By Sharon Delgado
In December, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show featured a segment on Occupy Nevada County, which had held a rally to protest foreclosures and had successfully intervened to postpone an eviction. Since then several realtors and people facing foreclosure have contacted the local Occupy group with offers and requests for help. The public has been largely supportive. With the high rates of foreclosures, evictions, and homelessness in Nevada County, the issue’s relevance is easy to understand.
While continuing these efforts, Occupy Nevada County’s primary focus in January is the less familiar issue of “corporate personhood,” the legal doctrine giving corporations constitutional rights similar to those of natural persons. Since the late 19th century Supreme Court rulings have bestowed and gradually expanded the rights of corporations as “persons” under the law.
For-profit corporations are state-created vehicles for producing wealth for their stockholders, but the “legal fiction” of corporate personhood gives them constitutional rights originally designed for human beings. This creates a huge power imbalance on the political playing field. Transnational corporations can marshal resources far beyond those of most people. They can relocate to anywhere, change nationalities, span continents, and exist in many places simultaneously. Their only conscience is the bottom line. Criminal corporations can pay token fines and still do business; there are no corporate three strikes laws and they cannot go to jail because they are non-corporeal. Corporations have no natural death—they can span centuries. For these and other reasons, “corporate persons” have a huge political advantage over limited human beings.
In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission decision worsened this power imbalance by ruling that the 2002 McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act violated the First Amendment rights of corporations and unions. As a result, campaign finance laws in many states were overturned, and corporations and unions were allowed to pour unlimited funds into election campaigns. There are organizing efforts underway to get all concentrated money out of elections through public financing of elections.
The Citizens United decision has been described as “money equals speech.” In the case of corporations, corporate “speech” is tax-deductible! When corporations are given the same constitutional rights as people, large corporations come out ahead, since they can afford more “free speech” and political power than human beings. These powerful entities now control more wealth than do many countries, and they dominate cultures, economies, and governments. Corporations are now able to spend massive sums to create a megaphone so big that their message drowns out the voices of actual human beings.
How does this abstract political doctrine of “corporate personhood” and the resulting distortion of democracy relate to concrete issues, such as the rising rates of foreclosures and evictions? The answer is simple. When money equals speech, it is harder for those without money to be heard. It is no wonder, then, that public policies are often skewed to favor large corporations, big banks, and the wealthy at the expense of poor, working, and middle class people.
In the case of the foreclosure crisis, in 1999 big banks successfully lobbied to overturn the Glass-Stegall Act, which had separated investment banks from commercial banks. This enabled system-wide speculation, the development of complex “financial instruments,” and a housing bubble that finally (and predictably) burst, taking the economy down with it. Insiders got rich by betting that the mortgage derivatives they marketed would collapse in value. As the documentary “Inside Job” explains, profit-driven big banks and financial institutions caused the economic crisis. The government then bailed out these “too big to fail” banks, while the equity that millions of Americans had invested in their homes evaporated. Citizens United allows these banks and other corporations, including those from the “foreclosure servicing” sector, to pour unlimited funds into campaigns to elect candidates who will enact policies that favor profits over people.
Occupy Nevada County has scheduled meetings, workshops, rallies, and other events leading up to January 21, the second anniversary of Citizens United, when there will be a festival and teach-in in Nevada City. The goal of these actions is to raise awareness and build support for the nationwide Move to Amend campaign to enact a constitutional amendment to abolish corporate personhood and overturn Citizens United. To find out more go to http://ga.occupywallstreetnc.org.
Someone said, “If it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t deserve free speech.” If it’s only conscience is the bottom line it doesn’t deserve to determine public policy. Democracy is not for corporations. Democracy is for people.
The Reverend Sharon Delgado is an ordained United Methodist minister and co-founder and Executive Director of Earth Justice Ministries. She is available to preach and to present seminars, workshops, and lectures on peace, justice, eco-justice, and economic globalization. She has had many articles published on these themes. She is author of Shaking the Gates of Hell: Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization (Fortress Press, 2007).