A neglected insight of Scholastic political philosophy and traditional conservatism is that institutions can have a personal nature. The Church, a government, a business firm, a university, a club, and similar social formations are like this. They can be said to make decisions, to act and to be morally and legally responsible for the consequences of those actions, and to have rights and duties. They can be praised or blamed, loved or hated, and loyally supported or betrayed. They can be born, grow, flourish, decline, and die. They can exhibit distinctive virtues, vices, and other character traits. They can become corrupted or be reformed. Since they have such personal attributes (or something analogous to them, anyway) the tradition refers to them as moral persons or corporate persons.
The importance of the notion of the corporate person was central to the thought of Roger Scruton. As he notes in an important essay on the topic, a corporate person can survive death, as in the case of a throne that is vacant for an extended period of time, so that the government of which its occupant was the head is dormant until someone finally sits upon it again. He also notes that while corporate persons cannot be said to have anything like sensory experiences, they can be said to have beliefs, intentions, and the like.
Though Scruton does not draw the connection, this seems to make corporate persons analogous to souls, which survive the death of the body and retain their rational powers after death despite losing the exercise of their sensory powers. The flesh and blood human beings who make up the membership and leadership of a corporate person would, accordingly, be analogous to its body.
Scruton also notes that some corporate persons can be utterly malign, such as the Nazi and Communist parties. By my analogy, such corporate persons may be likened to damned and impenitent souls, or perhaps to demons who have gotten possession of the “bodies” comprised of their leaders and members. (That’s a metaphor. I am not saying that the latter are all literally demon-possessed.)
A corporate person could instead be infallible, as Catholics claim the Church is. That doesn’t mean that the individual members cannot err, including the pope when he is not speaking ex cathedra. It means that the “mind of the Church” as a corporate person cannot fall into error, and the reason a pope cannot err when speaking ex cathedra is that in such an act he is giving definitive expression to the mind of the Church.
Then there can be corporate persons that fluctuate between evil and good. The Roman Empire was such a corporate person. As persecutor of the Church, it was evil. The post-Constantinian empire, and then the Holy Roman Empire that revived it, was that same corporate person converted to Christianity and baptized. The periods in which the throne was empty amounted to the corporate person becoming dormant, like a disembodied soul. According to the medieval legend of the Last Roman Emperor, the same corporate person will be revived anew to defend the Church. And the empire of Antichrist might be interpreted as that same corporate person becoming apostate in the last days and returning to its role as persecutor.
Most corporate persons are, of course, nowhere near as colorful as these examples. They would be the governments, firms, clubs, and the like with which we deal in everyday life. And that brings us to what we usually think of today when we hear the word “corporate” – corporations in the business sense. Corporations of this kind are not intrinsically evil, but neither are they intrinsically benign. Like human persons, they can become corrupted. In particular, like human persons, they can become corrupted by the tenor of the society that surrounds them. And they can become corrupted en masse when the society that surrounds them crosses a certain threshold of decadence. The difference is that they wield enormous power, and thus can do much greater evil than an individual corrupt person can – for example, by massively accelerating, through their influence, the general social decadence that has infected them.
Part of the corruption that can occur is the kind you would expect. Business corporations exist in order to make money, and like human persons, they can be tempted to do so in immoral ways. For example, corporate persons, like persons in the ordinary sense, have patriotic duties and duties of solidarity toward the fellow members of the community within which they operate. And they violate these duties when they let considerations of profit override their obligations to their country and its citizens (by needlessly offshoring jobs, working to relax immigration laws so as to secure cheap labor, etc.). Modern American conservatives have become more sensitive to this problem in recent years, though market fundamentalism still blinds too many of them to it.
At the same time, it is a serious error to think that profit is all that drives corporations, any more than it is all that drives human persons. Hence, it is an error to think that greed is the only sort of corruption to which they are prone. This is something else that modern American conservatives are coming to learn, the hard way. Corporations could make enormous amounts of money catering to the distinctive tastes and interests of traditional religious believers and others with conservative attitudes. But they show little interest in doing so. The reason is that they now largely share the same liberal and secular worldview that prevails in academia, entertainment, and the Democratic Party, and are willing to forego profits that would be earned in a way that might promote contrary values. Moreover, they now seem increasingly willing to make political enemies of those with contrary values, and actively to promote the interests of their favored party and its ideology even at the expense of alienating some customers.
In his article, Scruton describes how, in Lenin’s Soviet Union, the Communist Party either obliterated all corporate persons other than itself, or so deeply infiltrated them that they became nothing more than its masks. Nothing was left to stand between the Party and individuals, and the Party treated them as raw material to be molded according to a totalitarian plan rather than as fellow persons whose rights have to be respected and whose concerns and opinions had to be rationally engaged with. The result, Scruton writes, was:
one corporate person standing triumphant amid the ruins of social life: the Party itself. But it [was] a monstrous person, no longer capable of moral conduct; a person which cannot take responsibility for its actions, and which can confess to its faults only as ‘errors’ imposed on it by misguided members, and never as its own actions, for which repentance and atonement are due… Like its shortlived disciple, the Nazi party, it [was] a corporate psychopath, respected by none, and feared by all. (pp. 263-4)
In the United States, at the moment, there is no party with the size, apparatus, military muscle, or violent ruthlessness of Lenin’s Communist Party. What we do have, in the Gnostic cult of Critical Race Theory, is a party line in search of a Party, an ideology as shrill, intolerant, and simple-minded as that of Lenin. And its sweep through the political class, journalism, the federal government, schools and universities, churches, and corporate HR departments gives every appearance of a corporate mind coming to consciousness and attempting to assemble for itself a body. Not by way of violent takeover, but by a kind of voluntary euthanasia of independent corporate persons, as they happily make of themselves the organs of this new entity which will rid the world of “whiteness,” “patriarchy,” “heteronormativity” and other objects of egalitarian hatred, as Lenin sought to rid the world of the bourgeois.
Whether this new “corporate psychopath” will in fact arise, and precisely what form it will take if it does, remain to be seen. But as fallible corporate persons, like human persons, become increasingly infected with madness and evil, the one infallible corporate person that is the Church must get her bearings so that she might more effectively resist them. For though she cannot die, she can become sick, to the extent that the human beings who make up her body are faithless, feckless, cowardly, and muddleheaded. There can be only one proper response to the fanatical imposition of error and immorality to which our institutions are being increasingly given over. It is not dialogue, and it is not fleeing for fear of the wolves, but rather holy intransigence in defense of orthodoxy and sanctity, born of faithful confidence in the Church’s divine Spouse, who will never leave her nor forsake her.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted in slightly different form on the author’s blog and is posted here with his kind permission.)
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