In 1886, a U.S. Supreme Court decision held that corporations were entitled to the same rights and protections enjoyed by flesh-and-blood individuals. Thanks to this kind of legal fancy footwork, which shielded shareholders from personal liability for corporations’ actions, businesses would grow into mighty multinationals that would wield more power than most governments. But if a corporation really can be considered a person, what kind of person would it be?
Posed at the onset of The Corporation, this question serves as the starting point for a psychological-cum-cinematic case study, performed by a team—co-directors Mark Achbar (Manufacturing Consent) and Jennifer Abbott (who also edited) and writer Joel Bakan—that was not afraid of doing the necessary legwork and analysis. The fruit of their efforts would be one of the most successful Canadian documentary features of all time. The winner of over 26 international prizes, including the Genie for best documentary and audience awards at TIFF and Sundance, The Corporation would help to galvanize the anti-globalisation movement and further the impact of the writers and activists already becoming voices for this groundswell of dissent. Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Howard Zinn were just three of the subjects whose comments were integrated into the film’s cunning combination of analysis, anecdotes and chilling examples illustrating corporations’ all-pervasive influence and worrying behaviour, all presented in a format more suggestive of a scientific documentary than a pointed piece of agit-prop.
The filmmakers’ efforts to understand the true nature of the corporation produces a provocative thesis. If a corporation really was assessed by the same criteria we use for people, its most destructive traits—its capacity for deceit in order to protect its interests and profits, its disregard for legal restrictions and ethical considerations, its lack of empathy with regard to decisions that endanger others—would indicate the patient is a psychopath. So even those who can accept the idea of a corporation as a person may not want to meet one in a dark alleyway or, for that matter, a boardroom.
Delving into the efforts of Coca-Cola and IBM to stay in business with Nazi Germany, the more recent efforts to privatise water supplies in Bolivia and the battles between farmers and Monsanto over the use of seeds, The Corporation has no shortage of examples of modern capitalism at its most morally reprehensible. Yet like many of the docs that would follow The Corporation’s lead and foster the decade’s boom for activist-oriented non-fiction filmmaking, its ultimate purpose was to inspire viewers to imagine a different kind of world and take action to make it happen. This study’s diagnosis may have been disturbing, but audiences were left with a range of treatment options.