Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A must-see: The Corporation

If you haven't seen the documentary The Corporation (or read Joel Bakan's book by the same name), I strongly recommend it as a fellow citizen of the world. Please prepare yourself for what can be an unsettling experience. Not because it has any heavy doses of sex, violence or gore, but because the ideas put forward here are prone to make you squirm in your seat -- even if you're well versed in the arguments of anti-globalization advocates and those who fight corporate power.

The influence of the products, and more importantly, the by-products, of (usually large publicly traded, multinational) corporations is so pervasive that it often becomes invisible. This film does its best to pull you back from that, and make you realize what sort of system we're living in. It postulates that corporations are the dominant force in human civilization on earth right now, as powerful if not more so than the church or monarchical and feudal states were in the past. And the problem with the corporation is it doesn't have a soul or morals or a body, and thus it is prone to psychotic, amoral behavior, even as it is granted the rights of a human, flesh-and-blood person. Even when it is peopled by moral or ethical people, its underlying purpose -- to bring in more money for shareholders -- becomes so encompassing that the people involved in the enterpise can cause a lot of harm to stakeholders who don't have much of a say. And, amazingly, by that definition, attempts at corporate social responsibility can actually be seen to undermine the growth of shareholder value, if these do-gooder activities take money away and don't replace them with a higher public image and the assumed accompanying sales.

Thus, the film reminds us that post-Industrial-Revolution corporations as we know them were created by law and can be affected by law (even dismantled if need be). They are human creations, and they rely on law-creating governments for their charters and existence, but it's easy to forget that when they seem to do so well acting on their own. They become especially powerful when governments that are supposed to be regulating them become so chummy and devoted to meeting their every need and condoning their need to externalize costs.

Without rushing to the other end of the spectrum -- communism and the state running all things -- the film's many voices argue for using the tools of democratic government for reshaping corporations at their core or otherwise reining them in; for making them more sustainable entities that aren't continually "plundering" the earth's resources and never giving back; and also for living outside the corporate realm. This last proposition is especially hard, since we rely on so many corporations indirectly for the things of our daily life.

But at its heart, the film appeals to our human intellect and creativity to come up with a better vision, one that is not based only on greed and the profit motive, one that can find a balance that improves the greater good for the earth community without diminishing the freedom and goals of the individual. We should hold to the idea that there can exist a public interest -- that not all things need to be bought, sold and owned. It's a tall order, but one worth keeping in mind.

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