Multinational Monitor

JUL/AUG 2004
VOL 25 No. 7


Monopoly Medicine: The Built-In Inefficiencies of a Patent-Based Pharmaceutical R&D System
by James Love

It’s in the Genes: Patent Barriers to Genetic Research
by Lee Drutman

Buy the Numbers: Publishers Seeks Special Database Monopoly Protections
by Robin Gross

The Great Global R&D Divide
by Gunnar Westholm, Bertrand Tchatchoua and Peter Tindemans


The Rise of the Free Software Movement: Freedom from Proprietary Control
an interview with Richard Stallman

A Conspiracy of Silence: The Suppressed Evidence About Anti-Depressants
an interview with Charles Medawar


Behind the Lines

A Healthcare R&D Treaty

The Front
Rigging the System - Lay Does Perp Walk - Remembering Paul Klebnikov - "The Shame of Humanity" - Grief for the Reefs

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award


Names In the News



The Corporation: Two Views

The Corporation, a documentary now making its away across the United States, is the most important movie about corporate power and its consequences in memory. It is introducing core issues of the conflict between concentrated corporate power and democracy to an ever-growing audience. Here, two views on the movie and book: an enthusiastic embrace from Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, and a more tempered appreciation and comment from Jason Mark and Kevin Danaher.

The Corporation:
A film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott & Joel Bakan

The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power
By Joel Bakan
New York: Free Press, 2004
240 pages; $25.00

Reviewed by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

People ask, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. What can we do about it?

We say -- read one book, see one movie.

The book is titled: The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. It is by Joel Bakan.

The movie is called: The Corporation. It is by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan.

(Full disclosure -- our work -- the Top 100 Corporate Criminals of the 1990s -- is featured in the movie.)

We've seen the movie.

We're read the book.

And here's our review:

Scrap the civics curricula in your schools, if they exist.

Cancel your cable TV subscriptions.

Call your friends, your enemies and your family.

Get your hands on a copy of this movie and a copy of this book.

Read the book. Discuss it. Dissect it. Rip it apart.

Watch the movie. Show it to your children. Show it to your right-wing relatives. Show it to everyone. Organize a party around it. Then organize another.

For years, we've been reporting on critics of corporate power -- Robert Monks, Richard Grossman, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Sam Epstein, Charles Kernaghan, Michael Moore, Jeremy Rifkin.

For years, we've reported on the defenders of the corporate status quo like Milton Friedman, Peter Drucker and William Niskanen.

But Bakan, a professor of law at British Columbia Law School, and Achbar and Abbott have pulled these leading lights together in a 145-minute documentary that grabs the viewer by the throat and refuses to let go.

The filmmakers juxtapose well-shot interviews of defenders and critics with the reality on the ground -- Charles Kernaghan in Central America showing how, for example, big apparel manufacturers pay workers pennies for products that sell for hundreds of dollars in the United States -- with defenders of the regime -- Milton Friedman looking frumpy as he says with as straight a face as he can that the only moral imperative for a corporate executive is to make as much money for the corporate owners as he or she can.

Others agree with Friedman. Management guru Peter Drucker tells Bakan: "If you find an executive who wants to take on social responsibilities, fire him. Fast." And William Niskanen, chair of the libertarian Cato Institute, says that he would not invest in a company that pioneered in corporate responsibility.

Of course, state corporation laws actually impose a legal duty on corporate executives to make money for shareholders. Engage in social responsibility -- pay more money to workers, stop legal pollution, lower the price to customers -- and you'll likely be sued by your shareholders. Robert Monks, the investment manager, puts it this way: "The corporation is an externalizing machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine (shark seeking young woman swimming on the screen). There isn't any question of malevolence or of will. The enterprise has within it, and the shark has within it, those characteristics that enable it to do that for which it was designed."

Business insiders like Monks and Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Corporation, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer, lend needed balance to a movie that otherwise would have been dominated by outside critics like Chomsky, Moore, Grossman and Rifkin. Anderson calls the corporation a "present day instrument of destruction" because of its compulsion to "externalize any cost that an unwary or uncaring public will allow it externalize."

"The notion that we can take and take and take and take, waste and waste, without consequences, is driving the biosphere to destruction," Anderson says, as pictures of biological and chemical wastes pouring into the atmosphere roll across the screen.

Like Republican Kevin Phillips is doing as he criss-crosses the nation, pummeling Bush from the right, Anderson and Monks are opening a new front against corporate power from inside the belly of the beast. They are stars of this movie and book.

The movie and the book drive home one fundamental point -- the corporation is a psychopath.

Psychologist Dr. Robert Hare runs down a checklist of psychopathic traits and there is a close match.

The corporation is irresponsible because in an attempt to satisfy the corporate goal, everybody else is put at risk.

Corporations try to manipulate everything, including public opinion.

Corporations are grandiose, always insisting that "we're number one, we're the best."

Corporations refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions and are unable to feel remorse.

And the key to reversing the control of this psychopathic institution is to understand the nature of the beast.

No better place to start than right here.

Read the book.

Watch the movie.

Organize for resistance.

Shrinking the Beast: Commenting on The Corporation
By Jason Mark and Kevin Danaher

Ever since Tony Soprano embraced therapy, psychoanalysis has enjoyed a new edgy cachet. If even a mob boss can benefit from some time on the shrink's couch, what can't psychology do?

Tony Soprano's sessions at the psychiatrist allow the show's writers to tackle the ever-compelling question of why good people do bad things -- or, as may be more true with the Jersey godfather, how bad people also manage to do good things. Sure, Soprano is a homicidal brute, but he is also a loving father and an often-tender husband. The two sides of his personality may be contradictory, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're incompatible.

Exploring the tension between private personality and public behavior is also the focus of the new film, The Corporation. Directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbot (best known for making Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent into a film) and writer Joel Bakan plumb the dark depths of the of the corporation's psyche to ask: If the corporation were a person, exactly what kind of person would it be? The therapist's technique is just as revealing with the Fortune 500 as it is with Tony Soprano. After all, in many people's eyes Corporate America is but a bigger, badder version of the Mafia.

The Corporation starts out by grappling with the notion of the corporation as a person. Digging back into United States history, the film shows how nineteenth century corporate lawyers aggressively pushed Robber Baron-era courts into giving corporations many of the same rights possessed by flesh and blood beings. You may like to think that Wal-Mart owes its existence to a piece of paper, but in the eyes of the courts, it enjoys many of the legal protections you do.

So if the corporation is a person, what type of person is it? An important question, especially since this unique being (essentially immortal, with the ability to repeatedly shift its shape) is not just an ordinary figure in our midst, but a power that surrounds us 24-7.

The filmmakers start where any good therapist would -- with the corporation's behavior. We quickly learn that the corporation is a terribly anti-social creature. Corporations, for example, force people to work for poverty wages in sweatshops, systematically preying on desperate people and using them up like disposable gloves. Corporations poison our water and air with chemicals that contribute to cancer and birth defects. They routinely mislead the public about the impacts of their actions. And on the rare occasions when corporations are punished for their misdeeds, they routinely return to their bad behavior, having failed to learn anything about the consequences of their actions.

Using a World Health Organization psychology profile, the film shows that corporations display reckless disregard for others, are incapable of experiencing guilt, fail to conform to basic social norms, and frequently repeat their crimes. The final diagnosis is unsettling, if not surprising: The corporation exhibits all the traits of a psychopath.

Applying psychoanalysis to the corporation is a nice little trope, and it works to reveal some new insights about the corporation. Unfortunately, the idea isn't enough to hold up the entire film. After about 45 minutes, the therapy session is over, leaving another 100 minutes of space to fill.

The psychoanalysis dispatched with, the filmmakers pile on example after example of corporate malfeasance -- privatizing the global commons, brainwashing children, manipulating adults. It's all very informative, and the interviews with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Moore, and Vandana Shiva, among others, are thought provoking. But after a while it gets repetitive. For example, we don't really need a 15-minute digression into how IBM provided the back office support for the Holocaust. The point has been made: The corporation is one bad dude.

The film's unchecked sprawl really is a shame, for this is a hip-looking film that shouldn't have to struggle to keep your attention. The editing is lively, and the scenes well selected. The inclusion of 1950s corporate propaganda films ("That's how capitalism works, to give us the things we need") supplies a refreshing irony amid all the earnestness. And some scenes are truly priceless, such as the sight of Shell Oil CEO Mark Moody-Stuart having tea on his front lawn with some Earth First! activists who have just draped a giant banner reading "murderer" across his roof.

Despite its meanderings, The Corporation manages to hold the viewer's attention in its last hour and a half by exploring questions far more interesting than whether or not the corporation is clinically psychotic. That is: Why do the decent, well-meaning individuals within a corporation do such terrible things? How is it that individual ethics become drowned out by collective imperatives?

The answer -- as the film hints at, but unfortunately never explains directly -- is that as soon as an individual enters the larger body of the corporation, responsibility for one's actions become detached from one's self. If a crime or abuse occurs in the corporation's name, it's the system's fault, not the fault of any one person.

At the dawn of the modern corporation, this principle was well understood. "Corporations will do what individuals would not dare to do," a Boston capitalist from the 19th century once said. "Where dishonesty is the work of all the Members, every one can say with Macbeth in the murder of Banquo ëthou canst not say I did it.'"

Or as Michael Moore puts it during an interview in the film: "There's no connect between, ëI'm just an assembler on an assembly line building a car' and ... the larger picture and larger responsibility of what we're doing."

The corporation is a crazy sociopath because it suffers from a multi-personality disorder, a clash between the individuals within the corporation and the collective personality they form.

Thankfully, the filmmakers don't rely solely on the musings of the Left's luminaries to explore these questions. Interviews with more than a dozen former and current business executives help reveal what it's like to be torn between a personal sense of rightness and a career that demands you do wrong.

One interview with an advertising executive is particularly telling. After describing how she and her company toy with children's emotions in order to sell them stuff, she pauses and asks: "Is it ethical? ... I don't know. But our rule is to move products, and [if we do that] then we've done our job."

This seems to be the very essence of the corporate condition: Concern that one is doing harm, yet at the same time ambivalence about that harm. The underlying emotion is powerlessness. It's like saying, "We have met the corporate enemy, and it is us. Oh well."

The good news is that sometimes people do overcome that sense of powerlessness and decide that they can change business as usual. That's what happened to Ray Anderson. As the head of Interface, the world's largest carpet manufacturer, Anderson used to give little thought to how his business was impacting people and the planet. Then he read Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins' Natural Capitalism, and it provoked what Anderson calls "an epiphany."

"The way I've been running my business is the way of the plunderer," Anderson says in an interview. "We are plundering something that's not mine. ... The day must come when this is illegal, when plundering is not allowed. It must come. My goodness, someday people like me will end up in jail."

The intensity of Anderson's conversion experience -- this man in a suit often gets misty as he speaks into the camera -- is impressive. It reveals how challenging it is to reconcile one's own code of conduct with what the profit system requires for success. Anderson shows that it is possible to bridge the divide between private beliefs and public behavior.

The most powerful scene in the film comes when Anderson delivers a speech to a group of industry peers. "Do I know you well enough to call you fellow plunderers," he asks the room. The audience is stunned; a few of the executive's jaws are literally hanging open. Anderson continues undaunted: "There is not an industrial company on earth ... not mine, not your, not anyone's that is sustainable. The first industrial revolution is not working."

The crucial question is what can we do to create more Ray Andersons, people who know that you can do well while also doing good.

In our opinion, the way to do that is by returning today's massive corporations to a human scale. Two hundred years ago, the average corporation operated at a local level. By the turn of the last century, corporations had become national in scope. Today's corporations are multinational behemoths that dwarf almost every other social actor, including the nation-state. The trick is to find some way -- either through existing anti-trust laws or new methods -- of breaking contemporary corporations into smaller parts and encouraging local economies. This may reduce "efficiency" somewhat, but it will certainly improve the corporation's behavior.

Why are local companies likely to be more benevolent than multinational ones? Because, since they are rooted in place, local companies' behavior is more tempered by the expectations of their neighbors. The directors of the largest corporations have no connection to the people or environments their decisions impact: They do not have to smell the stench from the refinery's towers or witness the depression that sweeps a town after a round of layoffs. Their detachment is what permits them to behave criminally. Absentee ownership fosters absence of conscience.

Smaller enterprises, on the other hand, are constrained by pubic opinion. If a local merchant leaves his garbage on Main Street, everyone will know about it, and his business will suffer. He cannot divorce his private scruples from his public actions. By returning corporations to a human scale, we can overcome the corporate multiple personality disorder; we can resolve the tension between individual ethics and corporate nihilism.

Made by Canadians, The Corporation arrives in the United States not a moment too soon. People in the United States desperately need to see a film that, like a good therapist, will challenge them to ask some hard questions about how the corporation has taken so much control over our lives. Such therapy is long overdue.



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