Perspectives on Corporate Power and Communications Technology

Noam Chomsky

EDucate magazine, Issue 3/volume 2 [Summer 2004]


There were corporations as far back as the 18th century, and beyond. In the United States, corporations were public bodies. Basically, they were associations. A bunch of people could get together and say we want to build a bridge over this river, and could get a state charter which allowed them to do that, precisely that and nothing more. The corporation had no rights of individual persons. The model for the corporation back at the time of the framing of the Constitution was a municipality. Through the 19th century, that began to change.

It's important to remember that the constitutional system was not designed in the first place to defend the rights of people. Rather, the rights of people had to be balanced, as Madison put it, against what he called 'the rights of property'. Well of course, property has no rights: my pen has no rights. Maybe I have a right to it, but the pen has no rights. So, this is just a code phrase for the rights of people with property. The constitutional system was founded on the principle that the rights of people with property have to be privileged; they have rights because they're people, but they also have especial rights because they have property. As Madison put it in the constitutional debates, the goal of government must be "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority". That's the way the system was set up.

In the United States, around the turn of the century, through radical judicial activism, the courts changed crucially the concept of the corporation. They simply redefined them so as to grant not only privileges to property owners, but also to what legal historians call 'collectivist legal entities'. Corporations, in other words, were granted early in this century the rights of persons, in fact, immortal persons, and persons of immense power. And they were freed from the need to restrict themselves to the grants of state charters.

That's a very big change. It's essentially establishing major private tyrannies, which are furthermore unaccountable, because they're protected by First Amendment rights, freedom from search and seizure and so on, so you can't figure out what they're doing.

After the Second World War, it was well understood in the business world that they were going to have to have state coordination, subsidy, and a kind of socialization of costs and risks. The only question was how to do that. The method that was hit upon pretty quickly was the 'Pentagon system' (including the DOE, AEC, NASA). These publicly-subsidized systems have been the core of the dynamic sectors of the American economy ever since - (much the same is true of biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, etc., relying on different public sources).

It's a form of tyranny. But, that's the whole point of corporatization - to try to remove the public from making decisions over their own fate, to limit the public arena, to control opinion, to make sure that the fundamental decisions that determine how the world is going to be run - which includes production, commerce, distribution, thought, social policy, foreign policy, everything - are not in the hands of the public, but rather in the hands of highly concentrated private power. In effect, tyranny unaccountable to the public.

[The media] are just huge corporations that sell audiences to advertisers in other businesses.

Ultimately it's a question of whether democracy is going to be allowed to exist, and to what extent. And it's entirely natural that the business world, along with the state, which they largely dominate, would want to limit democracy. It threatens them. It always has been threatening. That's why we have a huge public relations industry dedicated to, as they put it, controlling the public mind.

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