With ‘The Corporation,’ directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott have created an exhaustive examination of ‘today’s dominant institution’. We’ve all worn Nike logos on our feet, logged onto Microsoft, and pumped Shell gasoline, but seldom have we been provided with the nuts and bolts history of the corporate evolution that spawned such companies.
A cool-voiced female narrator guides us through this wealth of concentrated information, beginning our tour with a key definition. Joe Badaracco, Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, describes a corporation as ‘a group of individuals working together to serve a variety of objectives, including the principle one, of which is earning large, growing, sustained legal returns for the people who own the business.’
From this launching point, we’re provided with a detailed history lesson on corporate birth during the Industrial Age. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer, discusses the English invention of steam-driven pumps in 1712 as a means of removing water from mines and allowing increased extraction of coal. This focus on ‘more coal per man hour,’ Anderson explains, became a productivity blueprint for big business that has essentially remained the same, even as products – whether coal, steel, or computer chips – change with the fluctuating tides of consumer demand.
Mary Zepernick and Richard Grossman of Programs on Corporations, Laws, and Democracy describe the relative rarity of the corporation 150 years ago, when its status was attained through seldom-issued state charters. Clear stipulations were built into such charters regulating length of operating time, the amount of capitalization allowed, and liability of shareholders. After the Civil War and Industrial Revolution prompted an explosion in railroads, manufacturing and banking, savvy corporate lawyers rose to prominence and expanded the corporation’s powers.
Predictably, abuses of such power materialized almost immediately. Zepernick describes how the 14th Amendment was passed to provide equal rights of life, liberty, or property to freed black slaves, before lawyers applied it to corporations as well. According to Zepernick, there were 307 cases brought before courts under the 14th Amendment between 1890 and 1910 – 288 by corporations, and only 19 by African Americans. ‘600,000 people were killed to get rights for people,’ says Grossman. ‘Then, with a stroke of the pen, judges applied those rights to capital and property while stripping them from people.’
We’re then jettisoned into more contemporary times, where the corporation operates under law as a legal person, entitled to the same protections and rights as a human being. But exactly what kind of person? According to MIT Institute Professor Noam Chomsky, corporations are ‘special kinds of persons, who have no moral conscience, designed by law to be concerned only with their shareholders.’ Appearing to be random individuals interviewed off the streets, a series of subjects are asked to describe specific corporations, based on the commercial images pushed through advertising. For instance, one interviewee describes Nike as ‘young,’ while another labels Monsanto ‘immaculately dressed.’
The ubiquitous Michael Moore comments that these consumer perceptions of companies as warm, cuddly, empathic human beings with ‘feelings, politics, and belief systems’ are way off the mark. ‘They really only have one thing,’ he claims. ‘The bottom line. That’s it.’
But what if corporations were human beings? In a creative masterstroke, the filmmakers call upon criminal expert Dr. Robert Hare to ‘analyze’ the corporate structure. Utilizing the DSM IV, a kind of diagnostic Bible used by psychologists to determine mental health disorders in patients, ‘The Corporation’ provides us with numerous dastardly examples of big business corruption, following each with a DSM IV criteria. The final diagnosis? Corporations, it would seem, exhibit enough clinical traits to be characterized as psychopathic.
The film suggests that even after the widespread chemical use of Agent Orange in Vietnam Nam was linked to 50,000 birth defects and hundreds of thousands of cancers, its makers never gave any formal admission of guilt (despite shelling out $80 million dollars in settlements). Concluding this damning example with the image of a diagnostic checklist, the film zooms in on the classic psychopathic trait, ‘Unable to experience guilt.’ The whole criminal evaluation concept might smack of gimmick, but it’s an effective, clarifying gimmick all the same.
As unflattering examples of corporate dysfunction pile onto one another, ‘The Corporation’ threatens to become a depressing, heavy-handed piece of fat cat-hating propaganda. But it ultimately offers an inspiring example of big business combining huge financial success with a conscientious, responsible effort to do the right thing. In the case of Ray Anderson’s 1.4 billion Interface carpet empire, the right thing was taking a hard look at how its company was impacting the environment, before pledging to make the company environmentally sustainable. ‘Every living system is in decline,’ Anderson reasons, explaining his environmentally aware epiphany. ‘We’re leaving a terrible legacy of poison and diminishment of the environment for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. It’s the wrong thing to do. If we can’t make carpets in a sustainable way, then maybe we don’t have a place on this earth.’
Perhaps Moore sums it up best when he first acknowledges the obvious benefits of corporate business, then concludes with a cautionary slant. ‘There are companies that do good,’ he confirms, ‘producing goods and services that make our lives better. The problem comes in the profit motivation. There’s no such thing as enough.’
Some critics have slammed the film for being oversimplified, generalizing that all corporations are bastions of evil, tyrannical corruption. Is there a bias? Of course. But the corporate spin that we’re bombarded with daily is biased, too. Perhaps the blunt approach chosen by Achbar and Abbott is being used to inform us of the dark, underreported side of this all-encompassing institution, one that nearly transcends government, and the church as a ruling power. We know all about Happy Meals and running shoes. With The Corporation, we know a great deal more about the huge, pervasive, tireless machine that churns out such items and images – and the countless subtle ways in which such churning impacts our world.