When Mitt Romney declared that “corporations are people” in late summer 2011, Democrats breathed a sigh of relief. Even then we knew that Romney would never pose a significant political threat to the President, that he was simply incapable of transcending his plutocratic worldview and would inevitably alienate much of the electorate. And we were right, for the most part: Romney lost badly, partially because he failed to disprove the charge that he was simply too rich to understand most people.
I think this charge was basically right, but I want to suggest that Romney’s statement (“corporations are people, my friend”) was not entirely accurate, in the sense that it does not actually reflect his beliefs. I don’t mean that Romney was consciously suppressing his views for political reasons, but rather that he left something out: I would argue that, given the totality of the conservative social ideology, the correct affirmation is not simply that corporations are people, but that only corporations are people. In the conservative worldview, only the wealthy (the “job creators”) actually count as people, entitled to all the dignities that personhood entails.
Maybe this claim seems lofty, but what could justify the demonization of those on public assistance if not their lack of personhood? When the government shut down, millions of women and children lost access to nutritional assistance through the federal WIC program, yet the ire of the “pro-family” Republican Party was directed almost exclusively at the closing of federal monuments. As cancer patients lost access to potentially life-saving NIH clinical trials, RNC chair Reince Priebus held a press conference at the World War II Memorial to accuse the President of seeking to politically punish our veterans. In conservative rhetoric and action, we see a clear philosophy, articulated best by now-Senator Elizabeth Warren: "I’ve got mine, and you’re on your own."
Even more infuriating than conservatives’ general lack of sympathy for the poor is their outright antipathy. Witness the conservative double standard: When the wealthy take advantage of tax loopholes, many of which only exist because of the powerful lobbying influence corporations wield in Congress, they’re simply doing what anyone would do. In fact, conservatives would say that they’re being patriotic and should be commended.
But when people who qualify for food stamps, welfare or free school lunches receive benefits that enable them to provide for their families, they’re emblematic of an “entitlement nation,” which is a "lesser version" of the American dream. They’re the perpetrators of a cultural crisis, which can be rectified only by cutting the programs that literally keep people alive, so people will learn the value of work.
More offensively, though, conservatives consistently charge these people of moral failure. It isn’t simply that the culture is in decline, but that they themselves are bad people. They are moochers, takers, they think they’re victims, they think they’re entitled. They have empty souls. In the conservative worldview, you can’t be poor unless you did something to deserve it, and any government assistance serves only to validate and exacerbate the personal failure that poverty represents. This worldview not only romanticizes the rich, since they must have done something right, but does so over and against the poor, with the result that society is split in two: makers and takers become good and bad respectively. The poor, then, are not people individually, but rather one people, characterized by personal failure and cultural degradation.
Here we see the inevitable elitism of an individualistic, consumerist wealth-driven society: The privileged, who have the resources and power to minimize their dependence on others, are virtuous, while everyone else is morally inferior. Just as feminists have rightly critiqued capitalism’s “unencumbered worker,” we must critique libertarianism’s unencumbered citizen, the myth of a person able to completely transcend interdependence and embrace total self-determination.
I would suggest that this person does not really exist, that we are all, to some extent, dependent upon each other for human survival and fulfillment. But so long as powerful conservative voices equate poverty with moral failure, the poor and struggling will only ever be non-persons or inferior persons in their eyes.
Of course, there is one instance of an ostensibly independent citizen: the corporate citizen. Corporations receive more government assistance than any other entity in our society, but it’s theoretically in service of the only activity that’s truly acceptable to consumerism: economic production. If you take food stamps to feed your family, you’re a taker, but if you take a tax break as a “production incentive”, you’re a job creator. Insofar as all corporate welfare is thought to facilitate production, corporations are christened as “independent” and are therefore ideal citizens. The inevitable result of this view is the apotheosis of wealth and the condemnation of poverty.
Conservatives tend to respond to calls for economic justice by crying class warfare. I would argue that they are the class warriors. Their construction of personhood as conferred by accumulating wealth and not needing any help robs millions of basic human dignity, dehumanizing them as “moochers”, and giving the wealthy morally superior status. This constitutes class warfare, because it can only ever further advantage the already advantaged and further alienate the already alienated, and thus perpetuates the “idolatry of money” that everyone who values justice is called to resist.