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Review of the book “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power” by Joel Bakan


(Please note that this review is about the book The Corporation, the companion to the film of the same name, and not the fiim itself.) I find myself with mixed feelings about The Corporation: the book by Joel Bakan. On the one hand, I rank the book as one of the most readable and useful books-with-an-activist-slant in recent years. Bakan assembles a compelling, irrefutable case (Bakan’s a professor of law at the University of British Columbia). His description of the modern-day limited liability corporation — its history, its legal and political framework, its impacts on the world and on living human beings — is clear and inviting to read and an inspiration for action, which itself is no small task. I imagine the book will be, and has already been, a tremendous asset for educational and activist efforts against giant corporations. At the same time, I can’t help but think that this book also evokes (and I hate to use the word) — feelings of frustration. Bakan makes abundantly clear that the corporation is a legal equivalent of an all-for-me-else-be-damned psychopath. But I would go on to complain that the book says almost nothing about the extralegal and extrapolitical context — particularly the competitive market context — in which it’s advantageous to have corporations in the first place. Now, granted, Bakan was looking at the corporation through a politics-oriented perspective, and given his background and expertise this is totally understandable. Indeed, it’s necessary to do so since the corporation is very much an institution which relies on, and which seriously impacts, the political sphere in current life. I should say that Bakan does mention, and describe at great length, some institutions like the state which helps grant The Corporation some of its key powers. But, I can imagine Bakan argue in response, it’s correct to say that there’s more than just the political and legal spheres involved with corporations. But "The Corporation" isn’t a systematic analysis of all the dimensions affecting and affected by corporations. To do that would far outstrip the mere 228 pages allotted to the paperback version of the book, and require a LOT more detail — maybe even its own academic field of study ("critical corporate studies"?). I myself would argue that since corporations are money-making machines, I think it’s also necessary to discuss the market context in which corporations survive and thrive. And Bakan would probably agree. But that’s the topic of another blog post, perhaps another book or encyclopedia entirely. (I would go so far as to say that corporations and their success in market contexts are the biggest reason why markets should be abolished in favor of something else — like, oh, I don’t know, participatory economics — and why there’s an alliance just begging to be made between participatory economics advocates and the assortment of anti-corporate campaigns. But that’s a blog post for later.) Again, trying to put myself in Joel Bakan’s shoes, I suppose the hardest part involved with writing The Corporation is, how do you keep things from exploding. Not because you can’t write enough, but how do you keep from writing too much. I suppose in that sense, Joel Bakan hasn’t fininshed a book but rather started a serious conversation — an act which we should all be grateful for.

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