Corporations Are People Too: A Case for Object-Oriented Ecology
Viewing corporations as people might be the most mainstream (and subtlest) version of an object-oriented politics. Unfortunately it also has the downside of being one of the most perniciously violent legal decisions ever made. By making corporations the equivalent of a person the distributed, nonhuman aggregate that is the corporate entity is able to wreak havoc on all three branches of the US government at once (not to mention the extensive damage it does to social and ecological justice movements). Further, by coupling the idea of corporate personhood with the second-worst decision in political-economic history — that of considering money as a kind of “speech” — the US has effectively jettisoned the possibility of reform through traditional means.
To be sure, an object-oriented view does not necessitate that one thinks of all entities as “persons” but it does imply that nonhuman aggregates are viewed as unified agencies, which is precisely what corporate personhood does for the corporation (legally, but, more subtly, also ontologically). In this sense, an object-oriented ecology may be an appropriate remedy insofar as it extends the notion of “personhood” (i.e., the unified agency of an object) to not just humans and corporations but to the myriad significant others in the Earth community. If corporations are legally “people” then it stands to reason that an ecosystem — which is just as much a distributed assemblage of energy flows and individuals as a corporation — should also be granted something like legal personhood.
It is in this sense that I appreciate the object-oriented approach to ecology over older ecophilosophies such as a deep ecology. As Bruno Latour so ably argued in Politics of Nature the bulkyness of terms like “Nature” make them too large, ambiguous, and general to ever be brought into the social realm of human and nonhuman political decision making. Deep ecology, whilst admirably seeking to overcoming the nature-culture dualism of modernity, still fails to engage individual entities in their own right. Instead, deep ecology attempts to collapse the nature-culture divide into the former term “Nature;” giving the (perhaps) psychologically satisfying story that we are all one with the evolutionary trajectory of the cosmic river. Whilst this may provide a temporary reprieve from the alienation many experience in modern societies — and in particular its urban centers — it provides no adequate roadmap for describing the particular needs and characteristics of individual entities (a requirement for bringing the ecological into the social).
[Side Note: it should also come as no surprise that deep ecologists have, historically, been embattled in debate with social ecologists who tend to emphasize the "culture" half of the nature-culture divide (cf. Carolyn Merchant's Radical Ecology). The nature-culture debate -- however construed -- is part of the venus fly-trap called modernity. Any attempt to wrest this debate by appeal to the dominance of either term is doomed to fail, a point that I would argue is central to an object-oriented ecology].
An object-oriented ecology would thus seek to continue the work started by Latour in Politics of Nature; replete with all the site-specific research programs of the type one finds in the traditional ANT literature. However, it seems to me that an object-oriented ecology would also imply a full-blown object-oriented science studies; at once overcoming early ANT’s resistance to committing to a realist ontology (over and beyond its constructivist posturing) whilst also committing attention beyond traditional objects of science studies research (e.g., technological artifacts, lab research, networks of influence) to objects that are traditionally within the realm of ecology (e.g., earth, starfish, and ecosystems).
If corporate personhood has opened the door to considering nonhumans as “persons” than I suggest that, rather than simply rallying against this pernicious state of affairs (which I heartily propose that we do), we also fight corporate personhood on a second front: by extending the label of persons (or at least the legal right to agency) to other entities such as rivers, forests, and mountain ranges; and other species such as elk, starfish, and whales. Perhaps the corporation cannot be put on a different path by any currently available democratic process, but it can be made a part of a larger crowd of nonhuman voices with which it must contend, effectively extending the notion of “society” to include the worlds of humans and nonhumans. If corporations get to be people I think everything else should get to be one too.
- Corporations are People Too: Why We Need Object-Oriented Ecology (knowledge-ecology.com)
- An Argument for the Ecology of Knowledge: Aesthetics and Causality (knowledge-ecology.com)
- Object-Oriented Linguistics (knowledge-ecology.com)
- Strange Materialism and Cosmopolitics (knowledge-ecology.com)