Reverse Corporate Personhood

Anyone remember The Corporation, either the book or the documentary? If not, here’s a refresher on some of its basic ideas:

Granted, much of the movie tends toward the breathlessly hyperbolic, and its mission is more polemical than analytical. But ever since I first saw it in high school, I’ve been fascinated by one of its key premises (one only hinted at by the Noam Chomsky line in the trailer): that if were to treat corporations as persons in more than just a legal sense, we’d have to regard them as dangerous sociopaths.

Now, few people (except maybe Eric Schwitzgebel) would argue that corporations actually are people in any meaningful, extra-legal sense. But we can easily imagine what a person would look like if he possessed some of the traits of a corporation. The primary responsibility, perhaps the sole responsibility, of a corporation is to accrue profit for its shareholders. Seeing like a corporation, everything else — ever single object, person, physical space, and idea — assumes an instrumental value relative to its ability to help the corporation achieve that end. The notion of a “good corporate citizen” is pretty much a myth, except insofar as presenting a public image of good citizenship will help make the corporation more profitable.

This all strikes me as relatively uncontroversial, even banal. The crucial debate is not over the characteristics of a corporation, but over whether those characteristics are being harnessed to good ends. That is to say: Is corporate enlightened self-interest fueling economic growth, raising the overall standard of living, and contributing to human flourishing? Or not?

Let’s bracket that question, for the purposes of that blog post. Instead, I’d like us to consider what happens when we graft the basic elements of corporate self-interest onto a human person. Unless you’re an orthodox Randian, we should be able to agree that someone who lives his entire life on the basis rapacious self-interest and instrumentalism is probably pretty horrible. If not a textbook sociopath (I’ll leave that up to the professional psychologists), he’d at least fit the term as it’s used idiomatically. He’d also be what we commonly understand as a narcissist.

That could give us a pretty decent frame for understanding the phenomenon I tried to pin down in my last post, regarding what’s now being commonly (and rather obnoxiously) referred to as “Generation Me.” If 20-30 year olds are more brutishly self-interested than their parents, and if, as I argue, this is a byproduct of growing up under neoliberalism and into an age of scarcity, then we might understand what’s happening to young people as a sort of process of reverse corporate personhood. That is to say: in an increasingly competitive market defined by the ethics and conventions of the corporate world, young people rightly intuit that the most successful actors will be those who behave most like one-person corporate entities.

I’m not a sociologist, so I don’t quite have the empirical grounding to back that analysis up. But I do have some formal background in philosophy, which might be able to provide some insight from a different angle. When I write about this next, I’ll probably try and dive into the phenomenology of corporate personhood.

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