When Claudia Rankine was asked by The Guardian why she decided to give the title Citizen to her powerful 2015 prose poem exploring racism in all of its incarnations, she answered this way:
I called it Citizen because I wanted to ask: who gets to hold that status—despite everyone technically having it? How is it embodied and honoured? The title contains a question.
Rankine’s question prompts my question about this country’s continued embrace of the dubious concept of corporate “citizenship.” If you are as sick of corporate virtue signaling and as repulsed by performative wokeness in C-suites as I am, please stick around. It doesn’t have to be this way, and anyone with the vaguest religious sensibility knows how nuts it is to accord corporations the rights, privileges, and immunities of human beings. Because we now all inhabit a world in which regular persons have become mere spectators in the Theater of Corporate Virtue—and because the stakes have never been higher—I say it’s time to burn this theater down.
Most progressives know and deplore how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can spend unlimited sums to influence politics, thanks to 2010’s Citizens United decision. Fewer know that corporate “personhood” goes all the way back to 1886 and to the Court’s Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad ruling, in which 14th Amendment rights for corporations were first affirmed.
The timing is significant because this was the same white man’s court that had denied federally-enforced 14th amendment rights to African Americans just three years earlier, in the five 1883 cases that gutted the 1875 Civil Rights Act. Corporations become persons and full citizens under the law just as Black Americans once again become “less than” in respect to their personhood and their constitutional rights. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
This was the first Gilded Age, with white elites gaining spectacular wealth in part through “reconciliation” between the northern and southern states. This was the era when the legendary operative Mark Hanna was able to completely crush rising Populist resistance to plutocracy while boasting that he knew of just two things that mattered in politics: “The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
This is where excessive corporate privileges and immunities begin. And no one should imagine that the trust-busting efforts made around the turn of the 20th century ever really curbed this newfound corporate ascendancy. Even the breaking up of his gigantic Standard Oil Trust left John D. Rockefeller laughing all the way to the bank; it was ludicrously easy for him and his minions to continue to control the devolved smaller companies.
This history is relevant now, in the Second Gilded Age, when we have become all too inured to the idea that we should be grateful when big capital throws some crumbs in the direction of the public’s welfare. The Fortune 50 get to spend hundreds of millions in tax-deductible advertising to tell us how much they care about Black people and how hard they are trying to promote diversity and inclusion.
But none of these companies is actually obliged to lift a finger, and most don’t. They certainly don’t pay taxes, however much they still like to complain about the burden they bear. And whatever benefaction they provide pales in relation to the damage they do to Black lives through the way they perpetually degrade jobs and effectively cut the compensation of those in the lower tier of the labor market.
The worst among the incorporated are of course the private equity pirates whose “work” consists of destroying companies and squeezing workers in order to wring out the last ounce of profit for themselves. We not only fail to hold these people accountable; we praise them to the heavens, we name buildings in their honor, and we give them the lion’s share of seats on philanthropic boards.
Financiers especially dominate the boards of elite colleges, with two-thirds of the officer spots (i.e., chair, vice chair, secretary, and treasurer) at the nation’s top thirty private colleges going to these sharks. Ever wonder why super-elite institutions enroll more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60%? Just look at their boards. It’s basically a closed system.
And is it even necessary to point out the racist roots and ongoing racist behavior of the American banking industry?
As for CEOs in general, most of what they’re up to during this moment of reckoning is mere virtue signaling, even as they impose pay cuts on people of color doing front line work. Netflix, now wallowing in staggering profits, expects us to salaam when it puts 2% of its cash assets into Black-owned banks. Glory hallelujah! One can multiply examples, but the sum of the good these corporate “citizens” are doing really doesn’t amount to diddly. And meantime, what about the rogue “citizens,”who are likewise free to do what they want? What about the Exxon-Mobils of the world who choose to use their 14th Amendment citizenship rights to asphyxiate the planet and then cover up the evidence of climate change?
The whole citizenship model for corporate participation in society could not be more wrong, both ethically and politically. This is yet another racist production that has been hiding in plain sight since forever; it’s yet another anti-democratic and anti-Black monument that needs to be pulled down.
I doubt that Team Biden has the appetite to really look hard at this, especially if, as expected, they politely put distance between themselves and the Sanders-Warren wing of the party after Labor Day and into the home stretch of the campaign. After all, Biden’s big donors are the very sharks from private equity who do so well under the corrupt system we have. They seek above all to be seen as virtuous and as appropriately anti-Trump, but don’t even think about messing with their money or suggesting that they ought to pay taxes at the same rate as the people who clean their mansions and haul away their trash.
Thus it falls to us to keep this conversation alive, reminding anyone who will listen that our corporate players operate mainly in the manner of the golem in Jewish folklore: i.e., as lifeless and intimidating entities that nonetheless get to simulate humanity and lay a bogus claim to citizenship.
The whole thing is farcical, but no one is laughing because the price we pay for this particular charade is suffering and death.