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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Corporations Are Immortal (p. 439)

From chapter "Corporations, Cops, and Hungry Ghosts"

Corporations are entities that we pretend are real, that have been defined (and, institutionally, define themselves) to person status by claiming, in essence, to be a body, a living body (remember that incorporate comes from the Latin in, in, and corporare, to form into a body, from corpus, a body). Corporations are the “embodiment,” the reification, of a single idea—that of amassing wealth. To that end, they have been “granted perpetual life and diversified ownership, each part of which has limited liability for the debts and other liabilities of the firm.” This limited liability means that each owner is not liable for the actions of the corporation. Investors can only lose the amount of money invested, and are not held in any way accountable if the company commits genocide, ecocide, murder, or any other crime. Who, then, is held accountable? The officers? Even when a corporate officer is held liable, the corporation and its stock holders, once again, are not. WMX (which used to be called Waste Management, until that name acquired too foul a reputation), for example, is the largest garbage collection and recycling company in the world. It is responsible for the largest toxic dump in the United States, and has located toxic dumps in minority neighborhoods across the country. It was cited six hundred times by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s, and, between 1983 and 1988, faced eighteen grand juries. Yet, even though the corporation has been sued, convicted, and fined for numerous environmental, price-fixing, bribery, and antitrust violations, paying $46 million in fines for bribery and illegal waste handling alone between 1980 and 1988, and even though some executive officers have gone to jail, the company still has contracts with thousands of cities in forty-eight states and nineteen countries. Through the 1980s, WMX’s sales increased from $773 million to $6 billion. The point is that on the extremely rare occasion that an executive goes to jail, nothing happens to the company—to the machine which has as its sole function the amassing of wealth.

Limited liability means more than profits, however, and it means more than toxic waste dumps in minority neighborhoods. It is more than the mere institutionalization of irresponsibility. It is an explicit acknowledgment that it’s impossible to amass great wealth without externalizing costs. If costs were not being externalized, there would be no need to limit liability.

Corporations are a legal device that came into use during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to deal with the myriad limits exceeded by our culture’s social and economic system: The railroads and other early corporations were too big and too technological to be built or insured by the incorporators’ investments alone; when corporations failed, or caused gross public damage, as they often did, the incorporators did not have the wealth to cover the damage. No one did. Thus, a limit was placed on the investors’ liability, on the amount of damage for which they could be held liable. Because of limited liability, corporations have allowed several generations of owners to economically, psychologically, and legally ignore the limits of toxics, fisheries depletion, debt, and so on that have been transgressed by the workings of our economic system.

By now, we should have learned. To expect corporations to function differently than they do is to engage in magical thinking. We may as well expect a clock to cook, a car to give birth, or a gun to plant flowers. The specific and explicit function of for-profit corporations is to amass wealth. The function is not to guarantee that children are raised in environments free of toxic chemicals, nor to respect the autonomy or existence of indigenous peoples, nor to protect the vocational or personal integrity of workers, nor to design safe modes of transportation, nor to support life on this planet. Nor is the function to serve communities. It never has been and never will be. To expect corporations to do anything other than amass wealth is to ignore our culture’s system of rewards, to ignore everything we know about behavior modification: We reward those investing in or running corporations for what they do, and so we can expect them to do it again. To expect corporations to do otherwise is delusional. Corporations are institutions created explicitly to separate humans from the effects of their actions, making them, by definition, inhuman and inhumane. To the degree that we desire to live in a human and humane world—and, really, to the degree that we wish to survive—corporations need to be eliminated.

It would be easy to blame corporations for most of the world’s ills. This, however, would not be helpful, because corporations are mere tools for governance and for the transfer of wealth from communities to the governors, the latest in a series of tools running back six thousand years to when civilization originated “in conquest abroad and repression at home.”

To provide a clarifying example, although the world’s forests might receive a brief reprieve were Weyerhaeuser’s corporate charter revoked, we must remember that our culture was deforesting the world long before Weyerhaeuser—either the corporation or its founder, Frederick—was conceived.

Corporations don’t cause destruction; they are tools to facilitate it, legalize it, rationalize it, make it respectable. Another word for “the externalization of costs,” for “limited liability,” is theft. But this is a special breed of theft, where even the victim is left feeling that a legitimate and just transaction has taken place; the victim may be frustrated, but is more likely to be jealous than outraged. As we have seen repeatedly in this country’s elections, the victim will defend the thief’s property rights, and will also spend the rest of his or her life trying to earn back the stolen goods. Political rhetoritician Edmund Burke layed out, presumably with a straight face, the responsibilities of the properly enculturated, the mental and emotional states in which the poor must be maintained if they are to keep themselves at labor and not rebel against the rich: “They must respect that property of which they cannot partake. They must labor to obtain what by labor can be obtained; and when they find, as they commonly do, the success disproportioned to the endeavor, they must be taught their consolation in the final proportions of eternal justice.”

But, perhaps, this is going too far. Perhaps, by changing the language, by moving away from the academic—“the privatization of profits and the externalization of costs”—to the vulgar—“theft”—I run the risk of offending. I imperil my credibility.

That is precisely the point, and precisely the strength of the corporation as a tool for privatizing profits and externalizing costs, for theft, and murder. The transaction is legitimate. The crime complete. It is acceptable. It is legal. And, of course, it is still theft. And it is still murder.

But labels aren’t so important; no matter what we call it, poison is still poison, death is still death, and industrial civilization is still causing the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet.