By Paul Cienfuegos
Amazon MegaCorp is all over the news right now, as it just announced that it has abandoned its plan to build its second HQ in New York City. Many progressive elected officials and activist groups from across the country are cheering the news, and claiming that this will be a turning point in the trend of large corporations demanding huge tax breaks to locate in various places. But these progressive voices miss the much bigger story here, because they have forgotten their history. Our nation used to require business corporations to follow very strict requirements and prohibitions if they wanted the privilege of doing business, the privilege of incorporating. Why are we no longer demanding these rules for large corporations like Amazon?
Imagine for a moment if Amazon MegaCorp had to play by the rules that were established for business corporations after the American Revolution, and which lasted for almost a century. What might have been different in how its leadership played one community against another for the massive tax breaks and subsidies they demanded? Actually, that’s the wrong question entirely! Because if Amazon had been around in the 1800’s – okay bear with me here, I know it’s a stretch to imagine this – this is what its directors would not have been allowed to do.
Amazon Corp would not have been allowed to exercise the First Amendment Free Speech rights of a corporate person, so it could not have lobbied public officials for any reason whatsoever. Nor could it have publicly opposed – with its corporate voice or its campaign donations – the Seattle City Council’s attempt in 2018 to pass a “head tax” on huge companies like Amazon that would have helped the City to raise more money to tackle its affordable housing crisis. (Amazon won, Seattle lost.)
Amazon Corp would not have been allowed to exercise its tangible property rights, so it could not have purchased any properties without prior consent from the state in which it was chartered – Delaware.
Amazon Corp would not have been allowed to exercise its intangible property rights, so its Board of Directors and CEO would not have been allowed to make independent decisions regarding: how it would compete against other businesses, how it would organize its workplaces and treat its employees, how it would invest its record-breaking profits, which other businesses it would choose to purchase or to destroy, how it would redefine the publishing industry, how it would quietly collaborate with various branches of the US government to create one of the most comprehensive surveillance systems the world has ever known, etc, etc. These are just a few of the many intangible property rights that corporate persons now exercise.
Amazon Corp would not have had legal standing in the courts, so it could not have sued governments, people, or other corporations.
Amazon Corp would not have had privacy rights, so the state in which it is incorporated (Delaware) would have had the legal authority to examine the corporation’s financial records and other private documents at any time and for any reason.
Amazon Corp would not have had Constitutional protection under the Contracts Clause of the US Constitution, so the State of Delaware could have chosen to unilaterally amend its Articles of Incorporation at any time, to further limit (or expand) what it was allowed to do and to become, or to revoke its very existence through charter revocation.
And Amazon Corp would not have had Constitutional protection under the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, so the various states could have prohibited it from selling books inside their state borders, or could have placed additional restrictions on it doing business within their states.
I could go on!
The myriad of ways that large business corporations today exercise their so-called constitutional “rights” has become an ongoing crisis of democracy for We The People of these United States. We citizens never agreed that corporations should be granted corporate constitutional “rights”, nor did any of the people we elected grant them these rights. The US Supreme Court did that. And then our federal and state governments updated their statutes to incorporate these new judge-made laws as the new background normal. All without The People’s consent. In a nation that Constitutionally requires “consent of the governed” for government to maintain legitimacy. (That language appears in our federal and state constitutions.)
And because We don’t know our own history – of corporations historically being defined as our subordinates, required to serve us and to cause no harm – We no longer connect the dots regarding what We can do, what We have the constitutional authority to do, when corporate leaders act like kings.
So we end up with progressive politicians like New York State Senator Michael Gianaris, who represents Long Island City, where Amazon Corp was planning to build its new headquarters, and who was one of the leading opponents of Amazon’s plan. Senator Gianaris stated:
“The news for Amazon is that they’re not bigger than New York City, at least not yet. They may think that they get to dictate terms to governments, but thankfully, we’re not yet at that point. … This is actually an important moment, not just for New York, but for our nation. This should be a launching point to discuss the logic of these corporate subsidies that are plaguing the entire country.”
Senator Gianaris is clearly a smart man who cares deeply about his city. But he doesn’t know his history, so his goals are a fraction of what they really ought to be. What he could and should have said was,
“This is actually an important moment, not just for New York, but for our nation. This should be a launching point to discuss the logic of corporations being allowed to exercise a myriad of constitutional “rights” that are plaguing the entire country and laying waste to our democratic institutions. We have been allowing huge corporations to dictate terms to our governments for far too long now, and it needs to stop. I will be doing everything in my power to bring our great state into alignment with our too-long-ignored constitutional duties in the immediate future.”
How do we culturally move the needle in this direction as quickly as possible, so that Senator Gianaris (and many other decent politicians) are able to make this leap of consciousness?
Many of us around the country are working hard to build the Community Rights movement, as we understand that in this ecological and social crisis moment in the world, it’s too late to tackle one corporate outrage at a time. That in fact, these problems are structural. That we need to learn from our history and bring back these century-old laws that can once again subordinate the business corporation, so that it is again required to serve The People, to cause no harm, and for its directors and stockholders to once again be held personally and financially liable when the corporation causes significant harm to our communities and the natural world.
There is no time to lose. Let’s rethink this moment and begin to imagine much bigger goals for ourselves than merely demanding that our elected leaders no longer prostrate themselves when corporate CEO’s come calling. I invite you to learn more about the Community Rights movement.
Paul Cienfuegos is the Founding Director of Community Rights US. He has been leading Community Rights workshops across the US since 1996. His speeches have been broadcast nationally on David Barsamian’s show ‘Alternative Radio’. He can be contacted at Paul@CommunityRights.US.
By Community Rights| This article was published on February 15th.|Critiques of Current News Stories through a Community Rights Lens, Critiques of Existing Activism through a Community Rights Lens, Original Writings on Community Rights Topics