In the same season as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, a Canadian documentary challenging corporate power is also racking up ticket sales.
The big unexpected film hit in the Canadian cinemas is a provocative documentary about the modern corporation. The Corporation, awarded at the Sundance Film Festival, has become the biggest-grossing feature documentary in Canadian history. Ticket sales from Canada have already passed the million-dollar mark. That means that the movie is not only a box office hit but a social phenomenon. Then there’s the book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, published in March, which has become a bestseller in Canada.
Canadians Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan have given big money and the modern corporation serious thought. Why has the business corporation grown in 150 years from a relatively insignificant institution into today’s all-pervasive institution with extraordinary influence over our daily lives?
The film not only exposes multinationals’ misdeeds; it puts their behavior on the psychiatrist’s couch. Using a standard checklist for personality disorders, the documentary reveals that the corporate mindset matches that of a classic psychopath—amoral, deceitful, manipulative, and completely self-interested. The conflict between corporations’ bottom-line values and the broader social good makes for high drama, portrayed here in newsreels and cinema verité episodes: In Bolivia, where Bechtel’s government-backed attempt to privatize the country’s water system prompts massive protests; in Nigeria, where environmental activists were hanged for opposing Royal Dutch Shell’s egregious pollution record; and in Central America, where corporate thugs try to intimidate investigators looking into child labor abuses at sweatshops producing Kathy Lee Gifford’s clothing line (which prides itself on corporate donations to children’s charities) for Wal-Mart.
The evolution of the modern corporation began in 1886 with an obscure legal ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Citing this decision, lawyers for corporation have successfully established that private corporations enjoy the same rights as living, breathing people. A corporation can buy and sell property. It can borrow money. It can sue and be sued. But there’s a crucial distinction. Unlike you and me, the institutional corporate “person” has limited liability, which means that investors can lose no more than the amount of money they’ve invested. Limited liability is the master key to attracting investors. As the film’s narrator puts it: “The corporation is legally bound to put its bottom line ahead of everything else—even the public good.”
What accounts for its enthusiastic reception from a wider audience? A Hollywood tout might put it this way: Great cast of characters, heroes, heavies, a psycho, dynamite stories, a bit of nasty, some laughs, and a little uplift at the end. It’s a trip! What’s not to like?
Achbar assembled a wonderful cast of CEOs, a punky corporate spy, whistleblowers, economists, and social critics including Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Howard Zinn, and Jeremy Rifkin. And the CEOs are a surprise for their candor.
In the course of the film, an unlikely hero emerges from the corporate boardroom. Ray C. Anderson is CEO of Atlanta-based Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer . “Anderson,” Achbar recalls, “said that, in the future, people who run businesses the way he does will be put in jail. I thought that was a stunning admission or prediction for a CEO of a billion-dollar-plus corporation.” For 21 years, Anderson had been blithely, perhaps willfully, unaware of what his company was taking from the Earth or doing to it in making its products. Then came the day when he read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, and he had an epiphany.
In one jaw-dropping episode, The Corporation shows Anderson giving a speech to civic and business leaders at North Carolina State University. “Do I know you well enough to call you fellow plunderers?” he begins. “There is not an industrial company on Earth, not an institution of any kind, not mine, not yours, not anyone’s, that is sustainable. By our civilization’s definition, I’m a captain of industry—in the eyes of many, a kind of modern day hero. But really, really, the first industrial revolution is flawed, it is not working. It is unsustainable. It is a mistake, and we must move on to another and better industrial revolution. And get it right this time.”
Joel Bakan: The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (Free Press, ISBN 0743247442)
Check out the website, www.thecorporation.com, to find out if The Corporation will play in a theatre near you.
Taken and adapted with kind permission from Common Ground (June 2004), a San Francisco Bay Area monthly dedicated to ‘help readers live healthier lives and create a sustainable society’. Paul Shalmy is a Berkely-based freelance journalist.