The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The 14th Amendment and Corporate Personhood

The Fourteenth Amendment remains one of the most well known and important legal additions to the United States Constitution. Originally intended to secure former slaves’ rights, the world of big business quickly pounced on the opportunity to disfigure this piece of legislation into a heartless corporate abomination. The despicable crime of conventional slavery was intended to be replaced by the exploitation of wage-slavery, and using the Fourteenth Amendment to articulate and implement the concept of Corporate Personhood was essential to this replacement. This prodigiously important amendment has been stripped of its benevolence; its humanity replaced with a fortification for lifeless, profit driven corporations. After the intense debate, the lengthy legislative process, and the real people who rejoiced after fighting to free either themselves or their kin from the bonds of slavery, it is a treacherous mockery to allow this sardonic mutation of the word “person” to apply to corporate entities. Endowing these fleshless, profit seeking abstractions with the same rights and liberties of a human being is not only deplorable, but dangerous to the already deteriorated democratic institutions of the United States. Upon examination of the Fourteenth Amendment, it becomes evident that the intent was not to grant corporate personhood. More importantly, regardless of intent, this amendment should not be used to facilitate the augmentation of those with wealth and power, simply expanding their ability to pursue profit and accumulate more and more capital. Instead, its application ought to protect the freedom and rights of historically oppressed groups of people and human-beings in general.

Proposed on June 13, 1866, and ratified on July 9th, 1868, this amendment presented a prodigious change to the Constitution. By expanding the definition of "citizen," which had previously excluded African Americans, and theoretically giving all persons, not just citizens, equal protection under the law, this proved to be a rather significant amendment. It took just over two years for Congress to ratify, finally reaching the twenty eight states needed (the Union was comprised of thirty seven at the time). Connecticut was the first state to ratify this amendment on June 25th of 1866. After a grueling two years, twenty seven others finally ratified it, including North Carolina, Louisiana, and South Carolina after originally rejecting it. Some legal scholars attempt to explain that the Fourteenth amendment was in violation of Article V of the Constitution; they cite coercion and unequal, unfair representation of Confederate states as a main argument. Of course, judging from the schism between Northern capitalists (the "Bosses of the Buildings") and Southern plantation owners, (the "Lords of the Land), which was what, in large part, galvanized the civil war, it make sense that the ruling class was split over the amendment. The Northern capitalists pushed the amendment through and, while in theory it provided civil rights and protections, it was not until many years later that enforcement actually occurred on some scale, if it occurred at all. The vast contrast between legislation and federal action is often astounding, and the Fourteenth Amendment is no exception.

The five sections of the Amendment are rather clear:
1) All those born in the United States are citizens and law must treat non-citizens equally.
2) The number of representatives is chosen based on population (excluding Natives), and denying the right to vote to males that are at least twenty one years old will result in reduction of representatives.
3) No one can hold office in the United States if they have participated in rebellion against the government while holding an office.
4) The United States does not owe money to previous slave owners, nor will it pay debts incurred by Confederacy in the Civil War.
5) “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."
The fifth rule legally, although not in practice, applied the Bill of Rights to all state governments, as opposed to solely the federal government. Out of the five, those that come under subject of debate most are sections one and two. Generally, the latter was not actually enforced, as many states engaged in disenfranchisement of eligible black voters and were not reprimanded for it by a reduction of representatives.

Section one, overturning the previous Dred Scott decision, declaring blacks could not become citizens, was used to solidify the Civil Rights Act of 1866, granting citizenship to all people born in the United States. It acted as a safeguard so that Congress could not reverse this decision easily in the future. It was also a response to Black Codes, or laws which prevented blacks from moving, testifying in court, and other rights in the South. The exact interpretation has shifted over time, at first allowing segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson) and later dismantling legal segregation (Brown v. Board of Education), although effectively allowing de facto economic segregation to remain prominent. This portion also has come under debate with regard to undocumented workers who have children in the United States. Since it declares that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside," most assume that it applies to, and it very well ought, to children of parents without legal documents who have migrated to the United States.

The first section, of course, is what the wealthy capitalists almost immediately used to employ personhood upon their nonliving entities, i.e. corporations. The owners of these corporations bring both the Due Process Clause (“no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”) and the Equal Protection Clause (“no state shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”) to their defense. It seems rather strange that corporations could benefit from these passages in the Fourteenth Amendment. After all, it only states that no “person” shall fail to receive proper legal processes and shall have equal protection under these processes. It does not include business entities. Ironically, no Supreme Court Case, public vote, or law has ever actually declared that corporations count as “persons.” Often, those in favor of corporate personhood will argue that Santa Clara County versus Southern Pacific Railroad determined such a precedent, yet the only time corporate personhood is even mentioned in the documents of the ruling is in the “headnotes” (a commentary on the case by the court reporter J. C. Bancroft Davis). Headnotes, of course, have no legal standing, and therefore stand as a rather weak fa├žade in defense of corporations (Hartmann). This is, more or less, one of the most peculiar examples of how the state in capitalist society functions in order to serve and protect the interests of the dominant economic class; few examples are so blatant and obvious as this.

Still, corporations remain able to safeguard themselves on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a society such as the United States where democratic institutions are largely deteriorated, this allows corporations to take advantage of the general population a variety of ways: inclusion in a inequitable tax structure, privacy meant for private citizens that potentially hides responsibility for crimes and removes transparency, the potential for a massive buildup of wealth and resources, the power to regulate what people do and do not see and how it is perceived, access to commons that most citizens do not have, and even citizenship. Based upon the conception of corporate personhood, these institutions have a wide array of “rights”: they can deny surprise inspections of their financial records, are no longer required to release all information necessary for citizens to make healthy decisions, they can buy media sources and are permitted to lie intentionally because of their “freedom of speech,” they are able fire any employee who disobeys instructions by telling the truth (established in the Florida case of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson versus FOX, see Hartmann), and they are protected against progressive taxation which would help reduce the enormous and ever-increasing wealth gap of the United States ( These “persons” are making a mockery of a once benevolent piece of legislation, while simultaneously deteriorating the already failing American democracy. It is telling of the ossified, super-rationality of the capitalist state when abstract, profit-mongering corporations are afforded the same right as real, tangible, conscious human beings.

Corporations, created solely for the pursuit of profit, should not be granted equal rights as human beings. They possess one distinct and often harmful function, which is to  seek out profit and constantly accumulate more capital. This predilection is in direct opposition to the welfare of average, working class people. The Fourteenth Amendment, as a nascent piece of legislation intended helped protect the rights of people, has been mutated into a grotesque misrepresentation of justice. Wealthy elites and sympathetic judges have misused the passages found in the Fourteenth Amendment to maintain their economic dominance and increase their ability to pursue enormous profits, while leaving the general population behind. Thus, the very people the Fourteenth Amendment was created to protect are being harmed and deceived. By allowing corporations to achieve personhood, a great deal of inequality and economic uncertainty are forced upon the people whom the Fourteenth Amendment was originally intended to protect. “We, the people,” have a right to a free, democratic society, unplagued by corporate power and misrepresentations of the Constitution.

Works Cited

“Corporate Personhood.” personhood/#current (accessed 12 April 2008).
Hartmann, Thom. “Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights." Mythical Intelligence, Inc. and Thom Hartmann. unequalprotection/index.shtml (accessed 12 April 2008).
Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site Interpretive Staff. "14th Amendment to the Constitution.” Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site. (accessed 13 Apr 2008).

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Derek Ide 2011


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