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The Corporation

Director: Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar
Cast: Jane Akre, Ray Anderson, Maude Barlow, Noam Chomsky, Milton Freidman, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Vandana Shiva, Steve Wilson

(Zeitgeist Films; US DVD: 5 Apr 2005)

Onto the Ice

I love working with archival footage… For me, it takes you back in time and it reveals things about our present, things that we consider normal today that weren’t normal in the past, in a very poetic way.
—Jennifer Abbott, commentary, The Corporation


Corporations, says Noam Chomsky, “are a special kind of persons, designed by law to be concerned only for their stockholders, and not, say, what are sometimes called their stakeholders, like the community or the workforce, or whatever.” Indeed, as The Corporation details, corporations are legally “persons,” so that they have rights of citizens but needn’t consider any moral dimensions in their decision- and policy-making. They make money, whatever the costs. Corporations are legally “people,” observes Robert Monk, but “they aren’t like the rest of us.”


Zeigeist’s two-disc edition of The Corporation underlines the documentary’s argument—that the corporation is designed as a psychopathic person, according to the diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Partly funny and patently absurd, the evaluation takes legal language on its face, submitting that if a corporation is legally “a person,” it might be expected to behave like one, too. The DVD set includes bundles of extra materials, including two commentary tracks, one by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, another by Joel Bakan, co-producer and author of the book on which the film is based, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. The first disc also features a Q&A session with the filmmakers, deleted scenes, a taped Air America interview with Bakan by Janeane Garofolo, and a brief discussion of the film’s grassroots marketing campaign. The second disc offers a whopping five hours of extra interviews, organized so you can select by interviewees or by topics.


All this material is at once daunting and inspiring. Thoroughly researched and conscientiously designed, the documentary uses humor in service of its points, allowing you to laugh—however bitterly—at the absurdities it tracks, from the “sickness” of the corporation to the awful next steps now being manifested in the “ownership society.” Compiling interviews with supporters as well as interrogators and opponents of corporations; economists (for instance, Milton Friedman); academics (Elaine Bernard of Harvard); CEOs (Goodyear Tire chairman Sam Gibara); historians (Howard Zinn); reporters (Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, who blew the whistle on Fox News’ efforts to repress their story on Monsanto’s synthetic bovine growth hormone rBGH); media activists (Michael Moore); a corporate spy (Marc Barry) who feels no guilt over his chosen profession; a feminist seed activist, Dr. Vandana Shiva, who observes the senselessness of the “suicide gene” that assures seeds become unusable after expiry dates); and a spokesperson for Disney’s Celebration, Andrea Finger, who insists, smiling, “The Disney brand speaks of reassurance, it speaks of tradition, it speaks of quality.” (If nothing else in this film scares you, this might.)


While the sheer range of interview subjects suggests it offers many views, the dominant idea is hard to shake. Even those who speak in favor of corporations make them sound nefarious. The film begins with an historical overview, tracing corporations’ first designation as legal “individuals” (via the Fourteenth Amendment, originally designed to grant human rights to former slaves). Granted rights to make claims and legal arguments to protect themselves and their property, corporations have become the planet’s dominant institution, such that their welfare, as individuals, takes precedence over all else. As Bakan observes in his commentary, “What the corporation does is create this concept of limited liability. The people who own the company are not legally liable for things that go wrong with the company… And that’s where you create this strange notion, kind of a legal alchemy, where the entity itself, the corporation, separate from the actual people who own it, becomes the holder of legal responsibilities and legal rights.”


This story of rights and abuses is increasingly distressing. Narrated by Mikéla J. Mikael, the film checks off DSM-IV categories in which corporations exhibit what can only be termed extreme disorder (they are deceitful, callous, reckless, amoral, unable to maintain relationships, can’t feel guilt or remorse), examining “case studies” of corporations’ injurious behaviors, polluting the environment, exploiting workers in sweat shops, and valuing profits over lives, as when commodities broker Carlton Brown reports Wall Street traders’ responses to the abrupt rise in gold prices as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. In the DVD’s extra interviews, he describes “the art of the sell.” On the phone, you make sure the callee understands you are “the guy he needs… The more convincing I am, the more people are gonna believe me.”


Chomsky points out a shift in corporations’ historical purpose (initially, they were entrusted to “serve the public good”), as Zinn (A People’s History of the United States) notes the connections between the rise of European fascism and corporate structures. Edwin Black (IBM and the Holocaust) argues further that Nazi accounting systems were aided by early punch-card machines, at which point an IBM VP, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, appears to say, essentially, that a company is not responsible for uses of its product. Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer, takes a different view, asserting that businesses must be liable to their social and physical environments, publicly promoting the concept of sustainability.


Such aggression is not just “bad,” but only playing by established rules. As Bakan says, aggression has its place. “When I play hockey,” he says in his commentary, “I can be really nasty. As soon as I step on the ice, I will do things like push people and shove them and trip them and bother them with my stick, and all these kinds of nasty things that if I did at work, for instance… I’d be in trouble… So we create this kind of on-ice, off-ice distinction, where the rules are really different… I think it might be the same for executives. When they go to work at the office, they’re going onto the ice.”


Corporations are implicated as well in the ongoing and increasingly global drive to patent, own, and sell everything from DNA to water (the film’s example here is the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life, a Bolivian anti-water privatization activist organization, which agitated against the privatization, costing one demonstrator’s life). Benefiting from this drive in particular are resourceful students Chris Barrett and Luke McCabe, who convinced a bank to “sponsor” their $40,000 college tuitions, then went on to market their arrangement with assorted television appearances.


Given the film’s premise, that corporations are by definition deceitful and self-sustaining, an examination of public relations and marketing is to be expected. Naomi Klein (No Logo) contends that “branding is the new production,” and moreover, today, “All relationships are commercial,” mediated through self-images premised on brands. Product placement in movies or tv is old hat; nowadays, the more sophisticated and all-pervasive method is to insure products are visible and available at every moment—you see someone on the sidewalk extolling the virtues of a new drink, or someone on the subway who endorses a new CD—such seemingly innocuous instances provoke purchases.


On the extra interviews disc, Klein says, “I think we should stop beating ourselves up for buying in to what is essentially our most cherished ideas, our most cherished values. Because there’s so little competing with them.” Selling is everywhere. Also on the extra interviews disc, Clay Timmons submits that “one of the earliest brands was the Church. And if you think of the tools and the aspects that the Church used, they understood branding principles well before most others in society did. They created a symbol, or symbols, a… branded environment… early forms of marketing and advertising, and a call to arms, in the call to prayer.”


More or less agreeing with Klein, but coming from the other direction, Lucy Hughes, the VP of Initiative Media, recounts how she created the Nag Factor study, in order to help corporations best make use of the ways kids nag their parents for stuff. Training children from infancy to absorb through mass media commercial messages, corporations don’t only create future adult consumers, but importantly, create incessant gadflies to their parents’ patterns of consumption, now.


All sorts of definitions have shifted, from “public” to “good” to “corporations.” As expectations have changed—as to who’s responsible to or for whom—the film also offers some hope, observing that some battles have been won. If sweatshops still exist, at least now they’re visible (or were, during the Kathie Lee Gifford/Wal-mart publicity blitz). And if a CEO might be educated and go on to educate (Anderson being the exemplar here), then perhaps others might follow suit, contemplating long-term effects rather than only pursuing immediate profits. Let’s hope so.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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14 Jul 2004
The film argues that today, corporations are the planet's dominant institution, such that their welfare, as individuals, takes precedence over all else.
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