Conceivably the most important nonfiction film that we will see in a year that's exploding with them, the extraordinary Canadian documentary The Corporation has the odd, and perhaps unintended, effect of suggesting that the age of prophets didn't end with the Old Testament or the Koran. But if you're expecting some bearded, wild-eyed Jeremiah, think again. The prophet I'm referring to here, Ray Anderson, is the CEO of a successful carpet-manufacturing firm in Atlanta. He looks consummately corporate, and there's a genial twinkle in his eye and in his soft Southern drawl. But his statements are those of a man who has seen the great, yawning Abyss, and returned to warn anyone who will listen.
Anderson compares our civilization to one of those comically clumsy attempts at manned flight that preceded the Wright Brothers. Picture the Victorian would-be Icarus: he's jumped off a mountaintop sure of his scientific wizardry. Now, after flapping his cardboard wings desperately, he looks down and sees--ulp!--acres of air beneath him.
"Our civilization is not flying," Anderson says, "because it is not built according to the laws of aerodynamics for civilizations that would fly. And of course the ground is still a long way away. But some people have seen that ground rushing up sooner than the rest of us have. The visionaries have seen it and told us it's coming."
The visionaries this visionary CEO indicates are not raving hair-shirters, either. "There's not a single scientific peer review of the last 25 years that would contradict this scenario," Anderson adds. "Every living system of earth is in decline. And these constitute the biosphere ... that supports and nurtures all of life--not just our life but the life of 30 million other species that share the planet with us."
That may sound like Anderson's warnings are all about environmental despoilment. Hardly. The biosphere's wholesale destruction, it seems, is only a symptom of what's really on his mind. No misty-eyed tree-hugger, he speaks with an engineer's analytical precision. A machine has been contrived to perform a certain set of tasks. But it has been poorly designed, so much so that it's running amok and endangering everything around it. The machine is our current technological civilization, the entire societal infrastructure that humankind has evolved since the Industrial Revolution. It is threatening to kill us.
I mention these prophetic views of Ray Anderson to clarify a couple of points about The Corporation. First, everything from its publicity to its title signals that it concerns the peculiar organization that, in the anatomy of modern business, functions as the heart. But the film ultimately deals with something far greater than corporations: the possible survival of human life on this planet. Need I suggest that such a topic should be of primary interest to anyone reading this review?
Second, descriptions can make The Corporation, which was written by Joel Bakan and directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, sound like an exclusively leftist enterprise. And indeed certain of its talking heads--Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn--comprise a "usual suspects" gallery of lefty luminaries. Yet the voices heard in the film span a range of views, encompassing everyone from wised-up CEOs to whistleblowers to a guy who advocates that every cubic centimeter of air, water and everything else on the planet be owned by someone.
In any case, the film's overall viewpoint may well be leftist--a tag which unfortunately summons up Marxism, a superstition still espoused by certain witch doctors in deepest, darkest academia--but it's the questions the film asks that count most here, and these are urgent enough to demand the attention of thoughtful citizens from every conceivable spot on the political spectrum.
What's more, the movie's wit and visual spark make it an exceptionally entertaining polemic. The device the filmmakers use to illustrate one crucial point is already justly famous. Imagining the corporation as an individual, they observe its characteristic behaviors and then submit these for the analysis of Dr. Robert Hare, a psychiatrist and expert consultant to the FBI on psychopaths.
Given the corporation's frequent deceitfulness, reckless disregard for the safety of others, and so on, Dr. Hare unsurprisingly but persuasively labels it psychopathic. This, of course, is a droll way of making the point that corporations often act in ways that would get a lone citizen branded a menace and dispatched to jail. But it emerges from a point that's even more interesting and worthy of thoughtful scrutiny.
The filmmakers explain that--in a historical irony so cruel as to be obscene--the modern U.S. corporation's legal basis was inadvertently derived from the 14th Amendment, a law created to benefit African Americans who had been slaves. Clever Gilded Age lawyers saw a way to use the Amendment to have the corporation legally constituted as an individual, with certain attendant rights as well as a handy avoidance of collective responsibilities. Corporations, though, were obviously not identical to human beings; as one long-ago wag noted, "They have no soul to save and É no body to incarcerate."
Equally trenchant is the film's droll summation, via a flurry of TV news clips, of how our official opinion-makers habitually view criminal corporations as anomalous "bad apples." We need a new metaphor, the filmmakers suggest, and wryly offer several that range from killer sharks to out-of-control monsters to Dr. Frankenstein's alter ego.
The point of this isn't to demonize particular corporations (although several, including Monsanto, Nike, Bechtel and Wal-Mart, get cold-eyed appraisals) or the people who run them. The big bosses in these outfits, it's pointed out, can be perfectly nice people, even as compassionate and socially concerned as former Shell chairman Sir Mark Moody-Smith, seen here with his wife serving tea to activists who want to hang a sign saying "murderer" on their house (only in Britain do tea and manners still trump the overthrow of capitalism!).
No, the villain isn't a person--unless you buy the law's definition of the corporation as a person. And even here the essential problem is that, as one speaker puts it, "The corporation is legally bound to put its bottom line ahead of everything else, including the public good."
There's the rub. "Greed is good," sneered the acquisitive antihero of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, and no doubt people and companies acting out of economic self-interest have created the products, inventions and technologies that have given the modern West its unparalleled comfort and prosperity. They "create wealth," the saying goes, and it's true as long as wealth is defined in material terms--a definition on which cowboy capitalists and dialectical materialists entirely agree. But greed, like anything, is good only in moderation and in an appropriate context, and The Corporation warns that its excesses now literally threaten not just the continuance of growth but the survival of the species.
You can generalize the dangers by saying they concern both social and natural orders--which, needless to say, are wholly interdependent. On the social side, the film not only shows that the drive toward universal privatization (see President Bush's recently proclaimed "ownership society") is leading to a point where literally every piece of the earth and its resources will be owned; it also demonstrates the implications in an account of what happened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when the government declared that all water--even rain from the sky--was owned by Bechtel Corp., forcing people earning $2 a day to spend a quarter of that on drinking water. Not surprisingly, the city exploded and people were gunned down in the streets before the government was forced to back down.
As the "ownership" mania drives a wedge between the many have-nots and the increasingly insulated super-wealthy, it's not hard to imagine the future as a choice between a fascist technocratic oligarchy on one hand and a revolutionary apocalypse on the other. Not an appetizing choice.
On the natural front, as Ray Anderson points out, the biosphere is being assaulted at a record rate, in part thanks to technologies that were undreamed-of a half-century ago. And that points to a related problem: Why isn't your average citizen more aware of this, and more alarmed?
Well, guess who owns the mass media. One of the film's most sobering segments concerns two TV newspeople--not crusaders, just self-respecting journalists--who were hired by a Fox outlet to do serious investigative reporting. When their first story looked into health hazards posed to the public by a Monsanto-made "bovine growth hormone," the Murdoch organization went to extraordinary lengths to make sure it never aired. And big surprise: The law doesn't care what the truth is in such a case, or even whether the public's health is endangered. It only cares that the media outlet's prerogatives as owner are protected.
Granted, the film is partial both in having a viewpoint and in unavoidably presenting only portions of a vast set of problems. But to say that it "lacks objectivity" would be a risible absurdity, given the overwhelming bias that's endemic to the corporate media that dominate our society and that may well be hastening its demise. Indeed, The Corporation is consummately responsible in trying to sound an alarm before it's too late, and in showing us others who are doing the same.
The last time we see Ray Anderson he's in Raleigh, talking to a group of business leaders at N.C. State. He says this: "The first Industrial Revolution is flawed. It is not working. It is unsustainable. It is the mistake."
Very clear words, but will they be heard? We can only hope this prophet has better luck than those whose warnings are vindicated by cataclysm.