Mitt Romney, one of the leading republican candidates for the 2012 presidential elections, said on August 2011 during the Iowa State Fair, that “Corporations are people too”. Referring, of course, to the 1819 Supreme Court ruling in Dartmouth College vs. Woodward that recognized corporations as having the same rights as natural persons to contract and to enforce contracts.
The comment made the headlines because most people don’t believe in the Supreme Court ruling, and state there is a substantial difference between people and corporations when it comes to legal and moral obligations. Others simply think that if corporations are people, than they are not very nice people - quite mean actually. One of those individuals is Joel Bakan. He wrote an award winning documentary - “The Corporation“, in which he shows that if corporations were to be analyzed psychiatrically using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists, they would be clinically diagnosed as psychopaths.
That diagnostic means that corporations have reckless disregard for the safety of others, the incapacity to experience guilt, failure to conform to social norms, incapacity to maintain social relationships, they are self-interested, deceitful and callous. But maybe, just maybe, there is a silver lining in the corporate cloud. The same way that people get help for their psychological problems, corporations can as well. The key word is awareness. We all know that the first step in fixing a problem is admitting that a problem exists. The trick here is to realize when the attempt to change is genuine, since one of the symptoms of psychopaths is that they can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism (Like in the case of Google’s “We feel your pain and we’re sorry” following some downtime in their email services, or Apple’s “It hurts us that it hurts you” following the $200 price drop of the iPhone 2 months only after it was launched).
We can look at the green movement that’s sweeping the world as an example. More and more corporations are doing their part in helping the environment, switching to green energy, moving to green structures and increasing their awareness to recycling and reusable products. Like IBM, that for the past twenty years has been measuring, managing, and voluntarily reporting on its environmental impact. According to the company, during that period of time they conserved 5.4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, cutting CO₂ emissions and saving the company more than $400 million in the process. If corporations really make an honest effort to change, not only as a PR stunt or simply because “they have to”, than the change can be a real and substantial one.
Or maybe Bakan had it right all along. Maybe corporations are just evil money-making-machines caring only about the profits and the Benjamins. Maybe that quest for profit have made their pathologies run too deep, beyond the point of no return, of “professional” help, imbued in their essence.
If that’s the case it’s time we start looking at a different type of corporations as a healthy capitalistic model. One that’s actually made of people, not only employs them. A corporation that does operate in order to make profit (or else they won’t survive), but doing so while remembering who’s it doing it for - the people. Clients, suppliers, colleagues and even competitors are people too. One such organization might be the virtual corporation which acts as a corporation but has a small business state of mind.
That state of mind can be the cure for corporation sickness and exactly what the doctor ordered. A saner corporation, that’s more about helping the client than chasing glory, one that lives in harmony with its environment. A corporation that acts as a person not because it’s legally defined as such, but because people will be the ones running the corporation instead of the other way around.