English poet John Milton was renowned for his fierce rhetorical intervention in the midst of the political and religious upheaval throughout the 17th century that undermined individual liberties, identifying the selfish acts of sovereigns as tyranny. In his polemical tract The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Milton argues that the people must depose of a sovereign when, out of pure self-interest, he transgresses the personal liberties he was supposed to protect.
Milton directs his argument toward Charles I, the monarch whose selfish agenda injured the public welfare (and whose regicide Milton justifies in an extensive outline of transgressions in Eikonoklastes). Milton identifies a tyrant as “he who, regarding neither law nor the common good, reigns for himself and his faction.” Milton argues that all men are born free; but, since the first sin spawned discord, humans have sought a commonwealth to “bind each other from mutual injury” and “defend themselves against any that gave disturbance” to such agreement. The role of the king in this commonwealth is to “ordain authority that might restrain... what was violated against the peace.” However, Milton emphasizes that the king’s power is only “derivative”; the people invest him with power for “the common good of them all,” and he maintains that authority only in so far as he preserves the rights of the people.
Milton’s attack on tyrannical principles is so timeless that one can apply it to a contemporary context. Milton’s indictment on humanity’s tyrannical tendency to pursue self-interest at the cost of the common welfare extends beyond his temporal bounds, rendering his admonitions to regulate tyranny very relevant to today’s issue of corporate greed.
Milton asks in Tenure, “But to any civil power unaccountable” that engages in “violent actions,” “how can we submit as free men?” If Milton sees the potential of tyranny in any civil power, then his principles are valid in today’s economic realm. “Civil,” defined as “of, relating to, or designating a community, state, or body politic as a whole” (“Civil,” OED), encompasses the economic realm because a nation’s money circulation directly affects politics and the community. Also, hearkening back to Plato’s three-tiered model of the soul that relegates the human appetite to the lowest level, Milton conveys uncontrollable appetite as a result of sin in Paradise Lost, acknowledging it as an aspect of the human condition that will never change. Critic Shawcross says Milton “sees that the problem is not ever one of the here and now. It persists through all times, for Man is always victim of himself.”
Finding its beginning in the 1500s, the corporation initially did not have the same rights as individuals. Thom Hartmann notes that the founding fathers intentionally excluded corporations and rights from the Declaration of Independence. Richard Robbins defines a corporation as “an invention of the state” in which the state permits “private financial resources to be used for a public purpose.” Through this corporate charter, groups of investors could accumulate private wealth while being protected from legal liability; the government, in exchange for setting these limits, required that corporations operate for the public benefit. Corporations were thus originated by the people, through state legislatures, to benefit the masses by creating and exchanging value amongst people. The 1886 case of Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, however, drastically altered the function of corporations by granting them the same constitutional rights—the Bill of Rights, the fourteenth amendment, and civil rights laws —that the founding fathers set apart solely for human individuals. These rights include protection from searches, granting privacy of records that were previously public, and freedom of speech, which enables corporations to strike down federal regulations by lobbying.
Corporations thus gradually gained a foothold in state legislatures, “us[ing] their wealth to dominate public thought and discourse” (Robbins). Corporations exemplify Milton’s principles of tyranny; they came to possess the rights of individuals because of that very truth that fuels Milton’s indictment: humans indulge their appetites for power. Just as Milton argues that Charles used his authority “for his own ends,” not for “the good... of the people”, he may similarly argue that corporations do not properly use their power as a means for people to exchange value.
The practical manifestations of corporate tyranny are innumerous (and beyond the scope of this essay in providing exhaustive evidence), but a few that best convey Milton’s principles are exploitation of humans, animals and natural resources, and the uprooting of local businesses.
The proliferation of sweatshops and fast-food chains attest to corporate exploitation. From the average $1 per hour, 12 hours per day, seven days per week sweatshop conditions that an interviewee in Newsweek equated with “‘modern slavery’”, to meatpacking giants’ “raping of the land” and spawning of “a workforce of poor immigrants, high injury rates, and... rural ghettos in the American heartland”, corporations exalt cost-cutting efficiency that trumps ethical treatment of humans and animals. Corporations also uproot small, local businesses to consolidate their power. While corporations like Wal-Mart (who made $245 billion in 2002 while its average sales clerk made a yearly income below the federal poverty line for a family of three) proliferate, they weed out local businesses and rob them of “their ability to generate value for themselves.” Rushkoff reveals that “for every two jobs created by a Wal-Mart store, the local community ended up losing three” (43).
Because tyrannical corporate practices continue to proliferate “out of sight, out of mind,” where average consumers cannot see production methods or listen to corporate boardroom discussions, the public remains largely ignorant of the gravity of corporate greed. For example, fast food has become so commonplace, people accept it as unavoidable and are “unaware of the... ramifications of their purchases”; similarly, 82% of American households make at least one purchase at Wal-Mart. Rushkoff sums up society’s passive acceptance of corporations: “We seek to prop up institutions whose very purpose remains to usurp” our ability “to generate wealth directly with one another”. In Tenure, Milton criticizes the English people who “cannot conceive of their land without a monarch” and suffer under his dominating power; similarly, many people today accept corporations as an inevitable byproduct of free enterprise, resigned to their Constitutionally cemented power. Just as Charles’ elite group of ministers paraded their power under the guise that they were trying to dispel heresies—when they themselves were the greatest heretics —so corporations have harnessed human rights under their control and say that regulations would be an imposing on their “rights.”
The potential to reform systems of corporate greed seems dismal because it is difficult to overcome their entitlement to individual rights in the Constitution. Milton himself appeared to lose the idealistic momentum of his younger years in which he sought to reform on the institutional level; but as he grew older, he put his hope in the power of the individual. Milton hoped his idea that authorities only exist to serve the people’s interest would be a strong repellent of tyranny. His Aereopagitica importantly relates to this concept of liberty, revealing Milton’s distrust of the State and his awareness that good and evil have been closely intertwined since the Fall. There is thus a great need for discernment on behalf of Christians.
According to Milton, Christians have a responsibility to obey their Spirit-guided consciences when authorities transgress their original intent to protect individual freedoms. Would Milton then oppose Christian passivity in the issue of corporate greed?
Consumers have control over products they buy and the companies they support. If the public can educate itself, as Milton so adamantly extols, about which businesses engage in oppressive corporate practices; and if the public will not be slothful about acting on important social issues, which Milton equally advises against; the individual can make her contribution, however minor, toward a healthy and fair exchange of value among consumers. But while Milton does exhort his readers to unearth the root of the issue—the universal principle of human sinfulness— and does offer ways to try to undermine it as individuals, he is sure to inform his readers that “not mortal man, or his imperious will, but justice, is the only true sovereign and supreme majesty upon earth”.