In January 2010, in a court case known as Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court arrived at a 5-4 decision prohibiting government from assigning limits to corporate political spending. The decision, which will undoubtedly play a role in the drama of the 2012 presidential election, highlights a question at the core of the democratic process: should corporations enjoy the same free speech privileges as human beings? Jeff Clements doesn’t think so. An attorney and founder of the organization Free Speech for People, Clements has proposed a twenty-eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution called the People’s Right Amendment, which would essentially reverse Citizens United. I spoke with Clements via e-mail about his new book, Corporations Are Not People, out now from Berrett-Koehler.
This book isn’t the only one to detail the dangers of corporate power, but it’s the only one I know that focuses on Citizens United. It’s a choice that feels deliberate. What is it about Citizens United that drew your attention?
Citizens United is a historic opportunity for winning fundamental change. By overturning a century of law that sought to keep corporate money out of elections, the Supreme Court made a very clear, loud, and dangerous statement about corporate power and American democracy. The vast majority of Americans know that this statement is wrong, and most people viscerally react against Citizens United—particularly as corporate money’s influence on the 2012 election continues to grow.
But the book is about much more than Citizens United, and much more than elections. Unchecked corporate power is an issue that affects everything: the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the jobs and wages we have, the communities we live in. This didn’t “just happen”—for more than thirty years, the so-called “corporate speech” doctrine at the heart of Citizens United has been used to strike down environmental laws, public health laws, and common sense regulations of Wall Street. As a result, our government is far more responsive to the largest corporations and the tiny slice of people that control them than they are to us. And we’re all much worse off as a result.
The corporate form has been around since the 17th century. Did corporations ever serve a legitimate social purpose? Were they ever helpful? Could they be helpful again?
In my view, incorporation laws are still useful for encouraging investment, for spreading risk and reward, and for the development and scaling of business ideas—but they’re badly in need of overhaul and oversight by the public. Originally, a state legislature might have permitted limited liability, or unitary action of many investors, in order to get a bridge-and-road project built. The corporate charters had a limited time-span, and the corporation was expected to be accountable to the people.
These days, not much of the original concept of the corporation is left—but one thing remains absolutely true: corporations are creations of law. They’re not just private affairs. All states have laws that define what a corporation is, what it can do, and what the privileges and benefits of using the corporate form might be. There’s no such thing as a corporation without government—and that’s why there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect our laws to ensure that corporations serve a beneficial public purpose or risk loss of status. For too long, we and the Supreme Court have forgotten that the benefits of incorporation come with responsibilities and accountability to the public.
Is this beginning to change?
It is. And we should work to accelerate the change. Several states have changed their corporate laws to encourage the growth of new concepts like for-benefit “B corporations” and low-profit corporations that have duties not only to shareholders but also to employees, the community, and the planet. Generally, though, the notion that “socially responsible” corporations are merely one alternative rather than a mandatory attribute of all corporations needs to change.
If you had a chance to trade ideas with, say, the CEOs of big corporations like Massey Energy, BP, or Credit Suisse, what would you ask them? What would you tell them?
I’d ask them to join the 1,000 other business leaders who’ve signed the People’s Rights Amendment resolution. The CEOs you’ve mentioned receive extraordinary riches for leading corporations that have caused massive and permanent harm—and yet I have no reason to presume that they’re particularly evil or bad people. There will always be another CEO ready to step into that system, and it’s that system we need to change. I’d ask of those CEOs the same thing I ask of myself and everyone else: join together, and let’s save ourselves while we still can. No amount of riches will be worth the consequences if we don’t.
One of the last chapters in the book, “Corporations Can’t Love,” is steeped in the language of virtue, particularly as that language appears in the Constitution. Why use words like “love,” “sacrifice,” and “belief” in the context of Citizens United?
To me, the book’s title is more than a slogan. If the Supreme Court, our politicians, and all of us carry forward that fundamental distinction between people and corporations, we’d all be much better off. The corporatist mindset is pervasive and debilitating because it destroys the incredible possibilities—like love and grace—inherent in human virtues. Our Constitution and our government were conceived by a generation that was very explicit about that. They would be appalled at the idea of Constitutional rights for corporations.
The pursuit of happiness and the revolutionary concept of a government of “we the people” are as relevant today as they were then, and if we rouse our virtue, love, faith, and patriotism without embarrassment—in my view—we can win extraordinary change. That’s what this book is about, and that’s the chance Citizens United offers us.
To sign the People’s Rights Amendment resolution, or to learn more about Jeff Clements’s new book, visit www.peoplesrightsamendment.org.