The bigger picture

Poltics and personal life, science and religion

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg
Rochester, New York, US
June 20
I am a writer ("The fiction of a thinkable world: Body, meaning, and the culture of capitalism" [Monthly Review Press 2005]; "A new biology of religion: Spiritual practice and the life of the body" [Praeger, 2012]; "Enlightenment Interrupted: The lost moment of German Idealism and the reactionary present" [Zero Books, 2014]) and an attorney. I'm most interested in how we got into our present-day mess and how we can't separate our self-image from the experience of the world.

OCTOBER 21, 2011 5:59PM

Are corporations people or is it the other way around?

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How is it that corporations ended up as people? It's a pretty strange rule of law, but it's not completely absurd. In reality, the personhood of corporations is a legal fiction that got beyond itself. How that happened tells us as much about ourselves and our world as it does about corporations and the legal system.

English law -- which is what our law came from -- is very concerned with contracts. This makes a lot of sense, because you can't have a community of any complexity without contracts. Once people start dealing with and relying on strangers they're going to need help when promises are broken and expectations are frustrated.

Contract law developed to hold people to their word. (It also steps in when people disagree about what that word really was.) We would have a hard time doing without it.

The problem with the early contract law was that it was personal. A contract died with the person who made it. You could get paid from the estate if someone died owing you money, but that was it. The relationship was over.

Lawyers needed to invent a way for contracts to survive the parties that made them. Partnerships helped but they had their own problems, so in the end lawyers came up with the fiction of an "artificial person" -- the corporation. Like a real person an artificial person could contract, sue, and be sued. You could do business with one without worrying that it might get hit by a truck or catch the plague, leaving you without a steady flow of widgets, or coal, or beer, or whatever you needed for your home or business.

We have all kinds of corporations. Cities are corporations -- municipal ones. There are non-profit corporations. Then there are the ones we think of as corporations pure and simple: business corporations.

All of these are artificial persons. But they're very limited and stupid persons, more like robots than like humans. They do little more than enter into and enforce promises and buy and sell stuff. They come from the narrow world of contract law and everything they know and do is restricted to that world.

So how did we get to take the notion of corporate personhood so literally? This is a more complex question and there is no single answer. Corporate influence on government is one cause. But I think that there is at least one other cause. It's that we ourselves have become more like corporations.

In today's world the only things we do that connect us with everyone else are economic activities -- buying and selling. (This includes selling our skills and labor power for a wage.) We can do all kinds of other things, of course, but these are all essentially private. No matter how many others join us in our non-economic pursuits, that activity connects us with a part of the world, never the whole. This is probably why losing a job is so much like being kicked out of the world itself.

This is a terribly narrow way to live but it's the fundamental structure of contemporary capitalism. Our inner lives have no place in its public world, and the public world is little more than a market.

And that, of course, leaves us with a lot in common with corporations. The legal fiction has become a social reality, and the robot-like life of artificial personhood has become the life of most real people. It makes sense to imagine that corporations are people because, in truth, people aren't allowed to be much different.

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