Cyberpunk & Robber Barons: Thoughts About Corporate Personhood

There are many things that I find disturbing about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the (in-)famous Hobby Lobby case. For those who haven’t followed the news or are outside the U.S., basically the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decided that a “closely held” corporation (e.g. one that is not on the stock market) has a few things going for it: 1) it is a person, 2) it can have religious beliefs, 3) it can ignore laws based on those religious beliefs, and 4) those religious beliefs trump the rights of employees.

The decision is largely based on the 2010 Citizens United case in which SCOTUS determined that corporations are people and campaign contributions are speech, therefore limiting corporate campaign contributions is akin to violating free speech, which is unconstitutional.

The combination of these cases that create and establish the idea of corporate personhood is something that I find very disturbing. The idea that a non-living, state created entity can be considered a person with rights that trump those of living, breathing, actual people is, I think, a major problem.

There’s a related problem, though.

The cyberpunk genre already envisioned a future in which corporations became vastly empowered and governmental power was gutted. In virtually all cyberpunk literature, the corporations are everything, the final authority. They control what little government remains. They control all security (police) forces. They control all residential areas.

But, the cyberpunk writers of the 1980s weren’t just extrapolating into the future. They also, arguably, looked to the past. We have historical precedent for corporate personhood and corporate rights trumping those of the citizen-worker-person. We need only look at the Industrial Revolution, an era in which companies were everything and the government appeared powerless to rein them in (in fact, the government often worked for the companies—sending in the national guard for union busting). There was no such thing as worker rights. Workplace safety was a joke (many workers were maimed in the very factories that they continued to work in). Pay was pitiful. Child labor laws, nonexistent. Company stores existed, where workers could use the company printed money that they were paid in (and which was not legal tender anywhere else). A very small percentage of people rose to the socio-economic top, while most of the rest eked out a meager living.  (Some companies are already starting to bring back the company store by offering in-house “money” as incentive to boost sales or to sign more customers up for store credit cards.)

In many ways, I fear our society is too myopic, too short sighted, too ignorant of history. Or certain segments of the population are. Instead of moving forward into the future, it looks like the last four years of SCOTUS decisions have set us on a course to repeat our history. Hopefully, enough people will become aware and angry enough to steer us onto a different track, one that will move us forward rather than undoing over a century of progress that untold numbers worked, fought, and died for.


One comment on “Cyberpunk & Robber Barons: Thoughts About Corporate Personhood

  1. calmgrove says:

    Even in the UK we’ve heard of the implications of such a decision: a really retrograde step in such a huge democracy. Thanks for putting it in context.

    In an unrelated aside, interested to flurry of Latin-looking acronyms based on ‘of the US’ — SCOTUS, POTUS, FLOTUS — and wonder if they can be conjugated.


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