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The Pathological Pursuit of Profit & Power
Directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott; Written by Joel Bakan; Produced by Big Picture Media Corp., 2004) "This vivid and often mesmerizing film lifts the veil from one of the most important and least understood features of modern age: the extraordinary powers that have been bestowed on virtually unaccountable private tyrannies, required by law to act in ways that severely undermine democracy and the most elementary human rights, and that pose a serious threat even to survival." -- Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor, MIT The Corporation is a thought-provoking documentary that presents a controversial and well-informed discussion of the positive and negative influence of corporations in today’s society. The film is entertaining, irrespective of the viewer’s position on the issues it presents and it has received dozens of awards in movie festivals around the world since its release in 2004. Inspired by Joel Bakan’s eponymous book, the film’s premise is that, since the corporation has been given the rights of a legal person, we can evaluate what type of person it is. The filmmakers’ diagnosis? The corporation is a psychopath. They support their arguments with case studies, vignettes, and interviews – some of which are with individuals who have been adversely affected by the actions of large corporations. The filmmakers present the corporation as a paradox: “an institution that creates great wealth but causes enormous and often hidden harms.” As these harms become increasingly apparent to governments and civil societies there is greater pressure on businesses to respond; the rise of the concept of corporate social responsibility attests to this development. The Corporation: Individual or Institution? One of the most compelling aspects of the film is this question: “ Is the firm an individual or an institution?” The historical development of the corporation as a legal entity, neatly summarized in The Corporation, reveals that the answer is not clear-cut. Although a corporation has the legal status of a person, it is not expected to meet the commensurate responsibilities of an individual. A
corporation cannot, for example, be imprisoned for criminal activities. Moreover, as Bakan observed in his book, the law requires corporations to “ prioritize the interests of their companies and shareholders above all others and forbids them from being socially responsible—at least genuinely so. ” Are corporations responsible for their impacts on non-shareholder stakeholders? The film offers contrasting opinions.
“corporations are special kinds of persons, who have no moral conscience. They are designed by law to be concerned only for their stockholders.”
Noam Chomsky said that: As Chomsky puts it: “The individuals participating in [corporations] may be the nicest guys you can imagine, but in their institutional role they are monsters because the institution is monstrous.” Former Royal/Dutch Shell Chair, Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, reminds viewers of the
“There is no organization on this planet that can neglect its economic foundation, even someone living under a banyan tree “.
economic responsibilities and benefits of the corporate entity , Perhaps one of the great insights The Corporation yields is that true corporate social responsibility is achieved only through individuals’ actions. Institutions are comprised of individuals and it is the character of these individuals that defines the institution. Whereas corporate social responsibility is assigned to the institution, it must be directly owned by the individuals within corporations, lest it become diffused in the abstract entity that is the corporation. THE PATHOLOGY OF COMMERCE: CASE HISTORIES To assess the "personality" of the corporate "person," a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social "personality": it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism. Four case studies, drawn from a universe of corporate activity, clearly demonstrate harm to workers, human health, animals
and the biosphere. Concluding this point-by-point analysis, a disturbing diagnosis is delivered: the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism fully meets the diagnostic criteria of a "psychopath." MINDSET But what is the ethical mindset of corporate players? Should the institution or the individuals within it be held responsible? The people who work for corporations may be good people, upstanding citizens in their communities, but none of that matters when they enter the corporation's world. As Sam Gibara, Former CEO and Chairman of Goodyear Tire, explains, "If you really had a free hand, if you really did what you wanted to do that suited your personal thoughts and your personal priorities, you'd act differently." Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer, had an environmental epiphany and re-organized his $1.4 billion company on sustainable principles. His company may be a beacon of corporate hope, but is it an exception to the rule?
“Corporations are people, too; specifically, they're psychopaths”
MONSTROUS OBLIGATIONS A case in point: Sir Mark Moody-Stuart recounts an exchange between himself (at the time Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell), his wife, and a motley crew of Earth First activists who arrived on the doorstep of their country home. The protesters chanted and stretched a banner over their roof that read, "MURDERERS." The response of the surprised couple was not to call the police, but to engage their uninvited guests in a civil dialogue, share concerns about human rights and the environment and eventually serve them tea on their front lawn. Yet, as the Moody-Stuarts apologize for not being able to provide soy milk for their vegan critics' tea, Shell Nigeria is flaring unrivaled amounts of gas, making it one of the world's single worst sources of pollution. And all the professed concerns about the environment do not spare Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other activists from being hanged for opposing Shell's environmental practices in the Niger Delta. The Corporation exists to create wealth, and even world disasters can be profit centers. Carlton Brown, a commodities trader, recounts with unabashed honesty the mindset of gold traders while the twin towers crushed their occupants. The first thing that came to their minds, he tells us, was: "How much is gold up?" Who Owns Knowledge And Life?
The Corporation likewise forces viewers to ponder key philosophical questions about the role of science and entrepreneurship and who should own knowledge and life. Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation on Economic Trends, introduces the complexities of intellectual property by outlining the history of patenting knowledge and life forms. Here, the film pushes our sensibilities of entrepreneurship and patenting. Patenting is intended to encourage innovation by ensuring that the innovator profits from the discoveries. But indiscriminant patenting can lead to “bio-piracy” –– a recently-coined term for the activities of corporations, universities and governments that patent the medicinal or therapeutic properties of plants or animals used in traditional and indigenous medicines. The film also discusses the ethics of genetically-modified foods, which both dramatically increase food production and change farming practices. For example, “terminator technology” in rice prevents farmers from saving and re-sowing seeds because the seeds have been genetically modified to produce only one crop. Perhaps most disturbing, the film raises the specter of corporations’ owning the entire human genetic code, as well as that of all other species on the planet. Advertising and Marketing The filmmakers raise a number of ethical questions about advertising and marketing. For example, the “Nag Factor” sheds light on how corporations advertise to teenagers and children and help them “nag for their products more effectively.” Quite simply, corporations, through television, and other media sources, influence the behavior of children, and in turn, their parents, through the antisocial behavior of nagging. The segment includes a revealing interview with Lucy Hughes, a market researcher who helps corporations “manipulate consumers into wanting and buying your products” or, as Chomsky describes it, helps corporations turn people into “completely mindless consumers of goods that they do not want.” Jonathan Ressler, CEO of Big Fat Inc., also explains “stealth marketing,” a relatively new marketing strategy that uses paid actors to endorse products in apparently casual conversations and interactions in public places. Ressler is a provocative interviewee, arguing that if stealth marketing is “showing you something that makes your life better in some way, then who cares––just say thanks!”
The film opens viewers’ eyes to the pervasiveness of corporate advertising. The visceral responses that stealth marketing may evoke reflect the discomfort many people feel when advertising spills into all aspects of their daily lives. The film asks us to consider the potential risk that stealth marketing poses by fraying the social fabric of our community. What happens when we can no longer discriminate between the messages from which the messenger profits and those in which the messenger merely offers an opinion not designed to make a sale? For managers, the film highlights the importance of honesty in customer relationships – and the increasing difficulty of building that trust. The Corporation as Government The Corporation illustrates convincingly how the roles of corporations and government can overlap by critically examining privatization–– an issue that is always divisive. Interviews with intellectuals, executives and labor leaders introduce viewers to the complex economics and ethics of public goods and services. For example, Elaine Bernard, Executive Director of Harvard University’s Trade Union Program, broadens the definition of wealth from privately-owned goods and resources to include public wealth like clean water and a safe environment. Philosopher Mark Kingwell discusses how the goals of organizations that offer public services necessarily differ from those of private corporations. Michael Walker, erstwhile Executive Director of the Fraser Institute, a market solutions think-tank, argues that “every cubic foot of air, water, …”. of the planet should be privately owned. Privatization, he argues, can improve responsibility and accountability; it “is not such a loony idea; it’s in fact the solution to [many social] problems.” The film also depicts the housing and security programs that Pfizer operates in the community around its Brooklyn facility. With clips of a run-down
neighborhood and interviews with Pfizer employees, the case study demonstrates how corporations often have to provide social services because governments fail to do so. However, Pfizer’s experience shows that there are risks for firms that get involved in services traditionally provided by government. Corporations can easily overextend their activities in the social arena, and it is often difficult to reconcile social needs with shareholder interests. Moreover, problems emerge when a corporation tries to scale back its commitment to essential social programs. Privatization is a complex, controversial and political issue. The privatization debate also underscores how the welfare of the corporation is intrinsically tied to the welfare of society over the long run. The fatal consequences of a failed Bolivian privatization program demonstrate how society can take away a corporation’s social license to operate and highlight for managers the importance of responding to multi-stakeholder concerns.
THE PRICE OF WHISTLEBLOWING It turns out that standing for the public good is an expensive proposition. Ask Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, two investigative reporters fired by Fox News after they refused to water down a story on rBGH, a controversial synthetic hormone widely used in the United States (but banned in Europe and Canada) to rev up cows' metabolism and boost their milk production. Because of the increased production, the cows suffer from mastitis, a painful infection of the udders. Antibiotics must then be injected, which find their way into the milk, and ultimately reduce people's resistance to disease. Fox demanded that they rewrite the story, and ultimately fired Akre and Wilson. Akre and Wilson subsequently sued Fox under Florida's whistle-blower statute.
They proved to a jury that the version of the story Fox would have had them put on the air was false, distorted or slanted. Akre was awarded $425,000. Then Fox appealed, the verdict was overturned on a technicality, and Akre lost her award. [For an update on the case see Disc 2 where we learn that at one point, Jane and Steve became liable for Fox's $1.8 million court costs, later to be reduced to $200,000.] DEMOCRACY LTD. Democracy is a value that the corporation just doesn't understand. In fact, corporations have often tried to undo democracy if it is an obstacle to their single-minded drive for profit. From a 1934 business-backed plot to install a military dictator in the White House (undone by the integrity of one U.S. Marine Corps General, Smedley Darlington Butler) to present-day law-drafting, corporations have bought military might, political muscle and public opinion. And corporations do not hesitate to take advantage of democracy's absence either. One of the most shocking stories of the twentieth century is Edwin Black's recounting IBM's strategic alliance with Nazi Germany-one that began in 1933 in the first weeks that Hitler came to power and continued well into World War II. SOLUTION OF THE PROBLEM The Corporation is a prophetic critique of a beast that has grown too powerful and too dangerous to ignore any longer. People need to change the situation through “reflection, rage, rebellion.” The corporations think they have done their job by “numbing people’s mind; dumbing them down .” Only people can show them how wrong they are. To be free from this greed of capitalism common man has to take the charge knowing their democratic rights.
“Declare Independence from corporate rule”
CONCLUSION The Corporation" is a complete overview over the way businesses have changed our lives is probably more than any feature-length film can deliver, but Achbar, Abbott, and Bakan try none the less. From pollution, globalization, sweatshops, the punishment of whistleblowers, the destructive impact on the biosphere, the privatization of our most precious resources, branding and dishonest PR, the patenting of life forms, media consolidation, certain
corporations' fascist past, exploitive marketing to children, and much much more, the film shows just how pervasive and damaging the consequences of corporatism have been. This is something that is fairly new to us as a society. For hundreds of years it's been individuals in charge, and now it's corporations in charge. We don't even really know who these corporations are, other than the fact that they are psychopathic. It is the psychopathology of the business world that is now running our world. So, if you've ever wondered why everything around you seems so incredibly insane, the answer is because an insane individual is running it all -- an individual known as a corporation -- and it is a frightening collection of corporations that now rule our society. Only people can stop this by uniting against such vandalism.