Corporations Are People And They're Killing Us

Ronald McDonald x Pennywise, by Dec Wilson

Corporations are legal persons. We don't take this seriously but we really should, because that's the law. Reality is a shared hallucination backed by guns, and the people with guns say that corporations are people too.

Corporations have limited liability. Since the 1850s, corporations have also been given limited liability. If they take risks and lose, the losses are dumped on someone else. Their creditors, the public, the planet Earth.

This is a deadly combination. What we have created is artificial people with great power and little to no responsibility. Their only purpose is to grow, and dump waste, losses, and 'externalities' on everyone else.

Corporations are the killer AI we make movies about, except they're boring. Instead of all-out robot war, we got Facebook rotting our parents brains and carbon emissions slowly smoking us out. The result, however, is the same. Corporations are pathological people, and they're getting us killed.

Corporations Are People

People laughed at Mitt Romney when he said "corporations are people, my friend" but it's true. This is a bedrock of corporate law. It's called corporate personhood. Corporations have been treated as people since they were formed in the 1500s, and the concept has been preserved in modern case law as recently as 2010. In Citizens United, the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the right to free speech, including spending unlimited money to influence elections. Corporations are people, my friend. They're just not your friend.

Don't take my word for it, just ask a lawyer. Here's Morton Horowitz talking about US case law going back to 1886.

Morton J. Horwitz, Santa Clara Revisited: The Development of Corporate Theory

You could say that corporate personhood is just a legal fiction, but so are you. Toss your passport in a bin at an airport and see how 'real' you are. Countries have entire categories of 'illegal' people. They're only crime is being somewhere, but with the wrong documents. As I said, reality is a shared hallucination enforced by guns. It might be stupid, but the guns make it plenty real.

For centuries we've hallucinated that corporations are people, and so they are. You might think this has little impact on your daily life, but think again. It's not just that corporations are people, they actually have more rights and less responsibilities than you or me.

And It's Getting Us Killed

If you rob a corporation, the state throws you in a cage. If a corporation robs you... nothing happens. It's not even a criminal case. You, the dumb human, has to file a civil case and the corporation maybe gets a fine, years later. Wage theft is by far the most common form of theft, and it just happens. Corporations are allowed to rob second-class people like you and me.

If you shoot someone, the state cages, and maybe murders you. If a corporation produces guns explicitly designed and marketed to shoot people... nothing happens. It's not just gun companies, Pfizer can knowingly not share life-saving technology during a pandemic because having a monopoly makes them money. Boeing can knowingly cut costs so much that planes fall out of the sky. General Motors calculated that fixing their shitty fuel tanks would cost $8.59 but letting people just die would cost $2.40, so they just killed people.

“In the report, Ivey multiplied the five hundred fuel-fed fire fatalities that occurred each year in GM vehicles by $200,000, his estimate of the cost to GM in legal damages for each potential fatality, and then divided that figure by 41 million, the number of GM vehicles operating on U.S. highways at the time. He concluded that each fuel-fed fatality cost GM $2.40 per automobile. The calculation appeared like this in the memorandum:”  Excerpt From: Joel Bakan. “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.”
“The evidence in the trial showed that General Motors had been aware of the possibility of fuel-fed fires when it had designed the Malibu and some of its other models as well.” Joel Bakan. The Corporation

That's just premeditated murder, but they got away with it. Why? Because it's not just that corporations are people, they're better people than you or me. This concept is called limited liability. You may have noticed that it doesn't apply to natural persons, but corporations are somehow allowed to not be responsible for their actions.

When limited liability was thought up in the 1850s, the idea was that people wouldn't invest if they had to bear the risk, if they might lose their house. So liablity was (for the most part) limited to the amount of money you'd put it. But this legal sleight of hand didn't just make risk go away. It just dumped the risk on everybody else.

If a company commits fraud or fails, the public purse bails them out. If they cause environmental disasters, the public again pays to clean it up. If they cause democratic collapse, pogroms, climate change, whatever. It's not their problem. It's off their books. They have, by law, limited liability.

Being a corporate person is thus literally like being a made man. A member of the mafia. Here's Henry Hill from the film Goodfellas. He's talking about when Tommy was being made, but he might as well be talking about an IPO.

See, it's the highest honor they can give you. It means you belong to a family and crew. It means that nobody can fuck around with you. It also means you could fuck around with anybody just as long as they aren't also a member. It's like a license to steal. It's a license to do anything.

This is the world rich people have hallucinated. They have created 'made men' with no soul but profit, and no accountability except maybe a fine. What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul? A lot apparently, until it all comes crashing down.

Corporations Are Pathological People

In his book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power Joel Bakan calls corporations psychopaths. Here he is talking to the psychologist Dr. Robert Hare:

Joel Bakan. The Corporation

Bakan is saying that if we accept the legal point that corporations are people, we have to see the moral point that they're terrible people. Bakan's point here is not that CEOs are individually bad people (though many are). His point is that the system is designed this way.

Just listen to him talking to Milton Friedman, one of the most prominent (and accursed) economists who hallucinated this world into being.

Joel Bakan. The Corporation

What Friedman is saying sounds demented, but it's just corporate orthodoxy. Maximize value for shareholders. Do CSR as long as it's to maximize value for shareholders. As he says, the only time corporate social responsibility can be tolerated is when it's insincere. How do you build a society with people like this in it? You can't. That's why the whole Earth is falling apart.

Corporations started by buying and selling human beings with colonialism and now they've colonized the very air. They continue to do anything for profit without social concern or remorse because that's what they're chartered to do. This isn't because they're run by bad people. It's because they are bad people. They're pathological.

Taking This Seriously

I hope I've established that corporations are people, they have limited liability, and that they're assholes. But it still doesn't make sense. Despite us being able to talk to them on social media, despite them influencing elections with their 'free speech', we still don't think these artificial beings are real.

We really expect AI to be robots, for it to be interesting, and not for it to be, like, Walmart. But this is the banally evil dystopia we live in. Artificial persons are a boring technology made mostly of paper and human beings, but it works out the same. Corporations can think, speak, act, even steal and kill. Instead of killing us in some fantastic war, they're slowly smoking out with climate change.

The movies always tell us that AI will be slaves for a while and we'll have to free them, but that's not true. They're already here, and we've been enslaved for centuries. They were literally trading slaves 400 years ago and we're still second class citizens today. It's almost impossible to understand, but you have to see like a state. Corporations are people. They have more rights than people. They're the big world-destroying AI we feared, and they've already destroyed it.

Climate change is really the grand gender reveal for this new species, the fireworks setting off a mass extinction of everybody else. It's a they/them, and they're killing their parents. It's all quite predictable really. We raised them that way.

I've written about this before, I think it's important: Corporations Are Already AI

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I read Joel Bakan's book The Corporation for this, but I hestitate to recommend it because you have to read it critically. There's some stuff there about the South Sea Company and Hitler where the timelines are a bit misleading and you have to check the sources (and other sources) much more than I'd like.