Saturday, July 03, 2004

Film: Corporate Animals

The Corporation a film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott & Joel Bakan.

Documentaries have a point of view. The media spin that they don't shows a ignorance that rates up with, oh, I don't know, the declaration of "If the President had done that in the private sector, he'd have been fired". Whether its the Time/Life films of our youth ("Science is GOOD") or the Civil War documentaries of Ken Burns ("It was about slavery"), there is POV in documentaries. What documentaries do that other films do not do is to be more up front about it.

In the The Corporation the basic argument is that the modern corporation is disfunctional on both a local and global level. It is legally a person, but if it was a person, it would be a psychopath (I would argue sociopath, but regardless, the corp is someone you don't want at your barbeque). The movie brings in a lot of firepower to bear, including former CEOs, a corporate spy that takes his clues from old Mission Impossible episodes, a couple whistleblowers punished for their good citizenship, and a collection of left-o-center talking heads including Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Naomi Klein. So you get a good feel for where the slant is working. Rupert Murdoch is conspicuous by his absense.

The film feels scattershot to me. It works hard to dispel the myth that it is only "a few bad apples" that are responsible for corporate wrongdoings, but as a result the film goes all over the place, with a large number of stories. It is a long film, but it feels overpacked as it is, with example upon example of corporate misdeeds. Here's BGH in milk, and here's privatization of water in Bolivia and here's genetic patenting and here's sweat shops. Any one of these will fill out an hour, and they're all in one place. If you want a general overview, its great, but it leaves me wanting to know more on the details.

And there is a lot I didn't know in this film. I didn't realize that the 14th Ammendment was used in court more to expand the powers of the corporation as opposed to protecting the rights of African Americans. I didn't know of communities that have stripped corporations of their personalized legal status. And I didn't know of Monsanto's promotion of BGH in milk nor of their legalistic suppression of opposing viewpoints. On the last, this was one of the interesting sections, and focused on a pair of FOX investigators given carte blanche to investigate BGH, only to enter bureaucratic hell when Monsanto put the lean on their network. Its kind of fun in a train-wreck sort of way to watch FOX freak out. (Though the net result is less fun - yeah, you got BGH in your milk in the country (not in Canada or Europe). Yeah, it hasn't been really tested. No, you're not going to find out about it from a media that depends on Monsanto advertising).

The film also gives hope in the form of various CEOs who have had their "Road to Damascus" experiences, and work within their systems to try to make things better. And yes, these CEOs are as limited as any other worker to trying to change the system. One of the great entries talks with the former CEO of Shell, who, when protesters showed up on his doorstep, met with them, offered them tea, talked, and found common ground. The problem is that the deck, in the form of the corporate Prime Directive of cashflow, is as stacked against him as against everyone else (yes, Shell is working to clean things up in some areas, but others have gotten worse).

There's also hope in the power of individuals. By raising the awareness of the consumers, they in turn give corporate awareness value in the marketplace. And anything that has value shows up on the corporate bottomline. Why are corporations concerned about the environment? Because you are concerned about the environment.

Against this, the weaknesses of corporations show through. Part if it is deniability - individual actions do not have consequences. Part of it is disengagement and distance - if the trash is on the other side of town, then its not their worry. Part of it is herd mentality. Part of it is fear of the shareholders - you don't pad the bottom line, they may find someone who does. Its a big mountain, but it can be climbed.

One thing that hit me in watching this was the the idea of Corporation as Vampire (and I'm talking about the White Wolf style of Vampires). Here we have a vitually immortal, immoral, image-conscious, predatory being in our midst, which looks to us for sustenance. And, like the Vampire: the Masquerade Vamps, it thinks of itself as both a victim and as a valiant figure. One of the sayings in Vampire the Masquerade is "Beast I am, lest Beast I become." Sounds like a working slogan for even the most kindly of corporations.

After seeing the film, I am less apt to think of Corporation as person as I am to recognize it as a man-made structure, more of a building than an entity. If the building is unsafe, you tear it down. Yes, it will displace people, but its an unsafe building, and has no rights in and of itself. Corporations are a construct of human interaction, like the medieval guilds, the Gilded Age trusts, the Master-apprentice relationship and the Hanseatic League. All of those have gone by the wayside as the world around them changed.

The greatest danger is that corporate structure as it now exists allows for horrible decisions with minimal thought - IBM helping the Third Reich through punch-card technology. And no one is invulnerable to the siren call. While watching the film, where they're talking about how toy companies did research on kids nagging their parents to help the kids nag better, I had my own minor epiphany that explained part of what I was doing in my company. Its a scary moment here, out here on the bypass around Damascus, and I'm not quite sure what I want to do with this knowledge yet.

Michael Moore gets the last word, pointing out that the very corporations that do horrible things in turn give him money in order to point out these horrible things. He calls this a flaw - a businessman will sell you the rope he's going to be hung with. I think its a feature of how corporations function, and not the only one. And by taking them apart identifying these features, and figuring out why they function like this is one of the first steps to altering them to serve us better.

Its either that, or break out the stakes, garlic, and holy water.

More later.