Corpus Delicti

Corporations Don’t Habeas Corpus

By Ben G. Price

First Published in 1994, Fall Supplement to Loompanics Unlimited Book Catalogue Offered for republication on the anniversary of the riots in LA following the acquittal of the police thugs who beat Rodney King.

To examine the history of corporations is to discover the re-establishment of a modern form of feudalism wherein individual liberty is subordinated to hierarchical social institutions which have been able, through the machinations and manipulations of wealth, to insinuate themselves into the political process by extra-constitutional means. The two most significant examples of extra- constitutional usurpation of political power in the United States are the major political parties and the corporations. Perhaps not surprisingly, party and corporate institutions have developed symbiotically, each promoting the other, at great cost to the political interests of ordinary citizens.

A brief and true definition of the term "corporation" must encompass it imaginary nature. A corporation is a legal fiction granted legitimacy by legislative decree. The bestowal of legitimacy empowers collective endeavors, usually economic in nature, with organizational liberties pertaining to capital, liabilities, and contractual agreements. These liberties, which have been granted by fiat, supersede those of corporeal citizens.

Corporations are recent inventions. They are social constructs, which is to say they are political scaffolds upon which our present society is erected. If there are fundamental aspects of our culture which seem antithetical to individual liberty, citizen participation in governance, and the constitutional rights of free human beings, then it will be prudent to uncover the undemocratic premises upon which our society has been building for over a century.

Corporations have transcended the financial and economic role once naively envisioned for them. They have been transformed into dynamic artifacts that infiltrate the social and moral infrastructure, invisibly, insidiously altering the human habitat. On the strength of what has been promoted as mere economic expediency, they are taken for granted, and their dictatorial effect on erstwhile people-run government is overlooked. It is time for us to decide whether or not they enrich us, or if instead they impoverish us as a society, by their very nature.

Corporations are not living, sentient entities, although current law recognizes them to be just that and gives them a latitude of behavior, a breadth of domain, rights, and especially power in litigation that have never been granted to the individual citizen who is supposedly the foundation of our ersatz democratic society.

The notion of an "incorporated" organization is a mental construct that was codified into law by an act of Congress. During the same era that labor unionists proposed organizing the common worker into a global community empowered with the ability to negotiate terms of employment from a position of strength, the eradication of that same notion became the highest priority of capitalistic labor barons. The misidentification of those demanding worker’s rights with "Communism" (Soviet Socialism), and by extension the villainization and "red baiting" of any person or group suggesting that corporations bear certain social responsibilities, has been the masterstroke in the twentieth century psychological war against which we, as operantly conditioned organs of the capitalistic commercial media, have so far failed to make a stand. No expense has been spared in the struggle to institutionalize capital. Everything from spiritual damnation to atomic annihilation has been threatened as the dire but deserved social consequence of permitting workers directive power in the emerging global workplace.

Colonialism was industry’s nascent attempt to achieve its goals of controlling the cheap availability of both natural and human resources. The homey tools of colonial industrialization were the manipulation of national sentiments through vitriolic (and xenophobic) propaganda, and the production of advanced weapons to expedite conquests and make subjugation of whole societies cost effective.

The corporation not only transcends nationalism, jingoism, and patriotic sentiments, it co-opts them as marketing tools when expedient. It makes them irrelevant as they pertain to foreign policy, unless national interests (read: "corporate interests") are at stake. Then, the tribal instincts of citizens, so long anesthetized In the service of the corporate state, are stimulated by manipulating emotive symbols to which the popular culture has been conditioned as being intrinsic to national (supra-tribal) pride. As patriotism pertains to corporate expansion (as in the case of protectionism and tariff barriers erected by nations on behalf of corporations in the midst of turf disputes with international competitors), patriotism will be dusted off and promoted assiduously by national political parties funded by interested corporations.

But the fast expanding industrial empire is establishing itself without true allegiances, itself uninspired by flags, and with disregard for constitutions. Corporations thrive as supra-social entities, accountable only as they fail to insulate themselves from human concerns. Hype, glitz, and the industry that made Madison Avenue famous are not innocent sparklers for the delight of a worker’s leisure-time. The mystique of Hollywood and the cinema, like the anonymity of the corporations that ("who?") dictate celluloid reality, is manufactured with a utilitarian purpose in mind.

Corporations have long been in the business of creating economic conditions under which domestic populations can be colonized and co-opted to the creation of corporate fiefdoms. Acting as stateless governments, corporations are modeled on the feudal system that met its greatest challenge with the dawn of the Renaissance and the flowering of rational and democratic movements, starting in the sixteenth century. But feudal power has never rested; it has regained its ascendancy in the guise of corporations carrying on "business as usual."

Corporate entrepreneurs have forged a global consensus wherein there burgeons a universal acceptance of a worldwide market for human and manufactured commodities: goods and services. Political systems across the globe have been bent and twisted to the utter success of this enterprise. Twentieth century history is a chronicle of the war of capital against all other systems aspiring to hegemony. But there are precedents to the corporate dream of global domination. Feudal lords of the Middle Ages once tallied wealth in terms of crops, mined and forested materials, and then livestock and serfs, always with an eye to the "services" they could render. The feudal social hierarchy likewise reinforced every demand and requirement for the continuation of trade that lumped natural and human resources into a common category of values and wealth.

With the eruption of libertarian revolutions against the alliance of nobility and industry, the individual and the work he could do began to take on a value unheard of in the long history of human domestication through selective self- tyrannizing. But socio-political experiments with freedom and dignity now seem to have been largely abandoned. Industry has learned to downplay ceremonies of majesty, and in a rare concession to common sensibilities some token deference is paid to the revulsion experienced by the masses toward those who would "lord over them." But with the completion of such perfunctory symbolic gestures, incorporated power proceeds on it course toward domination.

Except where blatantly necessary counterfeits just can’t be avoided, "human rights" is an issue seldom employed by corporate-run government as leverage to gain entrance into new markets for the sale of goods and the exploitation of cheap labor. The realization of this truism goes a long way in explaining why the "human rights" issue so unevenly affects foreign policy. And it gives some justification for popular suspicion about government and leaders of industry as they run hot and cold in their eagerness to engage in confrontations with tyrannical foreign powers. Iraq has oil. Bosnia does not. China has a vast labor pool. Panama has the canal. Haiti has neither. Global corporate politics sets the agenda.

From the inception of government "by the people," political movements have, with predictable regularity, devolved from democracy to republicanism to patriarchy and finally simple tyranny. In these later times, labor disputes and grassroots movements have been villainized as society’s boogeymen. In the public’s imagination, a modern feudalism camouflaged as representative democracy fought the onslaught of "communism," and "anarchy." But it is objectively demonstrable that regular attempts to seek a social redress of grievances against the status quo have suffered calumny by the organs of official propaganda, slander of the subtlest sort, hammered at in the popular press, the schools, from the pulpit, and through every organ of society with even a hint of indebtedness to corporate sponsors or donors. Scary labels like "terrorist," "rioter," "dissident," "malcontent," and many others are only masks hideously painted to hide the facts and causes of social unrest.

They are readily accepted as "factual" shorthand and used to signal the rest of us that we shouldn’t want to know any more about the roots of discontent than we are officially told.

In the real sense, the revolutionary trends of the eighteenth century that began in France and in America, where democracy and individual liberty were first promoted as the prime political agenda, were brought to an abrupt end with the successful insertion of corporate law between the lines of hard-fought-for constitutional governance. Simply put, liberty is the newer impulse, tyranny the well-studied, practiced and established order of the ages. Tyranny has the pedigree for which freedom longs: social legitimacy.

The presumptions and condescensions of privilege have nowhere been more blatantly advocated than in Mathew Arnold’s century-old book Culture and Anarchy. Arnold was on the side of "culture," aristocracy, and that strange sense of values that imagines rights and dignity can only be inherited from wealthy or politically powerful progenitors. Capital (property) was and remains the clearest measure of fabricated social righteousness, as a reading of Arnold’s vitriol compared to current social trends reveals. The comparison is poetic simile.

Tradition is the central premise of every argument in favor of the ideology of conservatism. More exactly, a tradition of wealth has been historically sufficient to assert that preference justly belongs to the already favored. Such a tradition also suggests that those empowered by wealth should fill posts of "responsibility" (power) in the community. This seems to be the sentiment legitimizing corporate sponsorship and control of the media and, through lobbying, the legislative branch of the federal government. Of course, the result of such foolishness is the entrenchment of wealth and favor, not the flourishing of citizen-directed democracy. In fact, democracy suffers the fate of lost oratory in a wind tunnel when it attempts to find its voice among Congressional representatives in the act of being lobbied by corporate salesmen.

But the age-old traditions are handily preserved and popular deference to "our betters" is successfully promoted whenever feudalism is, as we concede, revered and conservatively defended to be a traditional lifestyle with new found vitality.

The "haves" are by design and intent in a better position to define the "have-nots" in whatever terms they like. To own the organs of social discourse is to own the organs of social recourse. The ordinary citizen forfeits a large measure of once idealized citizenship simply by participating in the corporate community as a worker. The "work ethic," though mythologized as an intrinsic cultural virtue, has been uprooted from the common brainpan, not by a lazy, welfare dependent non-work force, but by a corporate logos’ redefinition of citizen laborers as "consumers."

One is right to wonder who produces the goods and services the social cattle called "consumers" consume! Is it "capital" that produces or is capital just the motivation for organizing the dehumanizing process that creates the possibility for the production and concentration of wealth? Many workers in the fields of capital have come to wonder about their demotion to the role of "consumer," and consequently have lost faith in their ultimate potency as the singular and constituent element in a democratic society. With the loss of faith in democracy has come the loss of democracy itself.

Defining the criminal element in society is left to the corporate-run media. The tabloid "news" show is adept at dramatizing the unexamined premises of ersatz public morality. The untested nature of this manufactured morality accounts for our discomfort as we watch the standards of public behavior being changed and manipulated before our eyes. People do things that they have done for eons, and they are daily criminalized for what they do. At the same time, once foul deeds are redefined as mere eccentricities and we are amused by what springs into consciousness via the tube.

The power to judge, once culled from tradition (and nothing’s more traditional to the decimated nuclear family than the logos of the corporate sponsored TV shows and the jingles selling corporate manufactured products we watch as we grow up, ignoring the real world all the while) is now a matter of aesthetics, not ethics insofar as the individual is concerned. The state, the government, the corporate conglomerate will ultimately decide absolutes. The world may be a big place, but one of the things we have been conditioned not to acknowledge is that things could or should be much different than they are.

An imported, immigrant labor population (whether brought in as slave labor in "legitimate" or semi-legitimate immigration schemes or simply enticed as cheap labor by the capitally-endowed, for instance through the North American Free Trade Agreement) will bear the weight of almost every fault that can be socially defined, whenever the genius of the controlling aristocracy fails to produce lucrative results in the marketplace. Social unrest is born in the corporate boardroom.

Since capital is the passport to true citizenship, according to the corporate logos, its gain or loss becomes the measure of the value of each individual participant in the corporate game. When things go dreadfully wrong, when the forcibly corralled and ghettoized labor pool find their subsistence level existence disintegrating, their jobs evaporating because of bad business decisions in offices from which they would be forcibly expelled and subsequently jailed for trespassing, they know that their value to the doling elite has been eroded.

Then another more spontaneous form of social participation occurs, beginning at last in the viscera of each woman and man placed in the position of economic helplessness. Without ideological underpinnings, despair erupts into violent social repulsion. Without regard to legal niceties, those who the corporations have victimized by human devaluation vomit the whole concept of a corporation out of the gut of society.

How does an entrenched and isolated hierarchical elite react to the outrage of an underclass suddenly awakening to its betrayal? The words of Mathew Arnold, written in desperate defense of his kindred aristocrats, are a good example. They sound like the 1992 Republican response to the rioting in Los Angeles after the absurd verdict acquitting those involved in an officially sanctioned (given the official judgment of the courts) beating of Rodney King by the rich people’s hired security guards, the LAPD:

As for rioting, the old Roman way of dealing with that is always the right one: flog the rank and file, and fling the ring leaders from the Tarpeian Rock! And this opinion we can never forsake, however our Liberal friends may think a little rioting, and what they call popular demonstrations, useful sometimes to their own interests--and however they may preach the right of an Englishman to be left to do as far as possible what he likes, and the duty of his government to indulge him and connive as much as possible and abstain from all harshness of repression --- still we say no, and that monster processions in the streets and forcible irruptions into the parks, even in professed support of this good design, ought to be unflinchingly forbidden and repressed.(pp. 203-204)

If we are not the property of corporate culture, not duped slaves in this ersatz "free" society, then why are entrepreneurs contractually absolved of responsibility for the crimes funded by and enacted on behalf of their corporate investments? Why does their investment in the corporate milieu entitle them to legal immunities unavailable to us as individuals? Why must each of us endure and fund, often retroactively, whatever miscreant consequence corporate committee-work cooks up?

By legally defining corporate property as "equivalent to" [sic] one living citizen in the ephemeral form of a "corporation," civil law, without further incident, destroys individual constitutional liberty. By creating a fiction, a chimera of individuality, corporate law mocks constitutionally guaranteed liberties for real, incarnate individuals.

The new Feudalism is born in the flourishes from the legal notion and institution of the :corporation." Democracy died in the same instant as the birth of corporate America.

All of this has been accomplished in the interest of corporate power, which re-legitimizes feudalism but camouflages it in barely rational, certainly unpalatable legalese. The whole fiction of incorporation, in fact, must finally be denounced for being the publicly subsidized religious exercise that it is.

What dogmatic materialists treat as a eucharistic transubstantiation of wealth into the icon of national worth (the corporation) must at last be exposed as a profession of faith, not a legal statement of social truth. The national icon status of the "corporation" is an immaculate deception.

The incarnation of unaccountable wealth, by way of "incorporation" into the sphere of democratic, people-run government, has served to elevate, once more, the abstraction of power, such as papal authority or divine-right royalty, to the pinnacle of real earthly power. With the rise of corporations came the fall of democracy. Collective power constituted as equivalent or superior to citizenship is antithetical to the rights an individual can wield in society no matter what guise it comes in, even in the trappings of capitalism.

The institutionalization of corporate power clearly demonstrates the establishment of a state religion in this country, and the usurpation of the right of ordinary citizens to believe and act upon their own inspirations. Because people who act in the interest of a corporation can not be held legally responsible for their actions (the corporation itself, with legal standing equivalent to a human individual, is supposed to be responsible for the collective actions of those who oversee its business), and since no personal risk or stress can be brought to bear on an incorporeal "person," in fact a corporation is but a shield to enforce unaccountability in favor of the wealthy elite who own them. Individuals have been robbed of moral accountability, and the ethical underpinnings of society are called into doubt.

The corporate overthrow of American democracy was a plutocratic coup that usurped control of government from the citizenry. Liberty as a national keystone was replaced by the concept of "opportunity." Though the distinction has been eroded by the propaganda blitz of public service announcements sponsored by the corporate-run government on corporate owned media, there is a difference between liberty and opportunity! A huge difference based on equality instead of property.

"Opportunity" use to mean a gift of chance or providence. Liberty was, in American mythology, a gift of well being granted on the premise of free birth, in a land where all are free. In the real world, we grant our "betters" the right to dictate an economic cycle of opportunity that replaces the visceral attachment to the cycle of the seasons. "Opportunity" is a counterfeit form of freedom that has lead to the doling-out of rights to favored opportunists who in their turn will ascend to the high tower of privilege, in the shadow of which façade defrocked citizens compete for a foothold on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder.

The Feudal Lords of corporate globalization have become the pharaohs of modern times. The corporation, the latest incarnation of the rotting body politic, is due for immediate embalming.