Corporations Are Insane

Enron. WorldCom. Bechtel. Halliburton. To the cheerleaders on MSNBC and in The Wall Street Journal, such deceitful, profiteering companies are a few "bad apples" in a healthy economic barrel, as rare as a murderer in a convent.

But a new documentary that premiered at the Sundance festival film last week argues that these rogue companies aren't the exception, they're the rule. The controversial premise of The Corporation is that every company is legally programmed to act like a psychopath. And the bigger it gets, the worse it behaves.

"The corporation is a paradox," says Mark Achbar, who co-directed and wrote the documentary with Vancouver filmmaker Jennifer Abbott and law professor Joel Bakan. "It generates tremendous wealth, but at tremendous social and environmental cost."

Achbar, best-known for his 1992 documentary "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media," says that when he started working on the new film six years ago, it originally was about the anti-globalization movement. But he realized that the growing protests were really against corporate power -- and despite the millions of news hours and pages devoted to mergers, acquisitions, marketing strategies and CEO profiles, no one had really examined the history and the character of the corporation itself.

An unlikely subject for a hit film, perhaps. But The Corporation's entertaining mix of interviews, cartoons and old industrial films has already won three "people's choice" prizes at film festivals, including Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Audience Award (sponsored, ironically, by Coca-Cola). In Canada, where "The Corporation" has garnered rave reviews -- one compared it to "the best issue of Harper's magazine set to music" -- it's currently playing to sold-out theatres across the country.

"Everybody wants to buy their products from a socially responsible corporation, not from some horrible polluter," Achbar says. "The question is, how are we going to resolve this dilemma?"

As the film spells out, corporations have often been regarded with suspicion. America's founding fathers worried that enterprises like the Dutch West India Company, which controlled vast areas of the new world, would overwhelm their republic. (Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend: "I hope we shall ...crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.") So when the U.S. government granted charters allowing new corporations to come into being, the terms were restricitve.

But corporations grew in size and power during the booming 19th century, and their owners wanted to expand their legal rights as well. Since owners or shareholders couldn't be held personally liable, they argued, the corporation itself should be treated as a "person" -- thus entitling it to all the protections of the Constitution. The argument was accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1886, in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railway Company. Consequently, a corporation today has the right to free speech, the right to own property, and the right to due process of law, just as a person does.

So what kind of person is it?

To answer that question, the film ingeniously compares notorious examples of bad corporate behavior to a list of psychiatric symptoms. Nike jumping from sweatshop to sweatshop in ever-poorer countries? That shows an "incapacity to maintain enduring relationships."

Monsanto's refusal to acknowledge the harm caused by Agent Orange? That's an "incapacity to experience guilt." Corporate directors are required by law to do only what's best for the company, regardless of the consequences to anyone else -- in other words, a corporation is motivated purely by self-interest. Add up the symptoms, as an FBI consultant does onscreen, and the corporation starts to resemble Ted Bundy.

Several of these points are scored in the film by Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, writer Naomi Klein and historian Howard Zinn. The filmmakers also interviewed CEOs -- and discovered that many of them are equally troubled by corporate pathology. The perverse genius of the corporation is not just that it maximizes profit by offloading as many costs (employee education, environmental cleanup) as possible onto the public; it also enables owners and managers to simultaneously claim that each other are ultimately responsible for the company's actions. Even to those at the top, the corporation seems like a monster beyond anyone's control.

"Even though the perception is that you have absolute power to do what you want, the reality is that you don't have that power," says Sam Gibara, the former CEO of Goodyear, when asked in the film about the massive layoffs he oversaw in the late 1990s. "Sometimes, if you really had a free hand, if you really did what suited your personal priorities, you'd act differently. But as a CEO you cannot do that."

Gibara's not entirely correct; Ray Anderson, CEO of the carpetmaker Interface, emerges as the soft-spoken hero of the film, for pushing his company to embrace principles of environmental sustainability. But as "The Corporation" points out, such conversions are rare, because one-half of all stock in publicly traded U.S. companies is owned by the wealthiest one percent of the population.

If there's any criticism to make of the film, it's that the barrage of such facts is relentlessly depressing. It also tends to lose its focus in the latter half of its 145-minute run time, by detailing even more alarming case studies of corporate malfeasance, such as Fox News suppressing its own reporters' investigations into Monsanto's bovine growth hormone, or IBM's collaboration with Nazi Germany, each of which deserve an entire documentary on its own.

But like a Hollywood blockbuster, "The Corporation" does manage to end on an upbeat note. Co-directors Achbar and Abbott turn their lens on citizens' movements around the world that are discussing and protesting corporate power, and in some cases initiating petitions and court proceedings forcing governments to revoke the charters of particularly malevolent companies.

After all, as Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman says onscreen, the corporation is merely a legal structure. And to filmmaker Abbott, that leaves room for hope. "We created the corporation, and we can change it," she says. "We want people to emerge from the film feeling there are things we can do."

Ross Crockford is a freelance writer who lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

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