Film: The Corporation

If a corporation was a human being, would we consider it a psychopath? After all, it’s completely selfish, shows little concern for others, and seems to break the law with reckless abandon. At least that’s the conclusion of the film-makers behind The Corporation, a new (well, kinda new at least) Canadian documentary in the tradition of Bowling for Columbine and Supersize Me.

Unlike its predecessors, the film makes an effort to achieve balance. Apart from it’s final 20 minutes, with its comrades’ call to arms, the film is not a simple propaganda flick with a spirited film-maker in the pulpit. Instead it states its case and accepts challenges from a variety of perspectives, some of them successful, some of them not. Credit should go to any film that can include both Milton Friedman (living legend and Nobel prize winning economist) and Noam Chomsky (Che Guevera in a pullover knitted by his mother).

The critique of corporations starts narrowly and then grows. It’s an interesting thought exercise to take the DSM-IV (Diagnostics and Statistics Manual, the bible for shrinks) definition of a psychopath, and then stretch and pull that definition to apply it to an organisation. If you’re in a generous mood, you might argue that the film has proven its case. If you thinking a little more critically, you’ll probably have your arms crossed and your head dizzy at the frequent rolling of eyes.

The film then progresses to some worthwhile case studies of the corporation in its natural habitat. Privatisation in the developing world, free speech in the corporate-owned media and accountability for private gain at a public loss is explored. On a cinematic level, it is as lazy as it gets to play some old Michael Moore The Awful Truth and The Big One stunts, and shows a lack of inventiveness in making the point.

Moore seems to be getting around a bit.

The problem with the film’s premise is this: the corporation may be a legal entity in its own right, but as a moral entity it is simply the sum of its parts, namely owners, directors and employees. It is a straw man argument to accuse a corporation of lacking a moral compass, when instead its moral compass is that of the individuals who are making decisions from within it. By all means, it is valid to attack the actions of irresponsible directors and greedy stockholders, who abandon all principle in reckless pursuit of a buck, but that unethical behaviour is the unethical behaviour of individual actors who are, from all reports, generally not psychopaths.

The Corporation is successful at exposing plenty of the excesses of corporations. Whether it manages to demonstrate that these excesses are so disastrous that they overshadow the considerable positives a corporation brings, and should therefore be abandoned, is doubtful. It’s unfortunate that the positives – employment, innovations, economies of scale, development – are all quietly acknowledged and then ignored.

As a film, it is a thoughtful contribution to the globalisation debate that has died down a little since September 11 (perhaps you could say priorities shifted from 7Eleven to 9-11?). It makes its point, calls for a revolution of the couch potatoes, and leaves it up to the viewer to work out how it all fits together.


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