The outrage is misplaced. Justice Sotomayor had the question right during the case's oral argument. Why are corporations considered people anyway — wasn't that where the legal mistake was made?
Flip back to 1886. It's the case of Santa Clara County vs. The Southern Pacific Railroad. Ostensibly a case about taxes. But a clerk tosses in a footnote, which the court accepts. Corporations are entitled to protection under the 14th amendment. They are people under the law.
For kids the scariest part of the movie is when Pinocchio s a real boy, and on Pleasure Island is turned into a donkey for making a jackass of himself. That scene has driven more six year olds under their bed covers than Dracula. But it holds a vital lesson. Real boys must be responsible.
Isaac Asimov deal with another aspect of this case in his story The Bicentennial Man , later turned into the nadir of Robin Williams' acting career. In this story a robot wants to become a real human, and is gradually transformed into one. But there is one thing missing in his transformation. He is still a robot, immortal. Only by becoming mortal, by dying, can he become a real man.
And this is the problem with corporations as people. A company can't be put in jail — only its officers and employees can be jailed. It can't be put to death — it can only go bankrupt, and its assets are then sold to other companies. In other words it doesn't really die. It can't. It's a collection of assets, a contract among ever-changing parties, an artificial legal construct.
So the solution is simple. Democrats can do it right now. You insert a law into a spending bill, stating "corporations are not people under the laws of the United States." All you need is a simple majority in both Houses. Problems solved.
But before we go there, we have to argue the case. We have to convince corporations to accept this drastic reduction in their power.
And this is where it gets fun. Because this is where we break up the Tea Party.
Remember the movie Network? It turns on a speech by an executive named Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) in which he tells Howard Beale that corporations are all and corporations will lead us. Beale preaches Jensen's gospel and loses his audience. That's why he's killed at the end of the movie — because he lost his audience.
What does Glenn Beck have to do when the personhood and absolute rights of corporations are threatened by a one-line law? He has to preach against it. His corporate overlords will demand it. At which point his audience disappears. The Tea Party opposes power, and corporate power is part of that, and they're not going to oppose a law banning corporate personhood just because some yahoo on TV tells them to.
Same with the rest of the Right-Wing attack machine. There are corporatists inside that machine, but they don't stand at the head of the parade waving the flag. They hang back in the shadows, selling flags.
Let the hicks in on the game and it's game over.
Because right now corporations are not just men — they're supermen. They can't be killed, they can't be jailed, yet they have all the rights of men, including full political rights. For GE the latest case must feel like the 1964 Civil Rights Act has finally come for them. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last.
OK, we say. But with rights come responsibilities. I love how corporate spokes-clones are constantly saying that about other people. Well, if you're people, you have the same obligations the rest of us have.
Break the law, go to jail. Scoff the law and we can kill you. Other countries already do this to companies. Britain's Inland Revenue is constantly threatening soccer clubs there with "mandatory winding up orders" for failure to pay taxes. What we would call Chapter Seven bankruptcy.
Such orders are issued against companies that aren't people all the time. There must be more responsibilities, more reason to impose winding-up orders, for companies that are people.
If companies are people, in other words, they must be subject to the criminal law, not just the civil law. A crime by the company is committed by its officers, personally. If someone is killed, someone is going down. An eye for an eye. And corporations must have definite lifespans. This idea of GE living from the start of the Dow Jones Average in 1896 has go go. You know anyone born in 1896? Who's still working? No, people die.
And if corporations are people, then corporations must die, no matter how much good they may do, no matter their apparent health. So Ford has to be broken up, and Disney is approaching its mandatory winding-up as well. And when they go, they're subject to inheritance tax, just like people.
The alternative to all this is not that corporations are men, but that they're supermen. Immortals, with absolute power over the rest of us, able to control society in perpetuity from behind their board room doors. America becomes a classic fascist state, only now the Nazis are working for the corporations, not the other way around.
I don't think the people of the United States will accept those kinds of overlords. I don't think conservatives will wear it. I think if corporations are set up as Supermen, then Americans will revolt. And I'll be with them. So will you.
Which means corporations have a choice. They can accept the limits of personhood, including death. They can go back to being what they were, artificial constructs, the property of men.
Or it will be war. Men against robots.