The extension of rights, privileges, and power under the mask of “corporate personhood” and its inherent application of the equal protection clause has turned industries into collections of Frankenstein’s monsters on track to devour their creators. In the midst of economic turbulence, demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street and around the globe have taken issue with the trend wherein corporate personhood extends rights traditionally reserved for natural persons to corporations, often without imposing the same standards of accountability traditionally applied to natural persons. But what exactly are “corporate personhood” and the rights granted by it? And to what extent can a corporation be held accountable for its actions? The answer to this question is soon to come.
The Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear the Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell)case, which will determine whether or not corporations can be held responsible for human rights violations overseas. This case involves the Ogoni people of Nigeria who, after demanding an end to the oil development that was destroying their region, were tortured and executed by Shell in collusion with the Nigerian government. Now, if Shell is found to be liable, corporations will have a new layer of responsibility, further completing their status as persons.
But rather than to delve into a discussion on morality in the post-industrial age, let’s consider the history of corporate personhood and how it came to be. In the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case regarding the taxation of corporations, the Supreme Court declared that corporations can be considered persons under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But more relevant and problematic to the Occupy protesters is the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which gave corporations the right to give exorbitant funds to political campaigns without disclosure. The Citizens United case overturned the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which prohibited corporations from “electioneering” – driving politics with corporate funding, asserting that the Campaign Reform Act was a violation of the First Amendment rights of corporations. Strengthening the corporatocratic behemoth behind modern politics, the ruling had unquestionable influence in the 2010 election cycle, in which spending from outside groups quadrupled from 2006 levels and nearly half of all campaign donations were provided by only ten corporations, according to Public Citizen.
However, the Occupy protesters believe that it is unfair that corporations can use their wealth to buy louder voices and bigger influence in the political sphere. In a recent interview with NPR, Professor John Witt of Yale Law School summarized the protesters’ opinion that “the differences…between natural persons and metaphysical persons or corporations might be a good reason to distinguish between natural persons and corporations for purposes of regulating speech.” In the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, the one-year anniversary of theCitizens United decision sparked a flurry of small demonstrations in January 2011.
The upcoming Kiobel decision, however, could be a significant step towards restoring corporate responsibility, or a tragic step towards unchecked corporate power and rights. If corporations are to enjoy the benefits of legal personhood and equal protection, they must also be held accountable for human rights violations and other criminal acts.
When I visited Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the Occupy protests, on Oct. 15, I saw a few signs sporting this slogan: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” Even though a metaphysical execution, corporations have been “executed” for violating human rights laws. A key example is IG Farben, a German chemical conglomerate which was dissolved after WWII because of its role in the Holocaust and persistent widespread corruption. IG Farben worked closely with the Nazi government to secure chemical plants in the invaded countries of Poland and Czechoslovakia during WWII. Additionally, IG Farben held the patent for Zyklon B, the chemical used in gas chambers at the Auschwitz and Majdanek concentration camps, which killed roughly 1.2 million people. At the Nuremberg trials, 13 IG Farben executives were imprisoned for the war crimes committed by their company. A few years later, the conglomerate was forcibly split up by the Allies into four smaller companies. Although a corporation cannot literally be “executed,” the break-up of IG Farben may serve as a guide for future human rights violations committed by corporations. With the outcome of the Kiobel case, hopefully, we will see the beginning of a new era of corporate responsibility.