July 31, 2007


Out in left field (go team!)

Muley: "Who's the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company?"

Land agent: "It ain't anybody. It's a company."

-- The Grapes of Wrath

Last week I received one of the many documentary selections I’ve queued up from Netflix,* The Corporation. It’s a 2003 Canadian film which chronicles the rise of the corporate entity, chiefly in North America. There is no doubt the film is strongly to the left in its point of view, and so barring some minor shortcomings I of course found it very appealing and engaging.

Quickly, just two beefs: I concur with Roger Ebert's review that, at 145 minutes, the film overstays its welcome like "the dinner guest who tells you something fascinating, and then tells you again, and then a third time." I see now that the directors have released an enhanced version DVD with eight hours of "bonus" footage. Good news for the type of person who makes a career out of attending anti-globalization demonstrations, I guess. The other gripe I have is that the music is in that overwrought style of spooky tones so popular in modern documentaries. I'll cut it some slack as it is a social cause film and not some "voyage of the cute and fuzzy whatevers."

The central themes in The Corporation are that today's companies enjoy the same status in liberty as individuals, and that society is suffering from the privatization of elements traditionally held in common in western society since its emergence from the Dark Ages. Several anti-globalization stalwarts such as Dr. Vandana Shiva and Noam Chomsky are interviewed, along with a few unrepentant capitalists for good documentary measure, like Milton Friedman and some jerky floor trader who unabashedly pointed out how good 9-11 and the Iraq war were for the stock market.

The film posits that corporations are today's dominant institutions, replacing the likes of monarchies and other bygone regimes. One of the film’s primary themes is in assessing today’s multinational companies according to the renowned Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM - the bible of the American Psychiatric Association). The latest edition identifies 297 disorders, but the film concentrates on six areas. Dr. Robert Hare, psychology professor and FBI consultant, compares the modern, profit-driven corporation to that of a clinically diagnosed psychopath based on the following symptoms:

  • Callous unconcern for the feelings of others
  • Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships
  • Reckless disregard for the safety of others
  • Deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning of others for profit
  • Incapacity to experience guilt
  • Failure to conform to the social norms with respect to lawful behaviors

The analysis? We’re all going to hell, or at least those of us who can’t squeeze through the eye of a needle on our camels. Okay, lame biblical reference – it doesn’t get that gloomy, but it gives a plethora of evidence to support the notion that we are heading fast in the wrong direction. Good examples of the insidious nature of corporations abound in the film.

Economist Jeremy Rifkin tells us how in the 1980s a scientist for General Electric “invented” microorganisms that ate hazardous waste. GE went to the U.S. Patent Office claiming they had invented these bacteria and needed a patent. The patent office immediately turned down the request citing a living organism cannot be patented. GE corporate lawyers went to court to fight for their patent rights, and lo and behold the patent office was overruled. Rifkin himself appealed this decision by going to the Supreme Court. His argument was that if the verdict was upheld, the blueprints of life would be owned by corporations without Congress or the public's consent. By a ruling of 5-4 Chief Justice Warren Burger upheld the decision, and seven years later the patent office wrote into its laws one sentence that stated any life except a full birth human being can be patented. Rifkin points out that now the race is on in the corporate biotech world to cash in on the Human Genome Project so they can patent the genetic code that causes all known diseases (Ebert aptly comments that Right-to-Lifers should be aghast at the prospects, but "If there is one thing more sacred than the Right to Life, it is the corporation's Right to Patent, Market and Exploit Life"). Rifkin, who is dubbed by his critics as a scaremonger and “the intellectual guru of the neo-Luddites," finishes by stating that within ten years corporations will not only own all human life but that of every other species on Earth. That does sound a tad mongery to me, but Rifkin is a really smart dude and I think he’s perhaps not far off the mark.

One segment that is particularly poignant to me as a journalist shows how a crew at Fox News’ Tampa, Florida affiliate battled with the top brass in New York over their investigation of agricultural giant Monsanto in the late 1990s. Reporters planned on airing an investigative report on the negative effects of the bovine growth hormone Posilac used to boost milk production in dairy cows. Before the story aired corporate lawyers for Monsanto threatened to sue Fox News if the story went on. Fox Broadcasting Company owned 23 separate stations at the time and did not want a loss in advertising dollars, so they agreed to cooperate with Monsanto’s lawyers. After more than 80 rewrites to the story it still wasn’t aired and the reporters were eventually fired. They sued and won $425,000 in damages. The decision was overturned on appeal after Monsanto lawyers found a way to remove the reporters’ “whistle-blower” status on the grounds that falsifying news is not technically against the law. Today, some of the U.S. milk supply still comes from cows that have been modified with Posilac to produce more milk.

The most moving portion of the film for me was seeing the personal testimony of Raymond L. Anderson, chairman of one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers. The guy looks like a salty old corporate big wig, and for decades he played the part to a “T,” which makes more poignant his description of an epiphany he had about his company and its contributions to/detractions from the planet. He says that in 1994 he read The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken and realized that his company was creating product at an unsustainable rate and thus harmful to the environment. Hawken’s book, voted in 1998 as the #1 college text on business and the environment by professors in 67 business schools, introduced the principle of “comprehensive outcome,” which accounts the entire result of an event or process to all parties, not just the immediate participants. Considerations for natural resource depletion, pollution and the side effects of the production, distribution and consumption processes are key to the calculations. Hawken contrasts this to a merely “culminative outcome” which is simply the obvious result visible to the buyer at the moment and point of purchase, and the profit made therein by the supplier.

So since 1995 Anderson has reduced his company’s waste by a third, and plans to make the company on a completely sustainable platform by 2020. During the first three years of the company's drive toward sustainability it saved $50 million in reduced materials costs, reduced energy costs, and reduced waste. That’s $50 million for their bottom line (and thus more for shareholders) instead of for the atmosphere and the landfill. I firmly believe like my very good friend Al Gore that the key to environmental change is to prove that it pays to go green.

There is a scene where Anderson is speaking to a chamber of commerce group, and he points a finger at the audience and flatly proclaims that not one of their companies operates sustainably, and that the corporate world ignores this at our planet’s peril. The audience was stunned, perhaps not knowing what to think of a speaker who would come to their chamber and not give the standard “cheerleader for growth” speech. Having been an observer to not a few of these meetings myself, I admit to having gotten choked up a bit. Right on, salty old corporate dude!

The Corporation – Three Thumbs UP.


Fast Company magazine

Speech by Raymond L. Anderson


OFFICIAL FILM WEBSITE: www.thecorporation.com

* I’ve got to hand it to Netflix. Their selection is incredible and their queue system politely suggests/links other titles which may be of interest to the subscriber. It was thus I perused their numerous documentaries and came across today’s subject film.

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Great review. I haven't seen the flick myself, but I read the book when it first came out so the scenes that you describe rung a bell with me anyway. The main thesis of the book, that the corporation is an innately pathological (not to say psychotic) institution, can't really be denied. You can make a case that this is a bad thing (and many do), you can make a case that it's a good thing (likewise, plenty do), or you can say that it's a neutral thing (dependent on circumstance), but you can't really deny the thing itself.

PS: I 'loved' that bit about Monsanto only getting off the hook because "falsifying news is not technically against the law"! That's just mental. And so, so sad.
"voyage of the cute and fuzzy whatevers."

You stole my title, you bastard.

Anyway, did you catch the name of Anderson's company?

I agree about Netflix, although their suggestions come out of left field sometimes. I'll like "Mary Poppins" because I liked "West Side Story?" Huh?
I have to agree with Cheezy re: the bit about falsifying news not being illegal, though I will go further than simply stating that is mental.

It's abhorrent. I always thought that by definition "news" was the unvarnished (or as close as possible) truth of facts, and that any distortion was "editorial." The fact that this decision came in 2003, smack in the middle of the Bush era is yet another sign that we really don't live in America any longer.

Ook ook
Cheezy - I think we could consider it a success to achieve "corporate neutrality" in our lifetime.

Joe - Sorry about the title. You're free to use the also-ran "Flight of the Adorable Whatsitz." Check out the top two "sources" links for info on Anderson.

Fez - I definitely could've gone off more on that point, but I like to keep my blog posts under 2,000 words. For an interesting discussion on "signs that we really don't live in America any longer" check out this post at Politits (especially the link near the bottom referring to the comment by Kelso's Nuts).
This is the 3rd post i have read tonight since trawling through my google reader that seems to be questioning the capitalistic nature of things.
Either there is a momentum building and we can go on to storm the World (i bagsy Supreme Chief), or it will all fall apart over a post concerning dangerous dogs.

Storming the world is not one of my options because to smash the state(s) requires the same cold-bloodedness that these bastards have and I just don't have it. I can't bring myself to kill a child (off-spring of the "other side") in cold-blood.

More to the point, Capitalism itself is not really the problem. Capitalism itself is neither good nor bad. It's a system. To make if better requires resolving two very difficult problems: THE THEORY OF SURPLUS VALUE as set forth by Marx, and the concept of THE PRICING OF POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE SOCIAL EXTERNALITIES as set for by (I believe) the conservative Ronald Coase. Set those concepts to right and capitalism works. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?
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