Sunday, October 23, 2011


Been hearing that off and on for a while, with the most recent iteration being Mitt Romney's statement that "corporations are people, my friend."

Here, check it out:

The whole debate over corporate personhood, of course, has to do, overall, with how corporations use rights and legal privileges that were written into law with the intention that they would be used by individual human beings, who have consciences, a sense of loyalty to the nation and other human beings, and a clear sense of right and wrong. And who don't have billions of dollars in their bank accounts. I mean, there are, of course, some exceptions: not everybody has a clear sense of right and wrong, and some people do, indeed, have billions of dollars in their bank accounts, but these are exceptions, few and far in between. Generally, the problem is that the organizations known as corporations just have a totally different set of values than actual citizens do.

Freedom of speech, for instance, becomes automatically problematic. Corporations, as a rule, and I mean that literally because corporations are required by law to maximize shareholders' profits, do not have the nation's best interests at heart; rather, they have their own best interests at heart, whether that's good for the country or not. But because they have amounts of money rivaling that of various nation-states, they can create massive propaganda campaigns to shape public perception on a scale no individual can even dream of approaching, can hire armies of lobbyists to cajole, harass, and persuade legislators, can offer unlimited amounts of campaign donations to make those same legislators beholden to them. It's all free speech, of course, which corporations enjoy because of their paper-status as de facto US citizens, but such "speech" so skews the so-called "marketplace of ideas" in the direction of corporate interests that the voices of actual citizens are rendered, by and large, meaningless.

However, if corporations really are people, simply by virtue of the fact that people fill the ranks of corporate organizations, the entire criticism above becomes philosophically suspect. I mean, from this point of view, corporations are simply a manifestation of the citizens who own and operate them.

Obviously, I think that's bullshit.

From Wikipedia:

Milgram experiment

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of notable experiments in social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.

The experiments began in July 1961. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question: "Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?" In other words, "Was there a mutual sense of morality among those involved?" Milgram's testing suggested that it could have been that the millions of accomplices were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs. The experiments have been repeated many times, with consistent results within societies, but different percentages across the globe. The experiments were also controversial, and considered by some scientists to be unethical or psychologically abusive, motivating more thorough review boards for the use of human subjects.


"Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

More here.

And again from Wikipedia:

Stanford prison experiment

The Stanford prison experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted 14-20 August 1971 by a team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. It was funded by a grant from the US Office of Naval Research and was of interest to both the US Navy and Marine Corps in order to determine the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners.

Twelve students were selected out of 75 to play the prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Another twelve of the same 75 were selected to play the Guards. Roles were assigned randomly to the 24 men. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what even Zimbardo himself expected, leading the "officers" to display authoritarian measures and ultimately to subject some of the prisoners to torture. In turn, many of the prisoners developed passive attitudes and accepted physical abuse, and, at the request of the guards, readily inflicted punishment on other prisoners who attempted to stop it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his capacity as "Prison Superintendent", lost sight of his role as psychologist and permitted the abuse to continue as though it were a real prison. Five of the prisoners were upset enough by the process to quit the experiment early, and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. The experimental process and the results remain controversial. The entire experiment was filmed, with excerpts made publicly available.

More here.

So, as longtime Real Art readers know, I have severe issues with authority, and could go on about it for days. No need to do that now because it's a very simple point I want to make: human beings behave very differently in different social contexts, especially when they are subject to authority. That is, you don't act or think the same way at work as you do at home, or on the street, or at a football game. You don't have the same priorities. You don't operate with the same set of values. Some of the more sinister manifestations of this fact are lynch mobs and gang rapes. More pedestrian manifestations include signing an eviction notice or turning the switch that cuts off a delinquent family's electricity when it's below freezing outside.

Ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill got into a whole heap of controversy after describing some of the bankers who worked in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns" deserving of the 9/11 attack that destroyed the building in which they worked. He was definitely insensitive, but he was absolutely right. Adolf Eichmann personally killed no one, but he was the talented bureaucrat who made the Holocaust possible in terms of organizing and logistics. That is, his crime against humanity was committed with paper and pen. A decade and a half after WWII, Israeli agents captured him where he was hiding in Argentina, tried him for his role in killing six million Jews, and executed him.

By this same standard, corporate bureaucrats in the health insurance industry should also face the gallows. Corporate bankers whose actions push subsistence farmers off their lands in India, farmers who then kill themselves in grief and desperation, should also be put to death.

Of course, I'm not really pushing that standard. I don't really think corporations are actually people. I think the people working within corporations are guilty of not much more than being human beings who want to put bread on the table, or, at least, the lower level guys who aren't running the world. But if corporations really are people, if we really do believe that, then we have a terrible mess on our hands in terms of criminal justice. Millions of people are guilty of heinous crimes. If that's the standard. And they need to be brought to justice.

Fortunately, corporations aren't people. They're organizations. And it's time to start treating them as such. Really, it's much simpler to pass some laws reigning them in than to put millions on trial.