London 2012: Let’s Win Gold in Corporate Civil Disobedience

If corporations can care enough to plant a few trees, they can care enough to defend free speech.

It’s tempting to think of corporations as living, breathing entities and consequently to project human qualities onto them.  We are so accustomed to hearing and talking about a corporation’s “culture” and its “responsibilities” that we forget they aren’t actually human beings.

In essence a corporation is simply a registered number at Companies House or elsewhere, which is wholly reliant on actual humans (or other corporations which are themselves wholly reliant on humans) to act on its behalf in order to pursue its fundamental, existential objective: profit generation.  I don’t say that negatively; just dispassionately and honestly.

However, to the extent a non-human entity is philosophically or logically capable of having responsibilities and performing tasks, a corporation fits the bill pretty neatly. It is subject to laws, it is accountable for breaking those laws, it can enter into contracts, it can legally own property and other assets, and it can even employ real human beings to do real work in return for real money.  That’s pretty impressive stuff, for a number.

If you’re an employee of a corporation, like I am, it’s worth putting your life into some kind of perspective by reminding yourself occasionally that you don’t work for a boss.  You work for a registered company number.  Or if the crudeness of that makes you feel uncomfortable, how about: you work for a robot that might be operated by other robots but don’t worry because the whole thing is ultimately operated by at least one human (whom you will probably never meet and who doesn’t know your name or maybe even your face).

Even though corporations exist solely to make money they often involve themselves in activities which don’t really seem to support this objective.  These activities can be summarised in three words, “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR).

In the past few years, for example, my employer’s CSR programme has enabled me to clear overgrowth for new allotments, to plant trees, to provide pro bono legal advice to charities, and even to get young kids interested in becoming lawyers.  With possibly the exception of the last one, these activities are all undoubtedly useful in social terms.  Are they useful in corporate accounting terms?  Hmm, maybe not.  You can almost hear the beancounters scratching their heads before reluctantly approving them.

Of course, a cynic/realist might argue that a corporation doesn’t implement a CSR programme on the basis it “cares” (humans can care; numbers can’t) and that the function of such a programme is ultimately to generate ever-increasing profit – maybe by creating the illusion of caring and therefore appealing to the emotions of human customers, or by creating a pleasant working environment which is conducive to high employee productivity and low employee turnover, or just by differentiating itself in branding terms from its more uncouth, “uncaring” competitors.

For my purposes, though, the motivation behind a corporation’s CSR programme is irrelevant.  I simply make the point that corporations – or the “responsible” corporate citizens amongst them, at least – can and do perform socially useful functions in much the same way humans acting in their personal capacity do.

Which other socially useful, human-like functions might we legitimately endow to a corporation?  Well, how about this one: civil disobedience.  History teaches us that protest and civil disobedience are essential democratic rights, even duties.  If they apply to human citizens then surely they apply to corporate citizens?

If a corporation can have enough of a social conscience to plant a few fucking conifers then it can have enough of a social conscience to defend human freedoms.  Like freedom of speech.  I say that civil disobedience is a perfectly legitimate activity of a responsible corporate citizen.

How lovely it would be to see some widespread or even “lone wolf” corporate civil disobedience during the Olympics to highlight the draconian intellectual property laws this country had to pass as a condition of hosting the greatest corporate show on Earth (see Nick Cohen’s article in the Spectator for a good analysis of this).

Shut up and let me finish

1. I am not calling for infringement of legitimate and reasonable intellectual property rights, or a Wild West-style free-for-all.  I accept that the staging of an Olympic Games is dependent on corporate sponsorship and that sponsors have the right to protect their investment.  What I object to is the draconian and disproportionate interpretation of intellectual property rights that the International Olympic Committee insists on and which our politicians have agreed to without so much as a murmur.

2. A corporation’s motivation for civil disobedience is not really the point, just as its motivation for tree-planting or allotment-clearing is not really the point.  Whether it pursues civil disobedience in order genuinely to defend free speech, or simply for commercial reasons, or a bit of both, I’m not really too bothered.  I just want free speech to be defended by as many people – or robots – as possible.

3. I’m not saying we the humans should rely on them the robots to defend core freedoms for us.  That would be stupid.

Corporate civil disobedience wouldn’t just highlight the importance of such a core right as freedom of speech.  It would also highlight the importance of another very British tradition: complete lack of respect for arbitrary, unaccountable and undemocratic power.  And the deliberate, merciless mocking of it until it yields.

I can already hear the Vangelis music.