Film Review from the December 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Corporation, a recently released film directed by Mark Achban, Jennifer Abbot and Joel Bakan, begins with a little US political history, observing how, in the 19th century, a “corporation” was a “benevolent” association of people with a government charter to serve “the public good”. When, in the late 1860s, the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution recognised the slave as having human rights, the nascent corporate elite of the time had their lawyers stake a claim to the same rights with the Supreme Court. They fought and won, and the state henceforth recognised the corporation as a human being, a person in law, with the same right to life, liberty and property.
This leads to one of the big questions of the film: if corporations are legally defined as people, then what kind of people are they? One way the film addresses this question is to call in the FBI’s Consultant on Psychopaths, Dr Robert Hare. Hare proceeds to run through a check-list of the traits of your run-of-the-mill psychopath before concluding that the modern corporation, bearing no moral responsibility for its actions, is very much the prototypical psychopath.
Much of the remainder of the film is given over to proving this claim beyond all reasonable doubt and many authoritative witnesses are wheeled in to testify. And what a selection of witnesses there are! Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, Anita Roddick, Vandana Shiva, Michael Moore; experts from every field and all manner of labour rights organisations and grass roots activists, economists such as Milton Friedman and many CEOs. Their statements amount to a damning examination of the nature and personality of the modern corporation, charting its growth, its extending influence and downright indifference to democracy and how, as one commentator observes, it has turned into a “monster, trying to devour as much profit as possible at anyone’s expense.”
No such thing as enough
What we are presented with is an image of all-powerful organisations running wild, rabid with greed, superpowers, for whom there is “no such thing as enough” (Moore), for whom “everything is legitimate in the pursuit of profit” (Roddick). Modern corporations are presented as the “new high priests”, more powerful than governments and accountable only to their shareholders, their brand labels protected by more legislation than covers the rights of the children who sew them onto their overpriced merchandise.
The film pits competing ideas on the modern corporation against one another. We are at one stage shown the offices of the National Labour Committee and hear Executive Director Charles Kernaghan revealing the level of exploitation of workers in the Dominican Republic (who for instance earn 75 cents for each Nike jacket that sells for $178 and 3 cents for a tee shirt that retails at $14.) We are shown the living conditions of those same desperate workers and hear their own testimony as to the level of their destitution and then listen to Michael Walker of the corporate think-tank, the Fraser Institute, expounding his views on the role competitive markets play in providing for the economic and social well-being and how he believes firms such as Nike are an “enormous godsend” to people in the Dominican Republic
The film contains much that is totally fascinating. One section looks at big business and its penchant for the dictatorial regime. We are shown how a punch card system devised and regularly maintained by IBM (operating out of New York) processed millions of concentration camp victims, and how Coca Cola, faced with the possibility of having its operation curtailed in Nazi Germany, simply changed its name to Fanta. Much evidence is presented as to how corporate allegiance to profit transcends its loyalty to national flags and we are presented with one startling fact: that in one week 57 US companies were fined for trading with enemies of the US. Contemplating big business’s links to tyrannical regimes, one commentator asks “is it narcissism that compels them to seek their reflection in the regimented structure of fascist regimes?”
One of several cases studies the film presents is that relating to Monsanto (famous for Agent Orange and 50,000 birth defects in Vietnam) and its manufacture of Posilac. This was a drug which, when injected into cows, increased their milk yield. That the world was awash with milk did not concern Monsanto; they were far more interested in profits and eventually were supplying a quarter of US dairy herds with the product. But because cows were not meant to produce so much milk, their udders went into overdrive and became infected with mastitis, the pus from which infected the milk. Not only were humans suffering the effects of the chemicals injected into the milk, their milk was now infected with mastitis pus. Monsanto’s reaction was to deny all allegations and to lie like condemned murderers.
The modern corporation is perhaps most vilified for its total lack of respect for the environment and biosphere on which all life on Earth depends. Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface Inc, who has won much acclaim promoting the idea that environmental responsibility makes good business sense, is seen addressing an audience of business leaders in North Carolina. Greeting them as “fellow plunderers”, he goes on to tell them that there is “not an industrial company in the world that is sustainable.”
Robert Weismann of Multinational Monitor reminds us that the cost of getting caught for their corporate transgressions – i.e. environmental pollution – is, more often than not, less than the cost of complying with existing environmental legislation. Dr Vandara Shiva, physicist and ecologist, despairingly contemplates the suicide gene built into new strains of cash crop seeds, the new terminator technology that makes the third world farmer dependent ever on the seed supplier (instead of traditionally putting aside a portion of the harvest as seeds for the following year), and calls them inventions of a ear), and calls them inventions of a “brutal mind”.
For the corporation, nothing is sacred. Even the US Patent Office has conceded defeat in its attempts to stop them patenting life forms, bearing out Roddick’s sentiment that every means is legitimate if the end be profit. Climbing down from one seven-year battle with big business, the Office had this to say: “You can patent anything in the world which is alive except a full birth human being.”
The film nears an end with a case study of the privatisation of the water supply of Cochabamba, Bolivia, at the behest of the World Bank, focusing particularly on the town’s residents and their run in with the forces of the state acting on behalf of Bechtel, a San Francisco based company who bought the water company. So keen were the powers that be to force the people to bow to the power of Bechtel that they demolished their homes for non-payment of their exorbitant water rates and made the collecting of rain water illegal. The frustration spilled onto the streets with huge demonstrations and riots and violent clashes with the police. Eventually, though, Bechtel were forced to pull out of their Bolivian venture, but not before they had put in a claim for $25 million in compensation.
It is from this case study and other cited instances of green activism that we are meant to draw inspiration; the message being that the corporation should not underestimate the power of the people, that “the workers, united, can never be defeated”. Of course, corporations are advised to tidy up their act too. Michael Moore tells us that there should be more governmental controls and the film ends with Moore hoping the film will prompt people “to do something, anything, to get the world back in our hands”. This suggests that Moore, and others who promote similar ideas in the film, are missing the point. Granted, it is commendable, heroic even, that workers are prepared to often risk life and limb to defend themselves and to confront the most harrowing acts perpetrated by corporations. But it is a dangerous to believe that such grassroots action amounts to wresting control of the world away from its current owners.
If anyone considers this film a trumpet call for social change, a reveille for revolution, they are mistaken. The capitalist system is left unscathed. Nowhere is the market-driven profit system as such challenged. Nowhere are all of the case studies and criticism of corporate power and abuse rooted in a wider context. Nowhere does a commentator lambast the global “can’t pay, can’t have” society that consigns the greater portion of the population of the planet to lives of abject misery. And no interviewee comes near to demanding the abolition of the capitalist system and its replacement with a system of society based on free access. Capitalism is taken for granted as being immutable and all that is being asked at the end is that corporations wear a smiley face and stop behaving so horridly.
Moore may well contemplate why such films are broadcast by TV corporations, in spite of the fact that they attack corporate power; for the record, he suggests it is because there is profit to be made by them and he may be partly right. But he fails to grasp that this, and similar films like Fahrenheit 911, nowhere query the basis of class society – the set-up that allows the ownership of property by one privileged class, and the consequent enslavement of one class by another, is in no way threatened and the TV company broadcasting programmes that reveal corporate crimes is aware of this.
I don’t really want to rubbish the whole film but, in truth, The Corporation simply echoes the sentiments of the anti-globalisation movement – the demand for greater corporate responsibility, reform of international institutions, expansion of democracy and fairer trading conditions, for instance – while allowing capitalism to carry on perpetrating every social ill that plagues us.
The Corporation is undoubtedly a remarkable exposé of the modern corporation at its ugliest, of the lengths corporations will go to and the depths they will stoop to in the search for profit. The film stands as a brilliant critique of corporate power and everything we associate with it and is a much needed resource in revealing the insanity of the present system. And as far as enthusing green activists and lending weight to the anti-globalisation cause is concerned, the film is a powerful tool. But that’s not the way out.