Comfortable and Furious

The Corporation (2003)

“Corporation: an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.”
The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce

Twenty years later, things are even worse.

I see hundreds of films a year and have done so for quite some time now. I’ve seen the powerful, the devastating, the dreadful, and the abysmal. Name a genre and I’ve been there. In all that time, however, I have never seen a film quite like The Corporation. In fact, it constitutes the most depressing experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater.

By comparison, Schindler’s List was a romp through the park with kittens and balloons in tow. Platoon was a laugh-filled riot with clowns, laughing children, and cake and ice cream for all. Even Cries and Whispers becomes a slapstick comedy in the face of The Corporation’s stunning, somber reality. Of course, during it’s 2 ½ hour running time, I was shocked, enraged, frustrated, and appalled, but as I prepared to leave, I also felt quietly, steadfastly helpless. Completely paralyzed and impotent.

The history of the corporation and its impact on the human race is one of pain, misery, and sinister intentions, but information is all the film can provide. In terms of economic enslavement, there are no solutions, as we are all locked in; snared by a system that has allowed for only one possible escape — total global collapse. And that’s the dilemma, my friends: capitalism, via the corporation, is a heartless, mean-spirited, repressive, unjust system of exploitation, environmental rape, and murder, and, as we’ve seen, involves a frantic race to the bottom, but what possible alternative is there? Socialism? It’s been done, and not at all well. Communism? Too many corpses and that pesky human nature shit. Communes and cooperatives? Yeah, if you like starvation and shortages. What, then — the free market with a healthy dose of regulation and responsibility? Perhaps, but what happens when the rest of the world won’t play along? Outrage turns to futility, and I’m left horribly bereft. If you need me, I’ll be in the corner sobbing like an infant.

Directed by Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar, The Corporation is much more than a pedantic, dull slog through the devastation wrought by economic injustice. It’s also bitingly humorous, snappy, and full of so many facts that one is rendered dizzy just trying to keep up. Most of the running time consists of interviews with CEOs, historians, activists, and artists (the most prominent are Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore), but we also get plenty of stock footage and on-site images of Third World blight.

The film is also broken up into “chapters” that help sort through the wealth of detail. Some have argued that the length works against it, in that ideas and issues are merely repeated over and over rather than developed. I strongly disagree. With a topic this complex, many hours are required to make the film much more than a simple-minded screed. There is an agenda at work, of course, but we do hear a number of contrasting viewpoints (conservative economist Milton Friedman among them). It’s an “epic,” then a vision of our world that takes what we all know deep inside and removes the thick layer of varnish that allows us to live without a sense of impending doom. “Hope” is offered by the end when we see how “the people” fought back in places like Bolivia and India, but I can’t help but think that these victories were “acceptable,” and therefore allowed in order to keep the masses quiet.

Through it all, we see how the Supreme Court of the late 19th century twisted and contorted the 14th Amendment to define the corporation as “a person,” a decision that has helped to exempt it from a wide array of social responsibilities. After all, most regulation throughout the years has been dismissed as violating the equal protection provision of the Amendment, and therefore illegal. This elevation of property rights to an equal plane with human rights is the most glaring example of where our lawmakers have faltered in their desire to read the Constitution “literally.” We also watch the PR machines build up the idea of the corporation as humanity’s savior; a mix of religious fervor, self-help vanity, and undeniable practicality.

And with unlimited resources, these corporations have had the best of all possible worlds. CEOs, for example, can provide a human face to a massive enterprise (and whenever we hear about these captains of industry, we are always told of their striking “normality” and that, despite the millions, they are “just folks”). And when scandal hits, the contradictions flow like wine. The CEO, so personally involved during flush times that big money bonuses are justified, becomes passive and helpless in the face of illegality. He suddenly becomes “out of the loop” or not really responsible as we are denied that same face at which to direct our rage. The physical structure, imposing as ever, absorbs the shock and all returns to its pre-scandal state.

Then there are the specific examples of the corporate crime against humanity, two of which stand out. First, the government of Bolivia, in cahoots with the businessmen of the region, privatize the rain (no, I am not kidding). Why, you ask? They realize that the numerous poor of the country are collecting rainwater in order to live, and this cuts into the profits of the private water interests. Therefore, it becomes a crime to take that which falls from the clouds. One would expect such a story from the mind of Orwell or Huxley, not the real world in which we live. Second, we are treated to the illustrious history of IBM and how it profited greatly from the extermination of six million Jews. No, IBM did not cause the Holocaust, nor did they advise Hitler on methods, but they did provide and process punch cards that recorded the “visitors” to the Reich’s various death camps. Given the coding on the cards, only a willful idiot wouldn’t know their sinister purpose.

And then there’s the push to “own” our genetic material. Because of the Burger Court, private companies can now purchase and hold the patent on our DNA in order to have a leg up if and when various illnesses require their “cures.” Yes my friends, you don’t even belong to you anymore. And then we have two nutty college kids who sell their bodies to the highest bidder in order to pay for their tuition. Ingenious perhaps, but as these kids do little but travel the country thanking their sponsors, I’m sure the act gets tired very quickly. Or what about the hyper-positive free market wing nut who says it would be a good thing to have each and every square inch of the globe sold off to the highest bidder, completely destroying the idea of public land or the general interest? These are the same folks who would, with a twinkle in their eye, tell you about the possibilities (and potential savings for taxpayers!) of rolling out Halliburton and Archer Daniels Midland Present: Gettysburg! They are living proof that nothing corrupts so quickly and so easily as spending a large portion of one’s day in a board room.

In many ways, the most scandalous section involved a pair of investigative reporters in Florida who were silenced by their Fox news station (naturally) for having the audacity to run a story about the harmful chemicals being pumped into dairy cows. The report was reasoned, balanced, and packed with irrefutable data, but after the station received threats from lawyers representing the milk industry, they backed down like the spineless cowards they are. The reporters, who thankfully saved all correspondence proving their case, were by turns threatened, bribed, and coerced into either spiking the story or altering the content that it would in effect say the exact opposite as originally intended. This is but one example of what a for-profit media does to free speech, but if the filmmakers were so inclined, I have no doubt they could present hundreds, if not thousands more. How the media became a business and not a servant of the public interest is beyond my grasp and the scope of this film, but it does feel as if the problem has gotten worse in the past few decades.

It is important to remember, however, that this is not a Republican issue, nor is it as simple as blaming right-wing zealots. Both parties are guilty of selling the public interest down the river for their pieces of silver, and it is quite apparent that corporations are now so influential that the government is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant and non-existent. While they bounce around the House and Senate chambers playing dress up, the corporate titans who really run things craft legislation in their stead. This is no “smoke-filled room” conspiracy, but a process that is conducted right out in the open for all to see. In fact, it has become so obvious that the sheep that pass for informed citizens now parrot the company line for them.

We have accepted the transfer of power, almost without a peep of protest. As such, we are slaves to brands, wants that have now become desperate needs, and the idea that unless we are conducting business, we are wasting our time. I’d be hard pressed to tell you how many minutes of my day (and your day, of course) are spent in non-commercial transactions. Maybe, and only maybe, when I’m on the shitter. Even then I’m reading the paper (a bulging collection of ads interrupted by an article or two). So again, what can be done? Sure, we can push for a few new laws, or protest in the streets. In the end, though, it will be as The Who said: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” We’re stuck people, and we’re here for the duration.



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