Since a corporation is legally defined as a person, it makes some sense to ask what kind of person a corporation might be. The answer offered by ''The Corporation,'' a smart, brooding documentary directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, is: not a very nice one.
The film, which opens at Film Forum today, half-mockingly offers a psychiatric diagnosis based on a list of abuses that arise from the relentless pursuit of profit. The point is not that individual companies pollute the environment, hurt animals, exploit workers and commit accounting fraud, but that such outrages are a result of the essential personality traits of the corporate life form. These behaviors are symptoms arising from a list of pathologies that includes ''disregard for the well-being of others,'' ''inability to form lasting relationships'' and ''deceitfulness.'' A psychiatrist who has advised the F.B.I. declares that the corporation has ''all the characteristics of a prototypical psychopath.''
This scary diagnosis, backed up by sinister soundtrack music, is supported by talking-head testimony from activists, a few C.E.O.'s and scholars (including Noam Chomsky, the subject of Mr. Achbar's 1992 film, ''Manufacturing Consent,'' with Peter Wintonick as co-director). ''The Corporation,'' based on a book by the Canadian law professor Joel Bakan, is divided into cutely titled chapters (''Democracy Ltd.,'' ''Boundary Issues'') that link particular cases of capitalist misbehavior with larger issues. The structure is a bit unwieldy: some of the case studies, fascinating though they are, bog down the main argument in unassimilable details, while the argument itself sometimes threatens to float away into abstraction.
But the film's formal inelegance is a sign of its seriousness, and also of the complexity of its chosen subject. The topic, after all, is intricate and global, and Mr. Achbar and Ms. Abbott address it with spiky, dogged intelligence, if also with hectoring persistence. Corporate power is at once self-evident and elusive, mundane and esoteric, aggressive and insinuating. In the view of the filmmakers and most of their interview subjects, it is always bad and never to be trusted. The imperative to expand makes the corporation a fundamentally predatory being, gobbling up everything in its path -- natural resources, populations of potential laborers and consumers, public spaces and private aspirations -- without conscience or accountability.
In other words, ''The Corporation'' is a monster movie, and nobody, faced with so much alarming testimony, would want to defend Godzilla as he smashes buildings and tramples streetcars. But like other, less sophisticated efforts to articulate a comprehensive anticorporate ideology, this movie occasionally ensnares itself in contradictions it does not quite acknowledge.Continue reading the main story
What is a Corporation?
According to the movie, a corporation is an artificial creation of a group of individuals who are working together to try and make profit. Created under the law with very specific purposes, a corporation is considered a legal person who can borrow money, sue and be sued, carry on business, etc. However, a corporation's qualities of personhood differ vastly from the qualities of a natural person. A corporate legal person has no moral conscience, cannot do many physical things, and concerns itself with only its stockholders, and not its stakeholders. A corporation's bottom line is put above everything else, including ethics and safety.
An Overview of The Corporation
Released on September 10, 2003 during the Toronto International Film Festival, The Corporation was written by Joel Bakan and directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. This film is a critical analysis of the modern corporation, including discussions on the comparison of corporations to natural persons by law and the effects corporations have on society.
The main assertions of the documentary are centered in the idea that corporations are the primary institutions of our time. The modern corporation holds much more power and influence than past ones. The film defines a corporation as a group of individuals working towards different objectives that reach the same goal, which is to make money for the stockholders.
The documentary also shows the progression of corporations from a narrow base of power to a broader control and influence that corporations now possess. The movie uses a jigsaw metaphor to show the necessities that corporations provide for the world community as a whole. One of its central themes is that corporations can be seen as "bad apples" or monsters bent on taking control of public power and only focused on making money, regardless of the consequences. The movie refers to corporations as monsters trying to engorge themselves in as much profit as possible at anyone’s expense. The corporation, as stated in the documentary, is an institution that births great wealth, but also causes great hidden harms.
One of the main advantages of creating a corporation, the film asserts, is limited liability. Limited liability means that a corporation can only pay out as much as it is worth in a lawsuit, whereas if an individual is sued they can lose more than just his or her current wealth. Courts can go as far as awarding the winning side of civil law suit money from someone's future earnings.
The video also describes how corporations originally started out as charters from the people, working for the people, but have made a wrong turn over time. Long ago, the corporation was considered a subordinate entity that worked for the common good of the people; however, after the Civil War, Industrial Revolution, and the 14th amendment (originally written to aid newly freed African Americans), corporate lawyers took advantage of the system and took more rights for businesses by declaring them persons under the law. However, business corporations have no moral conscience. The movie goes so far as to say that they have their own "evil agenda". "Externality" is the term the movie uses to refer to the evil roles of the corporations. They define externality as the effect of the transactions between two individuals, in which a third party also feels the effects without any input or consent. Furthermore, a corporation's sole purpose is to make money, and they cannot be incarcerated or condemned into jails. However, corporations do good as well. Some necessities that corporations provide are goods and services often required for living. All things in the world need money to survive, and corporations are no exception.
Another facet of corporations that the documentary touches upon is the child labor controversy. It has been widely known for years that different corporations use labor provided by other countries, because it is cheap and provides the most amount of profit to the company involved. This leads to the idea that corporations are deceptive, have a reckless disregard for people, fail to abide by social norms, and are incapable of experiencing guilt. The movie views child labor and a corporation's disregard for people as an epidemic because it is such a common method for producing products. Corporations, it asserts, can be seen as psychotic persons that can be incredibly destructive to society.
Purpose of the Documentary
The overall purpose of this documentary is to point out the over reaching powers of corporations and the flaws in society that allow corporations to do this. Another purpose this film has is to rally people to take action against the unregulated nature of corporations, and possibly even revoke some the powers previously given to corporations. All of these points that are made in the film point to the overall idea of pointing out, what they see as, the absurdity of classifying corporations as people. They seek to say that if corporations are classified as people, they should also be classified as psychopaths. By drawing this conclusion, the makers of the film try to claim that corporations are not people.
Rhetorical Strategies used by The Corporation
See Rhetoric in The Corporation
History of Corporations
See History of Corporations
How Corporations are Perceived
See The Perception of Corporations
Corporations and Personhood
The film offered a new perspective on the debate of whether or not a corporation is a person. It interviewed CEO's of major corporations, and took cameras into the heart of the corporation. There was footage of workers being exploited, employees being threatened, pollution, and other practices not open to the public eyes. Many corporations have had to pay large fines for violations that little to none of the general public knew about. These fines often do not bother the corporations because the profit they make from doing a practice illegally is often greater than the fine for having done something illegal. The film continued to reveal such secrets and likely went far beyond what corporations would ever want the public to see or hear. The film even went as far as to give the idea of the corporation as a person in order to prove how they are not socially responsible and to interpret the actions of corporations in a way that they can be labeled as psychologically unstable or even insane.
Corporations are legally considered people by definition of law in many senses, however the people who are leaders in a corporation can be considered to be above the law as their limited liability creates a small window of opportunity in which to hold them responsible for their actions. (Most companies also trivialize adverse affects which may have incurred through the consumption of one or more of their product yet due to their limited liability very little is done to combat such indecencies.) Corporations have neither “a soul to save nor a body to incarcerate” so how is it that they have received many of the same rights under the bill of right as people. It is due to famous cases such as Citizens United v. FEC and Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which created the status of corporate personhood under the Fourteenth Amendment. Still, there is much debate over their personhood and many believe that the rights of corporations should be more limited than just staying within the parameters of the amendment.
The documentary argues that corporations will go to great lengths to make ends meet and have little concern for others while doing so. Thus public image can be used as a cover for its true intentions. This presents a major difference between the corporate person and the actual person. A company may donate to a charity in order to depict the image of a caring, giving company in order to get consumers to buy its products, whereas the intentions of donating to a charity of an individual are usually much more genuine. This of course raises another issue, that of the importance of intentions. Regardless of a companies profit motive donating to charity is still a contribution for the good. One may look to our judicial system for a resolution. The punishments for certain crimes are often varied on the intent of the criminal. The question of intent and the idea that a corporations only motive is profit continue to be heavily debated.
See the Corporation vs. Natural Person section on the page about corporations for more information.
A major negative aspect of corporations that The Corporation brings up is their hypocritical nature. They advertise themselves and try to get people to buy their products by supporting a good cause, such as helping children with diseases, and yet they use very cheap child (or early teenage) labor in other countries in the manufacture of those products. 
One of the companies the film exposed was that of IBM. The film presents a very controversial claim that IBM helped Hitler and Nazi Germany during WWII. According to the film, IBM had an exclusive agreement with Nazi Germany and secretly sold them punch card machines as well as other machines that aided in the Holocaust. With IBM's machines HItler was able to quickly and efficiently murder the thousands of people in concentration camps. By presenting IBM as a company which enabled the persecution of Jews, the film is able to portray IMB in a negative light and support the idea that corporations sole motive is that of profit. Coca-Cola also didn't let the economic powerhouse of the Third Reich pass it by. During WWII Coca-Cola created Fanta Orange and distributed to the millions in Nazi Germany. Buy creating a brand new product Coke was able to avoid being associated with Hitler while still making major profits in Germany. The importance of public image can be seen in these two examples.
See Corporate Marketing
Disregard for the Environment
See Corporations and the Environment
Negative Externalities of CorporationsBecause corporations are legally bound to put the bottom line above everything else, they create negative externalities, essentially making others "pay the bill" for their actions. Intrinsic to their design is the concept of making as much money as possible by exploiting resources to cut costs as much as possible. They are concerned with only short-term profits for their stockholders, practically ignoring all other consequences.
The Corporation devotes a whole section of the documentary to corporate externalities represented by various forms of harm. Harm to workers includes layoffs, factory fires, and sweatshop conditions. As a population we have now entered the Petro chemical era. Synthetic chemicals have been permeated into the work place and cause harmful effects. Harm to human health has come form these toxic chemicals as well as pollution, leading to cancer and birth defects. In fact according to the documentary, industry is largely responsible for today's cancer epidemic. Harm to animals includes habitat destruction, experimentation, and certain farming techniques involving chemicals, such as RBGH, which is given to cows. Harm to the biosphere includes carbon dioxide emissions and nuclear waste.
An externality is a decision that affects someone unassociated third party member. In the movie, they try to demonize the corporations again because some of them made a profit after disasters such as 9/11 or the Iraq bombing. In some ways, it is not fair to try to make it seem like the corporations would actually want something like this to happen because it is not their fault that they were affected by an externality such as the bombings.
The Corporation points out to many externalities in detail in the film, the first big one being sweatshops. The film shows evidence of sweatshops making 178 dollar suits pay workers only 74 cents per suit. The scary thing is many of the reports are way out of date, since the corporation uses "spies and goons" it can make it extremely difficult to get any kind of information on the conditions of the factories. And if word gets around that their treatment of workers isn't satisfactory, corporations can easily move operations out of state."Corporation are Callous". When they use up one country of desperate people they move to another. They are "Incapable of a long term relationship".
However, workers conditions aren't the limit of a corporations influence. Often times, consumers can also be harmed by the corporation. One example the movie likes to point out is the Monsanto Corporations RGBH case. RGBH is a Bovine milk growth hormone that increased a cow's production of milk. Monsanto claimed that injecting its chemical into cows would not harm the cows or consumers, and increases farmers productivity. An ideal scenario. Soon, those statements would prove to be fallacious. Undercover reporters soon discovered that the chemicals had side effects to both cows and humans and that Monsanto was lying.
But after writing up their script, the reporters had difficulty getting it approved by their supervisor. Monsanto had connections with the news station, and tried various tactics to get the reporters off the case. They tried bribes, terror tactics, but the reporters were adamant to get the broadcast going. Monsanto eventually "gave in and compromised" by trying to minimize the effect of the report, which the reporters countered by going to court. It would take 3 years for this case to go to court. Three years were countless children were still drinking RGBH milk. However, the most startling news at the end of the day was that the reporters lost the case. Apparently falsifying news wasn't illegal to the court.
As a result of the impact of these externalities, many people are worried. A majority of the worlds corporations are run by rich, white males, and they are out of touch with the rest of the world. Seeing as the majority of society is not a rich, white male, many people feel that these CEOs should not take actions and make decisions for the rest of society which may affect everyone.
See Corporations and Labor
See Limited Liability Issues
Controlling the Corporation
One way to manipulate the Corporation is for Congress to pass laws linking a behavior of the Corporation that Congress disapprove's of with a fine. This is the thought behind the cap and trade model mentioner above in the section entitled "Making Corporations Care About the Environment". However, if you look at the big picture, passing a law to fix Corporations flaws one by one is not a very effective way to improving the Corporation. It is like we are slapping a piece of duck tape on every new rip on an old pair of jeans, we can use as much duck tape as we want, but the only real solution to the problem is to just get a new pair of jeans. Or in this case, we need to change how the Corporation functions. Looking at the documentary, we know that the Corporation is full of people that are just like the normal citizen, as was the case when the Exon CEO talked with a bunch of angry protesters over a cup of tea. It only takes a few bad apples for a mistake to happen, for a few individuals to care more about cost and efficiency than safety,and you end up with something catastrophic like BP's oil well leak. As mentioned earlier, Corporations are lean mean, money making machines. In fact, their not much different than the average American that walks inside a Target or Walmart. But it is their similarity and interation with us humans that is ultimately what allows us to fix the Corporation problem. The Corporation is made up of people, and it survives by making money of off people. Taking this into account their are two ways to cure the Corporations "Psychopaths state". First, we could educate the consumers, preferably when they are younger. We need to teach the people to care less about cost, and more about the Corporation about them. If people can learn to look beyond cheap, material goods and see themselves as supporters of a certain Corporation, Corporations will be forced to not only have low cost good, but good morals as well. The other solution is we can educate the people who will eventually make up the Corporation to be more moral. The probability of the shady dealings on the BP oil drill would have been much less likely to happen if oil safety inspectors were to speak up and if the Managers had read on the drastic impacts oil spill have had in the past. Like consumers, if we can make individuals inside the Corporation care more about morals than money directly, we can avoid problems since people inside the Corporation can speak up with out fear of loosing their jobs.
Refuting the Ideas in The Corporation
One of the things standing out about the documentary was the negative connotation portrayed about industry. The film brings up how companies are always trying to become more efficient at the cost of the environment and their customers. Not all companies do this on purpose, and some mistakes need to be made for industry to be improved. Do you think chemists made DDT poisonous to people on purpose? Do you believe all engineers that work in industry plan to destroy natural resources for a profit? Look at what school everyone in this class is going to graduate from, most of us will hold some job where we will be working in industry. What if one of us makes a mistake, are we going to be persecuted in the same way?
The film points out only the negatives of industry of the environment but the reality is, in some cases, these negative externalities are worth it. Not everyone is willing to pay a significant amount of money for a product that could be produced much cheaper even if it has negative affects on the environment or their own health. For example, if the United States didn't burn coal, the majority of homes would not have power. The majority of citizens in the United States wouldn't argue against the negatives of coal burning because they wouldn't want to see an increase in their electric bill with an alternative. Essentially, they would rather breath polluted air than not have electricity or pay more money for the same service. Many of the corporations don't intend to hurt the public on purpose but to just drive down their prices so they can make more profit and make the consumer happier. So the question was asked, "Do you think chemists made DDT poisonous to people on purpose?", the answer to that question is no, but it just happened to be an negative in keeping pests away from valuable crops which ultimately drove down the price. Any corporation doesn't want to be the cause of something as dreadful as causing cancer but when the corporation is making a huge profit, the negatives of their product are typically ignored.
It is inaccurate to say that all engineers that work in industry plan to destroy natural resources for profit. Many engineers are working to design ways to decrease our usage of natural resource and make machines as efficient as possible. One of the main goals engineers have in mind is building something as efficient and cheap as possible; doing this, they would get more business and more profits for the entire industry. If an engineer has a reputation of overspending and wasting valuable resources then they are losing business for their company. Also, Engineers don't usually bear the responsibility for the destroying of natural resources, the leaders of the corporations do. Since CEO's are responsible for what their workers do, it is the CEO's responsibility to keep the engineers in check.
Connections with other texts
Citizens United v. FEC
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and The Corporation documentary have many similar themes, and both discuss with support whether or not a corporation should be considered a person and, if it were to be changed, how the rights of a human person would be altered by that. In Justice Stevens' dissent, he states that corporations should not be considered people which contradicts a large view in the movie that corporations could be considered people. Whether or not corporations should be given the title of personhood may differ in two, but both make it a point to say that corporations need regulation either way. The documentary uses the existing legal stance on the personhood of corporations to show that if a corporation has the same rights as a person it should face the same consequences if it is not mentally stable, however the Citizens United case questions the legitimacy of the corporation being defined as a person and therefore the two works tackle the same problem from two opposite view points.
Irony of The Corporation
Though throughout the movie the director and writers are on a anti-corporation crusade, the film itself was produced by Big Picture Media Corporation. Additionally, it's website was designed and is hosted by Good Company Communications, Inc. and the film was distributed by Zeitgeist Films Ltd.
See The Corporation: Documentary discussion.
- ↑ 1.01.1 "The Corporation." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 29 September 2010. Web. 07 October 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Corporation>
- ↑ The Corporation. Dir. Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. Big Picture Media Co., 2003. DVD.