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© 2004 The Beast

You are what you enable

A review of The Corporation

by Chuck Richardson

There are two messages—one explicit, the other implicit—in The Corporation, a documentary film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan.

The explicit point is that if corporations are people, then they are psychopaths. In the first of the film’s three parts, Achbar & Company cleverly link the World Health Organization’s symptoms of psychopathology to corporate behavior.

The film’s tacit suggestion, however, is that the people who work for them and/or buy into corporate philosophy—as producers and/or consumers—are also psychopathic, or at least possess many of the same symptoms (you are, in part, what you enable).

This subtlety, in my opinion, makes it a more intellectually stimulating film than Fahrenheit-911. Whereas F-911 limits itself by attending to the emotions of potential American swing voters and the left-wing faithful, The Corporation’s imagined audience is open-ended, appealing to honest, hard working folks worldwide, many of them corporate employees or beneficiaries themselves. Since corporations are global entities, the film focuses on their planetary and species-wide effects, rather than one nation’s election. And it does this all in a way that allows us to feel our complicity in failing to resist the rise of totalitarianism in our societies. We are like the pre-Stalinist soviets and Weimar Germans before us.

In many ways, The Corporation reveals how decent people permit such inhumane systems. Which brings us to another irony—it is a more profoundly political film than F-911. Its implicit message makes it so. In its first part, the film employs the most commonly used chart by mental health professionals for diagnosing psychopathy, checking off the symptoms as the mélange of images and talking heads gradually render the logical verdict.

The corporation, the right wing economist Milton Friedman tells us, can’t be any more socially responsible than a building, so asking it to be something it can’t be is absurd (but buildings aren’t legal persons!). One can’t expect it to behave in a lawful way or put the common interests of the public and planet ahead of the private interests of its financial profiteers. Its primary reason for being is to make them money, it is legally bound to do so, and it’s the primary law they adhere to. Because they don’t give a shit about how others feel about them, and have no faculty for long-term relationships or thinking, and recklessly jeopardize the health of all living things, are deceitful without feeling any guilt, corporations are psychopathic outlaws.

There’s the master of urban disguise, Marc Barry, who twenty-somethings might relate to Puck from MTV’s original “The Real World.” With at times spiked blond hair, a goatee and various costumes, this young millionaire proudly makes his way by stealing information from corporate executives on behalf of their competitors, and doesn’t feel any guilt about it. It’s just the way the world is, he says, while stylin’ and profilin’ for the camera.

Carlton Brown is a Wall Street commodities broker who resembles Charles Barkley. He’s a sharp dresser, very stylish, and it was the price of gold going up that was on his mind while he watched the twin towers come tumbling down. He felt nothing for anybody. Make them a commodity and I’ll pay attention, he said, more or less.

Then there’s America’s leading dissident intellectual, Noam Chomsky, telling the camera, “When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave owner, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual [but in good conscience, you can’t].”

Renowned progressive historian Howard Zinn reminds us, as if we already knew, of course, that European fascism rose with the help of corporations. Does claiming that one didn’t know what was going on or that one was just following orders hold up in the end?

Perhaps most disturbing is the delusional blather of Michael Walker, president of the Fraser Institute, a Canadian corporate libertarian think-tank. Walker waxes poetic, gesticulating with his hands to the point where, for particular emphasis, he would unconsciously use masturbatory gestures. Coupled by his gleaming eyes and somewhat flushed, glowing baldness, one could not escape the profound narcissism informing his vision of the world. Walker is jovial, nay downright jocular, when he agrees with the statement that every identifiable particle on earth should be privately owned and colonized by a corporation to benefit both its plump and happy workers and, of course, its stockholders…gesticulate.

Naturally, Walker seems oblivious to the film’s numerous case studies showing not only the already well-publicized harm to the environment, but also to the physical and mental health of workers and consumers damaged by corporate inhumanity.

But why and how can a corporation be considered a “person” and subjected to such an analysis, you ask? The filmmakers anticipated their audience’s resistance, thankfully, providing a perhaps too brief sketch of how corporations became legal persons in the United States.

Basically, corporate lawyers used the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which recognized the rights of former slaves to be protected equally under the laws of the land in order to gain greater power for their business clients. Equal protection meant that corporations—as citizens of the United States—had certain inalienable rights, among them free speech and protection from search and seizure of their private “persons” (i.e.: property) by government agencies without due process of law. So it didn’t take long for them to take everything over in the U.S. since they live longer, accumulate far more wealth and exercise far greater mobility than other types of people, whose flesh and blood physical constraints prevent them from competing with corporations for life, liberty and happiness.

OK, one might say, “But that’s just business. It’s economics. What’s it got to do with politics and my civil liberties? How does that affect me?”

The Corporation addresses these issues and assumptions by presenting the views of a wide range of people. You might see yourself somewhere in this film. Philosophers, corporate executives, Bolivian activists, college students, academics, farmers, housewives and others are interviewed, revealing through their own stories, words and actions the insanity that’s killing the world.

For one who has never thought of our principal institution this way, the prospect that society’s dominant cultural system is psychopathic and forcing us to become psychopaths ourselves by behaving the way we do, is unnerving.

The question is, what does one do about it?

First, you can start by seeing this film. The nearest place it’s in the theatre is Rhinebeck, in the Hudson Valley, or New York City. I saw the CBC television version on videotape. It’s in very limited release in the U.S. despite having won numerous awards, including one at Sundance. Encourage your local independent theatre owner to show the film (hint! Hint! Amherst Theatre and North Park), and get involved by going to The Corporation’s support site at http://www.thecorporation.com/about/moreonhelping.php.

Finally, realize that one can’t bring about the political changes one desires without also nurturing the equivalent psychological or spiritual changes within one’s self.

The Corporation serves as something of an unsentimental mirror image of America’s perception of the world and its existence. It’s time we help ourselves heal before others intervene for us.


Chuck Richardson is a freelance writer whose work is archived at www.bastardpolitics.com. His first book, Memos from Apartment 5, is now available in most online bookstores.

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