Corporations as Cultural Artifacts

Corporations as cultural artifacts that should be studied as carefully as we study other inventions.

Upon observing the network of corporations that dominated the mining systems in southern Africa in the 1960s Alvin Wolfe described what he saw as the evolution of a “supranational system resulting from the interaction of political states and business corporations.

As this evolution proceeded throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and into the twenty-first, business firms became wealthier and more powerful while states, each being itself a kind of corporation defined more by its populations than by its capital, weakened relative to corporations.

In the nineteenth century in United States the increasing power of corporations was gradually recognized by the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), the nine men constitutionally defined as arbiters of governing systems of American culture – deciding what is and is not culturally correct among the states and the federal government. At roughly the midpoint, they even decided that Africans were not persons in a constitutional sense whereas business corporations were defined as legal persons.

[see Leopold’s Ghost] In 1884 an early corporation not controlled by any state was recognized by the U.S.(President Chester A. Arthur as itself a state, the Congo Free State. European governments would follow immediately, giving the International Company of Central Africa the right to claim sovereignty over the entire Congo Basin and control over all the residents there. So, the American perspective at that era seemed to be that corporations had the rights of citizens at home and the rights of states abroad.

Anthropology had not yet been invented in 1884, so we can’t be blamed for not even trying to explain how bad that situation was. The Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case in 1857 held that descendants of Africans could not be citizens of the United States. Once anthropology came of age we came out on the right side arguing that it makes no sense at all to categorize biological persons in terms of race.

Still, on the question of inhuman corporations gaining control over human beings, anthropology seems strangely silent. Today we see nothing in the literature of anthropology arguing against giving the rights of citizenship to culturally created entities called “corporations.” Whatever was the case in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries the need for anthropological perspective on the relationships among human persons, business corporations, other groups, including states is absolutely necessary.

Where does anthropology stand?  On human rights, we have spoken out in the abstract, but about corporations we have said very little. About corporations we say nothing while the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has been quite outspoken, saying most recently “Corporations are people, and they have rights.”

Citizens United

In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the case entitled Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that because corporations are “persons” their freedom of speech is as much protected by the Constitution as if they were naturally born human beings. The 5 to 4 decision had important immediate pragmatic political results – a corporation can spend as much as it wants on a political campaign. From an anthropological perspective, that five to four decision could have a long lasting effect on American culture.

Since 2010, there has been a tremendous increase in corporate political spending, most notably the financing of rightwing political movements, of which Tea Party groups have been most effective in pushing the Republican Party far to the right -- . This has been done primarily by controlling the selection of candidates in local legislative districts, controlling them more by managing the flow of millions of dollars from national level funds such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity and xxxx  broadcasting messages  from every direction – TV (especially Fox News) and Talk, Radio (especially ClearChannel Media), web ads, Facebook, robocalls. []

While I said earlier that the Tea Party groups are “right-wing” movements, it seems that they are so far limited ideologically to a few “principles.” They claim to be for lower taxes and smaller government. What is most notable about their ideology is that whenever they manage to elect state legislatures, the first laws they enact have to do with more, not less government, laws  that control women’s reproductive rights, absolutely opposing abortion and often restricting contraception.  What they definitely share is opposition to President Obama.

Even though President Obama won his second term by a strong popular majority, these so-called “grassroots” local groups financed by huge corporate donors seem not to accept the election results. Whatever he is for, they are against, even if it is something that the Republicans initiated – such as the health insurance reform program that was initially developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation to counter the idea of a national health insurance program like Medicare that serves seniors.

Furthermore, because of the wealth and military strength of the United States of America, there could be tremendous effects on global culture.

The message we get here is that corporations, once recognized as social formations created as tools to do what people needed, are coming to be culturally defined as people who can govern other people.

Corporate Rights and Religious Rites

Having decided that business corporations are human enough to deserve free speech and the right to participate in political elections, the Supreme Court of the United State is now considering whether corporations also have religious beliefs that warrant recognition and respect for their religious behavior – as if they were real human beings.  

Building upon earlier decisions favoring corporate rights, several federal district courts in the United States have come to the conclusion that corporations can have religious beliefs and behavior.  The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that corporations can be protected by the 1993 law in the same manner as individuals. Meanwhile, Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich for the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, has has found that a smaller corporation, Beckwith ElectricCompany, also has religious beliefs and the rights that are granted to individuals by the Constitution of the United States of America and by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

In my view, these judicial decisions are changing our culture, and need to be studied by anthropologists, not ignored as outside of our “jurisdiction.”

--Alvin Wolfe, 2013

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  • Even I, the organizer of this group, am having trouble commenting on this issue of corporations as cultural artifacts.  Here is the url for that bit on my page: 

    I hope we can have some discussion of it, because U.S. district courts have ruled that corporations, being Persons, can have

    religious beliefs, and the Supreme Court is hearing such a case now. This is crucial, and I don't mean crucial in the sense of a Christian cross!

  • Interesting comment on Alvin's post, provided by a colleague (sociologist) here at MSU:

    "John... Wolfe is  certainly right (although I may quibble with his insistence that anthropology was anti-racist at its inception. Indeed, anthropology was created in large part to deal with those ‘others’ who were different from us and needed to be controlled so as to become modern). But what I do find surprising is the lack of one of the aspects of anthropology that is really strong: religion. To my mind, Harvey Cox has done a better job of this than anyone.  He argues that economics is a religion. In many respects he is right.  Durkheim argued that man made god in his own image. (I personally agree.) Corporations are merely the myriad gods of the marketplace. And, here it is likely that Marx had it right. If I may paraphrase: Corporate religion is the opium of the masses. Nearly all of us believe that corporations – which are already immortal – are merely the agents of an impersonal, logically prior market god to which we must all yield for the benefit of humanity. And, like other gods, they are endowed with certain inalienable rights…."

    So the market is polytheistic, but which corporate gods have greatest relative betweennes centrality, and under what circumstances? Or is it all structural equivalence all the time?  What would Francis do?

  • As a quick follow-on to my comment above, as I noted in an earlier post on this subject, a second related study might also address the uberveillant networks through which we serfs are monitored, disciplined, rewarded and punished. Where might such proposals be sent? I’ve thought about this a fair bit, if anyone is interested in discussing a potential collaboration. My biggest issue right now is that I don't have institutional support (or only marginal support at best) to pursue something like this.

    I'm being only slightly off-topic here when I say that the relationship of a non-tenure-stream senior research scientist to the university hierarchy is itself quite serf-like. This is particularly troubling for those seeking to apply anthropology within a university context but nonetheless outside the dictates of (increasingly out-dated, IMO) tenure-stream logic. This is a discussion best left for a different topical page.

  • How might one go about mapping a network of values or 'principles' around which, in this case, corporate entities coalesce? And to what effect? I'm referring specifically here to your paragraph above beginning "While I said earlier that the Tea Party groups...". I'm glossing this significantly, but it seems to me that what you describe above is a social-institutional manifestation of a shared ideal (or set of principles). I'm no expert in this area, but in the case of the Tea Party and its Koch overlords, this might be seen as a perverse notion of social libertarianism combined with laissez faire capitalism that, in my observation, both enables and justifies the existence of the corporate network pointed to in your post. Tea Partiers and Koch-heads alike often cite Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" in this regard. What's missing between the ideation and the manifestation is the middle ground of enabling institutional architecture -- the structure upon which the ideation is draped, the 'operational definition,' if you will. To this end I would once again like to point to Busch's "Standards: Recipes for Reality," and specifically his concluding chapter aptly titled "Another Road to Serfdom," wherein he unpacks the neoliberal agenda -- specifically the 'structural lattice' of privately enacted standards, certifications, and accreditations that effectively shift governance from public to private means, under the illusion of an individual 'freedom of choice' among privately controlled (standardized, certified, and accredited) 'goods and services' (i.e., the consumerization of citizenry). My intent here isn't to present that chapter (though if one were interested, a glimpse of selected pages from it may be found here as much as to suggest that this 'middle ground' would be an important point of inquiry for studies of corporations/corporate networks as cultural artifacts. Perhaps there is a multi-institutional collaboration lurking in there? If so, I would think such a study would at a minimum consist of: (1) an ‘ideational network analysis’ – establishing relationships among principles enabling, justifying and reifying the corporation as a cultural artifact (i.e,. the ‘why’ dimension); (2) a ‘structural analysis’ – (i.e., the who, what, where, when, and perhaps where dimensions… possibly a time-series component to provide diachronicity); (3) the ‘middle-ground’ discussed above… the ‘operational manual,’ if you will, specifically the 'structural lattice' of privately enacted standards, certifications, and accreditations, (i.e., the how dimension);; (4) beyond descriptive analysis of these components, some sense of consequence or ‘to what effect,’ which could be interestingly compared/contrasted with the underlying logic of the corporate ideational referents (as in ‘1’ above). This last point is where, I believe, Busch’s “Another Road to Serfdom” might be most instructive. I wouldn’t want to prejudge outcomes before such a study were conducted, though I suspect it would provide illustration if not full explanation of the individual’s serf-like relationship to the house of the neo-liberal corporate overlords. But where to send it? Let's talk...

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