Thursday, January 19, 2012

Democracy, Inc.

Last night the Portland City Council voted to abolish the concept of “corporate personhood” and called on Maine’s Congressional representatives to take similar steps at the federal level.

The resolution, proposed by Councilor David Marshall, passed in a 6-2 decision with the support of Mayor Michael Brennan, and Councilors John Anton, Kevin Donoghue, Jill Duson and Nick Mavodones.

The resolution specifically clarifies that corporations are not flesh-and-blood people, and, therefore should not be granted the same constitutional rights as citizens. The resolution also calls for maintaining and strengthening Maine’s Clean Elections program, which offers matching campaign funds for third-party, or less established candidates for state offices, in an effort to keep a level playing-field.

Though the nonbinding resolution is largely symbolic, it allows the city of Portland to follow in the footsteps of Los Angeles and Boulder, Colorado, both of which recently passed similar resolutions denouncing corporate personhood.

Symbolic or otherwise, Marshall’s resolution (which was crafted by members of the Portland Green-Independent Party, Occupy Maine, and the League of Young Voters) could not come at a more pressing time in history.

Multi-million dollar corporations have infiltrated nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Corporations produce the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the news we consume, and, to an ever increasing extent, the politicians we elect.

As Ralph Nader has astutely observed, “We are supposed to have a country of, by and for the people. Instead we have a country of the DuPonts, for the Exxons and by the General Motors.” Indeed, the corporate takeover of our democracy has become so pervasive some political theorists have labeled it a “coup d’état in slow-motion.”

The 2003 documentary film, The Corporation (directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott) remains one of the definitive accounts of the history of corporate businesses and the notion of corporate personhood.

The film uses as its guiding thesis the following question: “What kind of a ‘person’ is the corporation?” The answer: A psychopath. No joke--using the psychologist’s “Personality Diagnostic Checklist,” the filmmakers conclude a corporation exhibits all the traditional characteristics (callous unconcern for the feelings of others; incapacity to maintain enduring relationships; reckless disregard for the safety of others; failure to conform with social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, etc.) of a psychopath.

 A segment of the film documenting the adverse health effects of Monsanto-produced chemical compounds such as DDT, Agent Orange, or the bovine growth hormone, rBGH, features University of Illinois Professor Emeritus of Environmental Medicine, Samuel Epstein. In laying out the toxic and often lethal health impacts of these petro-chemicals, Dr. Epstein notes most companies are well aware of these side effects and have been for decades, yet they continue to sell consumers these dangerous products anyway.

“If I take a gun and shoot you, that’s criminal,” Epstein says. “If I expose you to some chemicals which knowingly are going to kill you…what difference is there? The difference is it takes longer to kill you.”

The film examines a number of “Case Histories” of corporations’ malicious impact on workers’ rights, factory-farming, exploitation of child-labor in third-world countries, assaults on the environment and deliberate distortion (if not outright censorship) of mainstream news reports.

Perhaps the most poignant of the film’s “talking-heads” is Ray Anderson, CEO of the Interface carpet-manufacturing company. Anderson, a traditional businessman-cum-environmental-crusader, admits he worked for years in his business without “giving a thought” to what the company was “taking from the earth.” His environmental epiphany came in the form of Paul Hawken’s classic book, The Ecology of Commerce, which Anderson was compelled to read under pressure from critical environmental groups, as well as many of his own employees. Anderson describes the book as “a spear…A total change in mindset for myself and a change of paradigm.”

He goes on:

One day early in this journey it dawned on me that they way I’ve been running Interface is the way of the plunderer—plundering something that’s not mine. Something that belongs to every creature on earth. And I said to myself, “My goodness, the day must come when this is illegal. When plundering is not allowed… Someday people like me will end up in jail.”

We can only hope. While Anderson’s progressive change is indeed welcome, let us hope Portland can serve as an example to the rest of the state—and to other cities throughout the country—to put the power back in the hands of “We the People,” and abolish this absurd concept of corporate personhood for good.

Click here to watch scenes from The Corporation.  

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