Where the documentary “The Corporation” really shines is in analyzing corporations as legal persons in terms of psychology. It starts with the point that the 14th ammendment was designed to protect freed slaves, but was turned by the Supreme Court into an attribution of personhood to corporations. It then clarifies that we need a way to talk about corporations in terms of corporateness – corporate culture – the tendencies of multinationals – vs. just the legal structure alone. After all, Patagonia is a corporation, right?
The psychological analysis is fascinating. One of the checkboxes on the psychological report is “callous lack of concern for the feelings of others”. If an individual person – a free agent, not a collective like the corporation – seems to lack empathy, that person’s future is bleak in a society that has taken the corporation as its church. But when corporations themselves, who assume the priviledges of super persons under the law, wreak untold havoc that demonstrates a chronic lack of empathy (an absence the documentary charges is psychopathic), we laud as wise, respectable, and “good people” those who ‘achieve’ lucrative careers within that corporation. Sure, there’s the “bad apple” theory that it’s just BP or AIG, while Monsanto runs free (sure, a mere 80million for agent orange, which is pocket change, but nothing for the Vietnamese – that ‘charity’ is only for those at home). We won’t go into Monsanto’s RBGH (bovine growth hormone) and Fox News here.
When I went out on my own with my business, the person in my family one might think would offer approval did not say “Congratulations – this is what you were made for – you have invested in yourself, staked yourself on your own ethos, created your own brand, and you have a chance to do good and derive meaning from that”. No, I was patted on the back for the good job I’d done in completing a project with my last employer so that the corporation was “happy with me”. Concern, worry, skepticism about the implied hubris involved in hanging out my own shingle, but pat after pat suggesting that meaning in life derives from the approval of corporate entities.
Corporateness is the standard for approval. When a parent abdicates that duty in a society or in a family, it does so now in favor of the corporation – you’re supposed to get your approval from your boss and the company or from wearing a uniform.
It’s like that in all totalitarian societies – it’s just that we don’t like to admit that instead of a socialist collective or religious domination, we live in a corporate state. Another interesting feature, too, is that it’s presumed we don’t offer approval or disapproval of the corporation – how dare we – “that’s a value judgment” I was once told when I questioned one corporation’s instruction to deceive another – their client; no, we are meant to presume that the corporation is the evaluator of us, not the other way around. Corporateness is the moral evaluator, and individuals are the evaluated – that’s why there’s such emphasis on the clean-shaven, pastel-wearing, double-talker (how many ways can you finish a sentence with “at this time”). Want to offend a group of corporate types at lunch? If it’s your turn to pick, tell them you really don’t like corporate food, and prefer only mom and pop restaurants. There’s an almost “how dare you” for that heresy.
The documentary lists dozens of corporations we all know, from IBM to Sears, that have been found guilty as persons of federal crimes that killed and maimed countless people, and who paid criminal fines. They usually get off scot free for global crimes, of course. Now, if I did that, I’d be the black sheep of family, society, and I couldn’t get a job with the very corporation who had just done the same thing themselves. My rights to affect the legislative process in the U.S. and other constitutional rigts would be curtailed or stripped away. I would be, effectively, a lifelong banished heretic of the culture, listing felon status on every job application – relegated to having to become a better, more savvy, more cautious criminal (like corporations after their convictions) because even fast food joints wouldn’t hire me. The corporations, of course, don’t miss a day of work, and neither do all their employees who’d be pointing those self-righteous fingers.
I find the double standard interesting and ironic, and absurd in a Kafkaesque way. I’m a non-believer. I’m an atheist when it comes to the sanctity of corporateness. The doc ends up demonstrating, through ongoing psychoanalysis, that the corporation, in general, is “a prototypical psychopath” – that the “dominant institution of our time is created in the image of a psychopath”. Lack of empathy is just the beginning. As pervasive as a dominant global religon, more powerful than the most powerful nation, corporateness is in fact the underlying sense of reality behind the thinking of most people in my culture. Resisting it, spurning it, will get you shunned in various religions, doomed in politics, and attacked by the same people who call into radio shows and let ideas turn them into gun toters.
We live in a misguided culture. Today’s discussion on criminalizing “material support” to “enemies” which includes speech, is not only draconian, it’s a vindication of all those who’ve been saying it doesn’t matter which person or which party is in office – they all, ultimately, do the same things. As a general flies to the white house to explain himself for criticizing White House staff members in a context that cries out for criticism, it’s clear just one more time out of every time that we live in a culture that has subordinated the individual, the individual’s speech, search for meaning, and freedom for the mere convenience, pride, and profitability of institutions. It is not a society dominated by a single institution – it’s a society dominated by institution-ness. Criticizing in high school history classes the societies of presumably dimmer eras and climes controlled by religion, dictatorship, “czarism”, etc. – all the while a system of interlocking directorates wields a level of pervasive control never before attempted on such a scale, all in the “land of the free”. Yeah, free to choose between Coke and Pepsi. Freedom reconceived into the minimalized choice between one kind of cereal and another. You can just hear the top-40 country music drawling, “proud to be an ‘merican where at least I know I’m free.” Yeah, at least.
Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Michael Moore appear in the documentary briefly, of course. It touches briefly on rather well known history of U.S. based multinationals and their support of genocidal totalitarian governments. I just love hearing companies like IBM saying an idea is “discredited’ and “you can’t always tell or find out” instead of saying it’s “untrue”. Yeah, it’s discredited by the corporation itself, and they got rid of what documentation they could – the rest is spurious, right?
It’s interesting to watch the system get its signals crossed. 51 US-based multinationals in one week alone were fined for trading with declared enemies of the US, including officially declared terrorist regimes. You’d know the names of almost all of those companies, and be hard pressed to find a home that doesn’t contain their products. Someone related to you works for them. Someone you know works for one of them – most likely a lot of people. The film discusses the transnational character of these corporations – the fact that their loyalties are not rooted in any one nation but transcend national boundaries – some of them are larger and more profitable than most nations. It quotes someone as saying, “a coup is no longer necessary’. A protest sign outside the a world trade conference of 34 nations reads “Bow your heads. The corporations will now lead us in prayer.” Police in riot gear launch an assault on the crowd. Moore talks about Flint, Michigan where the number one job of parents of the kids at Columbine is working for Lockheed Martin, maker of weapons of mass destruction, and wonders whether violence begets violence.
Ray C. Anderson, CEO of Interface, largest carpet manufacturer in the world gave an address to other corporate types where he said: “Do I know you well enough to call you fellow plunderers? There is not an industrial company on Earth, not an institution of any kind, not mine, not yours, not anyone’s, that is sustainable. By our civilization’s definition, I’m a captain of industry — in the eyes of many a kind of modern day hero. But really, really, the first industrial revolution is flawed, it is not working. It is unsustainable. It is a mistake, and we must move on to another and better industrial revolution. And get it right this time.”
Not everyone is so positive. One person said “I think people are losing.” Acts of resistance are crushed, people are killed, children are blinded (permanently) by tear gas. But resistance continues. The film points out that Arcata, CA “capped the number of chain restaurants at present numbers (nine) and banned their future development anywhere in the city. Licking and Porter Townships in Pennsylvania made history by adopting ordinances that eliminate a corporation’s ability to claim any consitutional rights as a “person”.
I think resistance to corporateness takes many forms, but choosing just one isn’t nearly as helpful as choosing several. Ethical consumerism is important, but it needs to be intelligent, thoughtful, cautious, and in the end you’re going to settle for some level of compromise. Buying soy milk to eliminate dairy, a worthy goal, makes you a consumer of Monsanto and seed picked by near slave labour. In order to truly be an ethical consumer, you have to be honest about having dirty hands. Don’t like what Fox News did to lie about Monsanto’s growth hormone and cancer, supported by zillions in the latter’s advertising? Most likely your internet provider filed a brief in support of Fox when they fired the whistleblowers, and the latter got nothing because of it. But you need the internet, don’t you? So do I. The moment I can get a similar arrangement without using big corporate fiber, I will be doing so. Can one get entirely clean? I haven’t seen it, but I’m not above using the tools of the problem against the problem if I have to.
Protesting is important. I’d almost say that if you’ve never carried a sign, you’re not an American – you haven’t really participated in the political process – but of course, we’ve reduced “participation” to showing up once a year and filling out a punch card, so a lot of people would crucify me for saying that, and this isn’t a political blog. Staying informed is important. I’m on the hunt now for some more consolidated information sources, and think I’ve about got them – it’s not like you can rely on the “news” (It’s what we say it is, Rupert Murdoch is quoted as saying about the Monsanto growth hormone coverup). Giving your wealth (and you are wealthy if you’ve got cable, and so am I) is pretty important – it’s hard to understand all the “I support this” and “Support our that” on t-shirts, bumperstickers, radio rhetoric, and casual coffee talk when support doesn’t involve putting your money behind it, or pulling your money away from it when you say the word “against” – that’s why, if you’ve never boycotted anything, the word “wrong” is pretty much just armchair talk – a hypothetical commandment affirmed in the mind in an auditorium of ethics with padded chairs where we ‘imagine’ reality together.
I do try to be ‘nice’ or at least, like corporations, appear to be nice in this venue. Any time you talk about anything other than entertainment you’re bound to annoy someone – and even then, it’s surprising what people will do to other people over a Donkey Kong score or a Chevy vs. Ford argument (corporations are such heroes we wear their t-shirts and put their decals on everything like religious icons) – Jack Daniels, Harley Davidson, Caterpillar, Smith & Wesson, Abercrombie & Fitch, Old Navy… If you’re going to say anything against an affection that all-encompassing, an almost sexual preoccupation with corporateness, so much a part of us that it takes the form of intimate wear and tattoos – we want it ever with us – we want it as close as a lover – you’re going to tick somebody off. So, I’m resigned to it. It’s a film review – maybe I’ll be forgiven, and people won’t throw designer labels at me as I walk by. But yeah, I like this film and think it’s spot on.
Remember, though, the corporation is not work. Your work is something that only you can own. It can never be equated with corporateness unless that’s the way you want it, even if you work in a corporation. When I was a young man, I was in a line of work in which it wasn’t uncommon for the company to ask me to lie. Even people in my, then, religious group would ask me to lie, when they were involved in that business. I would refuse, even though it was argued that it’s just one corporation lying to another, but it wasn’t just because it was wrong. It was wrong, and that was enough, but there was also a sense that I had to preserve that the corporation isn’t my life – it doesn’t own me – it doesn’t own my work. It doesn’t even own my time in that sense. It’s like a soldier refusing to obey an illegal order – that’s not insubordination, it’s justice. But in a corporate culture, it’s so easy to think a corporation can own even that.
I’ve nothing against you or anyone else working in corporate life; what I am against, along with the film, is a corporateness that presumes immunity from the same ethics and morality that applies to an individual person, while assuming all of the rights and privileges that belong to the same. I may make a “religion’ out of work” as has been charged, but making one out corporate culture takes more chutzpah than I can muster.
The DVD is on Netflix. Be sure to watch the deleted scenes.