Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Corporation

My review of the film The Corporation appears the most recent issue of Political Communication. Here it is:

The Corporation, produced, directed, and edited by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan. Zeitgeist Films, www.zeitgeist.com. 145 minutes. 2004.

Reviewed by Seth Weinberger

If corporations are considered, for legal purposes, to be a person, what kind of person are they? This is the central question considered in The Corporation. The answer, arrived at rather early in the film, is: A psychopath. Taking a pseudo-psycho-analytic look at the pathologies and purpose of big business and using numerous people, from Michael Moore to Noam Chomsky to a ex-CEO of a carpet maker-turned environmental activist, The Corporation concludes that its subject is a greedy, amoral entity, bent on acquiring as much profit as possible and not caring one whit about anything or anyone else. Unfortunately, what could have been a powerful argument about the bifurcated nature of business is made in a context where alternative views are either not presented or are given in a manner that makes them appear laughable and are easily dismissed. Little serious thought is given to any positive aspects of modern capitalism and even less time is spent considering any viewpoint other than the one espoused by the filmmakers. Sadly, this seems to be the modus operandi of many recently released “documentaries” which are more interested in presenting a political attack than carefully examining an issue.

The slant begins with an opening montage of corporate logos and a voice-over declaring that “like the Church, the Monarchy, and the Communist Party, the corporation is today’s dominant power.” First, such a claim seems to ignore the power of governments, which still have the power to regulate, police, and punish the businesses that operate within their borders. Furthermore, drawing a comparison between powers intended to dominate and control all aspects of life with one trying to sell ice cream or pesticide seems sketchy at best. However, this statement clearly sets out the main argument: that corporations are all-powerful, insidious, amoral entities that operate unchecked in our daily lives and produce nothing but ill consequences.

In support of this argument, The Corporation brings out numerous experts and scholars to attest to the mental state and nature of business firms and to lay out their “diagnosis.” In their opinion, corporations exhibit “callous unconcern for the feelings of others,” and “reckless disregard for the safety of others.” As evidence of the harm that corporations cause to those around them, the film points out behaviors including layoffs, union busting, use of sweatshops, production of dangerous products, pollution, and the practice of “the science of exploitation.” A former FBI psychologist then pronounces that corporations can be viewed as the prototypical psychopath. Noam Chomsky denounces firms as “monstrous.” The CEO-turned-environmental activist decries that companies, such as the one he once headed, commit “intergenerational tyranny” and “taxation without representation” by passing off the costs of their environmental “plunder” to future generations. However, the asset column of the ledger sheet of such taxation is far from empty. Should we spare our children the costs of modern business by denying them the benefits as well? Would our descendants prefer to be given a clean slate by starting in a new Stone Age and reinventing the wheel, the car, the airplane, and plastics?

Presenting the negative aspects of business without considering the concomitant positives and benefits is a standard tool of the film. How should one weigh the production of Agent Orange against the impact that modern fertilizers and pesticides have had in the developing world? Are the workers in factories in South East Asia being exploited or are they being given opportunities to better their lives? The Corporation is uninterested in such difficult questions, preferring to focus only on abuses and harms.

The assault on modern business continues with a segment on the evils of privatization, as Chomsky defines the selling of once-public goods as “taking a public institution and giving it to an unaccountable tyranny.” Chomsky goes on to argue that the reason certain goods should remain in public hands is that a public company is able to run at a loss in order to produce other benefits, such as jobs, which are a “good thing.” Absent is any discussion of who will bear that loss or how to account for higher prices for the public good. In fact, quite surprisingly for a documentary about business, there is almost no serious economics discussed at all.

The lack of even a semblance of alternative views undermines the argument and efficacy of the movie. While Milton Friedman is prominently touted in the credits, presumably to provide a veneer of fairness, his appearances are limited to very short explanations of very basic issues, as when he informs us that externalities are costs borne by third parties. Most of the information that runs counter to the film’s arguments comes in the form of cheesy 1950s public service films and sitcoms that tell us that “business is good.” An analyst who makes the not-so-uncommon argument for trading of pollution rights is mocked with a pastoral reference to the commons of pre-industrial England. Of course, there is no mention of the collective action problems that prompted the establishment of property rights, such as the aptly named tragedy of the commons.

The movie also buys into the anti-advertising myth being promulgated that consumers are little more than gullible suckers, waiting to be told by all-powerful corporations what to buy, eat, wear, and listen to. In blasting the role of public relations firms in overwhelming the free choice of the public, the movie points out that one firm, whose CEO is heard in a voice-over defending its work as assisting people in making informed decisions, helped the Philip Morris Company organize the National Smokers’ Alliance in order to fight anti-smoking regulations and aided the Canadian logging and mining firms against environmental groups, among other listed “evils.” There is not the slightest acknowledgement of the public policy debates around smoking laws or conservation. The film makers are right and anyone who disagrees is not only wrong, but clearly evil.

The height, or low point, of the film’s willful ignorance towards any opposing viewpoint comes at the end, when Michael Moore expresses his amazement that corporate America allows him to practice his trade. After all, his movies and views repeatedly express his disgust with capitalism and the corporate world. Why would corporations allow Moore’s films and books to insult them? Moore chalks this up to what he terms the “greed flaw” of modern capitalism, which is that in the quest to maximize profits, businesses will happily sell the rope that will be used to hang themselves. It does not seem to occur to Moore, or to the film makers, that such freedom is an inherent component, and a necessary one, of a modern capitalistic system. The very same Milton Friedman whom the movie uses in a very limited fashion addressed this very question in his book Capitalism and Freedom, in which he wrote that economic and political freedom are inextricably linked and limiting one will inherently and inevitably deny the other. Friedman specifically discussed the role of opposition, arguing that capitalism is the only system that can protect the rights of dissenters, precisely because it is value neutral. Where socialism or communism strive to produce equality, at a cost Friedman argues of political freedom, capitalism produces what is desired by the marketplace without regard to ideology. Thus, “one feature of a free society is surely the freedom of individuals to advocate and propagandize openly for a radical change in the structure of the society,” and that “in a capitalist society, it is only necessary to convince a few wealthy people to get funds to launch any idea, however strange, and there are many such persons, many independent foci of support” (Friedman, 1982). What alternative to a free market democracy would Moore, or the film makers for that matter, prefer? We do not know, as the other possibilities are not presented, or even discussed; we are only told that capitalism is evil. This is even more distressing given that Friedman appears in the film. Certainly, he could have been asked about this? A debate between Moore and Friedman would have lent some degree of objectivity and credibility to the film. Even asking Friedman to address Moore’s argument would have been an improvement. Unfortunately, no such exchange occurs.

The strongest points of the film come when the directors move away from presenting their opinions and instead refer to the real world of business. For example, in one scene, the CEO of a British energy company who finds that his home is being picketed by environmental activists goes out to bring the protestors coffee and snacks. He then engages them in discussion, in which both sides become enlightened of the others’ opinions. Here we see the most interesting example of the film’s premise: a CEO willing to admit that his company occasionally behaves badly and who is ready to speak to protesters about how that behavior can be improved. However, this seems to undermine the very argument that directors are trying to make. Why does the CEO wish to improve the environmental record of his company? Because he is himself an environmentalist? Perhaps. But more likely it is that he has perceived that environmentalism is good business. As Adam Smith wrote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

The Corporation does provide some interesting anecdotes in which corporations have behaved badly. The squashing of a story written by two investigative reporters about the risks of bovine growth hormone in milk by Fox News is one such example. There is no doubt that corporations do not always behave according to the public interest, and that the drive for profits often causes businesses to break laws. But such a revelation is not surprising. In fact, nothing in The Corporation is. Except, of course, for the lack of any serious discussion of the issues it purports to address. Even a tip of the hat to some alternative arguments could have made this movie an interesting examination of the problems surrounding the modern American incarnation of capitalism. As it stands, The Corporation is nothing more than a vehicle for the film makers, Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, Naomi Klein, and Noam Chomsky to vent their hatred of capitalism. That is not sufficient enticement to watch, even for those who share that point of view.

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