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A feel-smug movie

The Corporation allows you to criticise capitalism from the safety of your sofa.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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The Corporation is more than just the latest in a flurry of documentaries to screen in cinemas this year. Like many of those films, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, or Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, for example, it comes with an unmistakable political message. Accompanied by a campaigning website (www.thecorporation.com), The Corporation is what you might call a ‘movement film’, seeking to rally what has been called the anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation or global justice movement.

The film, by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot and Joel Bakan, is based on legal scholar Bakan’s book The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, and its relatively narrow focus on the corporation as a legal entity is characteristic of the movement it addresses. While the website describes the corporation as ‘the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism’, there is little discussion of what capitalism actually is. The film’s critique is on the level of morality, and indeed psychology, rather than politics.

The Corporation‘s comic premise is to ask, since the corporation is legally considered a person, what kind of person it is. According to the film, the corporation is self-interested, amoral, and incapable of empathy or guilt, though it sometimes mimics those qualities for its own ends. Using a checklist based on the definition published by the World Health Organisation, the filmmakers diagnose the corporation as a psychopath.

It sounds harsh, but it is quite compatible with Milton Friedman’s enthusiastic insistence that the sole responsibility of the company is to maximise shareholder value. Friedman appears in the film to argue that ‘corporate social responsibility’ is not only beyond the remit of the corporation, but positively undemocratic. Who are corporate CEOs to decide what is good for communities or the environment? In fact, the filmmakers have fun mocking corporations’ attempts to do good, which are often transparently self-serving (and in the case of Pfizer’s security intercom in a New York subway station, malfunctioning).

Rather than pursuing Friedman’s line on democracy, however, the film argues that corporate social responsibility can’t be effective because it is not genuine. The underlying sentiment here is a basic dissatisfaction with the idea that social good can come from the pursuit of individual, or corporate, self-interest. There is a palpable yearning for a purer, more morally satisfying, motivation for action – a clear challenge to Adam Smith’s famous observation that in capitalism, ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’.

As Noam Chomsky implies in the film, though, there is a difference between Smith’s ideal of individuals pursuing their own self-interest in the context of a community, and individuals acting as cogs in a machine. When individuals pursue the interests of an estranged corporate entity, they are more profoundly alienated from moral sentiments – and as the film shows, even the law becomes subject to cost-benefit analysis. Smith himself, with his belief in the importance of sociability, would perhaps have been sympathetic to this critique. But the solution suggested by the film – greater democratic accountability – isn’t as straightforward as it appears.

With widespread cynicism about politicians, democracy as an institution is almost as maligned as the corporation. In this context, ‘democratic’ often seems to refer to an ethical mindset rather than a political approach. One contributor to the film is Maude Barlow, the chairperson of Council of Canadians – which, while not to be confused with the democratically elected Parliament of Canada, nonetheless claims to be the voice of a nation standing up to government as well as corporations. Meanwhile, the ecologist Dr Vandana Shiva, casually claims to speak not only for the Indian peasants on whose behalf she campaigns against global agribusiness, but for every species on Earth.

Once politics is separated from interests, it becomes open to such moral posturing – by corporations themselves as well as advocacy groups. The ‘office holders’ of capitalism are not immune from the politics of ‘anti-capitalism’, as is demonstrated by another contributor to The Corporation, carpet manufacturer and born-again environmentalist Ray Anderson. But regulation based on such a politics risks alienating people even further. Far from being democratic, it need not address the public’s own interests or even social needs. Indeed, environmental regulations can be in direct opposition to both.

Interest-free politics is a challenge not only to capitalism but to traditional critiques of it. Anti-capitalism has historically been class-based, whether in the landowners’ resistance to the power of mobile capital, or the working class’ struggle against the employers. That is, anti-capitalism has always been very much based on interests, albeit collective ones. In contrast, today’s anti-capitalism is essentially classless. The Corporation‘s concern with purity of purpose is characteristic of a political outlook that eschews material interests and tries instead to bring people together around a shared rejection of corporate malfeasance.

At a recent discussion on documentary at the National Film Theatre in London, it was suggested that the theatrical documentary boom had begun with ‘feel-good’ movies like Buena Vista Social Club, about Cuban jazz, and Spellbound, about spelling bees in the USA, before getting more political. But the more political films could also be described as feel-good movies, in that they make viewers feel part of something greater than themselves. Instead of class-based solidarity, The Corporation offers the kind of shared consumer experience pioneered by the very corporations it attacks. It’s certainly clever, but it is no basis for politics.

Read on:

Corporate bores, by Neil Davenport

spiked-issue: Anti-capitalism

spiked-issue: Film

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