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Sergei Eisenstein dreamed of producing a Joycean epic based on Marx’s Das Kapital. Albeit more prosaic, The Corporation, written by Joel Bakan and directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, fulfills part of that project—even if, as in some orthodox traditions, its analysis never utters its presiding deity’s awesome name.
A leisurely, never boring, grimly amusing, and not entirely hopeless disquisition on the contemporary world’s “dominant institution,” this Canadian documentary ranges from third-world sweatshops and Monsanto petrochemical atrocities to the targeting of kiddie consumers and U.S. corporate collusion with Nazi Germany. The catalog of outrage is nearly inexhaustible: Corporations succeed in patenting new life-forms and privatizing rainwater in Bolivia. The destruction of the World Trade Center doubles the price of gold overnight. (“In devastation there is opportunity,” one broker excitedly exclaims.) So-called corporate responsibility is merely a tactic. Right-wing economist Milton Friedman agrees with left-wing historian Howard Zinn that the profit motive rules—and it naturally follows that multi-national profits trump national interest.
The filmmakers zero in on the fact that, thanks to judicial interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, corporations have the same legal status as individual persons. In a particularly brilliant argument, they apply the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to demonstrate that, judged by human standards, the corporation is by nature psychopathic—self-absorbed,irresponsible, manipulative, and unable to empathize or feel remorse. The corollaries to this institutional person are those individuals who, at least in their social roles, embody the inhuman logic of the system: liberal CEOs, proud corporate spies, cheery specialists in undercover product placement, the scary behavioral psychologist who advises toy companies how to maximize and exploit the power of a nagging child.
Noam Chomsky, the subject of Achbar’s Manufacturing Consent, is the movie’s main voice; other expert witnesses include Michael Moore (who gets the chance to revisit his battle with affable nemesis Nike CEO Phil Knight) and Ray Anderson, the CEO of the world’s largest commercial-carpet manufacturer, who underwent a green conversion after reading a book. Imagine that! The Corporation—which won an audience award at Sundance—has an infectious faith in education. To that end, the filmmakers make effective use of old industrial training films, while their script explains such venerable concepts as surplus value, reification, and repressive desublimation without actually using the terms.