Weiss, and Mary Shepard.

Another part of Faces of Resistance documents A16, which refers to April 16, 2000, the main day of protest during a week of rallies, demonstrations, teach-ins and activities in Washington, D.C., aimed at protesting the structure and policies of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The neo-liberal economic doctrine

As I note at Faces of Resistance, the writings of
Susan George, along with those of Vandana Shiva, David Korten, and Naomi Klein, have been instrumental in helping me not only understand the meaning and ramifications of corporate-led globalization and the “neo-liberal” ideology that underpins it, but also why and how such an ideology must be resisted.

As George explains in her invaluable little book, Another World Is Possible, If . . .,

Neo-liberalism is an economic doctrine . . . based on open competitive markets and the ‘price mechanism,’ meaning that prices must be determined by supply and demand, not by government intervention or subsidies. Neo-liberals are against most state interventions in the economy, they are pro-free trade and anti-trade unions. They see the array of social protections afforded by the welfare state as nothing but state-organized theft and consequently they want to reduce taxes.

One of their number in the U.S. is Grover Norquist. He heads the organization Americans for Tax Reform and says, “We want to get government down to the size where you can drown it in the bathtub.” Except, of course, for the military . . .

Strict neo-liberal doctrine breaks down, however, in certain cases. Free trade is all very well, but, to cite only one example, it’s okay to protect American steel producers or farmers with high tariffs or subsidies. Government rules and regulations are unwelcome, except when they are tailor-made for protecting corporate interests; taxes can be a good thing if paid by someone else; and so on.

Whatever the qualifiers used – corporate-led, finance-driven, or neo-liberal – they all describe world capitalism’s most recent phase which it entered roughly around 1980. From the onset, say about 500 years ago, capitalism existed as a global phenomenon. The difference today lies in its scope and the nature of its major actors: giant corporations and mega-financial institutions now have remarkable latitude to set rules that govern everyone, especially because they also frequently control the media. They seek ever greater power to bend national and international policies to fit their needs. . . . Fortunately, both anger and revolt are on the rise.

“We, the people,” not “we, the corporations”

Well, hopefully this “anger and revolt” will rise to even greater levels in response to the truly disturbing news out of the U.S. that the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, has ruled that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates. Basically, corporations, artificial creations of the state, now have First Amendment rights of political expression formerly afforded solely to individuals and political parties.

Just how bad is this decision? Well, one lawmaker
describes it as the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case justifying slavery, while one commentator declares it a “naked assertion of the interests of the American financial elite” and the culmination of “years of anti-democratic decisions by the Supreme Court.”

Following is how constitutional law professor Jamin Raskin views this latest Supreme Court decision. He spoke yesterday to Amy Goodman on the TV/radio news program Democracy Now! I greatly appreciate what Raskin has to say, as he not only identifies the dangers of this decision regarding corporate personhood, but also offers concrete steps that President Obama, Congress, and U.S. citizens can take to challenge and counter this decision.

Following is the transcript of Goodman’s conversation with Raskin.


Amy Goodman: [A new] Supreme Court ruling . . . will allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates. In a five-to-four decision, the Court overturned century-old restrictions on corporations, unions and other interest groups from using their vast treasuries to advocate for a specific candidate. The conservative members of the Court ruled corporations have First Amendment rights and that the government cannot impose restrictions on their political speech.

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy described existing campaign finance laws as a form of censorship that have had a, quote, “substantial, nationwide chilling effect” on political speech.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens described the decision as a radical departure in the law. Stevens wrote, “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation. . . . It will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process.”

To talk more about this ruling, we’re joined by Jamin Raskin. He’s a professor of constitutional law at American University and a Maryland state senator. He is the author of several books, including Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court vs. The American People.

Professor Raskin, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Jamin Raskin: Good morning, Amy. Well, we’ve had some terrible Supreme Court interventions against political democracy: Shaw v. Reno, striking down majority African American and Hispanic congressional districts; Bush v. Gore, intervening to stop the counting of ballots in Florida. But I would have to say that all of them pale compared to what we just saw yesterday, where the Supreme Court has overturned decades of Supreme Court precedent to declare that private, for-profit corporations have First Amendment rights of political expression, meaning that they can spend up to the heavens in order to have their way in politics. And this will open floodgates of millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and local elections, as Halliburton and Enron and Blackwater and Bank of America and Goldman Sachs can take money directly out of corporate treasuries and put them into our politics.

And I looked at just one corporation, Exxon Mobil, which is the biggest corporation in America. In 2008, they posted profits of $85 billion. And so, if they decided to spend, say, a modest ten percent of their profits in one year, $8.5 billion, that would be three times more than the Obama campaign, the McCain campaign and every candidate for House and Senate in the country spent in 2008. That’s one corporation. So think about the Fortune 500. They’re threatening a fundamental change in the character of American political democracy.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about President Obama’s response? He was extremely critical, to say the least. He said, “With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics . . . a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Yet a number of conservatives are pointing out that President Obama spent more money for his presidential election than anyone in U.S. history.

Jamin Raskin: OK, well, that’s a red herring in this discussion. The question here is the corporation, OK? And there’s an unbroken line of precedent, beginning with Chief Justice Marshall in the Dartmouth College case in the 1800s, all the way through Justice Rehnquist, even, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, saying that a corporation is an artificial creation of the state. It’s an instrumentality that the state legislatures charter in order to achieve economic purposes. And as Justice White put it, the state does not have to permit its own creature to consume it, to devour it.

And that’s precisely what the Supreme Court has done, suddenly declaring that a corporation is essentially a citizen, armed with all the political rights that we have, at the same time that the corporation has all kinds of economic perks and privileges like limited liability and perpetual life and bankruptcy protection and so on, that mean that we’re basically subsidizing these entities, and sometimes directly, as we saw with the Wall Street bailout, but then they’re allowed to turn around and spend money to determine our political future, our political destiny. So it’s a very dangerous moment for American political democracy.

And in other times, citizens have gotten together to challenge corporate power. The passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 is a good example, where corporations were basically buying senators, going into state legislatures and paying off senator — paying off legislators to buy US senators, and the populist movement said we need direct popular election of senators. And that’s how we got it, basically, in a movement against corporate power.

Well, we need a movement for a constitutional amendment to declare that corporations are not persons entitled to the rights of political expression. And that’s what the President should be calling for at this point, because no legislation is really going to do the trick.

Now, one thing Congress can do is to say, if you do business with the federal government, you are not permitted to spend any money in federal election contests. That’s something that Congress should work on and get out next week. I mean, that seems very clear. No pay to play, in terms of US Congress.

And I think that citizens, consumers, shareholders across the country, should start a mass movement to demand that corporations commit not to get involved in politics and not to spend their money in that way, but should be involved in the economy and, you know, economic production and livelihood, rather than trying to determine what happens in our elections.

Amy Goodman: This is considered a conservative court, Jamin Raskin, but isn’t this a very activist stance of the Supreme Court justices?

Jamin Raskin: Indeed. The Supreme Court has reached out to strike down a law that has been on the books for several decades. And moreover, it reached out when the parties to the case didn’t even ask them to decide it. The Citizens United group, the anti-Hillary Clinton group, did not even ask them to wipe out decades of Supreme Court case law on the rights of corporations in the First Amendment. The Court, in fact, raised the question, made the parties go back and brief this case, and then came up with the answer to the question that the Court itself, or the five right-wing justices themselves, posed here.

There would have been lots of other ways for those conservative justices to find that Citizens United’s anti-Hillary Clinton movie was protected speech, the simplest being saying, “Look, this was pay-per-view; it wasn’t a TV commercial. So it’s not covered by McCain-Feingold.” But the Court, or the five justices on the Court, were hell-bent on overthrowing McCain-Feingold and the electioneering communication rules and reversing decades of precedent.

And so, now the people are confronted with a very serious question: Will we have the political power and vision to mobilize, to demand a constitutional amendment to say that it is “we, the people,” not “we, the corporations”?

Recommended Off-site Links:
Citizens United vs. FEC: Shed a Tear for Democracy
- Robert Weissman (The Huffington Post, January 21, 2010).
U.S. Supreme Court Abolishes Restrictions on Big Business Political Spending - Tom Carter (World Socialist Web Site, January 22, 2010).
A Supreme Victory for Special Interests
- John Dean (, January 21, 2010).
Corporate Personhood Should Be Banned, Once and For All
- Ralph Nader (, January 21, 2010).
Citizens United Is a Radical Rewriting of the Constitution by the Pro-Corporate Supreme Court
- Lisa Graves (PR, January 21, 2010).
If Corporations Were Human
- Scott Klinger (, January 22, 2010).
Obama Blasts Supreme Court Campaign Finance Ruling - Darlene Superville (Associated Press, January 23, 2010).
Campaign Finance Ruling Reflects Supreme Court’s Growing Audacity
- Michael Waldman (Washington Post, January 22, 2010).
The (New) Gilded Age: Supreme Court Delivers the Goods to Corporations - Peter Laarman (Religious Dispatches, January 24, 2010).

Want to Take Action? Click here.

UPDATES: Citizens United: The Court Ruling That Sold Our Democracy – Tiffany Muller (Common Dreams, January 22, 2020).
Bernie Sanders: 10 Years Fighting Citizens United – Brett Wilkins (Common Dreams, January 21, 2020).

Images: Michael J. Bayly.


Mark Andrews said...

Well this explains alot. Michael, you're living proof of my definition of photojournalism: the best of art & reportage combined!

You have got a gift, which I call "The Eye." I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. I hope you explore it.

Tom Degan said...

Are corporations really persons?

Do corporations think?

Do corporations grieve when a loved one dies as a result of a lack of adequate health care?

If a corporation ever committed an unspeakable crime against the American people, could IT be sent to federal prison? (Note the operative word here: "It")

Has a corporation ever given its life for its country?

Has a corporation ever been killed in an accident as the result of a design flaw in the automobile it was driving?

Has a corporation ever written a novel that inspired millions?

Has a corporation ever risked its life by climbing a ladder to save a child from a burning house?

Has a corporation ever won an Oscar? Or an Emmy? Or the Nobel Peace Prize? Or the Pulitzer Prize in Biography?

Has a corporation ever been shot and killed by someone who was using an illegal and unregistered gun?

Has a corporation ever paused to reflect upon the simple beauty of an autumn sunset or a brilliant winter moon rising on the horizon?

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a noise if there are no corporations there to hear it?

Should corporations kiss on the first date?

Our lives - yours and mine - have more worth than any goddamned corporation. To say that the Supreme Court made a awful decision on Thursday is an understatement. Not only is it an obscene ruling - it's an insult to our humanity.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

Michael J. Bayly said...

Wow! Thanks Mark! As always I appreciate your positive feedback on my photography . . . and, in this case, my "photojournalism."

I owe you an e-mail, and will be getting that to you very soon!

Hope all is going well for you back in the wintry U.S.