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Private Tyranny
How corporations became "people"
by Dana Williams


We have a government for the people, of the people, and by the people, right? We live in the world's greatest democracy, right? Whether rich or poor, all our voices are equal, right?

Well, at some point, US "Founding Fathers" mistranslated John Locke's famous promise "life, liberty, and property" into "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Of course there's nothing wrong with the pursuit of happiness, nor does possession of property necessarily indicate happiness. But it's interesting that the "Fathers" would change one of those core ideas, especially considering they were attempting one of the most radical experiments in nation-building the world had ever seen.

The reasons for this small cosmetic change become apparent when studying the US Constitution and considering that the document said next to nothing about the rights of citizens, but a lot about property. The only rights given to people were for White, land-owning men, a group that composed a small minority of the inhabitants of the New World. It took a Bill of Rights to codify formal political rights (to say nothing of social rights or economic rights) for more people, and additional amendments more than a century later to expand those political rights to others. Further years of struggle have eventually yielded the [theoretical] equality of women, Blacks, Native Americans, other people of color, the landless and property-less, children, immigrants, and so forth.

The 14th Amendment was intended to give equal rights to slaves (who were in theory freed by Abe Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation"), and afterward to be considered more than only three-fifths of human beings. Yet, the same ironies again would arise: within 50 years since the passage of the 14th Amendment, it was used nearly 300 times in courts on behalf of corporations, and only 19 times in cases of freed slaves.

If we received real history education in this country, one of the most relevant court cases taught would be Santa Clara vs. the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. The decision handed down by the US Supreme Court unanimously declared that corporations were henceforth to be considered "people" under the US Constitution, and be given all the rights and equal protections afforded individual citizens.

"Big deal," one might say. "It only makes sense that corporations should have the right to free speech and protection from search and seizure. Corporations are the lifeblood of our country and they need protection."

But, thinking so deeply undercuts centuries of history and understanding. Many "Founding Fathers" (like Jefferson and Madison) warned of the "tyranny of private power", and specifically pointed out corporations as things that need to be controlled (not merely "regulated"). The reason for this sentiment is historical: Americans wanted to prevent the things that happened to Colonists from happening in their new country. Pre-US settlers were thoroughly repressed by the actions of joint-stock companies controlled by Britain, such as the Massachussetts Bay Company. They didn't want history to repeat itself, but unfortunately it has.

Initially, corporations had to be chartered by legislatures from the states they operated in. The entire state congress would have to vote on permitting a corporation to operate under very specific rules and with explicit restrictions declared in the charter. Corporations would be chartered to build roads or railways, and once they were built and reasonable profit made, the company would be dissolved and the assets distributed to shareholders. It was unheard of for a company to participate in the political process, contribute financially to politicians, and especially to own other companies. If they operated outside of their charter, violated the law, or in anyway harmed the body politic, their charters were revoked. Where is the "corporate death penalty" and "three-strike laws" for repeat corporate offenders?

Eventually, corporations were able to buy their way into the political process. They funded legislators and judges. They were able to pervert the 14th Amendment and scored a huge victory with the decision Buckley vs. Valeho, where it was declared that money was indeed a form of "speech". Therefore, a corporation could give endless amounts of money to a politician and it was perfectly legal, because that money was a form of "speech". Since corporations were considered "people", they were merely using their Constitutionally-protected rights.

We now find ourselves at a point in our history when nearly every candidate who gets elected to political office must pander, promise, and sell themselves to corporations and the rich. No where else is this illustrated more vividly than in the Enron scandal, where 71 senators and 186 representatives, George W. Bush, and other politicos since 1990 accepted $5.9 Million from Enron, resulting in Enron (along with many other energy corporations) being literally invited into committee chambers to write energy policy for Congress and the Bush Administration.

So, are corporations really equal to human beings? Absolutely not! Corporations are not merely equal to humans, but have incredibly more power, influence, and rights than people do. Since money is speech, they have more "free speech" than citizens. No citizen group can compete with the massive amount of money that corporations can sink into ad campaigns, politician's pockets, or into any economic arena. Since their property can thus be considered "private", they can control the speech that goes on there. One can't hand out leaflets criticizing a McDonalds on their property, nor can its workers discuss forming a union.

The amazing transformative power of private capital can be seen when any small number of people go down to their local state offices, and charter a corporation by filling out a few pieces of paper. But, if a group of employees want to form a union to make sure that their rights are upheld, they have to face hostile employers, disagreeable courts, union-busting campaigns, and an openly indifferent National Labor Relations Board. There is no semblance of equity, fairness, or justice. Ever since the Palmer Raids during WWI, which swept up thousands of legal immigrants, anarchists, and trade union organizers, the country's labor movement has been decimated (aside from a few brief moments of possibility).

But, US history is replete with citizen resistance to intruding corporate power. One example from the turn of the last century were the Populists. In rural areas they fought big business's control of railroad, middlemen distributors, and farm machinery companies. They demanded that corporations be returned to their subservient positions of being under popular citizen control.

The goals of the Populists were subverted by the Progressives, who called for lesser reforms which ended in the creation of a system of "regulatory agencies", which acted to reduce the harms and impacts of corporations, not to control them.

The disparity in power and protection between corporations and real people can be extreme. For example, if a person is in possession of a small quantity of illegal narcotics (for personal use), they can have their house raided by the DEA (without a search warrant), be thrown in the courtroom with a crummy court-appointed lawyer, and languish for years in jail for a victimless crime. But, if a company is inspected by the EPA without a search warrant, they will let loose their team of lawyers on the EPA, who will never again consider searching the property of that corporation again, regardless of what chemicals seep into the water and air surrounding it.

OSHA will turn its backs to worker complaints (worker deaths yearly exceed the number of Americans who die from handgun murders). The FDA will not complain when the company pushes its drug, food product, fill-in-the-blank onto the market, regardless of what possible side-effects it may have (prescription drugs cause more deaths than all illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco combined). And the DNR will continue to lease off National Park land for drilling, mining, and lumber harvesting to corporations (including a record high in the supposedly "pro-environment" Clinton/Gore years).

We have to ask ourselves, do we believe in democracy? If we do, it is impossible for us to accept a situation in which some citizens less powerful than others, not to mention where citizens in general are less powerful than corporations. "Democracy" means rule by the "people". And let's face it, corporations are not people-- despite what the Supreme Court thinks. Thus, when we consider the actions of our government, we must realize that government acts within a restrictive system which values the power of corporations over democracy, indeed a system that has been molded and created by corporations.

Maybe it's worthwhile to remind ourselves what "Founding Father" John Jay once said (apparently without irony): "Government is the shadow cast by business over society". Can we see the shadow for what it is? Do we have the will and drive to target the substance in our quest for democracy?

(special thanks to Greg Coleridge and POCLAD)

Dana Williams is a UND alum and an anti-capitalist/pro-democracy activist presently living in Akron, Ohio.