Films Can Help to Change the World


Modern law endows economic institutions with legal rights of real, flesh-and-blood people. But if the corporation is a person — what kind of person is it? A recent documentary film provides an alarming answer: the institution is “a person that is pathological by nature and by law, and systematically crushes democracy, freedom, rights, and the natural human instincts on which a decent life and even human survival depends.” Featuring interviews with such diverse figures as Milton Friedman and Naomi Klein, The Corporation is a compelling account of a suicidal economic system that has long become a global phenomenon. JUSTmag talked to co-director Mark Achbar about the film, corporate globalization, and popular activism.

On the film’s website, you write that your primary objective was “to challenge conventional wisdom about the role of the corporation in society.” Can a film help to change the world? Do you think that films have a greater potential to mobilize people than, say, books?

Depends on the book, depends on the film. Film is a more manipulative, emotional experience, books are more intensely cerebral. Far more people have seen The Corporation than have read it. How profound an experience the book was for its readers compared to the intensity of the film’s impact on viewers is anyone’s guess.

However, I have seen this film change people’s minds and their behavior. You can find some evidence for this on the discussion forums at www.thecorporation.com, but I also speak from the perspective of attending hundreds of screenings. People are deeply moved. They cannot see the world the same way after the film. They tell me they will run their business differently, or that they will change from one course of study to a different one. People who claim to have been previously apathetic assert they will become activists, and so on. The film is being used in hundreds, possibly by now, thousands of universities and high schools (there are several study guides available online, even one for teachers of MBA students).

The film is being given as a gift to CEOs of the heads of the Fortune 500. It is provoking panel discussions, debate forums, DVD house parties, and has generated well over a thousand pages of press. Millions of people have seen it and millions more will as it makes it’s way through theatrical, DVD and TV audiences. Yes, films can help to change the world.

Whether it’s for the better remains to be seen.

Did you receive any feedback from companies mentioned in the film, or advocates of capitalism appearing in it, such as Michael Walker or Milton Friedman? Have you been threatened with lawsuits?

The day after our interview with IBM’s Senior VP, they asked me to retract the interview and instead put on screen their official written response to Edwin Black’s book, IBM and the Holocaust. I offered to not use the interview if they would let me talk with their CEO but they took a pass.

After the film was released, Pfizer’s PR guy said that if they’d have known we were going to characterize the corporation as a psychopath they wouldn’t have participated. The former chairman of Royal Dutch Shell wrote an article about the film in the Financial Times and, though critical of it, recommended it strongly. The CEO of PR firm Burson Marstellar wants me to drop by his office next time I’m in New York to “discuss” the film. The invitation felt a bit threatening, but I don’t think he would get physical. Interface CEO Ray Anderson has promoted the film a great deal among his peers and clients. Carleton Brown, the 9/11 commodities trader, attended a screening of the film and did a Q&A; the audience praised him for his candor. Right-wing think-tank director Michael Walker told a reporter he didn’t remember doing the interview.

To date there have been no lawsuits. Three reasons: the film tells the truth; the film’s emphasis is on the institution, not the individuals; and the writer and co-creator of the film, Joel Bakan, is a very smart law professor.

What kind of reactions did the film elicit in the media, e.g. in magazine reviews? There certainly was harsh criticism from the right. But how about the liberal/left-wing media — did they get the point?

The harsh criticism made up about 2% of the reviews, if that. We received respectful reviews and articles across the business press: The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune Magazine, Business 2.0, and many others. Most newspapers and magazines gave The Corporation their highest or second highest ratings. Some of the liberal/left media were just too cool to go along with the film and support it. Tell us something we don’t already know. Some lefty writers working for commercial interests — or perhaps their editors — don’t like to see this kind of thing get too successful and they stab you in the back. We even got slammed by a regional online ecological magazine, which basically said we no longer need to state the problems we face, the film should only have dealt with solutions; they later reconsidered, apologized, and helped promote the film. (About 1/5 of the film, and even more so the 2-disc DVD, deals with strategies for change.)

It seems to me that — here in Germany and elsewhere in the West — there’s a deep-rooted belief among the general population that the well-being of the economy entails the well-being of society at large. How come this illusion is still so much alive? Did it have any warrant in the past?

I think there’s a logical flaw here. It may be true that the well-being of the economy results in the well-being of society at large, but the well being of the economy is not why we live our lives. It’s no mystery why the profit-oriented mass media, and even public media sponsored by corporations, will promote a world view that puts their beneficent role at the center of the universe. To the best of my knowledge, it has been forever thus; people with power will seek to convince the rest of the world that they are entitled to it. They succeed to the extent that we let them.

A related question: why do poor countries pursue WTO membership and enter similar agreements? It seems pretty obvious that they’re the losers of the neoliberal project, but they appear to be eager to participate nonetheless.

We have to be careful about who we mean by “they”: the government or the people. Often in poor countries democracy is weak and corruption is rampant. Not that it never happens in rich democracies, but it takes different forms and is typically less systemic. Perhaps just less obvious. But I’m thinking of countries like Indonesia. The government was synonymous with huge business interests. In fact, the Suhartos and their friends owned them.

So some governments of developing nations want access to the big markets. But I understand your point. It’s as if they’re brainwashed. Each one must think they will be the exception to the rule.

Please comment on the role of the WTO, NAFTA, Mercosur, etc. Is the notion of “free trade agreements” used by the mainstream media accurate? Or do they implement — as Chomsky says — a new kind of carefully controlled mercantilist system with some highly selective liberalization?

I’d take Chomsky’s analysis over mine any day.

Your film makes the point that corporations in a capitalist system are amoral institutions by necessity. Does this apply to small-scale businesses and the so-called global players equally?

No, there’s a distinction to be made. The principle target of our critique is the publicly-traded, transnational corporation, which is not “by necessity” amoral. It’s by choice. It could be different. It’s up to us to make it so. Now, this is not to say that Joe’s Garage cannot be an oppressive institution, nor do I mean to imply that IBM might not have an effective system to redress, say, sexual harassment in the workplace in a way that Joe’s Garage couldn’t dream of. So, small, privately held businesses can be as tyrannical or as benevolent as their owner decides they will be and its employees allow it to be. They can choose to maximize profits or give them away for the good of humankind. The publicly-traded corporation, in contrast, is designed, by law, to be psychopathic. It is compelled by legislation and legal precedent to put profit above all other concerns. Germany is often held up as a model in the degree to which it involves other stakeholders in corporate decision making processes, and this is indeed an important step toward democratization of our economic institutions, but it’s a small one.

What’s the most serious obstacle faced by anti-corporate activists? Is it that people don’t know the truth about economic institutions or rather that they don’t know how to work for change?

This is an extremely difficult question. I think we (as in we in the North, the developed world) actually fear true democracy and all that it would entail. The real deal would mean a lot of sacrifice and a lot of tedium. I think we’re reluctant to put our privilege and power at risk.

Incidentally, I wouldn’t call myself anti-corporate. It’s too broad a term. There are non-profit corporations, public corporations and in Canada and Britain, Crown Corporations. To qualify for public funding for this film I had to create a for-profit corporation (not publicly-traded, however).

Suppose your film changes many people’s way of looking at corporations (as I hope it does). Now, there’s obviously a tension: if people recognize that corporations are pathological entities that must eventually be dismantled, they will certainly be scared of losing their jobs as a consequence of popular activism. How can this tension be resolved?

Take a look at what’s going on in Argentina. People are essentially firing their bosses, taking over the factories and running them themselves. They’re democratizing their workplaces. The only person losing his job is the owner. Co-ops don’t solve all the problems of capitalism, but at least they bring a modicum of democracy to one of the principle sites of economic decision making — the workplace.

What role do grassroots movements, the internet, and other alternative media play in informing the public about the misdeeds of corporations?

They’re essential. Information moves exponentially faster today than it did just a decade ago. Corporations fear a negative media spotlight and will go to great lengths to avoid it. This gives activists and the population at large a certain kind of power over certain kinds of highly visible corporations whose Achilles heel is their brand image.

Do you think that non-violence is an imperative for popular efforts against corporate tyranny? Or can, say, the destruction of private property be justified in clear and present cases of corporate crime?

I believe in non-violence, but we’d have to get more specific to evaluate hypothetical ethical choices. A violent act against a factory may stop the production flow, but it may also put a single mother out of work, consequently harming the health of the child. So while the violence doesn’t immediately harm a human being, it doesn’t necessarily mean there are no human consequences. Whether it’s justified is a question of the severity of the harm that is being halted, and how meaningful or temporary that halt might be. If the action is essentially for the publicity effect, there may be better ways to achieve the same end.

Your film seems to draw the conclusion that the concept of “social market economy” is a contradiction in itself. That being no alternative, what do you make of radical non-capitalist visions, such as Michael Albert’s ParEcon?

I think Michael’s work deserves more attention. I interviewed him for The Corporation and regretfully, what came out of that particular interview didn’t work with the narrative structure of the film that we ended up with. He’ll probably never forgive me, but I regularly bring people’s attention to his work in interviews and have a lot of respect for it (as does Chomsky).

In trying to implement some basic elements of ParEcon in my own work environment, I found the major challenge to be people’s apathy toward the necessary processes and reticence toward taking on the attendant responsibility. A lot of people just want to do their work, get paid, and go home. When people have specialized skills they wield disproportionate power and most don’t hesitate to use it to their advantage.

The film also tackles the issue of privatized warfare. Are corporate interests the driving force behind the global military engagement of the U.S.?

Actually the film hardly touches on this subject. Its importance cannot be overstated and it deserves a film — not to mention a movement — of its own. Fortunately, a very talented documentary filmmaker, Eugene Jarecki, has just finished Why We Fight, which tackles this topic with great power and eloquence. It won the top Sundance Film Festival award this year and will be out toward the end of 2005.

The short answer to your question is, “Yes.”

Suppose I wanted to do something within the next ten minutes to make the world a little bit better. What could I do?

For the first 9 minutes, sit quietly, don’t consume anything, and pray. In the tenth minute, contemplate how you can live your life more sustainably. In the last second, decide to act.

Dennis Ott and Sebastian Dalkowski are students at University of Cologne, Germany. They can be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.

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