United States, Inc.: <em>Citizens United</em> and the Shareholder Citizen


  • Lynn Mie Itagaki




In a controversial decision that has continued to make national headlines in subsequent election cycles, the US Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down restrictions on contributions from the general treasury funds of corporations to political action committees (PACs) and other significant campaign finance reforms. This article examines the language of the majority opinion, concurrences, and dissents in the Citizens United decision in order to dissect the competing models of democratic participation, equality, and fairness. Through the co-optation of the language of Civil Rights and even radical feminism in terms of equality and recognition, the conservative justices in the majority dwell on the abstract rights of the person, even going as far as to suggest that there is no difference between corporate and human speech or between corporate and human speakers. Under the continuing ravages of global neoliberalism—what critics in the United States identify as the “Great Risk Shift,” the “consumerization of the republic,” and the financialization of the economy since the 1970s—this study posits the shareholder citizen, a new conception of citizenship that more accurately identifies the state’s obligations to and expectations of its subjects. The shareholder citizen incorporates significant yet unacknowledged changes in the way we currently think about our democratic society. The shareholder citizen realigns priorities with the interests of the corporate elites and investor classes, naturalizes corporate democracy as the model for political participation, and ultimately condones the vast restrictions on the agency of individual citizen shareholders, leaving them largely powerless in the political process. The conflation of the people with the market finds its utmost expression in the Citizens United ruling. This article examines how the popular conception of the shareholder reconstitutes citizenship, pushing aside political equality as a goal and privileging shareholder citizens instead.