Thom Hartmann explains ‘corporate personhood’ and the battle to save democracy

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Thom Hartmann, author of "Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became 'People' and How You Can Fight Back," explains the fiction of "corporate personhood" in Unequal Protection: The Battle to Save Democracy (excerpt):

Given all this context and history, a reasonable person would probably conclude that the Reconstruction Amendments—particularly the Fourteenth Amendment—were designed to grant rights exclusively to human beings. There’s no discussion at all of corporations in the Amendment itself, and nobody in that day would have dared propose that the Civil War was fought to “free” corporations. (If anything, many residents of the southern states to this day believe that it was corporate power in New England—particularly the bankers and the commodity traders in New York—who triggered the Civil War by asserting their economic power to bring the White plantation owners and agricultural commodity traders in the South into servitude to the northern banks.) And when it comes to the intentions of the authors of the Amendment, that reasonable person would be right.

But here’s the problem: the particular choice of words used in the Fourteenth Amendment created a loophole that corporations continue to exploit to this day—to our collective detriment as a democracy.

American constitutional law is, in many ways, grounded in British common law, which goes back to the sixth century. In common law there are two types of “persons”: “natural persons,” like you and me, and “artificial persons,” which include governments, churches, and corporations. The creation of a category for governments, churches (and other nonprofits), and for-profit corporations was necessary so that the law (and taxes) could reach them.

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The Fourteenth Amendment, however, does not draw any distinction between “natural” and “artificial” personhood, and twenty years later corporate lawyers would seize upon that to turn corporations from mere ways of organizing a business into the transnational superpersons that they are today.

Of course, such sweeping ramifications never occurred to Thaddeus Stevens or his colleagues who drafted the Fourteenth Amendment. The clause that grants all “persons” equal protection under the law, in context, seems to apply pretty clearly only to human beings “born or naturalized” in the United States of America.

But fate and time and the conspiracies of great wealth and power often have a way of turning common sense and logic on its head, as you’ll learn in just a few pages.

[T]he Supreme Court has gradually—since the first decade of the nineteenth century in the Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward case— been granting corporations privileges that looked more and more like rights. And, particularly since 1886, the Bill of Rights has been explicitly applied to corporations.

Perhaps most astoundingly, no branch of the U.S. government ever formally enacted corporate personhood “rights”:

● The public never voted on it.

● It was never enacted into law by any legislature.

● It was never even stated by a decision after arguments before the Supreme Court. 

This last point will raise some eyebrows because for one hundred years people have believed that the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad did in fact conclude that “corporations are persons.” But this book will show that the Court never stated this: it was added by the court reporter who wrote the introduction to the decision, a commentary called a headnote. And as any law student knows, headnotes have no legal standing.

It’s fashionable in America right now—as it was during the Gilded Age—to equate unrestrained, “free market” laissez faire capitalism with democracy, even going so far as to suggest that democracy can’t exist without unrestrained capitalism.

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But far more interesting is the inverse: Is it possible that what’s really incompatible with democracy isn’t socialism or a regulated marketplace but, instead, is the ultimate manifestation of corporate power—corporate person- hood? And, if so—a case I’ll build in this book—how do We the People take back our democratic institutions like the Congress from their current corporate masters? 

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