Saturday, June 25, 2011

Corporations and Individual Rights

The recent court ruling to give pharmaceutical companies the same rights to free speech that pertain to individual citizens makes me feel like it might be time for another series of discussions on health. For now, however, I will just make a few comments in response to this case.

Before getting to my first real point, I will start off by saying that, of course, I think pharmaceutical companies have sacrificed the general welfare for personal profit. The privileges that they retain (with support of the federal government), including monopolies and price-fixing, have rendered drugs unaffordable for many people in the world. In underdeveloped nations, in particular, populations are subject to epidemics of diseases like AIDS, while life-saving drugs remain out of reach solely due to prohibitive costs.

I think that it is also true that, in circumstances where people can afford to pay, pharmaceutical companies promote the use of drugs far beyond what is necessary. The rise of antiobiotic resistant bacteria stands as a good example of how detrimental this practice can be.

However, all those considerations aside, does it stand to reason that, as is argued in this particular case against the pharmaceutical companies, they are solely responsible for the promotion and use of unnecessary drugs? Certainly pharmaceutical companies bear a lot of the responsibility. But what about the doctors? I can think of multiple cases from personal experience alone (and I am a generally "healthy" person who stays away from doctors) in which doctors have encouraged me to take an expensive name-brand drug even when much cheaper generics were available. I do not believe any of these doctors were directly persuaded to do so by pharmaceutical advertising (explaining what seems to be the more plausible reasons, however, would require divulging too much unnecessary information about my health).  One doctor even tried to set my mind at ease by telling me there was a good discount and the insurance company would be bearing most of the cost anyway.  I also bet there are also people out there who would choose to get name-brand over generic even without doctor/pharmaceutical encouragement just because part of them still believes that a more expensive name brand must be better.

This whole situation kind of reminds me of the controversy over cigarette ads put out by the tobacco industry.  True, advertising and marketing may exacerbate the ills of late capitalism and certainly promote gratuitous consumption of products.  However, these practices are not the root cause of the problem; they are mere symptoms (to use a popular metaphor).  Attacking corporations for advertising is like treating pneumonia with aspirin.  Overproduction and overconsumption (which drives advertising/marketing) are fundamental characteristics of the development of capitalism and the contradictions which this development tries to overcome.

The other and perhaps more important issue, then, is the granting of individual rights to corporations. This, too, does not concern me. Corporations already enjoy "rights" and privileges far exceding that which is granted to ordinary citizens. To enshrine this state of affairs in the law is to simply be transparent. If anything, this is beneficial, because blindness leads to complacency.

The concept of individual rights is nothing more than rhetoric.  True, it has social implications and it is useful but in and of itself, it has no social referent.   It is empty.  The concept of rights was born in the realm of the hypothetical/philosophical and migrated into the domain of the political, where its primary use is to fabricate the illusion of democracy (an issue I have already discussed at length).  Thus, "rights" is a word used to make arguments, but not a social reality.  Occasionally the "rights" concept is used to challenge structures of domination by those who are oppressed; however, the challenge could easily be made without any such concept of "rights." Furthermore, the very concept of "rights" used to challenge the oppressors may be also used by the oppressors in return to coopt resistance movements, calm hostilities, and divert actions toward activities that maintain the status quo. Therefore, while the concept of "rights" may be used in power strugges, the concept itself is merely incidental to these struggles - the material with which these wars are waged, but not their driving force.

In the end, it does not matter what sorts of symbolic "rights" are granted to corporations.  The fact of the matter is that corporate interests (not necessarily unified) are the state, are the legislator, are the justice system.  Since the framework of "human rights" holds these very institutions responsible for the enforcement of rights (in fact, the only rights that can exist are those that can be protected by state and trans-statal legal apparatus), then "rights" can only exist in so far as they are guaranteed by dominant corporate interests - the very forces that exploit, alienate, and de-humanize a broad swath of humanity.

So that is why I say "who cares?" to the issue of corporations being granted individual rights:  because they are the guarantors of individual rights, and in that sense, already above individual rights, at a systemic level.

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