21st Century Design – Rediscovering the Wisdom of the PastAgosto 1, 2013
Corporations rule our lives. It’s not a sentiment people like to hear, especially in the democratic nations of the West. But the fact is, more and more it is becoming clear that government “by the people, for the people, and of the people” is very often a façade – and in many areas, even that façade is dispensed with. So it behooves us, if we want to truly be agents in charge of our own lives, to really look at the phenomena of corporations with a very critical and vigilant eye. And the first step in that process is to get a very good grasp of the history of these entities that (as Mitt Romney informs us) “are people too…”
Life on earth has changed almost completely in the last one hundred and fifty years. Human beings live in an increasingly complex society. Ever since humans began thinking, they have pondered how social rules are accepted and codified, how natural law and human law are created and how can they regulate the future. There is no need to recall Jean- Jacques Rousseau’s Le Contrat Social, the Jusnaturalists, and the “social pact” that would escort humanity from a state of nature into society, to understand that humans become individuals bound by the law in a well-defined culture and religion, a very specific reality that has boosted the importance and uniqueness of the individual as a means of reaching the collective good.
However, this is only one side of the story. Men are twisted animals, very good at reasoning and finding fine arguments to defend their own private affairs. Indeed, one wonders how it could have happened that the people in Western culture, so proud of their individual and very tangible rights, have granted even ampler rights to abstract entities called Corporations.
The Corporation is a 2003 documentary that investigates the historic reasons behind such questions and why it is that boundaries increasingly have been knocked down by corporations to the extent that they have become foggy entities that do not respond to anyone but themselves. The Corporation is the tale of an uncontrolled entity, grown thanks to the same principles that founded Western society, able to reach a state where it has become quite difficult to discern and to regulate.
The film, written by Joel Bakan, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, tells the story of the historic development of the contemporary business corporation. In particular, it tries to apply a sort of psychological analysis to the corporation’s behaviour, for it is highly ironic that over the years a business entity has been able to turn itself from a government-chartered institution created for specific functions into a person – or at least has been able to gain the legal rights of a person. Hence, there is more than a passing reason to treat corporations as individuals and to understand their psychological personality. The clinical diagnosis is not reassuring: corporations respond in ways that fit the profile of psychopaths, individuals who are dangerous to society. They should be treated as such, the documentary seems to say, but no one has yet dared to challenge the distorted legal morphing of a business entity into a person.
Indeed, the impression the documentary gives the viewer is that it mostly sustains anti-global sentiment, even though the authors profess their defence of economic liberalism. Many of the experts interviewed in the film are such influential representatives of the anti-global culture, advocates of non-homogenous, fairer-business models as Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and Vandana Shiva. Though important opinions of eminent liberal thinkers like Milton Friedman and Peter Drucker, as well as the Fraser Institute, are voiced throughout the film, the anti-corporate opinion pervades the documentary overall.
The film starts by clearly presenting the historical distortion around the creation of corporations, when the 14th amendment to the US Constitution was turned into a call for broader powers by corporate lawyers who introduced the idea of a business entity being a “legal person” who can buy, sell and make profit. The first idiosyncracy begins there, after the American Civil War, for a business organisation, whose statutory aim is to increase profits, cannot fit into the shoes of a person. No moral, societal or ethical rules can be applied to the corporation legal person, for by law the business enterprise is bound to profit for its investors and shareholders, and not to respect the rules of society.
Here, the filmmakers turn to presenting case studies, analysing corporations as individuals under the law. The stories are gruesome. In fact, virtually every major corporation has violated laws and paid millions of dollars of fines, but at the same time has turned ever-increasingly into profit-making machines unable to abide by societal rules. Moreover, in applying the World Health Organisation Personal Disorder checklist to the corporation, we see unfolding the personality of a psychopath, an individual dangerous to society and unable to bring an added value to it. Adhering to principles of social responsibility, a tactic many corporations took in the last few years, is seen as a reaction to a marketing trend that has shaped the market differently. More demands for social accountability mean more profits for corporations able to cope with such requests. In the end, the documentary switches attention towards society, and demonstrates that collective action and demands for corporate social accountability are possible, and can be successful – as in the case of Arcata and the victories of the Green Movement in India.
It is manifestly necessary to go back and revisit this documentary on the tenth anniversary of its release. The business world has changed deeply since 2003. The anti-global advocates have been able to make their voice heard in many fields, even though corporate forces have strengthened over time. Environmental protection, social responsibility of businesses, zero-kilometer markets and Green products are important victories of the movement, and a general political will to make profit and business a more “human” activity is a great development. However, The Corporation draws attention to some unsolved problems, chiefly focused around the idea of social accountability and environmentalfriendly business.
The nature of corporations has changed, in particular with the emergence of the Silicon Valley giants like Google, Oracle and Facebook. Their attitude towards business has allowed many other corporations to follow the same path. In fact, they give the illusion of being businesses created and aimed at the global good, for the products and “smart” innovations they invent and patent and seemingly adhere to the call for a cleaner and better life. However, the implications for the overall business community are greater, for their responsibility towards the customer has been distorted. The tons of data collected by these companies have shifted public attention from a strict public accountability to an image of safe-keepers of the future. It has given cover for older corporations in their attempts to avoid accountability. In fact, public opinion does not care about their personal data left in the hands of few companies as much as it does about environmental issues. It is therefore worrisome that the very same companies set those priorities and lead their audience to think of them as self-evident; issues like genetic copywriting, personal data legislation or water privatisation are given less importance and attention, in a scale of priorities that is erroneously perceived as being set by the public itself.
Hence, The Corporation needs to be broadcast again, to be watched with attention. Our society does still walk towards self-destruction, on the same basis as it has done for years and years in the name of sheer profit. Can we still sustain a world where business acts and works as a separate entity from the societal body? Can societal institutions allow their priorities to be set by external and private interests?
To watch The Corporation today is to rethink and reset our view on businesses, to regain belief in the ability of humanity to improve its own condition in harmony with our planet, with no biases and illusions. Will we be able to do it?
This film takes an in-depth psychological examination of the organization model through various case studies. What the study illustrates is that in the its behaviour, this type of “person” typically acts like a dangerously destructive psychopath without conscience. Furthermore, we see the profound threat this psychopath has for our world and our future, but also what people with courage, intelligence and determination can do to stop it.