Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

The Corporation

I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of this movie. Not because it was any good, mind you. At times the film seemed little more than a collection of every half-baked criticism of corporations ever uttered by man. So much so that the film often seemed to lapse into self-parody, which is what, for me, provided the bulk of the entertainment. From its opening lines (“Like the Church, the Monarchy, and the Communist Party in other times and places, the Corporation is today’s dominant institution.”), the film is filled with statements ranging from the overwrought (“When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave owner…”) to the naive (“as a consumer, why should I take any risk?”) to the flat out false (“synthetic chemicals are responsible for the current cancer epidemic“), to the simply strange (“our civilization is not flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics for civilizations that would fly.”)

The film opens with a brief “How did we get here?” segment purporting to describe the development of the corporation from a relatively obscure form of organization 200 years ago to its current prevalence today. This section is largely confused where it is not simply inaccurate (but more on that later). The rest of the first hour or so of the film is taken up with examining the “personality” of the corporation. Basically the film takes examples of what it claims are negative things corporations do, and analogizes these actions to negative personality traits held by human beings. So, for example, after noting that corporations sometimes lay off workers, a diagnostic checklist appears reading “inability to form lasting relationships with others.” The ultimate conclusion of all this, of course, is that “the Corporation” meets the diagnostic criteria for being a psychopath.

This particular conceit (analogizing the actions of an institution to those of a person and concluding that the institution is psychotic) is not original to the film. It was first deployed by famed sociologist Max Weber, except the institution he diagnosed was not the corporation but rather government bureaucracy. And, in fact, if the above analysis is at all persuasive as an argument against corporations, then it would also provide the basis for an iron clad argument against the State. Whatever negative actions you think corporations have done, they pale in comparison to the more than 100 million murdered by governments. The paucity of anarchists today suggests that most people, at least, don’t find this line of reasoning all that persuasive.

The second half of the film lacks the focus of the first, jumping seemingly at random from one story of purported corporate induced badness to another. Some of the stories seem compelling. Others do not. Unfortunately, since where the film spoke of subjects I knew something about it was often inaccurate or misleading, I was forced to adopt the old Roman law maxim falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus with regard to many of the film’s claims. And even where the stories involved did involve real malfeasance, it was often not clear how the Corporation was supposed to be responsible for the malfeasance. The corporate form is so common in business today that any time a businessman does anything wicked, it will be possible to find a corporation somewhere in the area. But this hardly establishes that it was the use of the corporate form, rather than, say, original sin, that was responsible for the wickedness on display.

The only attempt to answer this question comes during the brief opening section of the film mentioned previously. As several of the film’s commentators put it, corporations are inherently bad because they are legally required to seek after profit, and to consider nothing but the bottom line. The film makers place great emphasis on this point, repeating it several times: the Corporation is legally bound to put its bottom line ahead of everything else.

The trouble is, it isn’t true. Most states have provisions like New York Business Corporations Law Section 202(a)(12), which grants corporations the power “to make donations, irrespective of corporate benefit, for the public welfare or for community fund, hospital, charitable, educational, scientific, civic or similar purposes.” And even in states that do not have such explicit statutory provisions, courts tend to be very accommodating of charitable expenditures made by corporations. If anything, I’d say the law in this regard is to accommodating, as it allows executives to be charitable with other people’s money, but if there is a problem with the way corporations are structured, it ain’t because they are legally required to seek only after profit.

The other thing mentioned by the film (and by pretty much every anti-corporate type since Adam) is the notion of corporate personhood. The filmmakers seem almost bewitched by the term, speaking often as it the corporation were a being with a mind and will of its own, rather than a legal fiction that has been found useful for when individuals act in concert. They may object to the idea of corporate personhood, but from the way they talk it sounds like they take the doctrine much more seriously (and literally) than many of its proponents. Like many suspicious of corporations, the film is confused both about the origins of the doctrine of corporate personhood (it suggests that it came about after the Civil War, when in fact it was developed many decades earlier) and its purposes (it suggests that personhood was granted solely as a means of protecting the wealthy, whereas in large part the doctrine was necessary to protect the rights of those harmed by corporations).

To some extent opposition of corporations is based on such misunderstandings. To some extent it is merely a stalking horse for opposition to the free economy generally. And to some extent it may be based on the specific actions of particular corporations that are seen as socially harmful. Whatever the cause, suspicion of corporations, like the corporation itself, is not likely to disappear any time soon, and The Corporation is about as good a distillation of that suspicion as one can expect.

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May 30, 2008 - Posted by | Capitalism, Film

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