Sometimes facts that we’ve known for a long while can become remixed to have new meaning – an “aha” moment, such as it is, and I had one earlier today while watching the film “The Corporation”*. The history of corporate personhood in the US finds its roots in an 1886 Supreme Court ruling, in a case entitled Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (or, more commonly, Santa Clara). Corporate personhood was read into the fourteenth amendment to the Bill of Rights, one of the Reconstruction amendments meant to ensure liberty and full citizenship for newly freed slaves. By 1886 Reconstruction had devolved into early Jim Crow oppression, a reversion not entirely to slavery but to a two-classed system in which violence against black people was not only allowed but encouraged by the state.
The Supreme Court had previously recognized the applicability of the fourteenth amendment to the population for which it was intended – in 1874, when women sued for the right to vote under the due process clause, the court ruled that the amendment was meant for black males and denied half the population their suffrage. A dozen years later, the purpose of the amendment was subverted for political gain.
It was not a Southerner who most propelled this radical reinterpretation, but a New York senator and lawyer named Roscoe Conkling. The North was more industrialized and had more chartered corporations than the South, after all; the Southern economy had been tied to slavery, their greatest source of wealth the bondage of the dark-skinned. And while there were Northern abolitionists for whom black liberation was a sincere moral issue, who dared to imagine something approaching equality, there were many more Northerners whose discomfort with slavery was economic: that Northern capital had to remunerate its labor somehow, and that this created an unfair system – not between blacks and whites but between North and South, with the latter holding an exploitative advantage. But then, slavery held little attraction in a region where a different organization of labor proved more efficient for generating profits. The rise of the corporation and the fall of slavery (which was itself the last throes of feudalism) were not independent, and that legal protections of African-Americans were abandoned in favor of protecting corporate interests can be no surprise to any serious student of American history.
In “The Corporation,” the CEO of the world’s largest carpet manufacturer speaks of his come-to-Jesus moment, his recognition of the fundamental unsustainability of capitalism, the realization that he was participating in an economy of plunder. Plunder is a word rare in contemporary usage, except if one reads Ta-Nehisi Coates – his interrogation of the plunder of black labor and black bodies reached its apogee in his recent and stunning piece on reparations. The role of the fourteenth amendment, set forth to secure a vulnerable class and then subverted to give legal cover to the exploitive class, only reinforces his argument: what the United States has offered black people has been the worst kind of lies, promises of security transmuted into profits for a ruling class from which they have been excluded. It is not the work of individuals, of bad actors. Oppression and exploitation is the architecture of our national policy, and efforts to the contrary are manipulated back to the status quo.
Before watching the film I read a long review of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which examined one of Piketty’s most prominent conclusions – that historically, capital returns outpace overall economic growth (which is a proxy for wage-earning labor) – with a critical eye. Piketty finds that, excepting “the short twentieth century” (roughly, from the interwar period to the 1970s), historical trends favor the growth of capital at the expense of waged labor, which the reviewer finds at best incomplete: why, he wonders, should this be the case, and what might cause an exception? (He rejects as insufficient Piketty’s diagnosis of world war.)
But it’s not hard to see a reason. The “short twentieth century” saw some of the most muscular regulation and intervention by democracies in history, spurred by the recognition of our newfound capacity for annihilation and the need to avoid total self-destruction. Outside of such aggressive public-mindedness, power only perpetuates itself; whether the laws of the aristocracy perpetuating feudal interests or corporate “persons” seeking advantage in lowered taxes and governance, the principle is identical. Wealth and power, two sides of the same coin, are self-perpetuating and self-justifying – the nobility is ordained by God, darker races are biologically inferior, captains of industry are preternaturally gifted. What is won is always earned, never plundered, though an honest reckoning only offers evidence of the opposite.
Plunder is the inheritance of power. But it is only by our intellectual and moral cowardice that it must also be its legacy.
*Recommended viewing. Long, and a rocky start, but ultimately a compelling ethical examination.