The right question
I appreciate the sentiment that Jon expresses here. I’m sure he’d agree that there’s no single “right question,” so I guess we need to ask: Right for what purpose?
The idea that corporations have the legal status of individuals is, in the standard lefty worldview, anathema. It’s a complicated issue, though, and I’ve heard good arguments on both sides. At the Democratic caucus meeting in my district last year, there was a proposal from the Kucinich crowd to nominate “repeal corporate personhood” as a plank in the party’s platform. A couple, both of whom I believe were lawyers who had worked to rein in corporations, stood up to argue against it and I remember them being quite persuasive — something about liability and the ability to hold corporations responsible. I don’t remember the details, and obviously I don’t intend to make the argument here; I’m just pointing out that there are arguments on either side and it does make for, as Jon says, an “interesting conversation.”
But at this point that conversation is taking place only on the left side of the left. It’s certainly not taking place elsewhere on the political spectrum or, more to the point, inside corporations. So while it is interesting, it’s got a long way to go before it is efficacious.
In contrast, the conversation about how corporations can change their operational practices to be more sustainable is alive and growing. It’s got real cultural momentum and, with a little encouragement, could soon reach a tipping point. The push toward sustainability could become a standard part of corporate practice.
Now, this might not be our ideal world. We might prefer to have considerably more legal, social, and civic restraint on the power of corporations. But, to cannibalize my own joke, you go to war in the society you have, not the society you might want or wish to have. There is always a role for people on the fringe of the current consensus, making their case forcefully and attempting to move the center in their direction. I wouldn’t presume to denigrate such folk, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want a movement composed solely of such folk. In addition to those shouting that Ford Motor Co.’s assets should be nationalized and their executives tried for war crimes, perhaps we should also have a group of people inside Ford, negotiating over small changes to materials and manufacturing, and perhaps we should also have a group of people in the public eye who praise Ford when it does something right.
The goal is sustainability, not righteousness. There are many interesting questions, but I’d contend that the most important question is how best to generate real, concrete change, and quick.