Consent of the Consumer: My GoodReads Review of Unequal Protection

Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human RightsUnequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A couple of years ago I asked a friend who works with a progressive evangelical magazine whether they had anything in the hopper about corporate personhood. I had become intrigued by the term and a little wigged out by the concept, and I was looking for something to read (and, frankly, something to write) about it. My friends quickly (and wryly conspiratorially) responded, "No, but that's a good idea. You should write it." I smiled and inwardly leaped with joy over the opening, and then I went home and promptly forgot about it.

Not before adding a book to my wish-list, though. I had heard Thom Hartmann mention his book Unequal Protection on his radio show, and I thought it would be good research for my fantasy article. Because the people around me are not slackers like me, I got the book a couple of months later for my birthday. And then I let it sit around for a couple of years--until now, when I included it on my must-read list for my self-imposed Year of Overdue Books.

One of the reasons it took me so long to start Unequal Protection--and, quite frankly, one of the reasons it took me so long to finish it--is that it's crazy long. Clocking in at twenty-seven chapters and 330 pages (plus acknowledgments, plus notes), the book is almost as big as the multinationals it confronts. The length is only partly justified by the scope of the issue and the depth of research, which is admittedly impressive: I learned a heap ton about the issues surrounding corporate personhood, the world and national history behind it, and the breadth of implications from it. But much of the length is not so much daunting as it is frustrating: Hartmann narrates in great detail the way in which he acquired some of his information; he makes repeated passing reference to right-wing corporate-stooge conspiracies such as scrubbing the Internet of the facts surrounding corporate bad behavior; he gives the first forty-eight pages (about a seventh of the book) to the clerical error that lies at the foundation of the principle of full human rights to corporations. I'm an armchair historian; I dig this stuff, and I got worn out by it. I blame the editor, who should have pushed Hartmann to keep the book under 300 pages and winnowed the storytelling and politicizing much more aggressively. The kind of laissez faire editing on display in Hartmann's book doesn't serve the author or the reader.

Sorry. I had to get that off my chest. Given that rant you might be surprised by how enamored I am by the book, but I am enamored by it. Hartmann knows this issue inside and out, and he knows it (and articulates it) in really critical ways. We see, thanks to Hartmann, the concern for governmental safeguards against (and tension with) corporate power among the American Founding Fathers, who revolted against England at least partly because of the economic tyranny of the East India Trading Company. We read Jefferson and Paine and Adams and Madison in their own words attacking the problem of corporae hubris from their own distinct angles but never legitimizing the free market rampages so prevalent in our world today. We see the logic of corporations pursuing full human rights even as we see the absurdity of human beings giving it to them. We see the very real negative impact of corporations privileging profits over basic human values--again, as is logical for an organization that exists to make money and minimize risk for its investors, but is inherently against the best interests of every human being in its path. We see corporations acting in ways that are illegal and even physically impossible for humans to act--hopping from country to country without the burden of changing citizenship, existing in multiple places at one time, that sort of thing--and all the while we watch them continue to appeal to human rights to continue to do so. We see, by looking first into the past, what may very well be our near future thanks to the unrelenting, systematic global human rights grab of these fundamentally nonhuman entities: the decline of democracy and the return to feudalism.

Feudalism was the economic system that dominated the world prior to the Enlightenment. Political power was a calculus of military might and economic strength: some people owned the land or controlled the seas; the rest of us worked the land and stayed put. Human rights were a minority concern; might made right, and the weak dealt with it. Democracy's long history, as much as anything, is an ever-expanding acknowledgment that justice and human dignity, while not a priority for feudal lords, are natural rights and even essential to the divine order of things. Those that take the privilege of determining the destinies of people "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed," Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and the people retain the right to change things when prudence, justice and human dignity demand it. It was the collusion of British government and the corporations it chartered that whittled away at the dignity and rights of early American society, and it was the assertion of democracy that put government and business in their rightful place. As Hartmann ably demonstrates in his book, the task of business ever since has been to get its power back, which it can only achieve by weakening the duly elected government of the people, thereby disenfranchising them and relocating power in boardrooms and tax havens all over the world.

I sound like a conspiracy theorist, I know. And the book certainly does make one look askance at every poor innocent business one comes across. But it's hard to come out of this book not thinking that Hartmann is right, that we are near the end of a long, sustained erosion of democratic government, and that to not reassert the "rights of man" (Thomas Paine) over against the rights of corporations is to acquiesce to multinational, disembodied overlords.

Here's what I would have liked to see more of in Hartmann's book. I would have liked to see a more robust discussion of feudalism--its historical context and its essential elements. I would have liked to see Hartmann line up "human" values against "corporate" values for a straightforward compare-contrast. I would have liked, most of all, to see some very plain-spoken, incremental and concrete steps for mere human beings like me to take to strengthen democratic governments in their interactions with multinational corporations, to hold those governments more accountable for those ways in which they collude with or acquiesce to the corporations they ought to be protecting us from. Corporate personhood is a daunting concept, made more overwhelming by the 330-page expose Hartmann has written. I'm just wee little me; what can I do to turn this thing around?

It's entirely possible that Hartmann has written a shorter, more focused, more constructive book. If you know of it or something like it, I'd love to hear about it. But even though I wish this book did somethings a little differently, I'm very glad I read it, and I'm glad Hartmann wrote it. Forewarned, they say, is forearmed, and knowledge, they say, is power--and power is what we need, what we have, and what's at stake.

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allan Grady said…
Well, you have a pretty good start on your description of"feudalism". Now, don't be afraid of the next stage of human economic development, "capitalism". I don't know if Hartmann used that word in his book (I haven't read it), but you need to understand capitalism to understand what is going on in the world, David. If you are really serious about changing the world, about righting wrongs in this unfair society, you need to start to read Marx's analyses of class society. It's all in there. The next stage of human development is not some dream world of "fair capitalism" where we get "good" capitalists as opposed to the "bad" ones we currently have. Capitalism, like feudalism before it, is a class society where in the ruling class owns and controls the means of production and will stop at nothing to maintain those class relationships. The next stage, socialism, will only be brought about when the working class takes power.
David Zimmerman said…
Thanks Allan. The Communist Manifesto would certainly qualify for my Year of Overdue Books. I'll get started on it and once again kick the last three Harry Potter books down the road. Have you come across Hartmann before?

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