It's Alive! If Wal-Mart Is a Person, as the Supreme Court Contends, It's a Behemoth Terrorizing the Countryside-Yet Curiously Immune, the Company Argues, from Lawsuits

By Ehrenreich, Barbara | The American Prospect, May 2011 | Go to article overview

It's Alive! If Wal-Mart Is a Person, as the Supreme Court Contends, It's a Behemoth Terrorizing the Countryside-Yet Curiously Immune, the Company Argues, from Lawsuits


Ehrenreich, Barbara, The American Prospect


What is Wal-Mart--in a strictly taxonomic sense, that is? Based on size alone, it would be easy to confuse it with a nation: In 2002, its annual revenue was equal to or exceeded that of all but 22 recognized nation-states. Or, if all its employees--1.4 million in the U.S. alone--were to gather in one place, you might think you were looking at a major city. But there is also the possibility that Wal-Mart and other planet-spanning, centibillion-dollar enterprises are not mere aggregations of people at all. They may be independent life-forms--a species of super-organisms.

This, anyway, seems to be the takeaway from the 2010 Citizens United decision, in which the Supreme Court, in a frenzy of anthropomorphism, ruled that corporations are actually persons and therefore entitled to freedom of speech and the right to make unlimited campaign contributions. You may object that the notion of personhood had already been degraded beyond recognition by its extension, in the minds of pro-life thinkers, to individual cells such as zygotes.

But the court must have reasoned that it would be discriminatory to let size enter into the determination of personhood: If a microscopic cell can be a person, then why not a brontosaurus, a tsunami, or a multinational corporation?

But Wal-Mart's defense against a class action charging the company with discrimination against its female employees--Dukes v. Wal-Mart--throws an entirely new light on the biology of large corporations. The company argues that with "7 divisions, 41 regions, 3400 stores and over one million employees" (in the U.S., as of 2004, when the suit was first launched), it is "impossible" for any small group of plaintiffs to adequately represent a "class" in the legal sense. What with all those divisions, regions, and stores, the experiences of individual employees are just too variable to allow for a meaningful "class" to arise. Wal-Mart, in other words, is too big, too multifaceted and diverse, to be sued.

So if Wal-Mart is indeed a person, it is a person without a central nervous system, or at least without central control of its various body parts. There exist such persons, I admit--whose brains have lost command over their voluntary muscles--but they are in a tiny minority. Surely, when the Supreme Court declared that corporations were persons, it did not mean to say "persons with advanced neuromuscular degenerative diseases."

For those who have never visited more than one Wal-Mart store, let me point out that the company is not a congeries of boutiques run by egotistical retailing divas.

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