Corporations on the Couch
Did you know there were water riots in Bolivia in early 2000? Poor urban Bolivians actually took to the streets over water… not because there wasn’t enough to go around but because the American construction and engineering firm Bechtel had taken over the country’s privatized water infrastructure, including — and here’s the really insidious, practically downright evil part — rainwater. A multibillion-dollar corporation was telling poor people that they were forbidden to collect rainwater, that they must buy water — at hideously jacked-up prices, of course — from Bechtel.
But you don’t hear about situations like these from major American media because they, too, are owned and managed by multibillion-dollar corporations who have priorities other than your state of informedness in mind: namely, money. The dominance of “the corporation” as the all-pervasive driving force of our economy and even of our culture is the terrifying subject of this, Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar, and Joel Bakan’s angry, bitter, but frequently funny, funky, and mesmerizing in-your-face documentary.
The Bolivia water story is here, among a litany of corporate waste, abuse, and outright crime, things typically dismissed as mere “business decisions” but now held up by this triumphantly muckraking film as symptoms of a very particular disease. The idea is this: If corporations want to be treated as “persons,” which corporate lawyers have fought long and hard for and which remains the legal mechanism by which these institutions endure and thrive, then let’s treat them as persons. Let’s, Abbott and Achbar and Bakan suggest, evaluate “the corporation” on a psychiatric level. It’s a wickedly audacious undertaking, and the diagnosis even more so: corporations are prototypical psychopaths.
“Manufactured consent.” “Perception management.” “The science of exploitation.” These and other scarily Orwellian terms get tossed around like so many PR talking points by The Corporation, which retains its calm, rational demeanor while it coolly builds its case, letting the actions of corporations speak for themselves. Factory farming. Union busting. Agent Orange. The manipulation of consumers. The brainwashing insidiousness of branding. The money being made by these prototypical psychopaths off war, 9/11, Iraq, and general global political and societal turmoil.
If The Corporation is perhaps a tad overlong, at nearly two and a half hours, well, how does one determine which instance of corporate malfeasance is more despicable: the “brutality” of terminator seeds, which subvert nature itself by cutting off the DNA that allows a crop plant to generate its own offspring, forcing farmers to buy new seed from a ginormous globocorp every year; or Monsanto blackmailing Fox News and threatening journalists who dared to tell the awful truth about its bovine growth hormone? Which American corporation did the most wrong by continuing to do business with Nazi Germany: IBM, Coca-Cola, or Ford? Which is worse: that toy companies play upon children’s “developmental vulnerabilities” in marketing to them, or that the increasingly transnational nature of corporations lessens the influence any one government could have over them (if any governments even wanted to bother trying to control them)?
As cultural critic Noam Chomsky points out here, if corporations are people, they are people with no moral conscience. Left unspoken is that corporations are also “people” who, theoretically, never die, which is perhaps even more sinister: there’s no natural end to their psychopathy.
While The Corporation is keeping its cool, you slowly stew in your seat, having been at least dimly, diffusedly aware — as the kind of thinking, connected person who watches documentaries in the first place — of what was going on but still stunned by the smack in the face this film is. When the film is funny, it’s in that way that makes you want to curl up in bed and cry. It’s hard not to be dispirited and disheartened, hard not to feel helplessly paralyzed when the omnipresence of global corporations with fingers in many, many pots seems to make it impossible to be a thoughtful, vigilant consumer short of moving to the mountains and growing your own vegetables.
There are hints of hope, though, suggestions for strategies for remedying this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. There’s Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer — one of the very few corporate heroes here, he calls himself, shockingly, a “plunderer,” an intergenerational tyrant who is helping to hand an environmentally ravaged planet to our grandchildren… but he’s trying to change that, attempting to reduce the impact his corporation has. He may even succeed. He’s part of the rallying cry that The Corporation encompasses, the beginning of a battle that many of us didn’t even know was looming, and that this powerful film is very persuasive in convincing us must be won at all costs.