A comic by Ruben Bolling wonders what would happen if, for just one day, murder were legal. Although most of us wouldn’t kill, a corporation that could benefit from offing a few key rivals might participate. In fact, depending on its corporate mandate, one could argue that it would be irresponsible for the corporation not to take advantage of murder day. “Aren’t you glad this is just a make-believe parable?” the last panel asks, in front of a factory spewing pollution into the air.
The central thesis of The Corporation is that corporations — which are legal “persons” under the law — do not have the same moral code that real persons have. In fact, it argues, if corporations are persons, they clinically psychotic. Corporate behavior is compared to a mental-health checklist.
“Cannot keep long-lasting relationships?” Check. As soon as another third-world country can manufacture sweatshop goods for a few cents less, apparel companies are gone without so much as a “thank you.”
“Runs into trouble with the law?” Check. Corporations weigh fines and bribes against their bottom line; if it’s cheaper to flout a law and risk paying a fine, then that’s what a sensible corporation will do. Fraud, antitrust violations, lots of guilty verdicts.
“Deceitfulness?” Check. Monsanto had documents that showed its products rBST and rBGH were problematic, but these records were kept hidden for decision makers during the USDA approval process.
“Inability to experience guilt?” Check. Again Monsanto is featured; American soldiers were able to sue them for health problems related to agent orange. Monsanto settled out of court, never admitting any guilt.
Wait a Minute...
The Corporation’s message is one I am sympathetic to, but I watched the movie with a skeptical eye. Left-wing bullshit is no more palatable simply because it’s from the left wing. There were a few”wait a minute...” moments (although considering the movie is 145 minutes, that’s a pretty good track record).
One had to do with pollution trading. A corporate apologist explains the idea behind owning the right to pollute. If we cap air pollution at current levels and allow current polluters to trade their rights, corporations have a profit motive to be cleaner. They can sell their excess rights and take the money, or if they slip into dirtier habits, they’ll have to pay for that privilege. What the talking head didn’t say (or got edited out) is that environmental activists could (in theory) buy pollution rights and retire them. Rather than get a fair hearing, The Corporation shakes its head at the notion of ownership of public good.
The other had to do with chemicals. Rather than going into specifics, The Corporation asserts that all synthetic chemicals are toxic and cancer-causing, and it doesn’t acknowledge any benefit to society from them. I don’t know whether it would be possible to make film, record sound, shoot video, or edit movies without some sort of synthetic chemical, but I imagine it would be very difficult.
There are also gray areas in The Corporation, and these may be most interesting of all, because they deserve further discussion. One segment asserts that Nazis used IBM computers. That doesn’t make IBM complicit in Nazi crimes, although one subject takes the facts a step further and points out that IBM had a service contract, too. Once a month, during WWII, they visited offices and kept Nazi computers running.
On the topic of sweatshops, Kathy Lee Gifford faced a 13-year-old girl who worked in a sweatshop on her line of apparel. It was big news, and Kathy Lee promised it would never happen again. But she didn’t follow through, apparently, because sweatshops are still being used to manufacture her line.
On the other hand, the apologist for sweatshops has a point about companies moving into desperate areas, and moving out when they’re not so desperate. But still, it’s hard to defend actual practices by speaking in economic generalities.
Worth Talking About
If this review seems long and complex, that’s because The Corporation is, too. But even at 145 minutes, it doesn’t feel long. The topic stays interesting all the way through. It helps that footage of talking heads is intercut with historical footage, found footage, and educational films from the 1940s and ‘50.
The Corporation starts a discussion that has long been absent from the American dialogue. See this movie and talk about it with your friends. Find people who disagree and talk about it with them, too. Some day your life may depend on it.