Are Egregores People?
In the recent case of Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court narrowly ruled the First Amendment protection for freedom of speech extends to organizations and corporations who wish to fund political advertisements. By way of disclaimer, I deeply disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision upon this controversial point, and by the conclusion of this essay I’m sure the attentive reader should be able to tease out my reasons for opposing the supposed (emphasis on “supposed”) expansion of First Amendment rights. Still, my main interest here concerns the occult implications of this decision, and especially how our culture views certain egregores, or group-empowered spirits.
First, let’s review how we arrived here. United States law has long regarded corporations as “persons” for purposes of whether someone can bring suit against a corporation. The limited liability corporation constitutes an entity distinct from its investors, complete with its own assets and liabilities. Consequently, individual shareholders cannot be individually held liable for the actions of the corporation. The United States government, along with most contemporary capitalist nations, allows this arrangement of convenience ultimately because it fosters economic growth. After all, investors are more likely to pour money into joint enterprises if their potential losses remain a known quantity.
Now here’s the rub: For the better part of our history, the personhood of the corporation has constituted a legal fiction — a convenient fiction, indeed, and yet fiction nonetheless. Corporations can and often do function as interested parties in tort actions, though otherwise their powers and limitations are quite different from those of living and breathing human beings. Corporations aren’t bound by the biological limitations and emotional ties which govern human choices. And generally speaking, individual human beings possess neither the financial resources nor the sheer wherewithal necessary to maintain nuclear power plants, or to distribute life-saving pharmaceuticals, or to manufacture the complex and deadly weapons of modern warfare. Human beings are people. Corporations play by an entirely different collection of rules. By this line of reasoning, the fact that corporations can be held liable for their actions, without thereby jeopardizing the assets of individual shareholders, constitutes the necessary – if deeply uneasy – compromise between the public good and the capitalist impulse. And yet. . .
By quite another line of reasoning, one widely supported across occult circles, corporations really are people. To understand why this is so, we must consider the nature of spirits and thoughtforms, and especially the class of thoughtforms known as egregores. In its simplest incarnation, an egregore constitutes a spirit supported by collective belief. Every mask which Deity wears, every goddess and god of antiquity and modernity, may be considered an egregore. Hecate Trevia is an egregore. Lilith of Eden is an egregore, as is Jesus of Nazareth. Still, egregores aren’t limited to traditional theological and mythological incarnations. Any idea, any collective entity around which people gather in belief, can adopt the mantle of egregore. Democracy is an egregore, as is Marxism. Santa Claus is an egregore. And tellingly, corporate entities — like Exxon-Mobil and McDonald’s — constitute egregores.
In his modern fantasy classic American Gods, author Neil Gaiman presents a world where the incarnate spirits of antiquity, beings like Woden and Ostara, find themselves besieged by the personified idols of modernity, things like Television and Media. In the surreal realm Gaiman creates, the various gods — both ancient and contemporary — really are people, with hopes and fears and dreams all their own. Still, setting aside those not-insignificant sects who believe in reincarnated savior or teacher figures, our “real world” religions generally adopt comparatively abstract — or at the very least more distant — conceptions of Deity. In any event, our “real world” typically doesn’t manifest things like energy conglomerates and restaurant franchises as flesh and blood human beings.
This restriction, however, doesn’t make the underlying spirits any less real, and it doesn’t make them any less influential. You may freely inquire of any parent steeped in the holiday traditions of the West whether the fact Santa Claus lacks material existence diminishes his influence over the Yuletide season, and find but few who would deny the power behind the idea of Santa Claus. And I can nearly guarantee you those few who ostensibly doubt the power of Santa Claus are much too busy with their Christmas shopping to give your inquiry a genuinely reflective answer!
An egregore who embodies human generosity and childlike wonder might not be such a bad thing, yet there exist other egregores — especially corporate spirits — whose agency is seldom bound by things like human morality and compassion. Absent government regulation, many — if not most — corporations would sacrifice both human health and our shared environment upon the bloodstained altar of Mammon. (For some deliciously dark humor along this vein, I refer the reader to the opening sequence of the 1999 movie Fight Club, wherein Edward Norton’s character explains to his fellow airline passenger how auto manufacturers decide whether to recall vehicles with known safety flaws: “Take the number of vehicles in the field ‘A’, multiply by the probable rate of failure ‘B’, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement ‘C’. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.” And for which auto manufacturer does he work? “A major one.”) To give these dangerous thoughtforms not only some voice, but indeed the capacity to drown out competing points of view upon the airwaves, seems at best reckless beyond all imagination.
I’m sure some readers will disagree with my admittedly negative portrayal of the corporate world. Well and good — We can agree to disagree, and moving forward we can debate such points as we please. Speaking for myself, I identify with Locke’s philosophy enough to regard freedom of speech as an essentially natural right, so barring immediate threats against human life — the proverbial “shouting fire” inside a crowded theatre — I’m loath to restrict free speech upon the basis of possible outcomes. If we hold with natural rights, then however we might choose to characterize the moral capacity of the corporation, we must nevertheless confront the a priori question of whether or not the corporation is “person” enough to merit First Amendment protections. If we should answer in the affirmative, logical consistency demands we extend freedom of speech to corporate egregores. If we should answer in the negative, intellectual honesty demands we give an account why.
Like “real people” made of flesh and blood, corporations exhibit an instinct for self-preservation. Likewise, corporations make choices and exhibit agency, often with greater range than any individual human being could practice. Unless we arbitrarily limit our definition of personhood to animate beings who display literal breath and pulse, then corporate egregores demonstrate relevant signs of personhood. Still, these signs are nothing more or less than other egregores and spirits possess. The mythological figures of antiquity, by inspiring their followers, everyday exert real changes across our shared cultural space. Such otherwise powerful godforms are partially bound from exerting too direct an influence upon the political course of the United States, insofar as the institutional mechanisms cannot rally behind individual candidates for office without thereby jeopardizing the tax-exempt status enjoyed by churches. And there exist other egregores who are much too “unofficial” — and often too far removed from the notion of money — to really flood the airwaves with their unique messages.
I should point out there are numerous lobbyist groups which also function as egregores, for whom money becomes merely the means towards an end. Groups like Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association focus upon public policy, rather than profit margins, and consequently — ironically — their coffers generally can’t compete with the largest among the corporate interests. (Notably, given the substance of the case at hand, the Supreme Court could have restricted the scope of Citizens United decision to non-profit groups only. Inexplicably, the Court opted for the broader interpretation.) These non-profit groups, as well, may now spend as they please to help or harm individual campaigns, as they see fit, because — according to the Court’s decision — these organizations enjoy the same First Amendment protections which other “people” enjoy.
Did you catch that? Corporations are now people. Egregores — or at least those egregores with institutional avatars registered with the Internal Revenue Service — are now people. Now I consider myself an ardent supporter of First Amendment rights. And I’m an occultist who maintains regular discourse with certain denizens of the astral realms, which only makes sense when I acknowledge such spirits as persons. Why am I less than thrilled?
Earlier I observed if corporations are people, then logical consistency demands we extend First Amendment protections to such beings. And it’s true the First Amendment merely guarantees freedom of speech, and not particular platforms or podiums from which we might wish to speak. Herein the problem follows: Exceptionally deep coffers make for exceptionally high podiums. More to the point, they make for exceptionally loud megaphones. I’ve remarked before that the free marketplace of ideas allows truth to bubble up and falsity to sink under its own weight. I stand by this fundamental assertion, yet all around our little planet money buys airtime, and lots of money buys lots of airtime. We may question — and I do — whether a world in which corporate interests can and mostly likely will run wall-to-wall political advertisements constitutes a free marketplace of ideas. Natural rights come with the important caveat the rights of one being end where the rights of another begin. The First Amendment is no different. I genuinely fear by unleashing the loudest megaphones, we are thereby silencing both flesh and blood human beings and the egregores who don’t serve Mammon. A plutocracy which pays mere lip service unto the free marketplace of ideas isn’t really free at all.
Looking back, I’m not entirely sure my article has maintained the political neutrality for which I had hoped. And yet mayhap as an example, my reasoning herein might inspire others to measure their own cultural views by the standard of their chosen paths. Our magical paradigms — reflectively held — must continue to apply when we leave the unseen realms. And sometimes, as with the Citizens United decision, those unseen realms come crashing into our material existence. Are spirits people? Are egregores? If we answer yes, then what rights and duties might such spirits thereby inherit? I’ve expressed my feelings upon the subject; your mileage may vary. I would challenge you, my dear readers, to reflect upon how your magical paradigms shape your cultural perspectives. By introspection we grow as Magicians and as people — whether flesh and blood or otherwise.
©2010 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.