Iconoclast's View of the Corporation - A Critique of the Documentary "The Corporation"

>> Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ajay Pradhan | December 22, 2005

I enjoyed reading Naresh dai’s report on the documentary, The Corporation. I regret not being able to attend the meeting and taking part in the discussion.

Obviously, the theme is a thought-provoking one; hence, I’m thinking out loud on these pages. I hope my thoughts are not too irrelevant in the context of the documentary’s subject matter. I haven’t seen the film; my observations are based on what I have read in Naresh dai’s report and heard from other people. Any comments are quite welcome.

I will warn you all, this is a critique and you will not find me agreeing with the overriding message of the film. If you are surprised that this is coming from me, someone who is trained to protect the environment, don’t. I’m not an activist.

I’ll begin by making a cheeky observation (apologies if you are their fan) on two stellar personalities shown in the documentary. Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein often criticize and contradict established social beliefs. But, they do not offer alternatives. Therefore, they are iconoclast, not visionary.

Chomsky is the academic equivalent of Ralph Nader. Klein, Chomsky and Nader are intellectual equivalents of political insurgents—they function best within their own comfort zone, far outside the social mainstream. If you ask them what the alternative to the capitalism-based corporate world and global trade are, they feel no obligation to offer any answer. I am surprised Nader wasn’t in the documentary. I have more respect for Michael Moore. He doesn’t pretend to be anti-globalist. His attacks tend to focus on ultra conservative fear-mongering that George Bush has come to be known for.

The Corporation appears to try to stand on the strength of these personalities who I will call social insurgents. Ironically, this strategy proves to be the documentary’s weakness.

Obviously, the documentary will appeal to those who do not need any converting—the leftist, the hardcore “green environmentalist”, the anti-globalization type, and the overall anti-capitalist. The movie seems to pack the message that these people want to hear.

I bet the documentary is a prized possession of the types who oppose the proposed twinning of Port Mann Bridge, a major bottleneck, and widening of Highway 1 from Langley to Vancouver. The documentary producer and directors must be a hero to those on the far left who profess that environmental protection and economic development are mutually exclusive. Ironically, this is exactly the ideology held close to heart by those on the far right as well. The only difference is in their priority.

This is an ideology I reject out of hand. Bill Clinton is the first prominent politician who saw big opportunity for economic growth in technological advancement that would protect the environment. When Bush replaced Clinton in the White House in 2000, Clinton’s optimism for coexistence, even mutual dependence, of the environment and economic growth was swiftly brushed aside. Bush’s new mantra was, “If you want economic growth, you must sacrifice the environment.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sadly, the documentary will only appeal to those on the far left. It will fall into deaf ears among the types of conservatives led by Bush. In as much as the conservatives are seen as being buddy buddy with the corporate bosses, I think the film made them the target, but not the audience—an opportunity wasted. For the conservatives, and for that matter the corporate honchos, it will be very convenient to label such documentaries as left-wing propaganda, as they did Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.

I think The Corporation would have fared better had the directors borrowed the idea of doing a film from Moore. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore didn’t get leftist personalities to speak what he wanted to hear. He got the ultra conservatives’ one of the most shining star, Charlton Heston. Moore gave Heston, who is a former popular Hollywood star and was the head of National Rifles Association, long enough rope to hang himself with. Heston is the one who had the gun, but Moore is the one who ambushed Heston, with his message, “Gun kills.” That’s what I call the punch, not a morbid, repetitive message.

The directors of The Corporation appear to have failed to provide enough rope to any of their nemesis to hang themselves with. All they were able to do was to gather a bunch of the predictables, those who feel uneasy in social mainstream. In these personalities, the directors merely got activists. Activists don’t make things happen; they stop things from happening. To be fair, not all of which are bad. Often, their voices act as the source of social conscience. But, when it comes to finding tangible alternatives to solutions created by mainstream model of economic growth, their hands come up with nothing more than empty rhetoric.

If you ask me, there is really no real alternative to corporations as we know them, with logo or without. You can’t get to work tomorrow morning if it weren't for GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, or makers of mass transit vehicles. The Hudson’s Bay would not have been able to engage in fur trade 200 years ago were it not for the steel mills that produced railway lines. Your Zocor, Paxil, and Tylenol are in the medicine cabinet, thanks to the pharmaceutical corporations. Well, you get the picture.

Now, is it the responsibility of these corporations to protect the environment? Yes and no. Depends on how you look at it. A corporation does not have any more responsibility to protect the environment than an individual person. In this sense, yes, a corporation is indeed like an individual person.

But, protecting the environment is not one individual person’s responsibility. The responsibility is collective (note the emphasis). The collective responsibility is that of a society. The government is the steward of the society. It is up to the government and, by extension, the society, to see how they want the corporations to share the responsibility of protecting the environment. This is best done through a variety of instruments—legal (legislation and regulations), financial (tax incentives or penalties), educational (public image) and so on. If you have these instruments in place and enforce them, then you have a corporation that will have no choice but to internalize the environment into what the documentary appears to refer to as their bottom line—the profit.

Of course, if you, as a member of the society, can’t care less for the environment due to apathy or ignorance, you can surely bet that the corporations won’t, either. That’s why in the 1950s through late 1970s you had so much environmental pollution in North America. But, I doubt it’s the iconoclast’s social activism that will fruitfully tame the corporations. The better approach is to use social instruments that we know by another name—policy.
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Note:

I wrote this as an email critique four years ago and I feel that I was probably too harsh on the opponents of corporations, globalization, and free markets. I'm not a conservative (neither fiscal nor social); far from it. I wrote this mainly to provoke thoughts. I'm posting this here now as I'm reading Arundhati Roy's latest book Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy.

I see some similarities between Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein. Both are very perceptive and analytical thinkers. They dig deep, when most of us simply observe the surface as thought it that was the truth. When most of us are satisfied with the surface, Roy and Klein go underneath it to explore what is often ignored by many. They both write to wake up the sleeping with their unsettling analysis of contemporary norms and events, when most don't have the audacity to question those norms and understand the events.

But, I do feel that as much as Roy and Klein are critical thinkers and observers, for which I respect them, they have yet to show the way forward to the awakened. That is why I seem to think of the word iconoclast when I think of them. I'll have to admit it, though, that I do not fully know the breadth of the work Roy and Klein have done. Therefore, my views will likely evolve as I know them better.

You are welcome to criticize this critique.


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