First, a quick aside. A couple of friends recently retweeted a great blog post by Andrew Chen: Why I doubted Facebook could build a billion dollar business, and what I learned from being horribly wrong. It struck me as a great complement to this series, because it’s not only an admission that he was wrong, but also an exploration of why and what he learned from the mistake. His primary lesson is very much more general than the topic of the specific post: “Be humble, and keep an open mind towards weird new companies.” Most of all, I’m writing these posts as a reminder to myself to be humble.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. This one’s a relatively simple case of having failed to appreciate the context of an issue. Corporate personhood has been in the news a lot, because ending it’s been one of the more concrete & self-contained demands made by protesters in the #Occupy movement.
This isn’t a new issue. Shortly after I first moved to the US, in 2003, I remember seeing posters and trailers for a documentary called The Corporation, and ending corporate personhood was one of the ideas mentioned in its advertising. At the time, I foamed at the mouth a bit about how stupid this was, because I had completely misunderstood what was meant by this, and I was decoyed by the context I brought over from Britain.
The crucial piece of context was that after a clearly preventable rail crash in Potters Bar in 2002, it had seemed to be impossible to hold anyone legally accountable, because manslaughter law required an individual to be found responsible, when this was fairly clearly a matter of aggregate corporate negligence. In the end, almost a decade later, the companies responsible were prosecuted, under the Health & Safety Act, because that was the best anyone could do.
Along the way, Britain added new laws about “corporate manslaughter” to take away corporations’ ability to evade consequences for their actions simply by being a corporate body. Although that didn’t pass until 2008, it was much discussed in the aftermath of the Potters Bar crash, so this was on my mind when that documentary came out. This is why my reaction to the trailers was approximately: “these people are idiots to want to undo corporate personhood, because that’s what allows corporations to be held legally accountable.”
What I didn’t understand at the time was the way in which this notion of corporate personhood was being used in the U.S. to apply constitutional rights that are meant to protect individuals to corporations. Most critically, it’s about the right to free speech being abused to protect false advertising, slander and limitless corporate influence over elections. All three of these are problems because they’re already ways in which the small number of people who control a corporation get to wield massively more power than all the individuals not in that position of control (including everyone else who works for that company). What I had mistaken this for was almost the opposite: a way of giving citizens and the government a little bit more power over corporations.
The particular issue here is not all that interesting any more, because it’s been argued to death over the past few years, but I do want to apply that general lesson about humility to a specific class of cases. It is incredibly easy to misunderstand a country you don’t know well and misconstrue its culture, customs and politics. I know because I did it so much in the first few years I lived in the U.S., and I continue to get frustrated with Americans doing it just as badly about Britain, from thousands of miles away.