Human Rights for Corporations: The Death of Democracy?

by | 15 Mar 2011

Miraculous you call it babe
You ain’t seen nothing yet
They’ve got Pepsi in the Andes
McDonalds in Tibet

(Roger Waters, Amused to Death)

In the case of Citizens United v Federal Election Commission 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010) the United States Supreme Court, its highest jurisprudential authority, recognised corporations as persons with human rights, over-ruling previous precedent that placed restrictions on the amount of money that corporations could donate to political parties. The dissenting view held that allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace would corrupt democracy. I am not an expert on American constitutional law, but it is easy enough to understand the argument: corporations have the right to freedom of speech thus that there can be no limits placed on monetary donations to political campaigns, as this is the way in which corporations express their opinions.

The court reasoned simply that under the constitutional First Amendment, (a) corporations are people and (b) money is free speech. The result is that US corporations may now invest unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns, while individual citizens may only donate a maximum of $2 400 for any particular election.

In the majority judgment, Justice Kennedy opined that political speech – namely donations of money by corporations – may not be suppressed on the basis of the speaker’s “corporate identity”. This is not protection against unfair discrimination based on gender, or race, sexual orientation or disability. It is the protection of discrimination against corporations. Big business has human rights too, including the right to determine the socio-political and economic future of over three hundred million people.

Subsequently, President Barack Obama openly opposed the judgment, stating that it was a “major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans” (New York Times 22/01/2011) There is no doubt, as the President of the US rightly recognises, that this legal intervention threatens the very future of democracy and the nature of human rights. If multinational, billion-dollar conglomerations are able to decide the political fate of an entire nation, then we can indeed say without musch hesitation that this marks the demise of democracy and the beginning of the end of human rights as argued by Costas Douzinas in the context of globalisation and ‘cosmopolitanism’ (The End of Human Rights, 2000 and Human Rights and Empire: The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, 2007). As Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1973) edition, the individuals who need to claim political rights are precisely those who are excluded from claiming them.

Jacques Rancière addresses the paradox of democracy as there can never be absolute equality in any system, but this should not discourage the excluded from contestation and claiming their rights. As Dunn has stated, “[t]oday, in politics, democracy is the name for what we cannot have – yet cannot cease to want”. (Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, p.27). The problem from Ranciere’s perspective, is not that there is not enough democracy, but rather that democracy has itself been constructed as a burden and a necessary evil to be limited, guarded against and treated with suspicion. It has been left in the hands of the few and not the many.

This limited and limiting type of democracy is found across the globe, and it is this weak and repressed version of democracy that Ranciere challenges. He turns to the U.S. ‘intervention in Iraq (The Hatred of Democracy p. 6) and ongoing European interventions in the Middle East (The Hatred of Democracy p. 9) as examples of limited democracy. Both of these instances emphasise the problem of democracy, which is conflated with technocracy and oligarchy, authority and obedience (The Hatred of Democracy p. 16). Therefore, although Ranciere focuses his attention on pedagogy and schools in France, his arguments about the exclusionary practices of democracy and inequality are relevant today in respect of the political uprisings that have spread from Iran, to Northern Africa and the Middle East.

For Ranciere the problem of democracy is that it both includes and excludes as there are those who do not have access to rights. It is these excluded persons who must stand up and claim their rights, as Badiou strongly argues. Democratic politics, for Rancière, is the taking part of those who have no part. Therefore democracy cannot be a ‘regime’ as it constitutes a practice of politics. Rancière argues for democratic politics to be defined as an “excess”, resulting in a celebration of its potential as a specific form of politics aimed at promoting equality and levelling socio-political hierarchies. The world must have been listening, as we have literally observed these excesses in North Africa and the Middle East. These are not demands for new authority or another hierarchical state, but a call for equality and what Ranciere names a “limitless” democracy, in the sense that it is the limitless potential of equality (p. 45).

However, what we have mostly seen is a limited form of sccio-political and economic democracy that places the distribution of human rights and food in the hands of the elite to dole out as they deem fit. There has been a visible struggle against this weak form of democracy in Egypt and other parts of the region. But back home in the US, democracy’s excesses are feared to such an extent that there is now an overt erosion of democratic rights such as in the Citizens United case. This can be termed the “sociology of narcissistic consumerism” (Rancier above p. 22) that rules out, in advance, analysis of different forms of equality and inequality.

The Supreme Court, by granting big business such immense and unlimited power, has limited democracy to an extent that we cannot use the word anymore without doubting ourselves. This move may result in the depoliticisation of politics as democracy is not a form of society, but something more open and uncertain, and in many senses, (im)possible:.

The mission of Perfectionism generally, in a world of false (and false calls for) democracy, is the discovery of the possibility of democracy, which to exist has recurrently to be (re)discovered. (Cavell Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome,1990, p 17)

Thus, by placing political power firmly in the hands of corporations, not only is equality eroded, but ‘politics’ becomes quite predictable and manageable. In the same vein as Foucault, Ranciere rejects the logic of authority, surveillance and obedience, and calls for a radical politics of democracy that means, in essence, the struggle for and attainment of equality. On the other hand, money as freedom of speech can only mean more oppression and the death of democracy and human rights.

The US Supreme Court has rejected a Rancierean politics of democracy, a politics that should start with the yearning to achieve equality and end poverty and the suffering and injustice it perpetuates. Perhaps the Justices justify this rejection of active politics to themselves by insisting that what is most needed is economic Progress, and this originates from the fruitful loins of big business. As Ranciere points out:

Democratic life becomes the apolitical life of the indifference consumer of commodities, minority rights, the culture industry and children produced in laboratories. It comes to be identified purely and simply with ‘modern society’, which in the same blow is transformed into a homogeneous anthropological configuration (p. 29).

There is then no more “land of the free”. The US has finally capitulated to the excesses of “capitalism and consumerism”. There is no longer even an attempt at hiding their hatred for democracy, which has the potential to trap Americans in a world of injustice, without political voices. People in North Africa and the Middle East have risen and are rising up against inequality and corruption, and have staged a struggle for their human rights in scenes of dissensus such as in Tahrir Square in Cairo and Manama’s Pearl Roundabout. In this sense, these are democratic revolutions, In some sense devoid of perceived to be meaning as the media reports that the protestors do not ‘agree’ on what they want:

Democracy is the community of sharing, in both senses of the term: a ‘membership in a single world which can only be expressed in adversarial terms, and a coming together which can only occur in conflict.’ (On the Shores of Politics, p. 49)

This is a state of transition and should not be hailed as a victory, or the end of politics, as new communities of sharing are constantly created and destroyed as the struggle towards an unobtainable equality continues. There is then a transitional space of shared meaning that is not a space of consensus. On the other side of the world the struggle is only now beginning as corporations determine how much more money should be spent, and who should hold political power. This is not the egalitarian vision that influences Rancier’s writing. If protestors in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Oman are demanding the same kind of democracy as in the US, the world is turning Disney for they know not what they do.


  1. This is, sadly, but a continuation of a much longer trajectory in the history of rights – including human rights – signalling, in a sense, a deepening of a clearly identifiable and relatively hegemonic closure implicating the intimate co-imbrication of corporations, law, rights and capital. It is profoundly reminiscent of the impulses in play at the original constitution of corporations as persons for the purposes of the 14th Amendment to the US constitution – a move described by Finnis as a ‘ukase’ in his analysis of the Santa Clara case. The status, then, of corporate personhood was declaratively established without, as the dissenting justices argued at the time, any discernible logic or justification being put forward for it. Plus ca change, then. The future, unless we can actually change it with a riot of resistances, is looking increasingly commodified, corporate and inhumane. Yes – ‘if the protestors are demanding the same kind of democracy as in the US, the world is turning Disney’ and darker than Disney.

  2. Great piece,enlightening and well written


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,406 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


Fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4000 subscribers.