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Corporations Are Insane

By Ross Crockford, AlterNet
January 29, 2004

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 â€" 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 â€" one compared it to "the
best issue of Harper's magazine set to music" â€" 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" â€"
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 â€" 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 â€" 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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