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Capitalism in ‘unfair’ shock!

The Corporation is a crushingly dull movie full of 'Frank Beard facts'.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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In the early 1990s, there was a phrase describing facts suggesting that ‘this will be big news for you, sunshine’, but actually stating the obvious. It was called the Frank Beard Fact. The phrase was derived from the pub observation: ‘did you know that the only guy in ZZ Top not to have a beard is called, wait for it, Frank Beard?’ Other gems include ‘did you know that Hitler was a vegetarian?’ and ‘why is it that if a man sleeps around he’s a stud, and if a women does she’s a slag?’ But the one about Frank Beard was perhaps the granddaddy of them all.

I’m thinking about this while watching Mark Achbar’s and Jennifer Abbott’s film documentary The Corporation, which dissects the economic activities of big business corporations. During its sprawling two-and-a-half hours you’ll be confronted with a vast array of Frank Beard Facts.

Did you know, for instance, that there are rich and poor people in the world? (No!) Or that big business is ruthlessly motivated by the pursuit of enormous profits? (Really?) And did you know that big businesses exploit the third world, dump toxic wastes and manipulate the state and legal systems in their favour? (Never!) The film’s poster describes The Corporation as ‘Fahrenheit 9/11 for people who think’. Who are they kidding? The only constituencies this film is likely to provoke are either the very young or those who’ve studiously avoided and hated politics all their adult life. ‘Capitalism is a bit unfair’ seems to be the shocking starting point for this rambling and crushingly dull documentary.

If The Corporation were merely amateurish and naive, then perhaps we could just dismiss it. But that would be to ignore what is disturbing about this bleak-looking film. For all the earnest niceness of the various activists, their main arguments are dangerous and backward looking.

The radical talking heads featured in The Corporation are opposed to economic development in general, rather than capitalism in particular. This has been standard fare from anti-globalisationists and environmentalists for years. But it’s still alarming when born-again Green Ray Anderson, chairman of Interface Carpets, declares that ‘the industrial revolution was the biggest mistake humanity has ever made. We need to reverse that process’. It seems Anderson doesn’t care much for the increased food production or medical advances ushered in by industrialisation. Instead, he’s blubbering over a few slimy frogs.

Some critics argue that the makers of The Corporation don’t offer an alternative to big business. In actual fact they do. It’s along the lines of such previous romantic anti-capitalists as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin: to return to an agrarian or feudal age where trade was restricted to small crafts people.

What anti-globalisationists really seem to despise about the market is the way it brings millions of people together and creates mass society. The logos of McDonald’s, Starbucks or Ford are an irritating and ugly reminder of mass society – something they definitely don’t want part of. It is notable that the radical contributors, a bit like Margaret Thatcher before them, can barely bring themselves to mention the ‘S’ word.

Anti-Globalisationists’ biggest scorn is reserved for the masses. In a lengthy segment of the film, various campaigners and quack psychologists argue that ordinary people are easily manipulated by advertisers and marketing men into buying things ‘they don’t need’. As with the documentary Super-Size Me, it’s suggested that bans on advertising are needed to slow down the consumption habits of the Pavlovian masses. What seems to irritate many middle-class radicals is that increased living standards undermine their own sense of social superiority.

This is why there is a sneering contempt for car ownership, fast-food chains, mobile phones, satellite dishes and cheap holiday flights. As more goods become available to more people, the harder it is to stand out from the general hoi polloi. At worst, this spills over into predictable misanthropy. One journalist aboard a cheap flight to Faliraki wondered: ‘If God decided to down this 767, would the world be much poorer?’ (1) Other radicals adopt ethical shopping habits or take a stand against materialism in an attempt to appear morally superior.

A journalist who recently lived life according to The Corporation‘s creed pinpointed the real motivations for rejecting brands: ‘I normally feel smug as those around me shove Sainsbury’s ready meals into their baskets. But here (at a health food shop) everyone’s macrobiotically sound, and suddenly I don’t feel so special.’ (2) The new advertising campaign for Ikea mischievously captures this mood. ‘A lamp for £6.99 has no soul’, declares the glum artist, who is far too sensitive for the modern world. You feel that many of The Corporation’s contributors might agree.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom for Achbar and Abbott. In America and Britain, local authorities are turning down planning applications for sites from brand chains. Quite why small businesses are considered better than big businesses is never properly explained. They’re often more expensive, less efficient and pay their staff even worse wages than bigger stores. But local self-aggrandisement can prove irresistible. In 2002, residents in Hampstead village, north London, signed petitions to prevent Starbucks from opening a chain, suggesting it was a bit commonplace for such well-heeled denizens. The Corporation goes one further, describing Starbucks, McDonald’s and Ford as ‘even more monolithic than communism was’.

There are criticisms to be made of big corporations in America or Europe – such as their low-wages, poor working conditions and inefficient use of labour. Yet the film doesn’t even touch upon these issues. Instead, workers are portrayed as even more problematic than ‘fat cat’ bosses. Michael Moore argues that workers who make Ford’s automobiles are directly to blame for global warming. ‘These people’, he says with barely concealed contempt, ‘just don’t make the connection between the jobs they do and the damage they cause’. Quite how car workers in Moore’s hometown of Michigan are meant to survive isn’t explained.

All this is a long way off from a progressive critique of the market. In 1933 the American magazine Liberty interviewed Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Asked whether he thought the industrial system of America turned men into robots, he replied that ‘in the field of mechanization’ he was ‘a disciple of the United States’ and didn’t believe in ‘stopping halfway’ (3). Instead, he argued that industrial production should be developed to ‘make Ford’s achievements look like a miserable handicraft shop’ (4).

For all their radical posturing, the doomsayers on The Corporation would probably be as hostile to a better-organised society as they are the historic gains of capitalism. For all the Frank Beard Facts, this is no laughing matter.

Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.

Read on:

A feel-smug movie, by Dolan Cummings

spiked-issue: Anti-capitalism

spiked-issue: Film

(1) Leave them kids alone, Guardian, 6 September 2003

(2) Branded For Life, Guardian, 23 October 2004

(3) Women and The Family, Leon Trotsky, Pathfinder (1970)

(4) Trotsky, ibid

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Topics Politics

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