Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Corporation (Achbar & Abbott) -- B

If I were a benovolent despot, I'd decree that every college student must take at least two classes in economics and two in critical theory before graduation. In that world, you're sure to have less fucking Hummers on the road -- and also more leftist documentaries that evince at least a basic understanding of market economics.

The Corporation, the most provocative and visually impressive of the leftist docs currently out, achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve: it offers up a comprehensive leftist critique of corporations. As you can expect, the movie's most potent when its criticisms are on target, such as when it details ecological damage done from the "externalizing" of corporate costs, aided immeasurably by the interviews with born-again eco-CEO Roy Anderson. Also, there's eyeopening stuff on Monsanto and the Fox News story detailing the public health dangers of the bovine hormone put out by that company. Environmental and public health hazards, dangers of media concentration, and the pervasiveness of advertising and marketing to create demand for useless products -- those are all trenchant critiques of the Age of Multinational Corporations.

The doc also wants to be a description of the role and effect of corporations on contemporary life, and in that it's far less successful. For all the interviews with "the other side", The Corporation can't come to terms with a simple truth that capitalism, for all its ills, is the most effective and efficient form of production and distribution we have, creating wealth and improving standards of living across the globe. It doesn't begin to acknowlege that often times market-based solutions are often the most effective way of dealing with certain external cost problems. It poses the "commons" as some sort of collective utopia without acknowledging the very real problem of "The Tragedy of the Commons". And that for all its romanticization of the "people", consumer choice and shareholder pressure remain the best and most effective ways of holding corporations accountable.

Most egregious is the discussion of the corporation as a "legal person", which the film uses as an organizing conceit. As a legal matter, that designation is made for the purposes of standing, with legal rights somewhat different from that of individuals. As an economic judgment, every industrialized nation has decided -- rightly, in my view -- that a form of business that limits liability to individual shareholders promotes capital investment and increases growth. For example, if you invest $5,000 in Unocal stock, you won't lose your house if Unocal goes under. You'll only lose your $5,000. If you risk the shirt on your back, you probably wouldn't invest. Such basic economic principles are ignored at the service of nonsensical radical rhetoric, which ends up weakening the movie's points.

The film diagnosed the problem correctly: that economics has trumped politics, concentrating power on corporations that are not accountable to citizens directly. But that's as much a political problem -- politicians need for corporate campaign money to maintain power, the "people" have trouble organizing due to collective action problems and information failure -- as it is a problem of corporate malevolence. I wish the film addressed the real problem with more rigor, instead of just romanticizing "the people". On the other hand, there are few movies that are even willing to tackle this problem, and even a half-successful thinkpiece like The Corporation is much appreciated.