Whence OWS? Repeal Corporate Personhood!

[This was a comment I posted at slashdot.org today (October 12, 2011) in response to a solicitation about what people thought about the Occupy Wall Street movement. As you can see, I have some pretty strong views on the matter, which I believe are well supported by history! –Rick]

I have not read all of the many interesting comments here, but a text search tells me that no one has yet mentioned the issue of corporate personhood; but it deserves mention, because it is the Achilles heel in the legal armor that corporations have used to rise to prominence in our economy — and deserves to become a more prominent part of the hue and cry at OWS events. (I’ve seen it as part of their demands, but not very prominently.)

This singular fact is well known to some in the progressive activist community — Thom Hartmann, Amy Goodman, Dennis Kucinich, Chris Hedges, Van Jones, to name a few — but not to the mainstream media, much less the American public. The main activity center trying to raise awareness about it is the Move To Amend group (see movetoamend.org). They sprang into existence in Feb 2010, the month after the disastrous Citizens United decision, but it has some deep activist roots behind it, in their main spokesman, David Cobb. Their goal is to grow a nationwide, grassroots campaign to get towns, then cities, then states to begin passing referendums that state, to the effect, that they agree a US Constitutional amendment should be passed that says (1) money is not speech, and (2) that corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights. This is the only way to reverse Citizens United (as the justices are unlikely to reverse it themselves, though it was a close 5-to-4 decision.) Once hundreds of communities have passed such a referendum, it can become a state level issue, then a national one. They acknowledge the path to adopting a Constitutional amendment will be a long and difficult one; the last attempt to do so in this country, the Equal Rights Amendment for women (ERA) was a long, hard fought battle that came within a whisker of passing, but ended in bitter defeat, after a ten year effort. (Some say it deserves another shot, and I would agree.)

Now comes the OWS phenomena, catching on like a prairie grassfire, ignited by a common awareness of the injustice of our economic system. But I cannot see how it will amount to anything unless it results in effective political action. The legal and financial fortresses of the corporate giants are strong, unlikely to be taken by frontal assault. Indeed, American history is replete with examples of where the state crushed violent protest with even more violent suppression, whenever private property was threatened (see Howard Zinn’s excellent book, A People’s History of the United States, for abundant examples of this.). No, this will require a smart fight, an intelligent fight; and like any good fighter, you should possess a knowledge of your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

Corporate personhood is this weakness — and it may be the only weakness that can be really used; corporations have been building up their financial, legal and political defenses for quite some time. It is through the claiming of constitutional rights since the post-Civil War era (read Thom Hartmann’s book Unequal Protection) that corporations have steadily built up their legal case to weaken, if not defeat, the controls imposed on them through statutory laws and regulations. My own hope is that some of the energy swelling up behind the OWS movement will gain this awareness — and help to shorten the path to such a constitutional amendment.