In the U.S.
, the corporation
is legally defined as an entity
, i.e., having the same legal status as a human
. In his 2004 book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power
, Joel Bakan
asks, if corporations are legally humans, what kind
of human are they? The answer: psychopaths. And Bakan doesn't mean this in any knee-jerk liberal
way. Bakan's a law professor and legal theorist at the University of British Columbia
, and he's got some scary facts and stories to back it up.
A psychopath is someone who is outwardly charming, but inwardly, amorally self-interested and hostile to those who interfere with that self-interest. Psychopaths are manipulative and deceitful and have no empathy, guilt or remorse for the harm they cause to others.
Across his six everyday-language chapters, Bakan illustrates that corporations fit each part of this definition.
Self-interested, Amoral? If the managers of a business act in any way that reduces shareholder value, they are acting illegally. This includes spending money on philanthropy and the public good. Corporations hold nothing sacred as evidenced in their relentless invasions of what used to be considered such; public spaces such as utilities, first response teams, hospitals, childhood, schools, and social security.
Charming, deceitful? Enron aside, corporations know that for now, at least, they operate in a world where their customers have grave communal and environmental concerns, so in their public relations and advertising, corporations make sure to pay much homage to these things. But the law is clear—companies can only say such things insincerely. If what they are doing is motivated by anything other than increasing shareholder value and especially if it results in a loss of the same, it must stop.
No empathy, guilt or remorse? Even if the individuals managing a corporation do feel regret for the environmental, social, and economic devastation they inflict, the can't act on these feelings if it does not increase shareholder value. Even if they quit in disgust, there are others there to replace them. What's scarier is that Bakan alludes to an evolutionary process whereby the type of people who thrive in these environments are able to completely divorce themselves from the morality of their jobs.
Further, Bakan devotes an entire chapter to the fact that corporations are heavily incented to externalize every possible cost. Meaning, to push the costs onto any resource other than itself—and that includes workers, consumers, communities and the environment, none of whom has consented to these costs.
Just the U.S.?
Hardly. Though Bakan focuses on much of U.S. law, he notes that multinationalism and globalism has given corporations dominance over much more than their home turf. Additionally, citing corporate lawyer Robert Hinkley,
The corporate design contained in hundreds of corporate law throughout the world is nearly identical...The people who run corporations have a legal duty to shareholders, and that duty is to make money. Failing this duty can leave directors and officers open to being sued by shareholders.
So it is a problem all of us must confront. You know, for our own self-interest.
What about government?
Although government is supposed to be the single biggest force protecting and promoting the public interest, in general they are horribly underfunded, underpowered, and constrained by heavily-lobbied lawmakers. Additionally, big business has somehow promoted the idea in the public discourse that business and government are partners. This implies that each works together to make sure everyone achieves their interests. But look at the concept: what authority does a partner have over the other? None. What's worse than this misleading idiom is that corporations often find it more profitable to break the law, do as they please, and pay the measly fines. See Chapter 3's four-page list of GE's major legal offenses between 1990 and 2001 for an example.
Bakan notes that corporate strategies work best in cultures where the individuals are independent, self-interested, and amoral: themselves psychopathic. Realizing this, it's in the corporate self-interest to encourage this sort of society wherever it intends to do business. Which is everywhere.
What can be done about it?
Bakan says that a no-corporation or even modified-corporation future is unlikely. Instead he encourages grassroots community action and the following specific changes.
- Improve the regulatory system
- Reconceive and religitimate government as a regulator—not a partner of—big business to make sure they respect the interests of citizens, communities, and the environment. This includes sufficient staffing and funding.
- Facilitate whistleblowing.
- De-charter repeat offenders.
- Pass laws to err on the side of caution, not business.
- Pass laws to protect regulatory agencies from influence and interference by corporations.
- Protect and enhance the regulation roles of trade unions and not-for-profit organizations.
Strengthen Political Democracy
- Reform political finance. Elections should be publicly financed and corporate donations phased completely out.
- Severely restrict lobbying, such that corporations have no more influence than unions, environmental groups, consumer groups, and human rights advocates.
- Tightly restrict the "revolving door" between business and the staffers of regulatory agencies to avoid a conflict of interest.
Create a robust public sphere
- Decide what is morally sacred and worth protecting from corporate involvement. Govern and protect these people and institutions with public regimes.
Challenge International Neoliberalism
Why You Should Read This Book
Most of my friends have grown up with corporations and their brands as integral parts of our sub/urban landscapes. It's hard to imagine that this is not the only way things can be, that these machines were constructed and if they're not working, they can be deconstructed as well. As corporations become the dominant economic and cultural force on the planet, it is vital to integrate this idea into your everyday and life decisions. Alongside media literacy books, The Corporation may be one of the most important books to add to your personal arsenal of Guidebooks to Modern Living.
We are not helpless in the face of these monsters.
If you would like a more visual introduction to these ideas, Bakan teamed up with directors Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar to produce a documentary film version called simply The Corporation featuring these same concepts and including interviews with such celebrities as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore. The film does not have the luxury of as much detail as the book, but it is a charming introduction to the main ideas. The film has won a terrific number of awards including the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
The Corporation. Joel Bakan, Free Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-4744-2.