On September 2, 2009, the transnational pharmaceutical giant Pfizer pled guilty to multiple criminal felonies. It had been marketing drugs in a way that may well have led to the deaths of people and that definitely led physicians to prescribe and patients to use pharmaceuticals in ways they were not intended.
Because Pfizer is a corporation-a legal abstraction, really – it couldn’t go to jail like fraudster Bernie Madoff or killer John Dillinger; instead it paid a $1.2 billion dollar “criminal” fine to the U.S. government-the biggest in history-as well as an additional $1 billion dollars in civil penalties. The total settlement was more than $2.3 billion dollars -another record. None of its executives, decision-makers, stockholders/owners, or employees saw even five minutes of the inside of a police station or jail cell.
Most Americans don’t even know about this huge and massive crime. Nor do they know that the “criminal” never spent a day in jail.
But they do know that in the autumn of 2004, Martha Stewart was convicted of lying to investigators about her sale of stock in another pharmaceutical company. Her crime cost nobody their life, but she famously was escorted off to a women’s prison. Had she been a corporation instead of a human being, odds are there never would have even been an investigation.
Yet over the past century-and particularly the past forty years-corporations have repeatedly asserted that they are, in fact, “persons” and therefore eligible for the human rights protections of the Bill of Rights. In 2009 the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United argued before the Supreme Court that they had the First Amendment right to “free speech” and to influence elections through the production and the distribution of a slasher “documentary” designed to destroy Hillary Clinton’s ability to win the Democratic nomination. (Some political observers assert that they did this in part because they believed that a Black man whose first name sounded like “Osama” and whose middle name was Hussein could never, ever, possibly win against a Republican, no matter how poor a candidate they put up.)