Inside ‘The Corporation’
Wednesday 07 July @ 14:42:38
Independent film looks into the belly of the beast
by Eric Larson
Corporations are a pure paradox. You can’t see them, you can’t touch them, you can’t taste, smell, feel or converse with them; they have no flesh, no blood, no heart.
And yet, since 1886, under the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution, they are treated the same as you and me and your neighbors down the street.
They enjoy the same rights to free speech, to freedom of the press, to due process as any citizen in this country. Corporations are legally considered “people.” Big, clumsy, messy “people.” And damned if they don’t have an insatiable appetite.
With this in mind, welcome the Canadian-made documentary “The Corporation” to the big screen this weekend.
Based on University of British Columbia law professor Joel Bakan’s book, “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power,” Mark Achbar’s and Jennifer Abbott’s film attempts, through case studies, anecdotes and the true confessions of 40 interview subjects, to explain what exactly the character of corporations are and how they came to hold almost all the power on the planet.
The film includes many prominent activists — filmmaker, writer and raconteur Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Roger & Me,” etc.); linguist and political iconoclast Noam Chomsky (“Manufacturing Consent,” “9-11,” etc.), people’s historian, Howard Zinn (“A People’s History of the United States”), and anti-globalization leader Naomi Klein (“No Logo”). But it also includes voices from inside the belly of the beast — CEO’s, economists, marketers, and analysts, who not only agree with their critics’ rundown of the truth, but do so without apology or shame.
Using as its pivot point the definition of a corporation as a person, the film unfolds from a simple question: What kind of person is it?
The simple answer: A psychopath.
Consulting renowned psychologist Dr. Robert Hare, Bakan and the filmmakers dutifully dissect for us the “personality” of a corporation.
Take, for example, advertising. Better yet, take Wal-Mart — a corporation notorious for stepping on the toes of small, local businesses, going so far as to bring discrimination suits against cities and towns that wish to keep them out, citing their personhood status.
Grandiose self-image: yep. Take any advertising or public-relations campaign that projects the image of corporation-as-savior. McDonald’s will save children. Monsanto will cure world hunger.
Lacking empathy: uh-huh.
Unwilling to accept responsibility for one’s own actions: bulls eye.
Unable to feel remorse for the consequences of those actions: right on. Take, for these diagnoses, page 80 of Bakan’s book, where he quotes law professor Bruce Welling as saying, “[Breaking a law] is not inhibited by the threat of a fine so long as the anticipated profits … outweigh the amount of the fine multiplied by the probability of being apprehended and convicted … The corporation, once convicted and fined, will simply have learned how to cover its tracks better.”
And lastly: Superficial relationships based on public image rather than actual “real” characteristics: check. Corporations, Bakan suggests, are entities obsessed with how the public views them, and they have unlimited resources to spend on ever-improving that image.
One by one, the symptoms of psychopathology align to put corporations in the company of other infamous “individuals.” Think Charles Manson. Think Adolf Hitler. Think David Koresh.
Now, think Ronald McDonald.
“[Corporations] would be the kind of person we wouldn’t even allow on the street,” said local activist Betsy Barnum, founder of the Great River Earth Institute, who has been studying up on the body-corporate for the past few years in order to write a book on the topic. “You would not want this person in your home. It has no conscience. It cannot feel. It has only one thing that it cares about…profit motive.”
This profit motive, argues Bakan in his book, usurps all other real or projected purposes of a corporation. Whereas corporations were once expected to act only in the public good under threat of losing their charter, the 1924 court case Dodge v.. Ford (yes, that Dodge and that Ford) changed all that.
Writes Bakan: “Dodge v. Ford still stands for the legal principle that managers and directors have a legal duty to put shareholders’ interests above all others and no legal authority to serve any other interests … The law forbids any other motivation for [corporations’] actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money.”
Bakan goes so far as to cite Nobel-laureate economist Milton Friedman, who argues that “Executives who choose social and environmental goals over profits - who try to act morally - are, in fact, immoral.”
If all of this seems odd, unfair and overwhelming, if it seems more than just a little Orwellian, you are in good company. According to the results of a Business Week survey, published in September of 2000, 62 percent of Americans surveyed agreed that big businesses currently wield too much power in our democracy and 74 percent responded that the power of different business groups to influence government policy, politicians, and policymakers in Washington was too much.
“I don’t call [this activism] anti-corporate,” said Barnum, “It is pro-democracy. Because it is not a democracy when corporations are governing us. We need to take away their power and return it to the way it was before 1886, before they could claim rights … This movement wants to take away their personhood so there is a chance of people getting democratic control over what they do.”
Although Barnum regards the film as important and cites the World Trade Organization protests in 1999 as well as the Enron and WorldCom scandals as indications of palpable unrest, she said that the “movement” is still in its very early stages.
“I think if you just talk to ordinary people on the street and ask them if they know that a corporation is considered as a person,” she said, “they will react strongly. They feel that there is something wrong with that.” But, she said, “There are no venues in our culture [to organize], no real way to get this information out.”
If anything, this lack of organization is indicative of the ubiquity of corporations in our culture, and further harmed by the many activist battles currently being fought in America. But Barnum doesn’t see any of the battles as mutually exclusive. Inasmuch as corporations touch every aspect of our lives, she explained, the disparate movements all have a stake in rallying around the pro-democracy cry.
“I sometimes think that if every activist who was concerned with social justice spent 10 percent of the time on corporate personhood, we would get somewhere. If you scratch the surface of any issue, it’s there.”
A recent example, from which Barnum believes the movement could draw inspiration, is the widespread outrage against the passing of the Patriot Act in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
More than 300 locales across the nation, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, New York, Chicago and Seattle have now passed local resolutions condemning the Patriot Act, calling for Congress to repeal it, all in defiance of federal law.
“If we had a two-year period in which we could get 320 places that opposed the personhood of corporations,” Barnum said, “that would get people to notice.”
For now, though, she hopes that The Corporation will help get people’s attention.
Whether it ultimately proves to be a good example of documentary filmmaking will be determined soon enough by audiences and critics. And even if it lacks, like the San Francisco Weekly says, a compelling internal story; or if, like the New York Times says, it simplifies its “title character,” its statement that corporations are desperately in need of some serious scrutiny, and Barnum’s suggestion that we rethink the very laws that give corporations such a privileged position in our society - will not have gone unheard.
NOTE: The Minneapolis chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom will be tabling at the film this weekend to educate people about the fight against corporate rule.
WEBSITE: For more information, visit TheCorporation.tv.