Bad Company

Corporations are 'persons' under the law; a new book and film ask, What kind of people?

There's an old saying that "a picture is worth a thousand words." That probably sounded pretty snappy back when communication was mostly verbal, when pictures were the exception and words were the rule. But these days the balance has swung mightily the other way. Powerful visuals are everywhere, good words comparatively rare. In support of my thesis I submit: The Corporation (film; opens Fri., June 18, at Egyptian) and The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (book; Free Press, $25).

These twin documents came about in curious fashion. In the late '90s, Joel Bakan, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, was thinking about writing a book on the fundamental institutions that mediate human relations. Mark Achbar, co-creator of the powerful feature-length documentary Manufacturing Consent, was thinking about a film dealing with globalization. Out of a chance encounter between the two came the more focused notion of a portrait of the corporation as it defines modern life and relations among people.

While Achbar and co-director/editor Jennifer Abbott went looking for funding, Bakan developed an outline to help decide what such a film should include. It took nearly four years to line up enough money to make the movie, but the investment paid off: The Corporation has taken prizes at film festivals in Amsterdam, Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto (all the creators are residents of Canada) and a best documentary award at Sundance.

In Manufacturing Consent, the film­makers depended on the mind and personality of Noam Chomsky to lend substance to their sometimes abstract subject matter. Lacking such a figure, The Corporation is inevitably a more diffuse film, and its creators go in for a good deal of razzle-dazzle editing to hold the attention of today's supposedly media-saturated viewer.

The film does hold the attention, but pays a heavy price. Its jittery juxta­positions of found footage (commercials, educational films), animations, and interviews with advocates and enemies of corporate culture distract from the creators' underlying argument even as they attempt to engage it. The Corporation is an exciting, stimulating, but bruisingly bumpy ride. One can't help wondering what it might have been like with a Chomskian central figure and a more sustained, straight-ahead exposition.

Fortunately for the filmmakers and ourselves, we also have The Corporation in book form to chew on, and a very nourishing, satisfying dish it is. Bakan wrote it concurrently with the making of the movie, and many of the talking heads captured on film are trenchantly quoted to support its arguments; but the argument itself is central, and it is a devastating one.

Great political polemics—and in my opinion, The Corporation is a great one—depend at least as much on rhetoric as on logic to persuade their audiences. The Rights of Man is a well-reasoned defense of human freedom, but it would amount to little without Thomas Paine's passionate expression. The Communist Manifesto deploys an argument which still "works" in these supposedly post-communist days, but it would never have survived, let alone served as a rallying cry to revolution round the world, without Marx's and Engels' mastery of language, high and low discourse, irony and inspiration.

In The Corporation, author Bakan's rhetoric is deceptively temperate, which, as the argument unfolds, makes its impact all the more devastating. The book begins with a brief history of the corporation as an institution: how it was brought into existence as a modest legal device to allow groups of individuals to engage in business for limited purposes and the collective good, then transformed into a kind of artificial individual in its own right, with privileges, responsibilities, and advantages of its own.

Very well, says Bakan; if the corporation can be considered an individual, what sort of individual are we talking about? How does this individual behave in relation to other individuals and the world around it? If a corporation were your neighbor, what kind of neighbor would it be? Put that way, the answer is astonishingly obvious. The corporation, psychologically considered, is a nutcase, a dangerous, irresponsible, antisocial maniac—a psychotic, in fact.

This may sound fatally glib; in the film, it rather comes off that way. But in the book, developed gradually with many calmly educed examples and supporting cases, its cumulative effect is devastating. At only a little over 160 pages, The Corporation is a single sustained argument, one that can be absorbed as a whole and incorporated without effort into one's worldview. Additionally, it offers such a crystalline, cant-clearing view of its subject that one comes away knowing where the corporate structure's weak spots and pressure points are, a necessary prerequisite to taking constructive action. I think many readers will do what I did upon finishing the book: reach for the phone, call a friend, and say, "This is the book we've been waiting for."

Back in the 1960s, there were a lot of books being carried around like amulets, collections of words to live by: everything from Carlos Castaneda's woolly Don Juan volumes to Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy's neo-Marxist Monopoly Capital. The Corporation is more along the latter lines, but enjoys one big advantage over it: It wouldn't take a bloody revolution to put its program to work—just clarity, courage, and political tenacity. There are literally dozens of books published every year that make clear how dire are the choices facing our society; hardly any offer formulas to help make sure the choice made is the right one. The Corporation is such a book. Read it, take its message to heart, and pass it on.

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