The Corporation

One of the most lauded documentaries from last year was a film I only managed to catch up with this week, when it was released as a stunningly produced two-DVD set. The Corporation analyzes what it convincingly calls the primary influence on contemporary life: “Like the Church, the Monarchy and the Communist Party in other times and places,” the narrator says, “the corporation is todayís dominant institution.”

The film is over two-hours long, but the DVD contains over seven or eight hours of supplemental material, including two audio commentaries, a host of clips from screening discussions and media appearances around the world, and an entire disc of expanded interviews with about 40 people featured in the film–from those who oppose corporate excess to those who are deeply imbedded.

The film is a crash course for those unfamiliar with the ideological and historical underpinnings of the corporation and yet it is also humorous, engaging, and visually creative. We learn that a corporation is a specific kind of business arrangement designed to decrease the accountability of its members, that it is granted a charter by the government (of the people) and was initially designed to provide limited services for the public good (like railroads and bridges).

But shortly after the Civil War, corporate lawyers took advantage of the newly-created 14th amendment (designed to protect black Americans) and convinced the Supreme Court to define corporations as legal “persons.” To this day, a corporation is not regarded as a group of businesspeople, it is regarded as a personal individual who can, for example, buy and sell property, borrow money, sue or be sued, and earn wages–separate from the rights of its members. From 1890 to 1910, the 14th amendment was cited in court by 19 black Americans . . . and 288 corporations.

Taking their cue from this legal definition, the filmmakers proceed to analyze the personality of these “persons”–entities who cannot legally do anything against their own self-interest–and conclude they are clinical psychopaths. Not that psychopaths are incapable of doing good, of course, but without severe restrictions they are capable of doing great harm (economists call it “externalities”). Due to US trends in deregulation over the past 30 years, unbridled corporate gains have had devastating consequences for the public health and psychology, the environment, and economic justice. And with increasing privatization of public resources and patents defining genetic research, the future looks even more bleak.

But far from a doomsday proclamation, The Corporation is a thoughtful, entertaining film, and its DVD presentation has been custom designed to inspire discussion and further investigation. Beautiful, easily-navigable menus and hours of extended commentary can be searched by speaker or topic and are linked to literally hundreds of websites–this was clearly a labor of love. The DVD also includes the full trailers for a couple dozen recent documentaries on related subjects, as well as updates to events and technologies mentioned in the film. The website lists DVD house parties and provides resources for discussion groups, and I can hardly think of a more pertinent film to foster extended engagement.

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