The Corporation

By Crispin Dowler

This new documentary from the director of Manufacturing Consent begins with a forceful denial that the world we have adapted to – people as consumers, relationships as commerce, reality as branding – will be the last stage of history: "like the church, the monarchy, and the communist party in other times and places," says the voiceover, "the corporation is today's dominant institution. But history humbles dominant institutions. All have been crushed, belittled, or absorbed into some new order. The corporation is unlikely to be the first to defy history."

The latest in a string of mainstream non-fiction films and books to attack the excesses of corporate power, The Corporation is also one of the most ambitious. Rather than focus on the exploitative, destructive, or manipulative practices of a particular industry or company (like Fast Food Nation or Outfoxed), the film attempts to show that exploitation, destruction, and manipulation are necessary aspects of a corporation's structure. According to Achbar's co-creators, editor Jennifer Abbot, and legal academic Joel Bakan (who wrote the book the film is based on), the purpose is to 'de-reify' the corporation: that is, in Abbot's words, to take social practices that have become accepted and unquestioned and "to make them appear strange, to shift perspective."

Put like that, it sounds amazing that they got funding. As Bakan says, the people who commission documentaries don't want to hear about institutional analysis – "they want to know 'who are the characters, what are the stories, where's the drama?'" The film gets around this problem by making the institution itself the central character. In legal terms a corporation is a person – it has rights, it can sue for libel, etc. but (again, legally) it's only obligation is to look after the interests of its stockholders. Taking this metaphor at face value allows Achbar and co to approach their subject as forensic psychologists, developing a psychological profile of an immensely powerful 'individual' that is capable only of pursuing self interest – and so the institution becomes the super-villain.

Interviewing academics, journalists, ceos, activists, and an industrial spy, alongside the big names of the North American new left (Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein) and new right (Milton Freidman), the filmmakers present their material as a series of case studies, illustrating different aspects of the corporation's 'personality'. As a history is assembled of the pursuit of profit at the expense of every human value or need, a disembodied checklist ticks off the characteristics of a psychopath. Reckless disregard for the safety of others? Check. Incapacity to experience guilt? Double check.

To be honest, the 'corporation as psychopath' metaphor is unlikely to trigger the profound awakenings that its authors intend. If you don't already know that corporations are amoral organisations driven only by profit, you're probably too stupid to find the cinema. But as a device for tying the film's disparate stories together, it works very well; and the stories are what makes this film worth watching. Achbar's interviews with marketing executives, for example, are still giving me nightmares. In one section a reptilian media expert describes, with gentle pride, her pioneering study on how to condition children to harass parents into buying stuff (she called it the nag factor): "A friend asked me, 'is it ethical?' and... i don't really know... these are the adult consumers of tomorrow, so shouldn't we start talking to them today?" Elsewhere, an expert in 'undercover marketing' describes how product placement is moving out of films and television and into everyday life. That bloke you overheard talking about the new album he likes? Someone's probably paying him. Everything's a market. Sleep tight.

Other stories you will have heard before, like the biotech industry patenting life-forms and developing 'terminator gene' technology to make it impossible for farmers to reuse seed, but they are told with an attention to detail that makes them compelling nevertheless. And an account of the 2000 'water uprising' in Cochabamba, Bolivia, against attempts by the IMF and the Bolivian government to sell the city's water supply to the Bechtel corporation, is genuinely inspiring.

But as social analysis, the film is crudely one-dimensional. The Corporation, rather than acting as a reference point to illuminate the wider picture of power relations, becomes a narrow focus, which distorts the rest of the image. Yes, corporations do systematically exploit workers, despoil the environment, attempt to commodify every aspect of human experience. But this process was well under way long before the corporations and finance capital assumed the dominant role they have today. By fixating on the corporation's legal 'responsibility' to maximise profit, the film suggests that institutional structure is the root of the problem. But it was capitalism that invented corporations, not corporations that invented capitalism.

Most disappointingly, the history of the corporation is presented only from an elite perspective. In two and a half hours of interview footage, the filmmakers speak to chief executives, traders, academics, and numerous 'experts,' but they don't speak to anyone who works in a corporation (unless you count CEOs and journalists.) the picture we get is a familiar one – capital as an invincible force, constantly extending its reach to new corners of the earth, people as passive consumers and drones, locked into a cycle of mindless work and mindless consumption. But this is only half a history. Resistance to these forces has a history that is just as long – it didn't begin, as the film suggests, in Seattle in 1999. The real history of the corporation is also a history of strikes, sabotage, bunking off, theft, riots, uprisings, and revolutions. It's not just a history of power, but also of weakness. Had Achbar, Abbot and Bakan chosen to tell this story, they may truly have suceeded in producing a film that could change the way we think about corporate power.
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