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Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005
Profit and Plunder, Incorporated
Cyberpunk author William Gibson is often credited with predicting the rise of the Internet, and our digitally inter-connected future. What he gets less credit for, however, is imagining how our future would be dominated by mega-corporations whose power and resources would eclipse those of nation-states.
It's a scenario that grows ever closer, with the news of each media mega-merger, or the rise of "private contractors," i.e. corporate mercenaries. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to be alarmed by the prospect of an ex-Haliburton exec-turned-vice-president hyping a war-of-choice that profited his former corporate employers handsomely.
So maybe this is a good time to sit back, take a deep breath and ponder the nature of corporations, where they arose from, and where they're going. For an excellent primer on the subject, you can't beat director Jennifer Abbott's "The Corporation," an exhaustive Canadian documentary that presents both corporate insiders and their critics in an eminently watchable format.
There are plenty of lefty critics like Naomi Klein (author of "No Logo") and Noam Chomsky, to be sure; but there are also corporate insiders, such as Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, former exec of Shell, and Sam Gibara, CEO of Goodyear. Sandwiched between the talking heads are fascinating and often frightening examples of corporate excesses.
Abbott is upfront with her agenda. Right off the bat, the film's narration identifies the corporation as "an institution that creates great wealth, but causes enormous, and often hidden, harms." Abbott takes a rather intriguing approach to her critique: The corporation, as the film explains, can be legally classified as an individual person. So, extending that concept, the film asks, what kind of person is a corporation?
The film engages in a psychiatric evaluation of corporate behavior; one by one, pathological character traits are ticked off the list: "Callous disconcern for the interests of others"; "incapacity to experience guilt"; "inability to maintain relationships" . . . You can see where this is going long before Robert Hare, the FBI's adviser on psychopaths, turns up.
Abbott backs her points with any number of disturbing case studies: There's good old Nike, whose internal documents reveal the measly 6 cents they have paid for labor in one of their overpriced shirts. There's Fox News, who willingly bowed to pressure from Monsanto to pull an expose on growth hormones in the nation's milk supply. (One of their demands was to change the word "cancer" to "human health implications.") Then there's everybody's favorite Haliburton subsidiary, Bechtel, becoming the privatized owner of a Bolivian town's water supply, where even rainwater became their private property. Then there's the chilling story about how IBM supplied primitive computers to the Third Reich's concentration camps.
The fundamental problem here is the nature of the beast: profits and the bottom line will always trump ethical and responsible behavior at the end of the day. To her credit, Abbott does allow alternate viewpoints: Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world's largest carpet manufacturer, speaks of his newly found environmental consciousness, and the challenge to create products in a sustainable way. Shell's Moody-Stuart, too, is shown sympathetically, engaging with protesters who arrive at his house instead of retreating behind locked doors and calling the cops. And it's Goodyear's Gibara, not Chomsky, who makes the point that "governments have become powerless compared to where they were before" in regulating corporate affairs.
When you learn how biotech companies patent every gene they capture, and how soon they will have patented the genomes of every creature on the planet, it's hard to resist a shudder of fear and the realization that Gibson's future shock is breathing down our necks. But before you succumb to the idea that it's all right to put a price tag on literally everything, watch this film.