During his presidential run, Mitt Romney made clear that he regarded corporations as people, with all the civil rights and Constitutional protections that people have. In the Citizens United case (2010), Chief Justice Roberts expressed the same view by extending First Amendment rights to corporations. I don’t dispute the fact that these are two very privileged white men, promoting their own interests by giving new powers to corporations. I also agree with the majority of Americans who have grave anxieties about excessive corporate power undermining democracy in the United States.

However as planners we need to look at the nature and role of the corporation much more carefully. Technically, corporations can be owned and controlled by women and people of color, so the race and gender components of corporate privilege are not absolute. The association of class-privilege with corporate power, however, may be inevitable; so they remain a problem.

But what is a corporation, if it is not a person?

I think the best way to understand corporations is to look at their genealogy. How did they emerge as institutions, as cultural practices? As far as I can tell, corporations emerged in late-Medieval Europe as an instrument of risk-mitigation. I think Muslims and Chinese had different ways of organizing larger enterprises; but I have not yet researched this. In any case, the corporation is a virtual body (corpus); by law, Christian kings ascribed legal agency to the corporation, and therefore liability if the enterprise failed. This feature remains a central concept in corporate law to this day; you can look it up in the Business & Professions code of the California Constitution, or the legal codes of whatever jurisdiction you live in.

If it has agency, does that give it full personhood? A robot can also act on its own; it therefore technically has ‘agency’ even though it lacks intelligence and awareness. In the 16th and 17th centuries, European Jews actually came up with an excellent metaphor for the corporation: the golem.

Grossman and Adams, 1993. “Taking care of business.”
Yeoman, 2006. “When is a corporation like a freed slave?” Mother Jones.

Additional readings:
“Resolution on Corporate Personhood in the City of Point Arena, CA” As adopted, 25 April 2000.
“Santa Clara blues”, a brief overview of corp. personhood. Compare to Grossman & Adams.
First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978) (extension of 1st Amendment protection to corps)
Wheeling Steel v. Gander, 337 U.S. 562 (1949) (look especially at Justice White’s dissent, pp. 7-9)
Dartmouth v. Woodward, 17 U.S. 518 (1819) (this is the case that starts establishing corporate perpetuity)
Citzens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

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