Benevolent Giant or Pathological Monster?
by Henry Edward Hardy
Ubiquitous and powerful and yet strangely invisible in our society, the modern corporation is inescapable. We eat, drink, sleep, bathe in, wear and drive corporate products. Their influence is everywhere, but we seldom stop to observe their effects.
Enter filmmakers Jennifer Abbot and Mark Achbar. Their film, The Corporation (2003) is based on University of British Columbia Professor Joel Bakan’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. The film is a neo-Marxist thesis padded with entertaining clips from archival material such as old corporate training films and cleverly edited cuts from recent news coverage.Weighing in at a hefty two-and-a-half hours, the film, like Fahrenheit 9/11, mimics the documentary style, but exploits it to present carefully edited interviews and video clips to promote a single, if somewhat incoherent, pre-determined view. These are the movie counterparts of editorial cartoons rather than the journalism per se of more traditional and balanced (and ultimately one might argue, more interesting) documentaries, such as Control Room.
The Corporation asserts that 150 years ago, corporations did not play a major role in everyday life in the United States. Without having seen the film, Professor Noel Tichy of the University of Michigan Business School, and editor of book, The Ethical Challenge: How to Lead with Unyielding Integrity, asks skeptically, “Where do they think people were getting their goods?”
Katherine Dodds is director of corporate communications for Big Picture Media, the Canadian for-profit corporation formed for the purposes of financing the film. She explains that The Corporation is really aimed at large, publicly held corporations. Dodds says 150 years ago, corporations had not yet gained their modern scope and powers granted through limited liability and the legal fiction of the “Corporate Individual.” Yet she recognizes the inherent irony that Bakan and Achbar first needed to set up a corporation in order to benefit from exactly those ubiquitous features of the modern corporation — such as limited liability — they identify as part of the problem.
The point they make, she says, is the change in the legal definition of the corporation. “One hundred years ago, the corporation was not a legal person. It did not require people to put profit above everything else.” The Corporation is effective in presenting this thesis through archival footage and talking-head interviews of left-wing pundits, reformed and semi-reformed capitalists, disillusioned journalists and whistle-blowers.
According to Dodds, the project was first edited to be three one-hour TV episodes before the removal of 20 minutes for the theatrical release. Left more or less intact, one still feels the missing commercial breaks in the choppy presentation. Perhaps this snappy and very visual presentation will better capture the minds of the attention-deficient and quasi-literate MTV generations.
The film initially presents a coherent narrative, before breaking up into disparate “case studies” which attempt to prove that if corporations are to be compared to individuals, then these companies, according the World Health Organization standard DSM-IV, should be classified as psychopaths.
Dodds accepts the fact that people are likely to have different reactions to the film. “There could be those who are like, ‘Dude, tear down the corporation, down with all of capitalism all over.’ You can have differing views on whether corporations should exist at all, but I think where we come down is saying, ‘They should not have this kind of power.’”
While maintaining that corporations are “the wealth producing-instrument in society,” Tichy endorses Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s view that strong democratic institutions, both governmental and private, are needed as part of the necessary checks and balances on strong corporations. In the words of the 1998 edition of the UN Human Development Report, “Strong institutions, free from corruption, are needed to enforce regulations in such areas as rights to land, security of tenure in housing and accurate information on consumer goods to protect the interests of poor people.”
However, the movie compares the modern corporation to the Catholic Church or Communist Party of other times and places. Tichy challenges this notion, saying “Those were monopolies,” noting that corporations do not form a monolithic block in society. Subject to regulation, public pressure and competition, corporations are born and die, or are absorbed, regularly. He says even the very great, such as Microsoft, will be brought down by a combination of consumer preference, competition and regulation in the public interest.
Using as examples AT&T, IBM, Digital Equipment and Compaq, Tichy says the market and the structure of a democratic society will by nature break up unhealthy monopolies and concentrations of political power and wealth.
Tichy also wryly notes that public confidence in corporations as institutions and in businessmen as individuals of good character and public trust is at an all-time low, rivaling the (un)popularity of politicians and journalists.
Resulting from scandals, such as Imclone, Enron and recent cases involving defense contractors, public confidence in business institutions is “terrible,” Tichy says, and that corporations viewing their relationship with the public as “damaged” are “desperate to demonstrate and rebuild trust.”
Dodds warns of companies desperate for that quick fix may use a tactic she calls “greenwashing,” in which a few cosmetic changes are trumpeted and magnified by media manipulation into looking like a whole-hearted reversal of irresponsibility.
Such an example in the film is the designer firm Liz Claiborne, which advertises that proceeds from the sale of a $127 coat go to children’s charities. What the company doesn’t reveal, as the film claims, is that the jacket was produced by women and girls as young as 14, who were each paid approximately eight cents per jacket.
The film does champion some elites, such as reformed capitalist Ray Anderson of Interface Carpet. Having gone through some kind of epiphany after reading Paul Hawkins’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson cheerfully condemns himself and his fellows as “plunderers” who are destroying the earth. His interview has a queer aura to it, as if filmed for a 1970s-era post-apocalyptic science fiction thriller — a sort of Battle for the Planet of Soylent Green, perhaps. Yet one must wonder exactly how sincere he is since he hasn’t given up the business, and has found such an articulate way of deflecting opprobrium with studied and apparently sincere self-criticism.
While the film is quirky, self-referential, humorous and informative, Dodds says a proscriptive solution isn’t offered because many of the people appearing in the film each have their own disparate ideas and ideologies. Michael Moore, she says, is urging people to get involved in the electoral system, while Noam Chomsky is a “Chomskian anarchist.” She also says the movie is intended as a lead-in to the Web site (www.thecorporation.tv), where specific multimedia presentations from varying perspectives suggest how viewers can “get involved.”
Had it remained a three-part TV series, The Corporation would have been better. As a movie, it is at once both over-long and maddeningly incomplete, yet still eminently deserving of further examination. Without the blistering white-hot sarcasm of Fahrenheit 9/11 and lacking the balanced view of Control Room, The Corporation still has many virtues that make it worth watching. The sound and video editing are very well done, and Abbott and her crew have done yeoman work in assembling and splicing together various archival and historical clips in a way which is both humorous and engaging, and relevant and informative. While the talking heads are tendentious — and heavily edited — there are worse heads than Howard Zinn, Moore and Chomsky to see talking.
A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current.
Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy