Corporations, go to the head of the line; everyone else, wait
Given the Bush administration’s parsimonious relationship to the truth and the American mania for bite-sized “reality,” it’s a marvel that political documentaries continue to find funding and audiences. The recent crop are arguably the most important contributions to world cinema by the United States in the last couple of years. There is, of course, Fahrenheit 9/11, whose success derives in equal parts from its actual revelations and the Michael Moore trademark. There are also, importantly, The Fog of War, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Weather Underground, and Control Room. These films are a steady countercurrent to the seemingly endless paeans to World War II, a recognition that there have been quite a few wars and generations since the “greatest.” These laudable efforts are now overshadowed by the Canadian heavyweight The Corporation, a wide-ranging and pitiless look at what capitalism has wrought.
As early as 1914, then Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan declared that only by opening “the doors of the weaker countries to an invasion of American capital and enterprise” could communism be stopped. World War II gave American business a tremendous boost, and corporations assumed increasing prominence during the middle years of the 20th century. Then came Reagan and his slew of deregulations, which allowed corporations not only to dominate but to actually have global dominion. The last 25 years have seen nation-state powers recede as corporations increasingly influence policy and actions; the effects of this shift are in the very water we drink, the air we breathe, let alone the countries we invade. To begin to comprehend United States’ domestic, foreign, biological, and extraterrestrial policies, The Corporation is not only obligatory, but imperative viewing.
Benefiting from some rather loose interpretations of the 14th Amendment (“grotesque” in the words of Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians), corporations have lobbied for and been accorded many of the rights and privileges of people. Originally, a corporation’s mandate was rather clear and very limited: in exchange for use of a community’s resources, the incorporated individuals would provide a good or service. Clever use of the legal system and government complicity have bloated corporate powers beyond all expectation. They practice what Stuart Ewen calls the “philosophy of futility,” to “concentrate human attention on the more superficial things that comprise much of fashionable consumption” (from Captains of Consciousness). Using child development discoveries, marketers addle minds before they have time to form, convincing the youngest among us to nag their parents into consumer complicity. The film’s first-rate narration, written by Mark Achbar and Harold Crooks, beautifully summarizes the corporation as an invention that “creates great wealth, but causes enormous and often hidden harms.”
Filmmakers Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan present a dossier on the “person” to which a coporation’s attributes add up, convincingly showing how this powerful institution matches key aspects of the classic psychopath. Achbar and Abbott interview across a wide business spectrum, from CEOs to public relations purveyors and a corporate spy. Along with the predictable critical voices (Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein), there are refreshingly unfamiliar talking heads (physicist/seed activist Vindana Shiva; Jeremy Rifkin — Foundation on Economic trends; Multinational Monitor editor Robert Weissman among them) who make clear the worldwide effects of corporate ideology. Perhaps most crucial is Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman’s clear-headed detailing of “externalities,” the amorphous unintended consequences of a transaction between two parties on a third; in the world at large these “unintended consequences” include poverty, illness, pollution, and death.The Corporation has a buttoned-down look and tone, a rigorous approach reminiscent of an in-house corporate film. Most of the interviews are conducted against backdrops that mirror those of the corporate head shot. This sober approach underscores the seriousness of this project. Most of us live under corporate control with no idea of what these establishments actually perpetrate. In one sequence, passersby describe their conceptions of various companies, endowing them with full-blown personalities. The presentation is sometimes over-ambitious, the masses of material in many ways better suited to a mini-series than a feature-length film.
Two compelling figures propel the narrative: Ray Anderson, the chief executive officer of Interface (the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer), and Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee. By including Anderson, the filmmakers sidestep the inevitable us vs. them aspect of their enterprise. (There are plenty of “who-me?” executives on hand, very few with the temerity to admit, as one commodities trader does, the opportunities disasters provide: during the 2001 attacks his first thought was that “gold must be up.”) Interface’s Anderson outlines his fairly recent realization that much of what passes for business-as-usual inflicts irreversible harm on the planet and its inhabitants; “plunder” is his literary yet chillingly accurate term. He has taken steps to reduce the toll taken by his company on the environment. Though not perfect and sadly a clear exception among his CEO cohorts, Anderson does humanize the true believers and suggest the possibility of change.
Examples of exploitation festoon Kernaghan’s office (clothes, radios, toys, etc.), physical evidence used in the fight to obtain decent wages for all corporate workers, regardless of their home country. His description of the much-publicized Kathie Lee Gifford sweatshop fiasco in 1996 reveals nuances washed away by her tearful press conferences, including how little changed for the laborers involved. Kernaghan’s respect for workers of any nationality and his courage in standing up to the gunsels (often state sponsored) who defend the sweatshops from non-workers highlights the defeatable aspects of even the largest conglomerate.
What emerges is the portrait of a nearly omnipotent nonentity: this cobbled-together “person” has no moral center; profit is its sole purpose, conquest its method. Its steadily escalating powers are occasionally hampered by fines, but even the most hefty of these represent but a small portion of the average corporation’s take. And even large amounts of cash can’t undo environmental damage nor compensate for maiming or death.
The Corporation is both analysis and warning, a hard look at the hard companies that shape the way we live now. Unlike the culture it describes, the film encourages action over passivity. To make this period an anomaly rather than a portent for the future, we must begin to wrest power from corporate “hands” — and stop sitting on our own.