We've all seen those movies where robots take over the earth. They usually portray the ragged remains of humanity living on scraps and desperately banding together to try to overthrow the monolithic rule of their own erstwhile creations. With the recent Supreme Court decision permitting unlimited corporate money in politics under the guise of "freedom of speech," we are entering into a situation eerily like that of the movie.
Though the court insists that corporations should have the rights of citizens, any sensible human being knows that a corporation is not a real citizen. They are created for one purpose only: to make money for their shareholders. If you run Goldman Sachs and you aren't willing to game the system to make extra profits for your company, there are other men of equal ability eager to take your high-paying job. If laws or taxes are taking a bite out of Exxon's profits, its CEO has a responsibility to its shareholders to try to weaken those laws and lessen those taxes. Regardless of the conscience of the individuals within them, corporations have no interest in the public good. They are as good or evil as our laws require them to be.
However, they have an important advantage we humans don't. These profit-seeking "robots" can never actually go to jail. No matter how badly a corporation breaks the law, it can't be taken off the street like an ordinary criminal. It can merely be fined, a punishment that is wiped clean as soon as the next fiscal year begins. The largest corporations are rarely convicted of anything: they usually settle out of court with no admission of wrongdoing.
The five justices in favor pretend to be nobly hearkening to the words of the Constitution, but when the Constitution was written corporations existed only as limited entities to accomplish specific projects, like bridges or roads. The Founders' idea of free speech did not include wealthy non-human super-citizens with access to a highly concentrated media and sophisticated propaganda techniques. In 1816 ,Thomas Jefferson warned that the government should "crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations."
In granting these super-citizens unlimited say in our politics, the five pro-corporate justices of the Supreme Court pretend that you, me and their favorite corporations are all equals, with equal money to spend and equal interest in the public good. By pretending that massive Corporate media buys are just "free speech," they purposely ignore what has been proven brutally clear by the Third Reich and many others: that propaganda works. Brute repetition of a bad idea, or even a complete lie such as that which could be enabled by unlimited corporate money, will sway a large number of citizens. It won't sway everyone, but you don't have to sway everyone to win an election - and you don't have to win every election to control a country.
Maybe the idea of big business running the country sounds good to you. The problem is when you opt for corporate rule, you get the whole package. Just as your favorite billion-dollar mining or oil company will now be able to pick and choose the people who make its laws, so will the big banks who just fleeced us in the last financial collapse and the Wall Street firms who want to take over your Social Security. Politicians will still grandstand over issues like abortion or immigration, but all the other crucial decisions that shape our lives - the economic ones - will be determined according to the will of unsleeping, insatiable corporations, both domestic and foreign.
This is not our founders' vision of "Government of the People." While various ineffectual Band-Aid fixes are being prepared, including in the Alaska Legislature, the ultimate remedy is to undo the very notion of corporate personification. This will likely require a constitutional amendment, and the effort to secure one will be opposed by billions of corporate dollars. Please stay tuned and make your voice heard on this critical issue.
Stuart Cohen is a novelist and businessman living in Juneau.
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