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.
It's a different war, but some things never change.
Forty years ago, Americans fled to Canada to avoid fighting in Vietnam. Today, American medical marijuana patients are following in their footsteps, claiming to be political refugees of the U.S. government's war on drugs.
"I'm a member of a class of society they're trying to oppress or wipe out completely," says Renee Boje, from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia. Boje is probably the most famous American fugitive in Canada. The U.S. is currently trying to extradite her to face charges for conspiracy to cultivate hundreds of cannabis plants at the Los Angeles home of Todd McCormick, a cancer patient and medical marijuana activist. If convicted, Boje, 32, faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years -- a penalty so severe that she's become the poster child for the increasing numbers of U.S. citizens heading north to take advantage of Canada's liberal pot laws. "There are hundreds of Americans here," she says, "because they're being persecuted by their own government."
Many of the refugees are quietly growing and using their own weed -- the Vancouver-based Compassion Club, one of a dozen operating across British Columbia, estimates that over 100 of its 2,000 clients are Americans. But others, like Boje, haven't kept such a low profile. Over the past couple of months, several prominent U.S. activists have fled to British Columbia, including Steve Kubby, the Libertarian Party's 1998 candidate for governor of California, and Ken Hayes, who operated the 6th Street Harm Reduction Center in San Francisco. Kubby, who has adrenal cancer, faces a 120-day jail term for drug possession, which he says would kill him. in February -- even though he was already in Canada -- Hayes was charged with conspiracy to grow more than 1,000 plants and could be sentenced to at least 10 years. Both Hayes and Kubby have formally claimed refugee status acccording to U.N. convention, arguing that they have a "well-founded fear of persecution" in the United States. Canadian immigration officials have found their claims to have sufficient merit to allow them and their families to remain in the country until a final hearing in a year.
"U.S. officials have violated the law and intentionally targeted the leaders of the medical marijuana movement by using conspiracy charges," says Kubby, from his home on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast-just before he's due to read the daily news on pot-tv.net, an internet TV channel. "I'm being threatened with a death sentence. How can anyone justify that and say it's not an attempt to persecute me?"
Public statements like this have already won the refugees plenty of attention from Canadian news media -- and American officials as well. "Providing sanctuary to some of these people who see Canada as an easy place to escape the long leash of U.S. law enforcement is dangerous," said Robert Maginnis, a White House drug policy advisor, in a recent interview on Canada's Global TV network. "I would hope that the Canadian government would see fit to send them back to the U.S. so they can face charges, because we have, just like you do, a sovereign right over our citizens to enforce the laws of our land."
The exodus is partly a result of the vast difference between how medical marijuana laws are applied in Canada and the U.S.. Although California voters in 1996 passed Proposition 215 creating a Compassionate Use Act, for the past two years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has used federal law to raid and prosecute medical marijuana clubs across the state. In May last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the DEA's actions, ruling that "marijuana has no medical benefits", and this June the U.S. government obtained an injunction shutting down the few remaining California clubs for good. The Canadian federal government, on the other hand, has granted permits to possess or grow marijuana to more than 800 Canadians who suffer from AIDS, cancer or multiple sclerosis. And Canadian courts, which are not bound by mandatory minimums, tend to be lenient on those who don't have permits. For example, last month the B.C. Supreme Court stayed charges against a Vancouver man caught with 96 plants because he has AIDS and hepatitis; a few days later the same court granted an "absolute discharge" (i.e. no jail, fine, or criminal record) to the director of a compassion club who pleaded guilty to possession of five pounds of marijuana.
Alex Stojicevic, the Vancouver lawyer representing Hayes, Kubby and several other American refugee claimants, says it's "nothing new" for U.S. citizens to flee to Canada to avoid drug charges. What's new is the accelerated crackdown on medical marijuana ever since the Bush administration took office. His clients' argument, he says, is that they're being persecuted for holding a political opinion shared by a majority of California voters, but not by the feds. "Since Mr. Ashcroft became attorney-general and Mr. Bush the president, the view is that things are going to get worse," says Stojicevic. "That's what's fueling this."
Stojicevic admits that many of his clients are not likely to win refugee status because Canadian courts have consistently held that "the United States is still a country where the rule of law applies, and the real forum for complaining about these things is there, not here." However, a few Americans might be allowed to stay for other reasons. Earlier this year, Renee Boje married a Canadian, and they now have a four-month-old son. Stojicevic also notes that Boje's case is unique. While the other Americans will simply be ordered to leave Canada if their claims of persecution fail, the final decision to extradite Boje is up to Canada's minister of justice. He may consider (according to Canadian law) it "unjust and oppressive" to send a young mother to 10 years in prison for watering some plants.
Unfortunately, the U.S. activists have made a difficult situation even harder for themselves. In April, after one of them showed reporters marijuana he was cultivating, neighbors complained and the Mounties arrested Kubby, Hayes and several others. (Hayes also says a DEA agent based in Vancouver tried to intimidate him into returning "voluntarily" to the U.S.) They were released only after Marc Emery, the leader of the B.C. Marijuana Party and the owner of pot-tv.net and a giant marijuana seed bank, put up $5,000 bail. If convicted of cultivation and possession charges, each of the Americans could be ordered to leave Canada before the final hearings of their refugee claims.
The refugees are unrepentant. "I don't want to go back to the United States," says Ken Hayes. "The people who are still there fighting are doing a noble thing ... but it's inevitable that wherever there's liberty, that's where people will seek to be."
The G-8 summit of the world's most powerful nations, held this week near Calgary, Alberta, was referred to as the "last, best chance" to reverse the human crisis in Africa.
The leaders of four African countries and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan attended the second day of the summit to press G-8 leaders to support the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). The home-grown Marshall Plan calls for aid and greater market access from the G-8 in exchange for a "peer review" system in which the African countries themselves would decide who is entitled to G-8 money -- based on how well a nation protects foreign investors and human rights.
As both summit delegates and activists point out, African nations face problems of epidemic proportions. One-half of the continent's population of 680 million people live on an income of less than $1 per day. More than 12 million have died in wars in the past decade. More than 25 million have AIDS, and 2.4 million died of the disease last year. One hundred and forty children out of every 1,000 don't live to see their fifth birthday.
But Africans hoping for a firm international commitment from the G-8 received a slap in the face -- delivered principally by George W. Bush. Bush essentially steered the agenda at the summit away from Africa, focusing instead on drumming up support for his new Mideast peace plan and the war on terrorism. At the start of summit, Bush congratulated himself for already earmarking $500 million for AIDS programs and $200 million for third-world education. (The two-day G-8 summit itself cost $200 million, much of it spent on policing the modest anti-globalization protests that took place in downtown Calgary.) Africa was clearly not a priority for the U.S. at the summit.
In the end, African nations got little of what they had hoped for.
Although the G-8 leaders endorsed NEPAD, they refused to spend the $64 billion the plan requires. They instead announced their own "Action Plan for Africa" totalling about $6 billion. In comparison, at Bush's insistence, they earmarked $20 billion for a program to prevent Russian nuclear weapons from falling into terrorist hands. At the final press conference, the African delegates tried to put a positive spin on the G-8 meetings, calling them a "starting point". "We are satisfied with this commitment. Of course, there is nothing that is human that is perfect," said Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.
The NGOs and civil society groups who came to monitor the summit were more vocal in their disappointment, accusing the G-8 nations of double-standards. Amnesty International pointed out that although the G-8 announced that it would only provide future aid to countries protecting human rights, G-8 nations sell more than $25 billion in arms to developing countries every year (the U.S. is the largest exporter at $14 billion annually).
An economic-justice group based in Washington, D.C., called 50 Years is Enough noted that the G-8 insist (through the World Bank) that African countries eliminate all their agricultural subsidies -- even though the G-8 themselves have given $500 billion in subsidies to their own farmers this year alone. Activists say such policies have had a dramatic impact on countries which rely on a few agricultural crops. Twenty years ago, for example, Ghana subsidized its farmers and exported rice; now it imports $150 million of the grain every year, mainly from the United States. To many of these critics, NEPAD would be no saving grace, even if it were fully funded.
NEPAD -- "knee pad", as skeptics pronounce it -- was drafted by the leaders of only five African countries, without any public consultation. The G-8 endorsed NEPAD mainly because it speaks the language they want to hear, making Africa more responsible for its own fate, expanding the free-trade "structural adjustment" programs of the World Bank, and creating new opportunities for "investment".
In practice, however, these policies often entail little more than the sale of public utilities. The World Bank, for example, now requires African countries to privatize their water systems in order to qualify for loans, even though water is still a public utility in G-8 countries. "It's a way to entice African governments to be the agents of their own destruction," said Njoki Njoroge Njehu, a spokeswoman for 50 Years is Enough. "For the purposes of multinational corporations, for new frontiers to make profits, NEPAD is a gift."
More importantly, say activists, both NEPAD and the G-8 Action Plan refuse to deal with pressing problems facing Africa -- problems that may prevent any kind of development either now or in the future. Although the G-8 leaders announced $1 billion in new debt relief this week, African nations still send more money to G-8 bankers to service their debts every year than they receive in aid. The debt drains what little funds they have for health care and education.
Worse still, almost no new money was set aside to fight AIDS.
In an impassioned speech at a counter-summit held here, Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, insisted that NEPAD's noble aim of cutting African poverty in half by 2015 will be impossible "when family income is gutted as wage earners die, as plots of land are left untended, as every penny goes to the care of the sick and the dying."
Pharmaceutical companies have agreed to slash the price of anti-retroviral drugs, but the UN's Global AIDS and Health, Fund which is supposed to distribute them, is nearly bankrupt. Even the $6 billion in aid vaguely promised at this week's summit will be distributed over several years.
"Another 10 million people will have died before we reach those levels of assistance," he said.
Ross Crockford is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Victoria, Canada.