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Corporations Gone Wild?

All except the most extreme capitalists will find something to be outraged about in the new documentary film “The Corporation.”

The Corporation
Are your children good at nagging you to buy things? Maybe their natural persuasive skills have been sharpened by their television watching.

If so, you can thank people like Lucy Hughes, vice president of the Initiative Corporation, whose firm's work includes developing ways of teaching tots—some might call it "brainwashing"—how to convince their parents to buy them lots of stuff. That knowledge is passed along to advertisers, who diligently apply it in their ads aimed at the younger set.

The new documentary film The Corporation, by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, ranges far and wide to offer evidence of such corporate perfidy. (Mr. Bakan offers chapter and verse of business sins in his companion book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.)

While the film's wide-ranging approach may seem random, it ensures that all but the most extreme free-marketeers will find something not to like about how modern corporations act in our globalized capitalist economy. In other words, you don't have to be Michael Moore to believe that something is seriously wrong about our system.

Mr. Moore appears in The Corporation, the closest thing to an intentional product placement in this film. In contrast to Mr. Moore’s relentlessly anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation gives the opposing side a chance to make its case intelligently. Balance has its benefits. You’ll leave The Corporation knowing what capitalist thinkers believe (Mr. Moore prefers to mock his opponents in Fahrenheit 9/11).

The Corporation traces the problem of business dysfunction to the fact that in most Western countries corporations are considered legal "persons." In other words, they have all the rights of persons—to buy and sell property, to express themselves freely, and so on—without the constraints you find in flesh-and-blood human beings. In other words, what the corporation is missing is a soul. The results are often absurd. Just think of any large-scale corporation trying to aspire to personhood (ever seen this troubling slogan in corporate environments: “We dare to care”?).

Gigantic suited men look down godlike on workers in an office, a prophecy of our cubicled, Dilbertian workplace worthy of “The Twilight Zone.”
The filmmakers aim to understand what kinds of persons corporations are, applying the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to find a reason why companies exploit workers, scar the environment, and put their own profits above everything else. According to the filmmakers, corporations are psychopaths, unconcerned about people, conscienceless, and destructive.

What's behind this remorselessness? Corporations are legally obliged to seek profitsand nothing else. Sure, individual owners or managers might choose to act ethically—even when it costs their firms money. But such decisions are strictly personal, or forced on them by laws and regulations. Within the rules of the Capitalist game itself, there's no built-in motivation to do anything except bring in the most money.

The film underlines how corporations have incentives to push costs on to others. To take an imaginary example, Amalgamated Widget dumps toxins into a river in Fredonia, and Fredonians have to pay taxes to get the river cleaned up. (Dare we cynically suppose Amalgamated Environmental Services, a division of Amalgamated Widget, will get the Fredonian river de-toxification contract?) The cost of the river cleanup is what economists call an "externality." The term "outrage" is less technical, but also useful and applicable.

Luckily, this film, so keen to teach good environmental manners (the press kit includes a note encouraging users to print it on recycled paperdouble-sided, please) also provides the guilty retro pleasure of showing us clips of old educational and promotional films, including an Economics 101 class that uses a widget-making company as an example. Eerily fascinating is a bit of black and white footage where three gigantic suited men look down godlike on workers in an office, a prophecy of our cubicled, Dilbertian workplace worthy of The Twilight Zone.

The Corporation is strongest when reminding you of a fact of the post-Cold War world: Large corporations wield more power than ever. The film quotes Former Goodyear Tire CEO Samir Gibara as saying that, in relation to corporations, governments "have become powerless compared to what they were before."

While corporations have become more powerful internationally since the end of the Cold War, the profit motive has also become stronger within most societies. To take two diverse examples, "being in it just for the money" carries less sting here in the U.S. than it used to, and the Chinese no longer imprison "capitalist roaders," but follow the advice of Deng Xiaoping, who told his people, "To get rich is glorious."

The Corporation hints at this larger trend with a segment on Chris Barrett and Luke McCabe's lucrative corporate sellout to FirstUSA. Messrs. Barrett and McCabe set up ChrisAndLuke.com, offering themselves as living advertisements in exchange for any company that would pay their college tuition. Fifteen corporations answered the call, and the commercial collegians settled on FirstUSA.

While the film makes a number of valid criticisms of corporate globalization, violent anti-WTO protesters haven’t done anything to improve things.
In the film, Chris and Luke regale us with their successes—how many TV shows featured them, how they were photographed for their successful financial stunt. The filmmakers' distaste is palpableand understandable. But I wonder whether younger viewers (that is, those who aren't Utne Readers) will just see Chris and Luke as people who gamed the system, getting others to pay for their education, and became famous in the process. Not a bad deal, many might (wrongly) think, in an age of exorbitant college costs and reality TV.

As for alternatives to creeping corporate cultural and commercial hegemony, the film offers several. One laudable example is Dr. Vandana Shiva, who encourages Indian farmers to use crop methods that preserve their independence from U.S. agrobusinesses.

The filmmakers are fond of the let's-make-havoc protesters who protest at World Trade Organization meetings. But while the film makes a number of valid criticisms of corporate globalization, violent anti-WTO protesters haven't done anything to improve things (unless you count breaking windows at Starbucks as progress).

The way large companies work today needs to be changed. That will happen if people both inside and outside corporations act on the conviction that the common good and the dignity of the human person are more important than profits. The Corporation alerts us to what happens when people leave their humanity at home, and go hunting for profits at the office.

Paradoxically, corporations can be profitably run by people with active consciences, and thus promote real human progress. Changing the rules of the game to make this the norm, rather than the exception, is our business.

July 19, 2004

Thomas D. Sullivan writes from New York City. He is a Godspy Contributing Editor.

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07.20.04   Godspy says:
All except the most extreme capitalists will find something to be outraged about in the new documentary film “The Corporation.”

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