If corporations are people, what are they really like?


ExxonMobil spits out a gob of chewing-tobacco juice and taps a baseball bat against the cleats of its shoes, knocking off the dirt clods. Then “Exx 'Em” -- as the fans like to call their slugger -- steps into the batter's box and slams the first pitch over the center-field wall of Dodger Stadium.

Meanwhile, Victoria's Secret -- who likes to be called Vikki -- is elbow-deep in stinky compost in a Denver garden, preparing to plant zucchinis, while Yahoo sits alone in a Seattle park, getting high on marijuana to avoid thinking about how it lost so much market share to Google.

And Nike is pregnant, lying on its back getting a sonogram in a Portland clinic, trying not to giggle at the tickly feeling as the wand slides over its swollen abdomen, listening to the doctor exclaim, “You're going to have a baby boy and a baby girl -- twins!”

If you think those scenes are absurd, you should get involved in what might be the most important political campaign right now -- the nonpartisan campaign to declare that corporations are not people.

A crazy and dangerous trend in federal law -- giving corporations increasing constitutional rights under the “corporate personhood” doctrine -- has ignited this campaign. The most egregious example, of course, is the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. Five Supreme Court justices, who often ideologically embrace corporate interests, overturned many previous court rulings and laws that limited political spending by corporations. They based their decision on the notion that corporations have the right to freedom of speech, and spending unlimited money on political ads and other propaganda for candidates is a form of speech.

Four dissenting Supreme Court justices in that case, including one appointed by a Republican president, warned that removing the limits would further corrupt our democracy. We see the danger in this election season, as a new torrent of ads attack candidates who think regulations are needed to achieve goals such as acting on climate change, protecting civil rights and reining in Wall Street scams. But corporate interests are launching more court battles seeking to apply the full force of the Citizens United ruling in every state. The key case now centers on Montana, which has limited corporate political spending since 1912. Twenty-two other states -- including California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Washington -- along with the District of Columbia have gone to court backing Montana's limits on corporate spending.

To make the point clear, on May 3, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov John Bohlinger, a Republican, both endorsed a Montana ballot measure that would encourage the state's officials to take a stand that “corporations are not human beings with constitutional rights.” They cited the spirit of the Montana voters who passed the limits a hundred years ago as part of their rebellion against the powerful Anaconda Copper Company. Back then, Anaconda routinely bought Montana politicians and used them to carry out its goals of maximizing profits with little regard for worker safety and the environment.

Gov. Schweitzer said, “We want to make a point. This is our government, and we’re not going to allow any corporation to steal it from us.” He urged voters to “send a signal to this entire world that Montana is not for sale.”

The same spirit drives a nationwide campaign called Move to Amend, which claims to have more than 1.4 million members, all of whom want to amend the U.S. Constitution to say that “corporations are not human beings.” The campaign is getting some traction in the West. Voters in Montana's second-largest city, Missoula, overwhelmingly approved a local ballot measure last November calling for the constitutional amendment. So did voters in Boulder, Colo. The Los Angeles City Council passed a similar resolution in December, becoming the first major city to do so. Elsewhere in Colorado, the Pueblo County commissioners unanimously backed the campaign in January. Advocates in Salt Lake City are gathering signatures on petitions to put it on the local ballot this November.

State legislatures in New Mexico and Hawaii have passed resolutions opposing the Citizens United decision, and in late April the Vermont Legislature became the first to support the constitutional amendment. The Sierra Club has also endorsed the campaign.

So far, this campaign against corporate personhood is merely symbolic, but over time, it could gain traction and have an impact. Corporations are not intrinsically good or bad, of course. They make and sell many useful products. But they're fundamentally selfish, greedy automatons, doing whatever they can to maximize profits. Various laws even require them to act like that on behalf of their shareholders. They're more like robots than people, and the law should treat them as such.

Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the magazine’s senior editor in Bozeman, Montana.

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