9    Ruminations on The Corporation

Gordon Coggins

The film, The Passion of the Christ, appeared on screens in late February amid a brouhaha of pro and con. Jewish spokesfolk warned of anti-semitism. Psychologists feared for the minds of impressionable young children, and Christian Churches chartered busses and bought blocks of tickets. The Christian response was not unanimous, however. Five men at a non-denominational Bible study divided just about evenly the day before the opening: two were keen to go (though one said he would not take his children); one was undecided; and two were going to pass. One of the latter put it rather strongly, saying, he “did not want to suicide-bomb his mind with two hours of gratuitous cinematic gore.” All of which merely goes to say that advance publicity does have some effects.

Two weeks earlier another film opened in commercial cinemas across the country [Canada]. Fresh from winning awards in the indie film circuit, the documentary, The Corporation, made by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and author, Joel Bakan, essayed the common marketplace. Its advance billing, illustrated by a silhouetted male in suit-and-briefcase costume, with a halo over his head and a pointed tail behind his behind, promised that it starred “7 CEOs, 3VPs, 2 whistleblowers, 1 broker, 1 spy, and a really big mess, with Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Milton Friedman as themselves,” and “the FBI’s top consultant on psychopaths.”

X-ray of the Corporation

The film deserves its kudos. It is not a railing litany of corporate abuses, though those are present in abundance. It is an analysis of the modern corporation – its origins, its history, its behaviour, its legal status as a “person” and the character of that “person,” derived from “psychiatric” observation. The twenty-odd talking heads are heard mostly in short snippets and sometimes in eloquent juxtapositions, and the cinematic effects are not gratuitous but tellingly deployed. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, the world’s largest maker of commercial carpet, defines externalities as “making other people pay the bills.” As he describes the corporation as “an externalizing machine, just as a shark is a killing machine,” the visual presents an elegantly beautiful shark – pursuing a human swimmer. There is a whole series of such comparisons, some explicit, some implied: a corporation is like a sports team, “a group of people working together for their common good,” (images of football scrimmage and tug-of-war), a noble, far-seeing eagle (beautiful photography), a hive (with the CEO as queen bee). These are corporate self-concepts. The public concept is represented by Godzilla crushing underfoot a fleeing victim, Moby Dick as seen by Gregory Peck’s Ahab, and Dr. Frankenstein being bear-hugged to death by the monster he has created.

One of the most subtle cinematic effects is the use of black-and-white movies and newsreels from earlier in the 20th century, which subtly make the point that the corporation is not an eternal and elemental cosmic fact, but that it does have a history – a birth, youth, and maturity. Corporations we are reminded were originally chartered to serve the public good, and their charter was a gift from the people. The critical point in their history, however, was the declaration by the US Supreme Court in the late nineteenth century that a corporation is in itself “a person.” Thus was the modern corporation given its power, until it is now “the dominant institution” of our day. The 14th Amendment of the US constitution, that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property,” was passed to protect black people. Of 307 cases brought to court under the 14th amendment between 1890 and 1910, nineteen were brought by black people, 288 were brought by corporations. The judgments in these cases firmly established for the corporations that, “We are a person.” Critics note that these “immortal persons…have no soul to save, and no body to incarcerate,” but are designed by law to be responsible only to their shareholders. The point of this historical recitation is that corporate persons are the product of human judicial decisions – which can be reversed.

Perhaps the funniest, and saddest, cinematic juxtaposition is the offset-ting of Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute with images of child labourers in Third World sweatshops. Walker smilingly explains how the Chinese and Bangladeshis “are starving to death” and saying “come over here and hire us. We will work for 10 cents an hour. Come and rescue us,” and, when they will no longer work for 10 cents an hour, he explains, the industry moves on leaving them “all plump, healthy, and wealthy.” (Like himself, no doubt.) An investigator reveals from the Nike corporation’s own records that, for making a shirt, the workers in Central American shops are paid 3/10 of 1% of the retail price. It is a priceless juxtaposition of ideology and ugly reality.

Yes, this film has bite. But it keeps its sights firmly on the target. It does not scream liar at the genial Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, ex-CEO of Shell, who convinces the band of protesters picketing his home, that he cares as much as they do about ecology, and poverty and equality; nor at Sam Gibara of Goodyear, who explains that the CEO is not free to do what he would like to. Noam Chomsky puts it very clearly when he compares the corporation as institution, to the institution of slavery: both institutions are monsters with nice people shackled in them.

The film’s goal is to promote the shackling of the monster. It gives some lively footage of a California citizens’ legal group demanding that the Attorney-General revoke the charter of Unocal, the California-based energy company. The official declined to do so, but admitted that the state did have the power to revoke a corporation’s charter. This was taken as a small victory, and perhaps a sign of the future.

One-legged Reform

Replacing corporate control with human control, however, is reform with one leg. It won’t walk very far. The other leg is to subject the monetary system to the same dynamic: to replace corporate control with human control; more specifically, to return control of the money supply from the chartered banks to democratic governments. As Michael Rowbotham so categorically puts it, “reform of this debt-based money supply system. ... is more important than the war against poverty and starvation, more important than the movement to protect the environment, the struggle against pollution, the fight against drugs and racism, and the battle for social justice and welfare…for the simple reason that the current financial system is responsible, both directly and indirectly for causing, or at least exacerbating them.”1

When 97% of the nation’s money supply is created, not by the govern-ment (as most people have been (mis)led to believe), but by the chartered banks, the whole society is held hostage for the debt payments. The legal imperative laid upon corporate executives to increase profits, regardless of the collateral damage, is certainly socially destructive. But not more so than the economic imperative for “growth” at all costs. The impossibility of ever paying the interest on a debt money supply for which no debt-free money is created to pay the interest, fuels the drive for growth which subverts equity, sustainability, and perhaps human survival itself.

Until democracy can re-assert itself in two government policies – re-instituting the reserve requirements for the chartered banks; and using the Bank of Canada once again to finance government debt at all levels – de-personing corporations will be a half-sided reform.

Perhaps the new Christians to be created by Mel Gibson’s spectacular film, will direct some of their new-found charity into the citizens’ democratic movement to reform both the Cycloptic corporation and the Charybdian monetary system.2 It would be a worthy enterprise.

Gordon Coggins

1. Rowbotham, Michael (1998). The Grip of Death: A study of modern money, debt slavery and destructive economics. Page 325.

2. Homer’s Cyclops looked with a single eye; his Charybdis was a giant sucking sea vortex.

 — from Economic Reform, April 2004