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Conservative economic theory treats the market as a natural realm,
governed by laws as inexorable as the weather. Under that view, the private business
corporation appears as a basic element of human society and government regulations as
unnatural forms of meddling. In their new documentary The Corporation, Mark Achbar,
Jennifer Abbot and Joel Bakan demolish such claims and reveal the artificial and
contingent nature of corporate capitalism.
The film shows how the corporation started as an institution granted
special authority for a specific purpose, but ultimately escaped the tight legal framework
that bounded it. Gradually, it accumulated wider powers and effectively shed
responsibilities to anyone but its shareholders. In a crucial segment, Howard Zinn
explains how the legal doctrine that the corporation is a fictitious person
led to a misuse of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was designed to protect the civil
rights of ex-slaves. In the late nineteenth century, while the federal courts smiled on
Jim Crow, corporate lawyers turned the Amendment into an instrument to nullify state
regulation of business. Between 1890 and 1910, 288 of the 307 Fourteenth Amendment cases
argued before the Supreme Court involved corporations.
Achbar, Abbot and Bakar offer their own twist on the fictitious-person
doctrine, using the World Health Organizations criteria for diagnosing psychopaths
to show that the corporate person easily fits the description. That tactic
gives the documentary a sharp satirical edge and also provides a strong framework for the
myriad corporate abuses that the filmmakers uncovered in their research. Among the most
memorable case studies is an analysis of sweatshop labor based on statistics drawn from
Nike documents found in a Honduran trash heap. Not only does the workers pay reflect
only an infinitesimal amount of the products retail cost, but work schedules are
regimented down to fractions of a second. Equally striking are the matter-of-fact
presentations showing how authoritarian governments in developing countries kill to
protect US and European corporations from local, democratic opposition.
Scholars and writers like Noam Chomsky turn up to offer broader
perspective on issues like public versus private ownership, but the interviews with
corporate figures often have a stronger impact. Particularly gripping are the remarks of a
commodities trader who admits that when he and his colleagues found out about the
September 11 attacks, their first thought was that the price of gold was going to
skyrocket. In the same vein, a CEO describes undercover marketing techniques,
such as paying actors to troll public places while talking loudly about some product. He
compares such tactics to the way Roach Motel insect bait disseminates pesticide to
cockroach colonies. In this case, people on the street become unwitting carriers of
brand bait. The only question is how much did the makers of Roach Motel pay
him to use that metaphor?
Carpet-company CEO Ray Anderson is unlike most of the corporate
officials who appear in the film. In folksy southern tones, he describes how he studied
the environmental effects of his companys practices and concluded, My
goodness, someday people like me will end up in jail. Since then, his corporation
has reduced its ecological footprint, but when he lectures a group of fellow business
leaders about environmental issues, he meets with an array of sour faces that is
simultaneously sad and hilarious.
Comic clips of stock footage help leaven the often grim story lines.
Likewise, the film keeps a fast pace, hastened by the throbbing beats that accompany the
beginning of each new segment and recall the music Neil LaBute uses in his stark
portrayals of human misbehavior. Even so, at nearly two and a half hours, The
Corporation is too long and plausible cuts are easy to find. The highlights from
Michael Moores documentaries seem especially unnecessary in light of the attention
his films have been receiving of late.
The film rewards viewers
patience with keen observations and an uplifting ending. When an IMF-mandated water
privatization scheme brought exorbitant water prices and a ban on the collection of
rainwater, the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia defeated their national government and the
IMF with a series of mass protests. The Cochabamba story is a stirring tale that all
Americans should see. It highlights the corporations vulnerabilities as effectively
as the rest of the film shows its expansive powers.
- Chris Pepus