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January 04, 2005

The Corporation - Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott & Joel Bakan

Posted by Richard D. North

The Corporation
Directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott
Written by Joel Bakan
certificate PG, 2003

In the words of the film's website:

Mark Achbar, co-director of the influential and inventive Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, teams up with co-director Jennifer Abbott and writer Joel Bakan to examine the far-reaching repercussions of the corporation's increasing pre-eminence. Based on Bakan's book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, the film is a timely, critical inquiry that invites CEOs, whistle-blowers, brokers, gurus, spies, players, pawns and pundits on a graphic and engaging quest to reveal the Corporation's inner workings, curious history, controversial impacts and possible futures.

Naturally, I am hostile to The Corporation. Even so, I didn't expect it to be as boring and dreary as it turned out to be. But this film does matter. It is worth comment, if only because it is much admired.

It is, as you will have heard by now, a sustained assault on the idea of the large firm, and in particular the large American firm. The conceit was at first sight quite promising. Since in US law the corporation is apparently defined as a person, it is not the worst idea in the world to wonder what it would be like to psycho-analyse such a thing. Because firms have as a first priority the generation of a return for their shareholders, it became feasible to describe them as the very worst sort of person: greedy, heartless monomaniacs. And childish, too: the movie depicts them as always seeking to avoid blame for their actions. It was noticed almost by mistake that defining corporations as persons meant that they became legally accountable: but like most other few moments of real insight in the movie, this one was passed-over swiftly.

The Corporation repeats many of the old charges against large firms, and it may be that each new generation needs to be reminded of how things have gone wrong. Clumsy and even brutal mining operations, exploding chemical plants, exploited labour: these are old friends of the campaigning industry. Re-hashed here, we learn nothing new, and have to put up with several infuriating old canards which should have been laid to rest. I hate films which purport to be factual but which have no sense of the honourable need to help their audiences see the world clearly. Surely, the self-consciously good people of the left and the green anti-corporate movement ought to want to be more honest - more critical in their use of argument - than the shifty firms which they criticise?

It is a perfectly decent charge against the film that it wildly exaggerates the harm corporations have sometimes done, and is weirdly primitive in not understanding the good they have done. It is also weak, of course, on what on earth we could do to reduce their supposed harm. The film suggests we should do without their goods and services. And of course, as we shall see, it endorses the Corporate Social Responsibility movement, and especially Ray Anderson, a US carpet manufacturer who seems to have gone native on the topic.

A more interesting charge against the film is that when it attempts to be fresh, or Post Modern, it gets the wrong end of the stick.

The corporation is widely-hated. But it is not their being persons, even psychotic persons, which makes corporations objects of loathing. Rather, it is their very impersonality. They are easy to hate and hard to like because they are faceless, remote, and inhuman. The modern mind has a particular - childish - horror of the abstract. Structures, organisation and institutions are despised as hard to comprehend. Contradictorily, though, they are also thought of as super-human and likely to be elitist. They enshrine authority. They are figured as conspiracies against the common man. Firms are all the more institutional the larger they become and so corporations are both distrusted and expected to be super-human.

It's partly true, of course. Corporations are heartless. But then, they are designed to do competence rather than empathy. Rather as judges cannot easily be cuddly, because justice is a tough old bird; so any other institution a firm, say has an essential chilliness which is at the heart of its claim to virtue. Corporations often produce goods and services which have an immense capacity to do harm (food and fuel, for instance). It is indeed the professionalism required in such provision which it is the firms' unique skill to corral. But professionalism is deliberately boring. We deliberately counterpoise it to flair, dash, and drama. Of course some professionals, be they accountants or architects, do have a strongly creative flair. But it is a rare person indeed who can combine the imaginative and the competent in any great degree.

Corporations coolly make judgements; they calmly develop skills. This allows them safely to deliver goods and services. They have the problem that they are not particularly entrepreneurial. They are risk-averse and they find it difficult, mostly, to be piratical. Their farm is too large to be bet casually. Though most corporations began as entrepreneurial start-ups, in full corporate mode the bets they like to take are those relatively boring ones which they can afford to lose. Inclined to be unoriginal themselves, they seek out originality in others, whether it be genetic engineering start-ups or likely young bands, and snap it up at the point at which vast clout is useful.

So corporations are occasionally clumsy, though many other pressures are at work to make it likely that they will be decent. Because they are so visible and have such large cash flows, everyone perceives them to be ideal targets for regulation and blackmail. They have a vastly complicated set of real "stakeholders". Shareholders, customers, sub-contractors, employees and regulators must all be dealt with fairly and frankly.

The beast which can do these things cannot be charming, bouncy, chummy. It is not a charity worker, a vicar, a philosopher. It is at best a boring uncle. True, for years it made the mistake of explaining itself badly or not at all. But The Corporation's biggest mistake is not to consider properly the largely fallacious narrative corporations have recently begun to spin.

Naturally, large firms have sensed that ours is an age in which personality (rather more than character) and narrative (rather than unvarnished truth) are prized, and they have responded by trying to become personalities who tell a story. In large measure the result is a fiction. And yet, even as The Corporation tells us the story of this corporate longing to have a narrative, it misses the real point.

By misconceiving the corporation, by not seeing its real merits and instead seeking to make it become something it can never be, it is the spirit of the age which has foisted on corporations their need to obfuscate and spin. Boardrooms did not really choose to look about for stories: they do so because that is the zeitgeist in which they operate.

And when we look at the sorts of stories which firms tell, we see that they were relatively harmless until the social reformers - the greens and the left - got to work on them.

Capitalism's efforts at branding are a curious hybrid. At the simplest level, a brand characterises the goods and services a firm produces (Coke's ubiquitous promise of tasty reliability, Ford's promise of Everyman excellence, Sony's of a wizardry with a degree of design sophistication). More complexly, the brand also seeks to characterise the kind of people who will be attracted to the firms' goods (and cast them in an attractive light, so that one wants to be a part of the demographic the firm aspires to please).

But nowadays, bullied by the Corporate Social Responsibility crew (The Corporation's only heroes), the firm needs to assert that it is a caring, green, fatherly figure who worries about everyone it comes into contact with, including those whose profession is to despise it (these are its "stakeholders" as cast by its enemies). In this new world, the firm has both to develop a schizophrenic, Walter Mitty personality and use its brand to convey this bizarre new chimera.

Even in an age in which oxymorons are prized as the only philosophy which fit on a T shirt, firms have a difficulty getting all this freight to hang on a brand.

The Corporation thinks corporations are bad people, and therefore is in no condition to judge the degree to which they are good institutions. Cheered on by the wringing-wet Financial Times, government and of course the campaigners (with varying degrees of disingenuousness), corporations have rushed to this new game. They are repaid by being described as liars and green-washers, things which they weren't before the reformers got to them. The hapless Sir Mark Moody-Stuart of Shell makes various appearances in The Corporation, and it's hard to know whether to be angrier about his insularity before he saw the light, or his naivety afterward. One hopes that both are false impressions. Neither impress the film-makers.

However poor its thesis, this did not have to be a terrible film. Mondovino, for instance, makes a not dissimilar case with at least the beginnings of wit and visual charm. The Corporation not merely has no flair, it has no capacity for nuance, refection, or self-mockery. An Adam Curtis (The Century of Self; The Power of Nightmares, both BBC2) would have made the argument come alive. Even a Michael Moore might have done a bit better at engaging us.

None of these failing worry the drears and right-ons who love the piece.

Richard D. North's Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence will be published in April by the Social Affairs Unit.

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You are right, the film should have made more of the fact that the corporation is in law like a person. It would have made it more interesting if it played more on that aspect. However, if it did it would have had to have been downright philosophical in its approach, something the movie had no intention of being. When we delve into human behaviour we become philosophical because that is generally how we can understand it and its idiosyncrasies. But being philosophical is also seen as apologetic and I don't think the movie makers wanting to be that way about corporations.

The movie makers mission was to demonize corporations. They knew that they would be mainly preaching to the converted and those wanting to hear more bad stuff about them.

Posted by: David Airth at January 4, 2005 11:04 PM

Yeah, this was the most irritating aspect of the film, and of the current crop of left leaning documentaries - even the pretence of objectivity has been abandoned in favour of a smug self-righteous Manicheaism.

I also can't help feeling that "The Corporation" was conceived as a sort of comfort blanket for the legions of work shy anti capitalist protestors happier to live off Daddy's money (no doubt earned from wicked capitalism) than, horror of horrors, take a job.

Posted by: James McQueen at January 5, 2005 07:16 PM
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