Corporations Ain’t People: An Interview with Adrienne Maree Brown by Dani McClain

This conversation is a compilation of talks and emails between two writer-activists. We welcome other voices in the conversation – we decided to share this because we want answers and dialogue in our communities about this issue. There are more questions than answers here, but they feel like crucial questions.

Dani: You’ve been thinking a lot about corporate personhood and your belief, as you put it, that “the threat is the control of the new world by corporations, who are ‘people’ and have rights.” I want to understand the full implications of what happened a year ago (1/21/10) when the Supreme Court issued it’s Citizens United ruling — a decision that unlimited corporate dollars are allowed to influence political campaigns and that money = speech and so is protected by the First Amendment.

Adrienne: Me too! Though I can’t shake the suspicion that the ruling was just formalizing the way things already are. Dick “Halliburton” Cheney is a great example of what a myth it is that corporations and our government are necessarily two separate bodies. Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if the language was more honest – “corporate democracy,” or “corporate governance.” But, corporate personhood seems incredibly dangerous and unjustifiable.

Dani: I also want to get better acquainted with the 14th amendment. I’m just learning that corporations have always turned to the 14th amendment (which I’ve always thought of broadly as the amendment that gave formerly enslaved people rights as citizens) to make claims that they have rights on which the government can’t trample.

Adrienne (jaw drops): See, this is why I avoid the news. I adamantly feel like it’s useless to engage in the news cycle unless there’s something I can do. I don’t want to live a reactionary life – our movements spend so much time trying to become overnight experts on the latest scandal or tension, whatever corporate media has decided to focus our attention on. But this is the kind of news that makes me feel like things are happening that deeply impact my future, and even though I am a informed, political person, I am out the loop.

In terms of the ruling, when it happened it wasn’t a surprise. Capitalism is all about individuals competing to amass more than they need (profit) at the expense of humankind and the earth, and corporations are the institutions for that shady behavior*. This feels like a major advance on our rights, one of those foundational rulings that will ultimately reframe politics, from food justice to environmental struggles to joblessness. But how can I approach it in a creative, impactful way?

Dani: I’m glad you bring up your desire to be on the offense rather than reactive. You and I have talked a lot about the importance of giving people a vision that ultimately moves them beyond whatever paradigm the status quo (e.g., the greedy, the exclusionary) set up. Do you think the answer to fighting corporate personhood is passing a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United? Or is it some psychospiritual or human development response that’s outside the realm of policy, legal battles and lobbying in a traditional sense? Instead of looking at the Supreme Court ruling as some “evil” thing that we should mobilize against, do you see it as just another challenge pushing us to evolve and see the issues through a new lens?

Adrienne: I absolutely see this as a place to practice both/and strategies, with more energy in the realm of developing viable alternatives. Actions speak louder than words, no matter how constitutional the words are, so the majority of our actions should be visionary – building the world we want to see. But there are a lot of people who feel it is irresponsible to not hold the line against the advances of corporate power, and I hear that. I just don’t think a constitutional amendment matters that much if most of the people in the country don’t understand what’s going on. There’s such an imbalance of corporate vs. community influence in our government at this point, so it feels like we need a cultural campaign that really highlights for people the potential benefits of elevating human/earth rights in their own lives, and ways to challenge this corporatization of government, of society. People forget that they matter, that their voices should be what’s represented in decisions around their lives.

Dani: But is it possible that democracy has run its course? Between this ruling, the influence corporations have long had on our news media, and the fairly recent practice of threatening filibuster in the Senate to force legislation into a dead end, I’m starting to wonder. What next steps do we need to take to make people feel like they have a role in governance?

Adrienne: Provocative…I believe that corporate democracy is going to destroy the human race and planet, and if it won’t die through global financial crisis then we have to evolve past it. But this is the crux of the issue – democracy is supposed to be government by the people. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that we have never actually practiced democracy in the US – we’ve always had a representative version here, where the decisions are truly made by
an “informed”/elite body, not by the people.

Grace Boggs always talks about how this is a society where the masses have primarily been seen as a labor force for the elite bodies of this nation, through both agricultural and industrial eras. The people have not been engaged and educated to truly be interested, active participants in the governance of the nation. Now corporations are a new electoral college – they have unlimited capacity to influence elections. “The people” have every reason to feel less and less engaged.

Dani: I wonder whether that’s the case. It’s easy to think that one reason more people aren’t up in arms over the growing influence of corporate power is that they don’t yet see it as a problem. They’re not educated to be engaged, as you suggest. But a few weeks after the Supreme Court issued its ruling, an ABC-Washington Post poll showed that 80% of those surveyed opposed (and 65% strongly opposed) the Citizens United decision. So people are aware and concerned. What can we do with that awareness? How can we harness and direct it?

Adrienne: Something I learned at Ruckus is that awareness isn’t enough. We have to connect people’s awareness to their behaviors, to their own lives and choices and the struggles they experience. We have to move people past the inertia of their fear or sense of powerlessness by uplifting the viable alternative. There are so many people who are interested in the process of actual government by the people, but their relationship to it is that of a consumer, watching and reading about what is happening without feeling empowered to engage. The root of that potential power is education. Democracy relies upon education appropriate to the cultural make-up of the country, education that yields a population who can participate in governance, education that grows the capacity of people to thrive.

Dani: I know you find a lot of inspiration in science fiction and that you look to that genre to help generate new thinking around solutions. What would Octavia Butler say about the way corporate power is growing? What solutions would she write into a novel in which people who had for generations gained citizenship by virtue of their humanity and place of birth are slowly edged out of citizenship because they lack access to money?

Adrienne: Oh, she foresaw this. In the Parables she knew this was coming and warned us, in her way. Her solution was to rethink our purpose as human beings, and change how we live – even if that means leaving what we perceive as safety. Part of why we held the Octavia Butler Symposium at the Allied Media Conference** last year was to explore how we connect ideas like hers to how we are living and organizing in the world. I feel like she did a powerful job, for instance, of challenging the idea that our future lies in the struggle to act as a nation, when our destiny might actually be something much more global, or universal. In her stories, our way to evolve is to leave behind the right-wing politics and struggles of earth and go to space. And that truly makes me pause – is corporate personhood even something to address through national organizing? Are we thinking too small? Look at how much energy we spend now demanding humane policies and programs in a country that still defaults towards borders, prisons, segregation and poverty.

Dani: It’s interesting that a year after the Supreme Court confirmed an interpretation of citizenship that’s broad enough to include corporations, right-wing forces are attempting to narrow its interpretation to exclude natural born citizens who are the children of undocumented immigrants. This is a real fight that’s heating up now, with the new Republican chair of the judiciary committee launching hearings to figure out how Congress can strip the children of some immigrants of their citizenship. So in that context, you raise a really provocative question: Does fighting to retain certain rights as US citizens open us up to the same criticisms that segments of the LGBT movement have faced because of their focus on gaining access to institutions like the military and marriage? Are we fighting our way into retrograde, static spaces? Are there more meaningful battles we should be waging? Or are these questions naive and offensive in the face of people’s immediate needs?

Adrienne: I tend to believe that struggles for human rights – or living rights which would include people, animals and the planet – are more important and foundational than struggles for national rights, aka citizen privileges. To me there is behavior that we need to root more deeply than national pride, more than something that can be given to you (or taken from you) based on where you are born. Human is what we ARE, our rights are what we grant to each other on the basis of being born, anywhere, period. These national struggles to have equal access to the institutions of the ruling class don’t seem to demand that we evolve our own behavior and beliefs.

But I am also aware that I’m always resistant to getting deeply involved in nearly impossible struggles. Corporations can never truly experience the violations of human rights that they inflict on the world…there’s very little accountability. When shamed, they just rebrand. How do we fight that?

Dani: The widespread public concern regarding the Citizens United ruling — like the groundswell of opposition to the bank bailout — seems like a clear opportunity to join forces with members of the Tea Party and stand against corporate interests. Should that be a priority? And why are the Republicans so good at convincing (mostly white) people without wealth that their interests are aligned with the wealthiest Americans?

Adrienne: Ah the Tea Party…these questions posed together are great, getting to the root flaw in us/them thinking. The Tea Party does seem to consist mostly of folks not so different from those on our side – poor to lower middle class, community oriented, even interested in decentralized organizing models (I heard they call The Starfish and the Spider their bible). This is why we must battle ideas and not people. If we start our organizing from the mindset that irresponsible corporations claiming the rights of individuals is bad for all people, we are allowed to see that those are our people – all people are our people. What separates us is ideas, not race, not class (which both grew from ideas into a tangible experience we must call reality), but ideas. Finding the ideas we can align around opens up the space to really evolve beyond a partisan population, only half of whom are voting anyway, where we’re all getting taken advantage of by the same people.

Dani: You’ve mentioned the connection between the corporate personhood debate and the fight for net neutrality. Could you say more about that?

Adrienne: Yeah that connection occurred to me as I’m learning about the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition. They believe “communication is a fundamental human right”, which got me thinking about where that right is being challenged. The internet is what the town hall or town square used to be – a place to discuss policy and politics and to develop and shape a shared governance and a common culture. It’s multidirectional and open, unlike previous forms of news. The net neutrality debate is ultimately about whether individuals have the right to communicate with each other or not, and whether we have equal access to practice that right. It’s appalling that our government would allow corporations – as corporate persons – to control (or have majority influence over) not only our policies through their unchecked lobbying and political contributions, but also control over who has access to communicate. These plans of fees to access certain sites, monopolies between the largest of those sites/businesses, and profit driving the development of the internet, its just the new colonization.

Fortunately there are warriors in that battle – folks building open source tools, meshed wireless networks that liberate internet access – folks showing us that the internet is another ground of the commons, an unlimited space we can approach with an outlook of abundance that actually isn’t possible when we look at land and the earth’s resources. If we can maintain access long enough, it’s possible that we can carve out a space beyond the reach of corporations. And there are folks fighting corporate personhood, I support their work even as I dig in deeper here in Detroit trying to see what I can build.

Dani: Our conversations remind me to imagine what I’d like our world to look like, rather than focusing solely on which established victories we can’t afford to see chipped away. That’s where my day-to-day focus is — not losing ground. So thanks for drawing me back to the big picture. It helps give meaning and context to the small steps.

I’ve been reading a book called The Warmth of Other Suns, a narrative history of the Great Migration, and in some ways it’s reinforcing this idea that you promote: That people’s experiences are much bigger than what policy dictates, and that true self-determination lies in this awareness.

I’ve often thought of the Civil Rights Act (CRA) and the Voting Rights Act (VRA) as mid-20th century legislation that confirmed and gave teeth to the 14th and 15th amendments. And I’ve thought of the CRA and VRA as providing the necessary path for black Americans to live with dignity and full citizenship. But reading the book has made me realize that even before that landmark legislation passed, black people were determined to find a way to live safely and with as much freedom as possible in their country of origin. And if that meant they needed to leave places where Jim Crow was the law of the land and brave some unknown frontier, they often did so. As early as the period following WWI, they did it. They didn’t wait on civil rights legislation or the movement organizers who made the CRA and VRA possible, they voted with their feet and went north or west.

The connection, for me, is the importance of a do-it-yourself, or DIY, culture. The thread through so much of what I hear you say is that a focus on policy and lobbying — convincing people who control the levers of power to do the right thing — is not enough. And that even when those tactics achieve a desired goal, they don’t fundamentally change people’s sense of what’s possible or their ability to think beyond the established terms of debate.

Adrienne: I feel like this exchange is helping me understand why the work I am doing with food justice, digital justice and birth justice needs to be as creative and communal as possible, strengthening non-corporate networks to be resilient in any possible future. We who don’t have resources or run institutions are continuously pit against each other, played against each other, Cains and Ables forgetting we are brothers and equals and our very existence is divine. This circles me back around to the power of relationship. We have to build relationships to build communities strong enough to evolve past these omnipotent institutions.

* A shout-out to socially responsible corporations, who are, to varying degrees, providing an alternative to the traditional profits-over-people dynamic.

** Full disclosure: both Dani and Adrienne are on the board of Allied Media Projects.

Adrienne Maree Brown is an organizational healer, pleasure activist, facilitator, singer, doula-in-training and artist living in Detroit. She co-facilitates the Detroit Food Justice Task Force.

Dani McClain is a writer living in Oakland. She is on the campaigns team at ColorOfChange.org. The opinions expressed here are her own.