Unequal Protection

by Thom Hartmann

5/10 (Deeply unengaging)

This is really a 2.5er, given the deeply unengaging writing style that Hartmann employs, but I rounded up given the importance of the topic. The content is surprisingly boring most of the time, and only infrequently great. Highlights are the discussion of the history of the 1886 Santa Clara decision and its implications, the background of how the Founders felt about corporations and the great lengths they went to in order to restrict their power, the chapter on the 2000 election, and the brief discussion at the end about changing local laws.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book was tedious, including endless documentation of corporate abuse, liberal block quotes of dozens of sources that gave the impression at times that Hartmann was using others’ words more than his own, and a lot of repetition of the ways our democracy is suffering and how we need to remake a government “of the people” and “for the people.” Perhaps a lot of this information seemed facile to me just because I’ve already read a lot on the subject (although I don’t really believe that I’m necessarily better-read than the average anti-corporate crusader). But regardless, here I encountered a lot of tedious cataloguing of facts rather than the concrete action steps I had hoped to find.

For instance, after the ground-breaking revelation that the 1886 Supreme Court decision in no way, shape or form granted corporations personhood and protection under the 14th amendment, it would have been very useful to engage in a deep exploration of how this information might be used to overturn decades of court rulings. Instead, Hartmann cites a couple of lawyer acquaintances over the course of 2-3 pages and then moves on to documenting the history of our statesmen’s attitudes toward corporations. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding or overestimating the importance of this information, but it does seem to be a rather significant point that should drastically color the entire debate over corporate rights, does it not?

Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this? Why isn’t Hartmann discussing why nobody is doing anything about it? In the course of writing this book, why didn’t Hartmann try to contact important people who could explain why nothing was being done about it? Or if he did contact them, why didn’t he write about it? Basically, it seems like Hartmann, after performing an impressive piece of investigative journalism, sort of stops right when he gets to the big reveal. It makes me think one of two things: either he’s not telling us everything about this revelation and it’s not as truly impressive and earth-shattering as he implies just pages before, or. . . I don’t know, he’s incompetent? I mean what’s going on here?

Then again, at the end, the section on “Restoring Personhood to People” consists of only one solid, concrete idea (imploring local government to pass anti-corporate legislation with the hopes of taking a challenge up the judiciary chain). The rest of the nearly-50 pages is just daydreaming and repetition, to put it bluntly. People who are reading this book are ready to act, but Hartmann gives us precious little idea of what to do. I hesitate to bring it up because it’s quite antagonistic in tone, but something like Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, Vol. 2: Resistance is much more satisfying on this level.

Those are the major issues I have with it. A minor complaint concerns Hartmann’s organization, which seems sort of slipshod. Not only did he continue to bring up issues in later sections that he seemed to have already touched on, say, in the part about our Founders, but neither could I detect a coherent order within the chapters themselves, or at least nothing intuitive. I don’t remember encountering this problem with Hartmann when I read The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It’s Too Late, but it was long ago so maybe I just wasn’t aware at the time.

Ultimately, the book is pertinent and contains some very important information. It just seems a little superficial, at least in the places that count (i.e., it’s definitely not superficial in the amount of corporate abuse that it catalogues, or the multiple sources that it quotes). I think it would be best appreciated by people who have not been exposed to a lot of literature on the topic, because then the whole thing would be sort of mind-blowing. For a more jaded reader it’s only about a quarter to a third mind-blowing.

Ironically, my favorite single passage in the book was written by someone else and serves as the epigraph to Ch. 26 (a 1933 dissent by S.C. Justice Brandeis). It summarizes rather poetically not only the book’s theme, but my own feelings on the matter:

The prevalence of the corporation in America has led men of this generation to act, at times, as if the privilege of doing business in corporate form were inherent in the citizen; and has led them to accept the evils attendant upon the free and unrestricted use of the corporate mechanism as if these evils were the inescapable price of civilized life, and, hence, to be borne with resignation.

Throughout the greater part of our history a different view prevailed.

Although the value of this instrumentality in commerce and industry was fully recognized, incorporation for business was commonly denied long after it had been freely granted for religious, educational, and charitable purposes.

It was denied because of fear. Fear of encroachment upon the liberties and opportunities of the individual. Fear of the subjection of labor to capital. Fear of monopoly. Fear that the absorption of capital by corporations, and their perpetual life, might bring evils similar to those which attended [immortality]. There was a sense of some insidious menace inherent in large aggregations of capital, particularly when held by corporations. 309

And that fear has undoubtedly been realized.

Original Review


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