Common Sense and Corporate Tyranny

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A true American hero, Paine came to be despised in the United States. After “The Age of Reason” was published, he was called an anti-Christ, and his reputation was ruined. His pamphlet, Agrarian Justice (1795), discusses the origins of property, and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income. In 1802, he returned to America where he died on June 8, 1809. Only six people attended his funeral.

When Thomas Paine wrote his incendiary pamphlet, “Common Sense” in 1776, he sought to educate the colonists and show how the British monarchy actually worked. He understood British power and the structures that power creates. He knew the hubris of the British monarchy prevented it from hearing the grievances of the colonies and he knew that the colonies themselves could not influence the monarchy or claim the rights he ascribed to the individual. Through this one pamphlet his common sense argument cut through the matrix of British control. It was instrumental in galvanizing public opinion and in galvanizing Washington’s meager militia.

If Thomas Paine were here today he would recognize that this country is under an analogous tyranny – a new feudalism – with the controlling oligarchy, not in the form of a monarch or a king, but in the form of Corporate “personhood.”

Just as Paine exposed the phantom legitimacy of Kings so would he would now recognize that the phantom legitimacy of the corporation. The corporation is an abstraction. Legal ‘personhood’ was granted to the abstract entity of “the corporation” by nine Supreme Court judges in 1886. This is wrong and requires correction. Only Congress can make laws, not judges. Paine would say that the granting of corporate personhood is illegitimate and that it violates our Bill of Rights and Constitution: he would argue that unless the corporation is subservient to the common good it cannot and will not be granted the privilege of doing business.

The writers of the U.S. Constitution gave the control of corporations to state legislatures and they did so with very clear instructions about the limits of the corporation: what it could do, how, for how long, with whom, where, and when. Stockholders were held personally liable for any harm done in the name of the corporation. Charters had to be granted. Most charters lasted 15 years, at most. “But most importantly, in order to receive the profit-making privileges they sought, corporations had to represent a clear benefit for the public good. And when corporations violated any of these terms, their charters were frequently revoked by the state legislatures.” [2]

Corporations found a ‘work-around’ through the state and then federal courts. In 1893 the 5th Amendment was granted to corporation for protection of due process. In 1906 the corporation was granted the 4th Amendment search and seizure protection and then freedom of the press in 1925. In 1976 the Supreme Court deemed money equal to speech and since corporate persons have First Amendment rights, allowing them to contribute as much money as they want to political parties and candidates.

Corporations, unlike a real person, can live for hundreds of years. They can grow and accumulate wealth and power. Corporate lawyers invoke the personhood status at their convenience and according to circumstance.

Corporate property may include not only land but also concepts like mineral rights, drilling rights, air pollution credits, intellectual property, and agreements like NAFTA and TPP, with rights to future profits.

For example, under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “free trade” agreement, foreign firms would gain an array of privileges: rights to acquire land, natural resources, factories without government review; risks and costs of offshoring to low wage countries eliminated; special guaranteed “minimum standard of treatment”; for relocating firms; compensation for loss of “expected future profits” from health, labor environmental, laws (indirect or “regulatory” takings compensation); right to move capital without limits; new rights cover vast definition of investment: intellectual property, permits, derivatives; the banning of performance requirements, domestic content rules.

“The King is dead… long live the corporate king” is a fact unless we use common sense to educate ourselves and use our legislature to reverse the status that corporations exploit –  ‘corporate personhood’.

[1] Move to Amend
[2] Public Citizen

Also See Chris Hedges, Cornel West et al on Paine :


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