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The Corporation

Unmasking Today’s Robber Barons 

PAUL SHALMY / Common Ground 1jun04


Ezra Pound once asked Henry Miller if he had ever thought about money and how it got that way. Canadians Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan have given big money serious thought, and the result is a provocative documentary about the modern corporation.

Viewers find its subject matter so engaging that The Corporation has won a bunch of prizes, including the Documentary Audience Award for World Cinema at the Sundance Film Festival. And surprisingly, far from being an example of why economics is called the dismal science, the film has gone on to become the biggest-grossing feature documentary in Canadian history, replacing Achbar’s earlier work, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.

“I thought I just got lucky with that one,” he says. “Maybe two makes a trend.” He chuckles. The Corporation has already passed the million-dollar mark at the Canadian box office. In a country with roughly one-tenth the population of the United States, this makes it not only an unlikely hit but also a social phenomenon.

Using a standard checklist for personality disorders and an FBI profiler, the documentary reveals that the corporate mindset matches that of a classic psychopath  -- amoral, deceitful, manipulative, and completely self-interested.

The filmmakers expose the multinationals’ misdeeds; they also put their behavior on the psychiatrist’s couch. Using a standard checklist for personality disorders and an FBI profiler, the documentary reveals that the corporate mindset matches that of a classic psychopath — amoral, deceitful, manipulative, and completely self-interested. And in newsreels and cinema verité episodes, the film captures how the conflict between bottom-line value and social good makes for high drama: In Bolivia, where Bechtel’s government-backed attempt to privatize the country’s water system prompts massive public protests; in Nigeria, where environmental activists were hanged for opposing Royal Dutch Shell’s egregious record of pollution; and in Central America, where corporate thugs try to intimidate investigators looking into child labor abuses and the sweatshops producing a Kathy Lee Gifford clothing line for Wal-Mart (a line that prides itself on corporate donations to children’s charities).

When Joel Met Mark

Mark Achbar and Joel Bakan met at a funeral, a memorial for a mutual friend’s sister. Two fellow mourners munching egg salad and chatting. Bakan is a man of accomplishments: Rhodes scholar, clerk for the chief justice of the Canadian Supreme Court, professor of law at the University of British Columbia, author, citizen activist, and coach of his son’s hockey team.

“I had seen Manufacturing Consent a few years earlier and was just blown away by it,” says Bakan, recalling his first meeting with Achbar. “When I realized that the person I was talking to was one of the creators of that film, I told him about my ideas for a book on the corporation. He said he wanted to do a film on globalization. We continued e-mailing after we met, and eventually he said, ‘Why don’t I make a film about your book?’ The only problem was the book didn’t exist.” So Bakan got busy banging out film treatments and drafts of the book at the same time.

“What happened with this project is that each of the media informed the other,” says Bakan. “The book is more story-driven and emotional than a business book might otherwise be. And the film has greater intellectual and analytical rigor than it might otherwise have had.” Published last March, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power has become a bestseller in Canada.

In 1997, Achbar and Bakan set off on a funding odyssey. Even with Achbar’s bona fides as a successful filmmaker, it was not an easy sell. Remember, this was years before Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and ImClone had made corporations synonymous with scandal. Pitching prospects one-by-one, they gradually cobbled together a consortium of backers, mostly public sources such as TV Ontario, a taxpayer-supported public television. Three years later, a new millennium dawned, and anti-globalization protests erupted at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Achbar and crew were there, filming.

By then, Jennifer Abbott had come aboard. An accomplished filmmaker in her own right, she had produced, directed, and edited the award-winning feature documentary, A Cow at My Table. Abbott’s film examined the battle between animal rights activists and the meat industry and, as she puts it, “the way we put barriers between ourselves and who we eat.” Abbott edited Achbar’s film Two Brides and a Scalpel: Diary of a Lesbian Marriage. They hit it off, and Achbar asked her to edit his new project. “Mark and I share a similar aesthetic,” she says, “making the familiar appear strange and shifting the perspective, asking questions, and using humor in a very entertaining, engaging way.”

“Today’s Dominant Institution”

The Corporation opens with a portentous and chilling voice-over: “One hundred fifty years ago the business corporation was a relatively insignificant institution. Today, it is all-pervasive. Like the church, the monarchy, and the communist party in others times and places, the corporation is today’s dominant institution....What has allowed today’s corporation to achieve such extraordinary power and influence over our lives?”

The evolution of the modern corporation began with an obscure legal ruling in 1886. Citing Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, lawyers for business interests successfully argued that private corporations should enjoy the same rights as living, breathing people. Today, a corporation can buy and sell property. It can borrow money. It can sue and be sued. But there’s a crucial distinction. Unlike you and me, the institutional “person” has limited liability. Limited liability was a master key to attracting investors. If a corporation goes belly up, investors can only lose what they invest.

Then, Bakan says. “The middle-class asked: why should I put my money into a company and then have the managers use my money for their ends? That’s why the law created the ‘best-interests’ rule, which says that the managers always have to act in the best interests of the corporation, i.e., of its shareholders.” As the film’s narrator puts it: “The corporation is legally bound to put its bottom line ahead of everything else — even the public good.”

It is understandable why the film has attracted law school students and business school grads, but what accounts for its enthusiastic reception by a wider audience? A Hollywood tout might put it this way: Great cast of characters, heroes, heavies, a psycho, dynamite stories, a bit of nasty, some laughs, and a little uplift at the end. It’s a trip! And it brings the news. What’s not to like?

Achbar assembled a wonderful cast of CEOs, a punky corporate spy, whistleblowers, economists, and social critics including Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Howard Zinn, and Jeremy Rifkin. And the CEOs are a revelation for their candor.

Rebirth of a Corporate Raider

In the course of the film, an unlikely hero emerges from the corporate elite. Ray C. Anderson is the CEO of Atlanta-based Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer. Anderson came to Achbar’s attention through an article in the business section of Canada’s the Globe and Mail.

“Anderson,” Achbar recalls, “said that, in the future, people who run businesses the way he does will be put in jail. I thought that was a stunning admission or prediction for a CEO of a billion-dollar-plus corporation.” For 21 years, Anderson had been blithely, perhaps willfully, unaware of what his company was taking from the Earth or doing to it in making its products. Then came the day when he read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, and he had an epiphany.

In one jaw-dropping episode, The Corporation shows Anderson giving a speech to civic and business leaders at North Carolina State University — a speech whose ferocity is tempered only by the courtly cadences of Anderson’s southern drawl:

“Do I know you well enough to call you fellow plunderers?” he begins. “There is not an industrial company on Earth, not an institution of any kind, not mine, not yours, not anyone’s, that is sustainable. By our civilization’s definition, I’m a captain of industry — in the eyes of many a kind of modern day hero. But really, really, the first industrial revolution is flawed, it is not working. It is unsustainable. It is a mistake, and we must move on to another and better industrial revolution. And get it right this time.”

A Rave in the Woods

The Corporation‘s success in Canada is a measure of how effectively activists and sympathizers in the alternative community started and spread the buzz. “The film’s first public screening,” Achbar recalls, “was in an old-growth forest at a rave on Squamish Nation territory off the west coast of British Columbia with a screen stretched between two huge cedar trees next to a glacial mountain and river under star-packed sky.

“It was just a little idea-explosion in this community that I draw a lot of spiritual sustenance from. They’re called Tribal Harmonics, a group in Vancouver that sort of evolved out of the rave community. It’s becoming some kind of music-based intentional community with a lot of sustainable values. This was at a gathering called ‘Reconvergence of the Tribes.’”

Asked if he had used the rave as a marketing tool, Achbar says, “I wouldn’t say I used it. The screening was my gift to that community for all that it had done for me. I think the film is a bit of a Rorschach test in terms of what resonates with each viewer,” says Achbar. “It plays for the rave, for people in dreds sitting in sleeping bags at midnight in the middle of an old-growth forest. And it is going to play at the Richard Ivey School of Business for a bunch of MBA students. To me, that’s the greatest feather in our collective film-making cap: it can play for this spectrum of viewers and have meaning for all of them.”

Bakan believes the film is reaching people because “there’s a certain truth to what we’re saying about the corporation. It always struck me that lawyers and economists had this secret pact. It was almost like a Masonic secret. You ask any lawyer, any economist (including Milton Friedman who says it in the film) what a corporation is programmed to do. I mean let’s cut to the chase. Forget all the nice P.R. and all the advertisements with pristine landscapes for oil companies. The courts have ruled that it is legally required to produce wealth for its shareholders at whatever the cost to other interests, be it the environment, be it the public interest, be it its own workers’ health and safety. Everything has to be justified to serve that end.” If the film reveals what a corporation is programmed to do, says Bakan “then I’m happy.” Asked if it’s hard to imagine a world without corporations, Achbar laughed: “Not for me it isn’t. It’s hard to imagine all the detail of what a society would look like. I don’t think any of us are smart enough to do that. The alternative can only emerge through democratic discussion and process. That’s partly why the film is not prescriptive. It’s descriptive of some people’s responses to particular harms. Social change is incremental. Most people are not quite ready for a revolution.”

And then he adds puckishly, “Even though some of us might be.”

Paul Shalmy is a Berkeley-based freelance journalist.

source: http://www.dragonflymedia.com/cg/cg3106/thecorporation3106.html 9jun04

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