Since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United, critics on the left, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have been outraged by the claim that a corporation is a person. That claim actually plays far more of a role in Justice Stevens’ dissent than it does in the ruling opinion of the majority. It’s also hardly an innovation of Citizens United; it goes back to the 19th century. By focusing so much attention on it, critics misstate the actual problem of corporate power and political influence.
The real problem is that workers are the instruments of their bosses’ will. If a corporation were just a person, it’d have only one vote. But corporations and firms have more than one vote. Those additional votes can’t be measured by the money those firms spend in a campaign, by the ads and lunches firms buy. Every CEO’s vote is augmented by the workers he controls, by the votes he can deliver like the ward bosses of old. While Citizens United made that problem worse — not because of the unlimited cash it allows into the political sphere but, as some of its earliest critics noted, because of the restrictions it removes on the power of employers to influence and mobilize their workers — it was always and already there.
When we think of corruption, we think of something getting debased, becoming impure, by the introduction of a foreign material. Money worms its way into the body politic, which rots from within. The antidote to corruption, then, is to keep unlike things apart. Take the big money out of politics or limit its role. That’s what our campaign finance reformers tell us.
But the problem isn’t corruption. It’s capitalism. Workers are dependent on employers for their well-being. That makes them vulnerable to their bosses’ demands, about a great many matters, including politics. The ballot and the buck are fused. Not because of campaign donations but because of the unequal relationship between capital and labor. Not just in the corridors of Congress but also in the halls of the workplace. Unless you confront the latter, you’ll never redress the former. Without economic democracy, there’s no political democracy.
Your Boss Wants to Control Your Vote