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Corporations Ain't People, So Why Do They Have the Power of Citizens?

Two anti-corporate activists discuss the abuses of corporate personhood and how we can shake their grip of power off of our democratic process.

This conversation is a compilation of talks and emails between two writer-activists. We welcome other voices in the conversation - we decided to share this because we want answers and dialogue in our communities about this issue. There are more questions than answers here, but they feel like crucial questions.

Dani McClain: You've been thinking a lot about corporate personhood and your belief, as you put it, that "the threat is the control of the new world by corporations, who are 'people' and have rights." I want to understand the full implications of what happened a year ago (1/21/10) when the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United ruling -- a decision that unlimited corporate dollars are allowed to influence political campaigns and that money = speech and so is protected by the First Amendment.

Adrienne Marie Brown: Me too! Though I can’t shake the suspicion that the ruling was just formalizing the way things already are. Dick “Halliburton” Cheney is a great example of what a myth it is that corporations and our government are necessarily two separate bodies. Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if the language was more honest - “corporate democracy,” or “corporate governance.” But, corporate personhood seems incredibly dangerous and unjustifiable.

McClain: I also want to get better acquainted with the 14th amendment. I'm just learning that corporations have always turned to the 14th amendment (which I've always thought of broadly as the amendmentthat gave formerly enslaved people rights as citizens) to make claims that they have rights on which the government can't trample.

Brown (jaw drops): See, this is why I avoid the news. I adamantly feel like it’s useless to engage in the news cycle unless there’s something I can do. I don’t want to live a reactionary life - our movements spend so much time trying to become overnight experts on the latest scandal or tension, whatever corporate media has decided to focus our attention on. But this is the kind of news that makes me feel like things are happening that deeply impact my future, and even though I am a informed, political person, I am out the loop.

In terms of the ruling, when it happened it wasn’t a surprise. Capitalism is all about individuals competing to amass more than they need (profit) at the expense of humankind and the earth, and corporations are the institutions for that shady behavior*. This feels like a major advance on our rights, one of those foundational rulings that will ultimately reframe politics, from food justice to environmental struggles to joblessness. But how can I approach it in a creative, impactful way?

McClain:I’m glad you bring up your desire to be on the offense rather than reactive. You and I have talked a lot about the importance of giving people a vision that ultimately moves them beyond whatever paradigm the status quo (e.g., the greedy, the exclusionary) set up. Do you think the answer to fighting corporate personhood is passing a constitutional amendmentto reverse Citizens United? Or is it some psychospiritual or human development response that's outside the realm of policy, legal battles and lobbying in a traditional sense? Instead of looking at the Supreme Court ruling as some "evil" thing that we should mobilize against, do you see it as just another challenge pushing us to evolve and see the issues through a new lens?

Brown: I absolutely see this as a place to practice both/and strategies, with more energy in the realm of developing viable alternatives. Actions speak louder than words, no matter how constitutional the words are, so the majority of our actions should be visionary - building the world we want to see. But there are a lot of people who feel it is irresponsible to not hold the line against the advances of corporate power, and I hear that. I just don't think a constitutional amendment matters that much if most of the people in the country don't understand what's going on.  There's such an imbalance of corporate vs. community influence in our government at this point, so it feels like we need a cultural campaign that really highlights for people the potential benefits of elevating human/earth rights in their own lives, and ways to challenge this corporatization of government, of society. People forget that they matter, that their voices should be what’s represented in decisions around their lives.

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