The Corporation

The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power

(2004), Joel Bakan

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 Organization’s 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 product’s 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 company’s 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 Moore’s 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 corporation’s vulnerabilities as effectively as the rest of the film shows its expansive powers.

Chris Pepus