The “Occupy Wall Street” protestors’ “NYC General Assembly” has issued a manifesto of indictments of corporate America, on matters including war, pollution, cruelty to animals, housing foreclosures and much more. Fundamentally, the protestors display an antipathy to the very idea of corporations.
That is evident for one thing in the blanket nature of their complaints, for instance:
They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
And so on. Note it is all being done by “they” as opposed to by “some” or specified companies. I could compose a similarly sweeping list of positive corporate actions, such as “They have developed medical products that have saved millions of lives.” But the protests are less about specific grievances than free-floating anti-corporate rage.
Thus the manifesto denounces a supposed inherent lack of accountability in corporations, stating:
…that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth…
They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
These assertions suffer from a lack of cogency. Start with the business about corporations “extracting” wealth from people without consent. Such “extraction” far better describes taxation — which by necessity even democratic governments do without individual consent — than it does the voluntary decisions by consumers to hand over money for products. As for extracting wealth from the Earth, besides being necessary for civilization’s survival, that is something done by state-owned oil companies and other government entities around the world, as well as by private-sector corporations.
Then there is the complaint about the doctrine of a corporation as “legal person.” That complaint is motivated partly by desire to slap restrictions on corporate political ads and donations (regardless of legal persons’ free speech rights) and more broadly by a dislike of the idea that “corporations are people,” as Mitt Romney said in a supposed gaffe recently. In fact, corporations are of course organizations of people, but the deeper point is that legal personhood enables a degree of accountability that would not be possible otherwise.
Let’s say a company dumped some toxic waste a few decades ago. The executives of that company may no longer be the same people, the shareholders may have entirely turned over; the people working there or holding stock may have had nothing to do with the waste dumping back then. It doesn’t matter — the corporation can still be held responsible, forced to do cleanup, pay damages and so on.
The opening of the Occupy Wall Street manifesto says that “the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members.” Quite right. As it happens, a great advance enabling humans to cooperate and achieve things they could not individually is the organizational form known as the corporation.