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Just Doing My Job: Addressing perversions in the new corporate state

By       Message Timothy Cavanaugh       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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View Ratings | Rate It Headlined to H3 10/6/09

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I've argued for years now that the chief problem with corporations and how they detriment society is not that they are in some way inherently evil as many in the anti-globalism ranks favor. I don't go in for absolutes like good and evil for obvious reasons. No, the chief problem with corporations is that they as entities do not have consciences. They are effectively legally manufactured persons but that man-made construct does not include a consciences or soul or spirit or whatever else you want to call that elusive element that is necessary to be considered a sentient being. That said they have all the legal rights of a person -- and even more when you factor in things like their potential for an unlimited life span -- but they do not have the ability to think as an independent being and therefore do not posses consciousness. Even though they are made up of individuals; employees, partners, directors, stock-holders, etc., who do posses that ever-so-important moral faculty to distinguish right from wrong this collection of consciences unfortunately does not imbue the same on to the corporation.

That said one might be inclined to think that a corporation can glean from it's members morality because the true individuals that make up the monster, as only minute segments of the corporate giant, can and so easily do feel that they are not guilty of any of the clear wrongs perpetrated by the corporation as they are only a small piece of the whole. When asked about their participation in what many feel are criminal enterprises these people say things like 'I'm just doing my job' or 'I'm just an investor.' At first glance it might appear that these simple phrases relieve these individuals from culpability but upon further consideration these responses effectively amount to the 'just following orders' defense -- now where have we heard that before -- Nuremburg anyone? States, countries and even world-bodies have ordered the execution of people who under the false moral security of 'just following orders' participated in less criminal atrocities then have been perpetrated by many modern corporations. Yet somehow the seemingly honest and good people that make up these institutions feel they are not guilty of the crimes committed by 'the company' that they serve.

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What is a company if not a collection of individuals? If not for the people that make up the compilation of departments that comprise any corporation would the institution that they willingly pledge their labor, fortunes and in some cases lives to, even exist? The obvious answer is no. So how then can these people be separated from the actions of the company they act on behalf of and profit directly from? Is it not individuals that reap the many financial and less quantifiable benefits made by corporations? So why shouldn't those same individuals pay the cost and/or suffer the penalties when their corporation commits a wrong? I know I'm using general words here, i.e. "wrong", that might be hard pressed to hold up in court but the point is clear. If individuals make up corporations and reap the profits they earn they should also pay the penalties they incur.

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But alas that is not how our modern business world is structured. Most countries have legal systems that allow corporations to be punished for wrongs they commit without extending those costs on to the individuals that comprise it. This of course is outside of any financial loses incurred but when you're talking about multinational corporations those costs are always factored into the budget as the cost of doing business. Arguably the key benefit of owning any part of a corporation is that you as an individual only place at risk what you have in the company, nothing more. So, you can reap unlimited profits but limit your losses to your investment at any given time. Further, with the inherent disconnection between ownership and actions, activity and responsibility, in the modern corporate model individuals can easily release themselves from any guilt they have with participation in something they know to be wrong by simply blaming the company. It's the corporation's actions and not theirs and therefore they can get away morally, ethically and legally with doing things through their corporation that they would never be allowed to do or even consider doing themselves. As you can imagine, with man's inherent greed and insatiable appetite for more and more, this structure makes for a perfect storm of sorts for the creation of a moral vacuum.

As mentioned this problem is made significantly more complex by the fact that the entire system operates under a cloak of legality. But as we know from history legal does not necessarily mean right or moral. Challenging the preeminence of corporate power may seem insurmountable today but the world has dealt with many other legally founded and equally entrenched institutions that were at odds with man's expanding concept of human rights. Monarchy, caste systems, feudalism, slavery, apartheid, Jim Crow, child labor and even polygamy were all well established legal institutions that all eventually were challenged and legally overturned to varying degrees as they clashed with the ever-evolving definition of man as a free being. And eventually so to will the power of corporations, to allow their individuals to commit crimes in their names and escape liability, fall by the way side. But these now long gone perversions of government and social norms did not just lie down and die. They put up a fight to the likes of the American and French revolutions; not to mention the hundreds of civil wars and more riots and mob actions then one can count. And this latest perversion will also put up a fight so we in the progressive ranks better be ready for the long haul if we want to win this one. But if we stick in there we'll eventually prevail and we will have won a victory that will benefit all of humanity as well as the greater natural world that surrounds us.

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So the question at hand is; how do we begin the process of challenging and eventually abolishing this most recent depraved but well entrenched legal institution? To put it bluntly we pursue what should have been happening all along, we humanize the issue. Unquestionably the most powerful approach to forcing corporations to answer for their actions is to hold the individuals associated with those actions responsible. In fact, this is the only reasonable solution. The reason we are where we are today is that the creation and subsequent rampant success of corporations has taken the human element out of the equation. Because corporations are not alive they cannot be punished in the sense that we understand the term. The people behind them can certainly experience punishment and there in lies the Achilles Heel of the formidable corporate armor. That is why bypassing the artificial person and going after the real people within is the only effective way to hold corporations responsible. We must, to use a legal term "pierce the corporate veil" to get at the human underbelly of these leviathans.

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My name is Timothy Cavanaugh and I am an independent writer specializing in political, environmental and social justice issues. I regularly submit op-eds to various newspapers and blogs and I enjoy debating my positions with others when I get the (more...)

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