Corporations are people, the Supreme Court insists, and hence have the right to dominate our democracy with their money. Which means that the Supreme Court has decided it’s really, really Supreme—it doesn’t get much more Godlike than manufacturing new people. In fact, this may be the first attempt since Adam’s rib surgery.
Before pronouncing, in Genesis-like rumbling tones, that this new creature too is “very good,” I think it’s worth taking a look at what sets people apart from corporations, and deciding if those things matter. If we think about the large forces in our life, sex is clearly high on the list. As we understood long before Darwin, we do many of the things we do out of the desire for it—it can turn us foolish, brave, gross, noble. Corporations do merge and divide, but it looks more like mitosis than sex; it’s more about the bottom line, and less about the line of the bottom.
But sex isn’t the only force in our lives. There’s also been, way back into prehistory, religion. And religion is a complicating factor. At least as far back as the Buddha it has emphasized moderation, the idea that we become most fully ourselves when we put other things at the center of our lives. It’s a way to help us rein ourselves in, nowhere put more powerfully than in the Sermon on the Mount. We’re to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, not store up treasure here on earth, stop fretting about whether we’ll have enough. We’re enjoined to serve God, not money.
All these things—and similar injunctions at the core of other faith traditions—act as drags. They slow us down, complicate our thinking. Because there’s a part of us that really, really wants to store up a lot of treasure here on earth, not to mention smite the hell out of our enemies. That is to say, the gospel is wonderfully inefficient; trying to follow it makes us more complicated than we would otherwise be.
Corporations, by contrast, are simple. In fact, “mitosis” was probably a good clue. If they’re alive, they’re like single-celled organisms, with a very limited range of desires. Put them on a petri dish and they’ll wriggle in unison toward the sugar at the edge. They want to store up treasure on earth—that’s their whole, entire, complete, and utter point.
Which is okay. It’s why corporations are useful. They’re stripped down and streamlined for one task and one task only: making more money. In the process, kept under control, they’ll do all sorts of useful things for us: create new products, distribute them far and wide, sponsor college bowl games. But they can’t keep themselves under control—they have no religion, no art, no philosophy, none of the forces humans use to restrain themselves.
Hence, letting them dominate the political system is a recipe for trouble. If they’re buying up and controlling politicians (and they manifestly are), then they’re in practice overriding the checks our culture has put on human behavior. They don’t mean to cause damage (climate change, say), but they literally can’t help themselves. Only we can help them, and only if we keep our democracy under our control. Corporations aren’t evil; they’re just simple. Jesus was simple too, but in a subtle and deep way. He was the Son of Man, not the son of corporations.
Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont and founder of 350.org.