In this article, I provide a cultural history of some of the critical predicates of corporate personhood. I track the Hobbesian lineage of the corporate form, but also the ways the corporation, ascribed with numinous agency and personhood, has filled the cultural space vacated by our transcendence of anthropomorphic notions of god and Nature.
The corporation was created through the consent of the sovereign, and its charter was formulated to reflect not only its uses, but its potential threat, particularly with regard to its concentration of power. Established under the aegis of individual states, the U.S. corporation was initially restricted to specific functions for limited periods. But corporations in many contexts not only have supplanted the Hobbesian state that created them, but displaced the individual person.
Corporations have become super-persons and forms of sovereigns themselves, in part by acquiring human rights and “personalities” and tethering them to the corporation’s inhuman attributes. However, corporations don’t just mimic human behaviors; at best simulacra, or imitations of human life, corporations challenge and destabilize the status of personhood, and what it means to be a person.
In the process, corporations have amassed not just wealth, but personhood (for example, in perhaps surprising ways, the personhood of African Americans). In many ways, the ever-increasing wealth gap in the United States is actually a personhood gap. The overarching effect of corporate personhood, which operates in tandem with privatization, is to dehumanize people, turning them into things that have no rights. Created to encourage entrepreneurial (or reckless and socially irresponsible) risk-taking and minimize personal liability, the corporation evolved into an entity that dynamically diminishes the personal.
The corporation represents a collective, transcendental body that has taken on the role of a deity, and, in U.S. ontology, of nature. The relationships between human and corporate personhood and identity implicate fantasies of the supernal; the superhuman; immortality; and the transcendence of individuality. For these reasons, I treat the corporation not primarily as a commercial enterprise, but as a cultural phantasm, a kind of black hole that draws in more and more cultural phenomena into its orbit. The modern corporation has come to guarantee certain rights at a price, in much the way the Hobbesian state once did. People barter their attributes to corporations; but they are no longer trading liberty for security, but “souls” for identity. As the corporation comes to serve as the de facto guarantor and distributor of culture, it remains amoral at best, and in practice serves as a dominant pathological personality that helps reduce all human endeavor to commercial interest.