RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Chomsky writes: "The post-civil war 14th amendment granted the rights of persons to former slaves, though mostly in theory. At the same time, it created a new category of persons with rights: corporations."

Author, historian and political commentator Noam Chomsky. (photo: Ben Rusk/flickr)
Author, historian and political commentator Noam Chomsky. (photo: Ben Rusk/flickr)

How the Magna Carta Became a Minor Carta, Part 2

By Noam Chomsky, Tom Dispatch

25 July 12

Read Part I: Noam Chomsky | The Shredding of Our Fundamental Rights


he post-civil war 14th amendment granted the rights of persons to former slaves, though mostly in theory. At the same time, it created a new category of persons with rights: corporations. In fact, almost all the cases brought to the courts under the 14th amendment had to do with corporate rights, and by a century ago, they had determined that these collectivist legal fictions, established and sustained by state power, had the full rights of persons of flesh and blood; in fact, far greater rights, thanks to their scale, immortality, and protections of limited liability. Their rights by now far transcend those of mere humans. Under the "free trade agreements", the Pacific Rim can, for example, sue El Salvador for seeking to protect the environment; individuals cannot do the same. General Motors can claim national rights in Mexico. There is no need to dwell on what would happen if a Mexican demanded national rights in the United States.

Domestically, recent supreme court rulings greatly enhance the already enormous political power of corporations and the super-rich, striking further blows against the tottering relics of functioning political democracy.

Meanwhile Magna Carta is under more direct assault. Recall the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which barred "imprisonment beyond the seas", and certainly the far more vicious procedure of imprisonment abroad for the purpose of torture – what is now more politely called "rendition", as when Tony Blair rendered Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj, now a leader of the rebellion, to the mercies of Colonel Gaddafi; or when US authorities deported Canadian citizen Maher Arar to his native Syria, for imprisonment and torture, only later conceding that there was never any case against him. And many others, often through Shannon airport, leading to courageous protests in Ireland.

The concept of due process has been extended under the Barack Obama administration's international assassination campaign in a way that renders this core element of the Charter of Liberties (and the Constitution) null and void. The Justice Department explained that the constitutional guarantee of due process, tracing to Magna Carta, is now satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch alone. The constitutional lawyer in the White House agreed. King John might have nodded with satisfaction.

The issue arose after the presidentially ordered assassination-by-drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of inciting jihad in speech, writing, and unspecified actions. A headline in the New York Times captured the general elite reaction when he was murdered in a drone attack, along with the usual collateral damage. It read: "The west celebrates a cleric's death." Some eyebrows were lifted, however, because he was an American citizen, which raised questions about due process – considered irrelevant when non-citizens are murdered at the whim of the chief executive. And irrelevant for citizens, too, under Obama administration due-process legal innovations.

Presumption of innocence has also been given a new and useful interpretation. As the New York Times reported: "Mr Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." So post-assassination determination of innocence maintains the sacred principle of presumption of innocence.

It would be ungracious to recall the Geneva conventions, the foundation of modern humanitarian law: they bar "the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognised as indispensable by civilised peoples".

The most famous recent case of executive assassination was Osama bin Laden, murdered after he was apprehended by 79 Navy seals, defenceless, accompanied only by his wife, his body reportedly dumped at sea without autopsy. Whatever one thinks of him, he was a suspect and nothing more than that. Even the FBI agreed.

Celebration in this case was overwhelming, but there were a few questions raised about the bland rejection of the principle of presumption of innocence, particularly when trial was hardly impossible. These were met with harsh condemnations. The most interesting was by a respected left-liberal political commentator, Matthew Yglesias, who explained that "one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers", so it is "amazingly naïve" to suggest that the US should obey international law or other conditions that we righteously demand of the weak.

Only tactical objections can be raised to aggression, assassination, cyberwar, or other actions that the Holy State undertakes in the service of mankind. If the traditional victims see matters somewhat differently, that merely reveals their moral and intellectual backwardness. And the occasional western critic who fails to comprehend these fundamental truths can be dismissed as "silly", Yglesias explains – incidentally, referring specifically to me, and I cheerfully confess my guilt.

Executive Terrorist Lists

Perhaps the most striking assault on the foundations of traditional liberties is a little-known case brought to the supreme court by the Obama administration, Holder v Humanitarian Law Project. The project was condemned for providing "material assistance" to guerrilla organisation PKK, which has fought for Kurdish rights in Turkey for many years and is listed as a terrorist group by the state executive. The "material assistance" was legal advice. The wording of the ruling would appear to apply quite broadly, for example, to discussions and research inquiry, even advice to the PKK to keep to nonviolent means. Again, there was a marginal fringe of criticism, but even those accepted the legitimacy of the state terrorist list – arbitrary decisions by the executive, with no recourse.

The record of the terrorist list is of some interest. For example, in 1988 the Reagan administration declared Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to be one of the world's "more notorious terrorist groups", so that Reagan could continue his support for the apartheid regime and its murderous depredations in South Africa and in neighbouring countries, as part of his "war on terror". Twenty years later Mandela was finally removed from the terrorist list, and can now travel to the US without a special waiver.

Another interesting case is Saddam Hussein, removed from the terrorist list in 1982 so that the Reagan administration could provide him with support for his invasion of Iran. The support continued well after the war ended. In 1989, President Bush even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the US for advanced training in weapons production – more information that must be kept from the eyes of the "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders."

One of the ugliest examples of the use of the terrorist list has to do with the tortured people of Somalia. Immediately after 11 September, the US closed down the Somali charitable network Al-Barakaat on grounds that it was financing terror. This achievement was hailed one of the great successes of the "war on terror". In contrast, Washington's withdrawal of its charges as without merit a year later aroused little notice.

Al-Barakaat was responsible for about half the $500m in remittances to Somalia, "more than it earns from any other economic sector and 10 times the amount of foreign aid [Somalia] receives" a UN review determined. The charity also ran major businesses in Somalia, all destroyed. The leading academic scholar of Bush's "financial war on terror", Ibrahim Warde, concludes that apart from devastating the economy, this frivolous attack on a very fragile society "may have played a role in the rise ... of Islamic fundamentalists" – another familiar consequence of the "war on terror".

The very idea that the state should have the authority to make such judgments is a serious offense against the Charter of Liberties, as is the fact that it is considered uncontentious. If the charter's fall from grace continues on the path of the past few years, the future of rights and liberties looks dim.

Who Will Have the Last Laugh?

A few final words on the fate of the Charter of the Forest. Its goal was to protect the source of sustenance for the population, the commons, from external power – in the early days, royalty; over the years, enclosures and other forms of privatisation by predatory corporations and the state authorities who co-operate with them, have only accelerated and are properly rewarded. The damage is very broad.

If we listen to voices from the south today we can learn that "the conversion of public goods into private property through the privatisation of our otherwise commonly held natural environment is one way neoliberal institutions remove the fragile threads that hold African nations together. Politics today has been reduced to a lucrative venture where one looks out mainly for returns on investment rather than on what one can contribute to rebuild highly degraded environments, communities, and a nation. This is one of the benefits that structural adjustment programmes inflicted on the continent – the enthronement of corruption." I'm quoting Nigerian poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, in his searing expose of the ravaging of Africa's wealth, To Cook a Continent, the latest phase of the western torture of Africa.

Torture that has always been planned at the highest level, it should be recognised. At the end of the second world war, the US held a position of unprecedented global power. Not surprisingly, careful and sophisticated plans were developed about how to organise the world. Each region was assigned its "function" by state department planners, headed by the distinguished diplomat George Kennan. He determined that the US had no special interest in Africa, so it should be handed over to Europe to "exploit" – his word – for its reconstruction. In the light of history, one might have imagined a different relation between Europe and Africa, but there is no indication that that was ever considered.

More recently, the US has recognised that it, too, must join the game of exploiting Africa, along with new entries like China, which is busily at work compiling one of the worst records in destruction of the environment and oppression of the hapless victims.

It should be unnecessary to dwell on the extreme dangers posed by one central element of the predatory obsessions that are producing calamities all over the world: the reliance on fossil fuels, which courts global disaster, perhaps in the not-too-distant future. Details may be debated, but there is little serious doubt that the problems are serious, if not awesome, and that the longer we delay in addressing them, the more awful will be the legacy left to generations to come. There are some efforts to face reality, but they are far too minimal. The recent Rio+20 Conference opened with meagre aspirations and derisory outcomes.

Meanwhile, power concentrations are charging in the opposite direction, led by the richest and most powerful country in world history. Congressional Republicans are dismantling the limited environmental protections initiated by Richard Nixon, who would be something of a dangerous radical in today's political scene. The major business lobbies openly announce their propaganda campaigns to convince the public that there is no need for undue concern – with some effect, as polls show.

The media co-operates by not even reporting the increasingly dire forecasts of international agencies and even the US Department of Energy. The standard presentation is a debate between alarmists and sceptics: on one side virtually all qualified scientists, on the other a few holdouts. Not part of the debate are a very large number of experts, including the climate change programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology among others, who criticise the scientific consensus because it is too conservative and cautious, arguing that the truth when it comes to climate change is far more dire. Not surprisingly, the public is confused.

In his State of the Union speech in January, Obama hailed the bright prospects of a century of energy self-sufficiency, thanks to new technologies that permit extraction of hydrocarbons from Canadian tar sands, shale and other previously inaccessible sources. Others agree. The Financial Times forecasts a century of energy independence for the US The report does mention the destructive local impact of the new methods. Unasked in these optimistic forecasts is the question, what kind of a world will survive the rapacious onslaught?

In the lead in confronting the crisis throughout the world are indigenous communities, those who have always upheld the Charter of the Forests. The strongest stand has been taken by the one country they govern, Bolivia, the poorest country in South America and for centuries a victim of western destruction of the rich resources of one of the most advanced of the developed societies in the hemisphere, pre-Columbus.

After the ignominious collapse of the Copenhagen global climate change summit in 2009, Bolivia organised a People's Summit with 35,000 participants from 140 countries – not just representatives of governments, but also civil society and activists. It produced a People's Agreement, which called for very sharp reduction in emissions, and a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth. That is a key demand of indigenous communities all over the world. It is ridiculed by sophisticated westerners, but unless we can acquire some of their sensibility, they are likely to have the last laugh – a laugh of grim despair. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+13 # Old Man 2012-07-25 12:05
What a Great article...a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.
+25 # Billo 2012-07-25 12:52
The 14th Amendment DID NOT confer on Corporations personhood. But for the next 2 decades, Corporations pounded the Supreme Court to grant them the same rights as persons, because the 14th amenement used the word "person" instead of "natural person." Since Corporations are considered "artificial persons" they claim to fall under the 14th amendment.

For a detailed explanition of the events leading up to this sorry court opinion, you should read Thom Hartmann's "Unequal Protection."
+2 # DoctorDemocracy 2012-07-25 19:50
Right on, Billo. It is surprising that someone of Chomsky's experience regarding human rights would get this the establishment of "corporate personhood" so incorrectly placed in the 14th amendment.
+11 # giraffee2012 2012-07-25 14:27
And our rights as Americans, especially women, are being eroded by the "elected" officials who are spokesmen for the Koch "person hood" - here are a few examples:

"“The GOP's War on Women:

1) Republicans not only want to reduce women's access to abortion care, they're actually trying to redefine rape. After a major backlash, they promised to stop. But they haven't yet. Shocker.

2) A state legislator in Georgia wants to change the legal term for victims of rape, stalking, and domestic violence to "accuser."

3) In South Dakota, Republicans proposed a bill that could make it legal to murder a doctor who provides abortion care. (Yep, for real.)

4) Republicans want to cut nearly a billion dollars of food and other aid to low-income pregnant women, mothers, babies, Senior Citizens, Disabled, and kids.

5) Republicans have a bill that would let hospitals allow a woman to die rather than perform an abortion necessary to save her life.

6) Maryland Republicans ended all county money for a low-income kids' preschool program. Why? No need, they said. Women should really be home with the kids, not out working.
+10 # giraffee2012 2012-07-25 14:29
7) Republicans want to cut Head Start, by $1 billion. That means over 200,000 kids could lose their spots in preschool.

8) Two-thirds of the elderly poor are women, and Republicans are taking aim at them too. A spending bill would cut funding for employment services, meals, and housing for senior citizens.

9) Congress just voted for a Republican amendment to cut all federal funding from Planned Parenthood health centers.

10) Republicans are pushing to eliminate all funds for the only federal family planning program.”

Re-elect President Obama so we don't have one more R(oberts) A(lito) T(homas) S(calia) on the Supreme Court --

Maybe then we can stop the Koch (would be king of the world) from progressing from US Governments and beyond
+12 # Billo 2012-07-25 15:35
When Corporations become people, people become consumer or labor units. When the government is no longer of the people, you get these kinds of laws. Our present government is serving its clientele very well. The problem is, the people are no longer government's clientele
+4 # pamitty 2012-07-27 20:58
that is the very best reason to vote for Obama, Romney will fill the supreme court with the most extreme and radical right wing judges.
For instance his first choice is Robert Bork, who was nominated previously but turned down by both parties at the time for being too off the wall radical.
Bork is a man with serious issues. Not what I would consider a rational man.
From there on out who knows? Maybe someone like Santorum or Bachmanjn or equally looney tea partier.
+4 # MindDoc 2012-07-25 18:03
Not a pretty report card overall... Though (imho) the list of complaints somewhat meanders. I do appreciate the short history of the 14th Amendment and how it's created a separate class of 'people', corporations - and how they have rights which the flesh & blood type don't (like unlimited 'free speech'). IMHO, the final nail went in the coffin of "We the People" with SCOTUS affirming that dollars = free-speech-ent itled 'people', are each able to assert speech (aka campaign propaganda, mudslinging, and disinformation) without limits. That's a billion (1st class) 'people' !

They - corporate 'people' dollars, can't vote yet, but no matter, they can simply buy candidates and elections - and install *their* representatives . So much for the democracy envisioned by the Founding Fathers, governance by and forThe (flesh & blood') People. Even a child understands what "people" means.

Graffee2012 does a nice job of listing what is at stake, if the minority voice (of human being-type people) is buried under the mountains of corporate plutocracy. The rights of these corporate people, meanwhile, continue to mushroom , dwarfing any actual voices heard from, or on behalf of We the People.

We need to speak with every bit of human person voice we can muster, and take back OUR country.
+7 # duitdon 2012-07-25 19:15
+2 # pamitty 2012-07-27 21:03
There are many petitions trying to get off the ground if only people will search them out and sign them.
The REbuild the American Dream people have a major campaign going.
Look them up on Facebook, there you will find true patriots, who are fighting for our rights, not the the corporate right.
+3 # Skeeziks 2012-07-26 08:27
Just as an observation to be instituted as law:
Should an employee or passer by or any human person die or be injured as a result of the corporation's negligence, aforethought, mental omission, mental comission; that corporation and all its employees should suffer the results of any jury's decision as if that corporation was a single human being.

Fair's fair, right?
+1 # bingers 2012-07-28 07:18
Quoting Skeeziks:
Just as an observation to be instituted as law:
Should an employee or passer by or any human person die or be injured as a result of the corporation's negligence, aforethought, mental omission, mental comission; that corporation and all its employees should suffer the results of any jury's decision as if that corporation was a single human being.

Fair's fair, right?

No, only the corporate officers and board should be tried all their assets should be frozen before trial like they do with drug offenders, and, as with drug offenders all their assets should be seized and the minimum sentence should be imprisonment for not less than 15 years nor longer than natural life.
0 # C.Gill 2012-08-04 01:34
How it works now is corporations take out life insurance policies on their employees and collect all the insurance money upon their death. The employee and employees family members often never know about such an insurance policy.
0 # Skeeziks 2012-07-26 09:01
Whoops!! Looks like we are headed towards a single "Hey look! No God around, but us" mindedness.

"...Only tactical objections can be raised to aggression, assassination, cyberwar, or other actions that the Holy State undertakes in the service of mankind. If the traditional victims see matters somewhat differently, that merely reveals their moral and intellectual backwardness. And the occasional western critic who fails to comprehend these fundamental truths can be dismissed as "silly", Yglesias explains – incidentally, referring specifically to me, and I cheerfully confess my guilt..."
+1 # bingers 2012-07-28 07:15
To illustrate the stupidity of the wingnuts on the Supreme Court, if money = free speech, then allowing anyone to give more than the poorest of us can is taking away the free speech of the poor. I'd say that given the realities of this, the maximum allowable per campaign for any politician or PAC should be 50 cents.
0 # C.Gill 2012-08-04 01:45
I think that a tax credit of say $75 per eligable voter should be offered to be used in support of a politician's campaign, or political party and no other contributions should be allowed. In 2010 there were 90m voters X $75 = $6.75bn.

The 2008 campaign was the costliest in history, with a record-shatteri ng $5.3 billion in spending by candidates, political parties and interest groups on the congressional and presidential races.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.