Film Reviews

The Corporation: Bad apple or bad seed?

Reel DVD Review: The Corporation

The Corporation: the book, the film, and the DVD

Many of us belong to that category of citizens poetically described as the “walking worried.” (Adelphia Communications: $2.5 billion bankruptcy.)* We are those who realize that things have gone awry, but are not sure why, nor how they’ve become so squirrelly. (Conseco: $6.5 billion bankruptcy.)* But in between being a taxi service for the kids, the cooking, the cleaning, the shopping, and avoiding the downsize, the outsource and the Peter Principle at work, who’s got time to figure it all out anyway? (Enron: $9 billion.)* The correct answer might well be the creators and marketers of The Corporation: Joel Bakan, Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Katherine Dodds.

The Corporation took almost five years to be made into a film; the book followed within a year and now, another 14 months later, the DVD has arrived. What’s impressive isn’t how long it all took but how much was accomplished. (Parmalat: 14 billion €.)* The book, the television mini-series, and, of course, the film, have won accolades around the world, particularly in radical and academic circles. The website www.thecorporation.com collects and channels the activist impulses that great documentaries always generate but often allow to dissipate. (Global Crossing: From $47.6 billion to $273million in market cap.)*

The two-disc DVD tops the whole project off, bringing together the information collected over those seven years of research and production while furthering the activist aims of the website. Disc one has the 145-minute theatrical release, Q&A with the three principals; Katherine Doddson grassroots marketing and the Joel Bakan Majority Report interview with Janeane Garofalo. Disc 2 features five and half more hours of material, an activist’s toolkit, and extensive hotlinks branching off from the photo and name of every one interviewed in the film. In addition, it critiques and comments on such “topical paradise” subjects as branding, corporate crime, democracy, ethics and values, labour and social responsibility. And the DVD includes 15 trailers from other radical films. (United Airlines sheds $10billion in pension obligations.)*

Achbar, Bakan, Abbott and Dodds have turned The Corporation into a veritable cottage industry of activism. Where once the Church, the Monarchy, or the Party held sway, they argue that we now find the Corporation. How did thishappen? What is a corporation anyway? And how come there are so many bad apples among corporations that examples can be endlessly cited through our asterisks and parenthetical asides? (WorldCom: $11 billion.)*

In order to answer these and other questions, Bakan, Achbar and Abbott quite sensibly go back to the beginning. “The genius of the corporation as a business form and the reason for its remarkable rise over the last three centuries, was—and is—its capacity to combine the capital, and thus the economic power of unlimited numbers of people.” (Joel Bakan, The Corporation) While the corporation found its first expression in England during the late 17th century, it was not an instant success. From 1690 to 1698, 80% of them went under. Most corporations were banned between1720 and 1825 through a piece of legislation appositely titled ‘The Bubble Act.’ Across the pond however, things were heating up.

The United States, in its post-Civil War expansionist period, allowed railroad barons to become the progenitors of the modern corporation. But the corporation of the 19th century differed from the one we know today in many significant ways. Corporations were initially set up for a limited time period and with a specific purpose that had to be in the public interest. Furthermore, corporations could not own stock in other companies and were enjoined from the political process. And stock holder liability was not limited then. (Can you imagine? “Public minded, stand alone, apolitical corporations!”)

We’ve had a hierarchy of wealth since time immemorial without corporations so that doesn’t account for their meteoric rise to prominence over the next half-century. For that we have to look to two factors, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and where the corporate inspired “regulatory race to the bottom” by governments got its start. After the emancipation of the slaves, the 14th Amendment was passed, outlawing the State’s right to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Ostensibly this amendment was written to protect African Americans’ liberty and property. But from 1890 to 1910, of the 307 cases citing 14th Amendment protections, corporations brought 288.

Perhaps the greatest blow to governmental control over the public corporation was struck in New Jersey and Delaware in the 1890s. Seeking to attract valuable in corporation business, those states dispensed with strictures on defined purpose, duration, and location of corporations. And they abolished the rule that corporations could not own each other’s stocks. Other states, seeing the loss of business, quickly followed suit; as a result, from 1898 to 1904, 1800 corporations were consolidated into157 and the era of corporate capitalism was upon us.

By the early 20th century, publicly traded corporations had access to funds from an unlimited number of people, while suffering no restrictions on their size, duration or purpose. In fact, they had achieved the legal benefits, if not obligations, of person-hood. It is at this point that the people of The Corporation ask a deceptively simple and beautifully subversive question. “If the corporation is a person, then what kind of person is it?” In order to answer this, Joel Bakan turned to the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) and the World Health Organization’s ICD (International Classification of Diseases). What he found, while initially amusing to we-the-audience, has profoundly disturbing meaning for we-the-people.

Bakan, a University of British Columbia law professor, cites two seminal precedents (Dodge v Ford and Hutton v West Cork Railway Co.) to demonstrate that the directors of corporations have an overwhelming legal as well as fiduciary duty. They must maximize profits and ensure that any monies spent by the corporation are done so solely for the purpose of maximizing profit. By law, the corporation has to be singularly self-interested and disallowed from doing public good unless it is being hypocritical, i.e. self-serving. (In the film Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman states that if corporate spending for the public good is more than a mere public relations exercise, in his opinion, those who directed this spending are being “immoral.”)

Given this legal and intellectual climate it is perhaps unsurprising that when Dr.Robert Hare, consultant to the FBI on psychopaths, was asked to apply his diagnostic checklist to corporations, this is what he found: “The corporation is irresponsible. In an attempt to satisfy the corporate goal, everybody else is put at risk.” (Union Carbide: Bhopal 20,000 dead.) * “They try to “manipulate everything including public opinion.” (Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann, Viacom & GE (General Electric) control 90% of American media.) * “They lack empathy for the victims of their actions and have asocial tendencies.” (Shell Oil: Ogonitribe Nigeria, Lockheed Martin’s WMD’s )* And finally he states, “They often refuse to accept responsibility and are incapable of feeling remorse.” (Monsanto: Agent Orange, RGBH, and the Terminator seed. Exxon Valdez: 15 years later, the coast remains polluted and compensation unpaid.)*

Clinically speaking, the corporation is a prototypical psychopath. As a result of legal decisions that imbue the corporation with the protections of person-hood and demand corporate directors be guided solely by self-interested profitability, what has been created is, in the words of corporate governance expert Robert Monks, “a doom machine.”

Bakan’s book illustrates this fact through a dirty laundry list of criminal actions and fines incurred by GE from March 23, 1990 to February 4, 2001. 42 infractions are cited, which cost the company $491,553,200 in the US, not including the price incurred from the 14 mandated pollution clean-ups; in addition, £2,000,000,000 (yes that’s right, 2 billion pounds) had to be spent in the UK for asbestos clean up. When assessing this list one must remember that GE is a highly respected and profitable corporation and in no way anomalous or an example of the “bad apple” thesis.

To be fair, the film also points out that this monstrousness has little to do with the personal characteristics of those running corporations. Outside of work these CEOs are doubtlessly no more pathological than the sanest among us. But like other monstrous institutions before them, the internal logic of the corporate leaves very little room for individual action that might interfere with the company’s prime directive: profit.

An exception that proves this rule is Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer. Mr. Anderson’s shining light on the road to Damascus came in the form of a book by Paul Hawken called TheEcology of Commerce, where he encountered for the first time the chilling phrase “the death of birth.” (Global study reveals that almost a third of amphibians face extinction – pollution cited.)*

In the film and DVD, Anderson describes his “epiphany” when he realized that he and his fellow captains of industry are in fact “plunderers” and that unless they can conduct their business with sustainability, “there is no place for us.” (America produces a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emission.)* Time will tell whether Interface’s new humanistic practices are the road forward or merely a way to slow our industrial juggernaut so that it slams it—and us—into an unbreachable thermodynamic wall at 90 instead of 100 miles an hour. (“Over 15,000 animal and plant species face extinction.”—World Conservation Union in its 2004 Red List of Threatened Species.)*

But is time a luxury we have? Waiting for CEO epiphanies may not turn out to be a winning strategy. Especially given the fact that with the creation of the WTO (World Trade Organization), corporations have increasingly placed themselves outside the ability of our governments to regulate. As a result of international agreements, the sovereignty of national governments over international corporations has been substantially undermined. Instead of guiding ourselves by regulations, governmental policy increasingly seems to hand the management of public infrastructure and resources over to opaque, unregulated, privately held profit machines, which, by law, have no interests beyond their own profitability.

For the present, the policy debate over the utility and dangers of deregulation and privatization still rages. However, Bakan points out that other activities may render this dialogue moot. While we are experiencing perpetually decreasing contributions to the public weal by corporations that are making up an ever larger part of our economies, our governments are also spending an ever increasing amount on ‘defense’ and ‘security.’ The resulting fiscal crisis may allow corporations to win by default. That’s the acknowledged desired end of such think tanks as the Cato and Fraser Institutes and such thinkers as Milton Friedman. (Free marketer Terry Anderson, whose published plan to give each citizen“shares” of the public domain, has beenmade President Bush’s adviser on public land issues.)*

Those who are concerned about privatization as panacea and are interested in keeping active while we wait for the 20/20 hindsight of the rearview mirror, should get their hands on The Corporation. Read the book, watch the DVD, and take a visit or two to www.thecorporation.com. Avail yourself of the extraordinarily rich infotainment value it all provides. If Rome is to burn anyway, one might as well be listening to the very best fiddlers while it happens. And if not, it will be activists and media-makers like those who produced The Corporation that will help us find, as Bob Dylan once put it, “someway outta here.”

  • All asterisked examples in this review have been checked for authenticity. They are cited to punctuate the importance of The Corporation DVD as an activist tool.

Jeff Berg studied epistemology and the history of empiricism in the late ’70s and early ’80s at Dalhousie and the University of Western Ontario. He subsequently spent a decade in the English theatre community in Montreal as an actor and artistic director of the Still Available Theatre Company. His twin passions for inquiry and narrative have never abated.

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