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'The New Corporation' Review: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel

'The New Corporation'

“Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned; they, therefore, do as they like.”—Edward, Lord Thurlow

In 2003, co-directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott released a documentary called The Corporation, based on the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by law professor Joel Bakan. The film began with the legal premise that corporations are persons, which they are to some extent, particularly under American law, and went on to discuss an interesting question: allowing that corporations are persons, what kind of person is the corporation? The answer, in brief: if corporations were people, they would be sociopaths. Bakan writes, “The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others.”  The power and freedom of corporations is behind many of the world’s ills, in Bakan’s theory. The film used visual techniques, guest speakers, and historic footage to make its case, using the concept of a sociopathic disorder, and referencing the WHO’s manual of mental disorders, as the organising principle that runs through the entire film. It was a successful effort, both informative and entertaining.

Seventeen years later, Abbott has teamed up with Joel Bakan in his directorial debut, to produce a chilling sequel based on Bakan’s own follow up book, Killing Us With Kindness: How Good Corporations Are Destroying Democracy, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival September 13. Bakan also adapted the screenplay. The film they collaborated on, The New Corporation, takes on the corporation’s newest persona as a benevolent force, one which apparently seeks to solve problems and make the world a better place while it makes a profit. Bakan sees this as a protective adaptation; he says, “As the corporation’s size and power grew, so did the need to assuage people’s fears of it.” The sequel addresses changes corporations have made in their image: they now seek to appear conscientious, responsible, no longer obsessed with profits but trying to use their wealth to improve the world. The documentary seeks to show that this facade is little more than a new marketing technique; that even if individual businesses are philanthropic, there is no change in the essential mandate of a corporation, which is always, first and foremost, to make a profit. Even more, the film presents evidence that the new, benevolent corporation may be more dangerous than its former, openly greedy and self-serving version.

During the intervening seventeen years between films, the filmmakers have only improved their approach and storytelling technique, and possibly grown bolder in their research. This results in a documentary that is not only more watchable, but which digs deeper into its subject matter. They begin with footage of the World Economic Forum, an example of the political power corporations hold. Both business and major political figures are there, as are the media, to cover an announcement by J P Morgan Chase of their plan to fund the “revival” of impoverished US cities. From this familiar, self-congratulatory event, the film goes on to show us multiple examples of corporate largesse, and the dark reality behind it – not least of which is the fact that J P Morgan Chase had helped cause the destruction of some of the communities they now propose to save. The level of power of the modern day corporation is carefully established, arguing that, as politician Elizabeth May says on camera, “It’s become accepted that corporations are in charge. Governments are incredibly subservient to corporate rule.” The main evidence provided is a series of shocking examples of corporations breaking the law almost routinely when the law interferes with profits, typically with few or no serious consequences.

(Credit: TIFF)

Using a rapid fire array of onsite and historic footage, expert statements, and visual illustrations, the film goes through the key strategies behind renovating the corporation’s image.

First, seeming to make money from apparent philanthropy – such as one example studied, opening chains of private schools for the poor in third world countries, which hire minimally trained instructors and inadequate materials to save money, while competing with government schools, thereby driving down actual educational standards nation-wide. 

Second, avoiding taxes – which has the dual benefit of saving the company money, and making it harder for governments to deal with problems due to underfunding, thus leaving openings for privatisation, which the corporation can use as another source of profit. The film covers some of the most harmful examples of this practice, including offering, where permitted by law, privately run prisons, schools, libraries, and post offices, competing with public versions. One of the most shocking segments of the film deals with the corporate takeover of a national water supply, which, until overturned, made even falling rain the property of a corporation. Significant attention is also given to the environmental impact of corporate power, and how corporations cause a great deal of the worst environmental degradation,  even while presenting themselves as the solution.

For the sake of clarity, the film is divided into segments, each dealing with a typical business strategy, summarised as the Playbook of the New Corporation: ‘present yourself as a friend and ally,’ exploit unequal advantage’, and ‘manipulate people’s world view,’ among others. Ample, and often disturbing, examples of how corporations employ these techniques are provided, complete with relevant footage and witness testimonies. Guest appearances in the film include international activists, politicians, labour  and economists, such as Noam Chomsky, Occupy Wall Street founder Micah White, former US Secretary of Labour Robert Reich, ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustbarten, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, philosopher Michael Hardt, and Harvard University lecturer Marshall Ganz, to name just a few. What is surprising is the number of corporate spokesmen who were willing to appear in the film, and whose fairly candid statements bolster its message. Carefully juxtaposed with other footage and graphics, the expert commentary serves to make a fully coherent statement based on exhaustive evidence. The slightly more upbeat conclusion suggests that current, disastrous world events might offer the silver lining of inspiring demands for anti-corporate measures when nothing else could. 

Freely employing humour as well as pathos, and using whimsical visual aids without condescending to the audience, the film is successful as entertainment, but still more successful in conveying author Joel Bakan’s succinct message: “You can’t have both corporate rule and democracy.”