Monday, January 31, 2011

Whiteness and the Logic of Corporate Personhood

To most of us flesh and blood, breathing, feeling, human animals, the notion of corporate personhood (which was taken to its logical extreme in the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling) seems like the height of absurdity. Bank of America, Chevron, GE, and Microsoft do not have families that comfort or annoy them. They do not worry about a parent’s failing health or experience the exhilaration of new love or the dread of mortality. They do not feel grief or compassion or forgiveness or frustration or hope. They definitely do not despair about what the heedless pursuit of earnings growth is doing to the once thriving communities and life systems of the Earth.

It is only natural to wonder about the apparently twisted logic that led to corporations being declared persons under the law. They are made up of persons, of course. But so is a mob, and no one thinks a mob should be granted the rights of an individual person under the U.S. Constitution. Individuals belonging to groups already have rights, but groups, as such, do not. This is because our political system is based on liberalism, the focus of which is on the equal rights of individuals. At the same time, no one is suggesting that corporations should have no legal rights at all. If corporations are to exist, they obviously need to be able to do things like enter into contracts and own property. But the need for these sorts of limited rights does not necessarily imply that corporations are entitled to legal personhood.

As we reflect on the logic that led to the extension of personhood to corporations, we should also keep in mind that in 1886, when the crucial ruling occurred, the U.S. was still officially a white nation. Naturalization was still only available to white people. First nations people were still being killed, dispossessed, and seeing their culture erased. Although African Americans were enjoying a small window of hope after the passage of the 1866 Civil Rights Act and soon thereafter the 14th amendment, that window would soon slam shut. It would require another century and a great deal of struggle before black folks had their personhood formally acknowledged.

So how was it that, at a time when only white people could access the rights and privileges of legal personhood, a purely legal entity managed to secure that designation? Clues to this puzzle are discernible in the origins of modern political thought. When John Locke and other liberal political philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries promoted ideas about self-government and the natural rights of man, it was not merely an abstract exercise. It was a definite project designed to delegitimize the authority of the aristocracy and increase the political power of the emerging business class. When Jefferson et al penned their famous affirmation of human liberation, “all men are created equal,” the liberation they had in mind was meant solely for white business men. It is all well and good to celebrate and make the most of the revolutionaries' lofty rhetoric. But if we want to understand the logic of the U.S. political and economic systems, we need to understand the true nature of the Revolution that produced them. 

The overt political motivations of the revolutionaries are only part of the story. In order to see why it was easier for the corporation to access personhood than millions of black and brown human beings, we need to look even more closely at the roots of modern liberal political thought, especially the way its architects conceived of human nature. The centerpiece of liberal political thought is Social Contract Theory. It is summarized with epic clarity and concision in The Declaration of Independence as this set of self-evident truths:

That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.  

In other words, governments (whether absolute monarchies or liberal democracies) were created by individual men who decided to give up a certain amount of liberty in exchange for protection of their natural rights.

Notice that the philosophers’ account of the origins of government was informed by an explicit theory of human nature. This theory was eventually to become an implicit keystone of the cosmology of whiteness. The social contract metaphor requires potential signatories - individuals with the wherewithal to enter into a social contract, but who have not yet done so. The philosophers imagined a condition they called the state of nature, in which ancient humans existed without any sort of government. Although men, in this hypothetical natural state, had total liberty, their actions were guided by an innate morality and rationality. Especially for Locke, whose writings on social contract theory and liberalism greatly influenced the American Revolution, human nature entails Reason, a God-given faculty that governs both moral and practical judgment.

The catch is that Reason tended to be understood in a way that was hopelessly bound up with the cultural, religious, and class values of Anglo-American elites such as Locke and the American revolutionaries. Indeed, Reason was typically associated with the economic and moral values that underpinned colonialism, such as industriousness, competition, economic self-interest, private property ownership, sexual/sensual/emotional repression, and the impulse to civilize wild nature. Hence, the self-interested, economically rational, property owning, white Puritan male was set up as the standard-bearer of humanity. This is a primordial moment in the genesis of whiteness - the instant when Race and Reason emerged as intertwined touchstones by which white men could measure their superiority and justify the exclusion of people of color from full personhood.  

Classical economists relied on this model when they imagined the economy as consisting of purely rational and self-interested producer-consumers competing for perpetually scarce resources. They theorized that the natural behavior of these standard economic actors would lead to growth in overall wealth and bring about the greatest wellbeing for society. In this way, classical economics made a virtue of selfishness. According to Adam Smith, who was after all a moral philosopher, if each individual simply pursues his private self-interest, the "invisible hand" of the market will regulate the overall economy, ensuring the greatest benefit for the greatest number. This theoretical economic man was thus promoted to the status of moral paragon, resulting in a moral framework that encourages individuals to substitute the “higher” morality of the market for their personal moral judgment. 

The elevation of the corporation to legal personhood follows naturally from the moral logic of classical economics. While a natural person can only approximate the classical economists’ moral ideal, the invention of the modern corporation institutionalized the disembodied rationality and narrow self-interest of the latter. Now there is no need for individual humans to bear the burden of reconciling personal and business morality because corporate decision making is bureaucratized. The structure of the corporation compels managers to act exclusively in the financial interests of investors and exempts those investors from accountability for the activities undertaken on their behalf. 

The corporation was next in line after white men to attain legal personhood because corporate personhood simply follows from the logic of whiteness. Whiteness was forged out of the cultural, religious, and economic values of the colonial elites and ordained as the paradigm of humanity. It was then used to restrict full personhood to white people, who were granted certain privileges in exchange for their tacit support of the elites’ exploitative imperial project. The paradigmatic values of whiteness were supposed to be universal, but they have always been disconnected from the lived concerns of ordinary people and communities of every race.

This is one of the supreme ironies of whiteness. Generations of European-Americans have bought into the ideal of whiteness, forsaking their own historical roots in order to access the benefits of white identity. But notwithstanding some relative privileges and a comforting, if fictitious, sense of superiority, it turns out that we have failed to grasp that the logic of whiteness does not correspond to the logic of humanity. So, in our effort to claim and preserve unearned advantages, we (and not only white people) have embraced a standard that we ourselves cannot embody and remain human. The logic of whiteness in the context of economics is actually a logic of capitalist exploitation and empire. And, as it turns out, it is a logic that is most perfectly realized by an inhuman bureaucracy, designed to maximize profits and expand forever.


  1. Gregory, thank you for exposing the depth of the "unexamined assumptions" that continue to create havoc in our society. I wonder whether the continued grasping for power is a symptom of a group (elite white males) who recognize that they are becoming outnumbered not only by black and brown folks, but females. Please speak to how we can all change these core beliefs.

  2. Every person in America is a "corporate person" subject to the mercantile/commercial law of codes and statutes. Birth certificates, tax ID numbers, drivers licenses, and any and all legal documents you sign on to fall under this. Our governments are corporate entities, and have been for a long time. This is an issue that goes far beyond legal classifications of "race"- which was just a means to an end, not the source of the problem. One of the biggest problems with "whiteness studies" is its lexicon. It has already become outdated, as these corporate entities are looking to phase out the white servant class. It points out and focuses on a concept that has by and large become irrelevant, thereby obfuscating from the real issue. Secondly, most people who are taking up the mantle of "anti-racism" and "abolishing whiteness" are sadly, seemingly incapable of reading into the subtle nuances and just see "white" and have henceforth taken up a crusade of entrenching a culture of victim-hood, which in truth, does nothing but disempower everyone involved. Third, the reaching out to President Obama and the corporate Federal Government for help with the police brutality issues, that are being portrayed by the corporate government run media as being race related is a HUGE mistake. They are taking the bait and asking for, among other things, the police to become placed under greater federal control, which takes it further away from being accountable to the local population. This lack of accountability will be exacerbated even further with the implementation of the UN Strong Cities initiative and a global centralized law enforcement agency. If folks think the law and law enforcement is unaccountable and unreachable now, just wait.