The Magic of Corporate Personhood

The legal history of corporate personhood, stretching over a hundred and fifty years, is an interesting story itself, marked by the dogged persistence of the Central Pacific Railroad and other corporations in bringing cases to the Supreme Court year after year that corporations were entitled to the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment drafted to guarantee equal protection for the freed slaves. Overcoming the resistance (and incredulity) of the Court, and many presidents, was a gradual process. It is ironic that it was the non-humanness of the corporation--its immortality--that led to its successful bid to acquire the rights of mortal citizens.

But sometimes it is instructive to frame the story in a different, if perhaps more fanciful, way. From a magical perspective, corporate personhood is conjuring--that is, giving a body to a spirit, to an abstract entity. There are three great prototypical shamanistic figures in the Western mythic tradition: Eve, Orpheus, and Faust. Of these three, conjuring is the specialty of the latter, and seems to be the most common form of shamanistic magic in western culture. Philosophically, conjuring is reification--that is, making a "thing" of something abstract.

In traditional ceremonial magic, giving a body to a spirit involves a magic circle (in this case the Court), certain writs and spells ("In the matter of"), and an abundance of smoke and mirrors. Breaking the circle--releasing the conjured spirit into the world at large--marks the magic as "black."

But what sort of spirit or wraith is it that has been conjured? By its magical writ (its "charter"), the corporate spirit's entire purpose is to accumulate monetary profit, without limit. This insatiable quality marks the spirit as a form of what Buddhists call the "hungry ghost," the preta, inhabitants of one of the six realms of existence. Hungry ghosts are beings with such huge appetites, with such swollen bellies and with such narrow throats, that they live in a state of perpetual craving. Zen Buddhists make a small grain offering to the hungry ghosts at every meal, as a gesture of compassion, to try to relieve some of their suffering.

In the case of the corporation, the hungry ghost has a rather large throat. We have not only given the hungry ghost a body, but have enshrined it at the very core of our society. Is this not madness? Why would we expect it to do anything other than consume the resources of the earth, her cultures, and, yes, her people, in an attempt to fill its bottomless appetite?

But there is nothing inevitable about the corporation in its present form. It is not a necessary part of capitalism, nor of civilization, nor of technological progress. It can be dissolved by legal writ, the same way it was created. The corporation is not equivalent to "free enterprise," in fact is inimical to such. There is no divine reason that stock companies or other collective endeavors should have the right to meddle in politics, to buy other companies, or, indeed, to engage in any other business than that for which they were specifically created, and for which we, the citizens, have relieved the investors of liability and assumed it ourselves.

Many (probably most) of us work for corporations. I, for one, would be happier if the entity to which I contract my labor were chartered to focus on production and service, for the common good, and that politics be left to citizens. That's called democracy, and is still an idea worth trying.