The thing that surprises me most about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC is the amount of surprise it has generated. Aside from the fact that there’s no way in hell that this Court takes this case in order to give the SCOTUS seal to campaign finance law by upholding the lower court’s decision, to draw a legal distinction between money and speech ignores social realities. Everyone is shocked and appalled that corporations will be allowed to spend as much money as they like affecting the population’s political consciousness as if this weren’t already the reality. The ability to spend directly on elections or candidates is only a clarification of corporate power, not an extension.
The Court’s ruling in Citizens United is an affirmation of corporate personhood; the idea that incorporated businesses have the rights of a person under the Constitution. As obscene as this sounds – and is! – is it any different that the way we think about corporations? We endow them with personal characteristics all the time – Microsoft is mean, as is Starbucks, Apple looks like Justin Long, etc. We develop relationships through products and advertisements; when people become fans of brands on Facebook, we might as well be adding them to our list of friends. Corporations speak all the time, in ads and press conferences, as well as through media owned by some of the largest and most profitable firms. Most speech is corporate, and all of it is political.
When the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about “want creation” in The Affluent Society, he was talking about the political implications of corporate speech. Galbraith’s thesis is that in an “affluent society” like post-industrial America where most people have the necessities of life covered, producers have to create desires for unnecessary products through advertisement. The post-modern citizens thinks him- or herself too clever to fall for the ads that cram our streets and browsers. “Sure they’re there, but it’s not like I look at them,” we say, but we must look at them or else they wouldn’t be profitable. Advertising works and it creates more than sales, it creates consumers. The politics of consumption have never been more than one step away from actual government and in the 21st century, we’ve seen politicians transformed into advertised commodities. The Obama campaign was run as a hip marketing push with flashy fonts and catchy slogans, but it was also a classic example of want creation. Change, progress, hope, these were all things we found ourselves desiring and the best way to feel hopeful was to vote or volunteer. Whether the new candidate – or the new dishwasher for that matter – provides change isn’t the question, it’s about how the commodity makes us feel about ourselves. Media corporations have never had a hard time using airtime to shape public perceptions when it comes to politics, and now they evaluate candidates like beer. “He’s got great timbre in his voice, but he sweats too often.” “You’re right Jim, on the other side Palin tastes great and is less filling.” Compared to the ability to craft a political culture, deciding individual elections is child’s play.
But what’s the alternative, ban advertising entirely? Why, that would be censorship! This from the same people who argue that the Court erred, that corporations are not people and do not have the right to speak. If we have an overriding interest in letting people make up their own minds about elections, how come that interest doesn’t extend to letting people decide how to live, what or if to buy? If corporations aren’t people and their speech is subject to oversight by the republic of behalf of the people, then “Vote Republican” is not first on my list of messages to stop, it might not even come before Axe hair gel ads. The fence between political speech and other forms is artificial. Public discourse is profoundly political and any existing entity with the prominence of large corporations will influence the way we talk and think about things.
Kafka wrote “I do not read advertisement – I would spend all my time wanting things.” Sadly, the choice not to read ads no longer exists for those outside of hermitages. The risk of limitless desire is real, and yet the existence of advertisements confirms that we do read them. We spend all our time wanting certain things, the ones that happen to be sold. Public service announcements about the joys of reading or the dangers of drinking and driving barely make a dent in “Jersey Shore” and Bacardi ads, all on airwaves provided to corporations for free by the government. If prisons exist to make us think that we’re not always in prison as says the philosopher Maurice Blanchot, then campaign finance laws exist to make us think corporations don’t already influence how we see campaigns. If you don’t think advertising has anything to do with your desire or that your desire has anything to do with your politics, then you’re naive at best. Corporate power hasn’t changed since the day before the ruling, it has just become more clear. If the idea of corporations deciding elections bothers you, then you don’t have an issue with corporate speech, you have an issue with the existence of corporations.