Unlike people, corporations keep dragging chains of greed

commentDecember 23, 2011 

In 1843 Charles Dickens, 67 years after Adam Smith published the definitive work on pre-corporate capitalism, "The Wealth of Nations," wrote a brilliant critique of its social evils in "A Christmas Carol." Smith defined capitalism as efficiently providing goods and services, not as making money for its own sake. Not everyone listened.

By Dickens' time the British rich were getting richer and the poor were being horribly exploited, working long hours, (ten- to 12-hour days were not uncommon and that was child labor) paid low wages, and living in abysmally unsanitary conditions. Meanwhile, men of privilege were making fortunes and many became consumed by greed, the second of the seven deadly sins. Dickens personified the human dimension of greed in Ebenezer Scrooge:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! ... The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.

Scrooge's disdain for the less fortunate is contemptible, his self-indulgence reprehensible. Scrooge's materialist obsession nearly destroyed him.

One wonders how Dickens might describe modern corporate capitalism and how Smith might analyze it. Few corporations boast of providing a good product at a fair price. Few boast of paying good wages and embracing environmentally responsible policies -- other than co-opting green rhetoric for the sake of sales. The purpose of corporations is earning returns for shareholders who are, themselves, largely divorced from accountability. Through mutual funds and entitlement investments -- like the Permanent Fund -- many may not even know they are invested in a company. They only know if they are making money; the driving force of corporate decision-making are policies and practices that promote consumption and generate short-term gain.

We have made the dominant institution of our time persons. According to a remarkable documentary "The Corporation," the U.S. Supreme Court's extension of personhood to corporations has been developing since the passage of the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Its intent was a post-slavery clarification of individual rights to life, liberty and property.

Nineteen of the first 307 Fourteenth Amendment Supreme Court cases involved those rights for African-Americans; 288 involved corporations obtaining rights of personhood. Now a corporation can own another corporation; act as a person in court; have limited liability for CEOs and directors; pay limited damages (the Exxon Valdez case); buy, sell, borrow and sue; and exercise the rights of personhood to donate to political campaigns.

Materialism is reaching epidemic proportions and, thanks to corporatism, once again the disparity between rich and poor is widening and the middle class is disappearing. Dickens' description of Scrooge as "A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" could well apply to Exxon, Wells Fargo, or many of the other placeless corporations that dominate the stock market and effectively manipulate public opinion for their own ends.

Afraid he would have to, like his friend Jacob Marley, drag the chains he forged by greed in the afterlife, Scrooge willfully accepted the transformative power of three spirits. Through the spirit of the past he understood his roots, through the spirit of the present he understood his current situation, and through the spirit of the future he understood where he would end up if he continued on his present course. The spirits thawed Scrooge's cold heart, pried open the door to his soul, and he changed.

Would that corporations could understand and respond to history, be able to analyze the present, and project to the future what the state of the world will be if their practices continue on their present course. But they cannot respond and understand that the wealth is not in materialist hegemony, narcissism, and environmental exploitation. They cannot understand emotionally or intellectually that meaning in life is not in the things we have but in the things we do together to perpetuate our traditions, remain connected, and live in such a way as to provide a hopeful future for our grandchildren and our place. They do not care if they drag the chains they forged through greed forever, because corporations are not persons and have no heart and have no soul and therefore are incapable of the epiphany that transformed Scrooge.

We must heed the Occupy movement and take back the corporation. We can start by reversing the personhood the Supreme Court has bestowed on corporations.


Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

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