CINEMA: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
The Corporation: 'Psychopathic' corporate soul laid bare
, October 23, 2004
Is the modern corporation a psychopath - prepared to lie, steal or kill without remorse in its quest for profits?
This is the question posed by an award-winning Canadian documentary, The Corporation
, currently playing to packed cinema audiences around Australia.
The film is based on a book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power
, by Joel Bakan, who teaches law at the University of British Columbia.
It argues that, while the corporation enjoys the legal status and many of the privileges of a human person, it lacks a human conscience. Moreover, the corporation is required by law to put the profit of its stockholders above any other consideration.
The filmmakers have a bit of fun at the corporation's expense when they interview Robert Hare, an FBI expert at diagnosing criminal and psychopathic behaviour.
Hare runs off a checklist of psychopathic traits - self-centredness, chronic deceitfulness, manipulative behaviour, disregard for the safety of others, and incapacity to experience guilt or feel remorse - and finds that the corporation fulfils them all.
Any human being displaying these traits would be diagnosed as insane.
To drive this point home, the film abounds in images of corporate misdemeanours - environmental degradation; exploitation of Third World youngsters working 12-hour days in prison-like factories; bovine growth hormones which cause cows to develop hideously over-grown udders; and so on.
The documentary, however, does not degenerate into a leftist anti-business rant. It gives people on both sides of the debate a chance to have their say - free-market right-wingers, such as Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and assorted corporate insiders, as well as anti-business left-wingers, such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Michael Moore.
The filmmakers' central argument is that, however well-meaning and decent the people are who make up a corporation, the corporation by its very nature often forces people to act in ways which are ultimately harmful to society.
Mark Barry, a "competitive intelligence professional" (i.e., a corporate spy), pretends to be a headhunter - even to the extent of renting bogus office premises - in order to extract information for his corporate clients from rivals.Manipulative
Lucy Hughes of the advertising agency, Initiative Media, feels no compunction about her role in devising manipulative marketing strategies that exploit children's propensity to nag parents to buy things.
Commodities trader Carlton Brown confesses to the secret glee he and his fellow-traders felt when, on September 11, 2001, the terrorists attacked New York's Twin Towers: "Every trader will tell you that their first thought was, gold must be exploding!"
The documentary discusses the origins and evolution of the modern corporation.
Originally, a corporation was a body of individuals entrusted by government to undertake a specific commercial or construction project. A government charter would lay down strict conditions on the scope of the corporation's activities, including a time limit, and forbade a corporation from taking over other corporations.
The modern corporation is free from these restrictions, but is the beneficiary of an important legal privilege. Through the principle of limited liability, shareholders are no longer held personally responsible for their just debts, in the way they would be if they remained individual traders.
This privilege can be justified economically. Without the safety net afforded by limited liability, large-scale and long-term private investment would be less forthcoming, the economy would be less productive, and we would all be worse off.
After the US Civil War, giant corporations exploited a legal technicality to increase their economic clout. Using the 14th Amendment, passed after the war to guarantee the equal rights of freed slaves, lawyers in 1880 won for corporations the status of a "person", complete with the legal rights enjoyed by a living human being.
The documentary portrays the corporation as a dangerously oversized "person", a power unto itself, lurching out of control and unaccountable to the public.
However true this observation may be, it must not be forgotten that such dangerous and anti-social characteristics are by no means unique to capitalist corporations.All
power - be it the power of over-mighty aristocracies, capitalist robber-barons, militant labour unions or government bureaucracies - is liable to be abused if left unchecked.
The solution is not to abolish the corporation - which, if properly regulated, performs a vital economic role - but to ensure that it cannot abuse the legal privileges granted to it by the community.