This documentary from writer Joel Bakan and directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott argues that “today’s dominant institution” is not government or the church but the corporation. While Michael Moore participates and provides some of the film’s liveliest moments, the film mostly presents its evidence without Moore’s brand of incendiary brash insouciance, and is even more chilling for doing so. Instead of Moore’s snarky saracasm a calm, almost robotic female voice recites the narration as though it is asking you to please hang up and dial again. The feeling is of a world vacated by any human qualities.
The film-makers let the participants tell the story. A Wall Street trader explains that while the terrorist attacks on September 11 were very sad, his fellow traders’ first thought was how it would affect the price of gold. Then he reassures us that his clients did fine, because he correctly predicted that gold would go up. “In devastation there is opportunity,” he explains. The head of a firm that advertises toys and candy to children is paid to figure out ways not just to persuade children to want the products but to encourage children to nag their parents to get them. When asked whether this is ethical, she does not seem to understand the term.
Shareholder activist Robert Monks quotes Lord Thurlow: “Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked?”
Our laws have declared a corporation to be a legal “person” when it comes to rights, but not a person when it comes to limits, except for limiting its liability for harm that it inflicts. It is not subject to the most universal and permanent limitation that applies to humans because unlike a person, a corporation lives forever. The combination of perpetual life, imperviousness to punishment, and a legal and cultural commitment to creating shareholder wealth as its sole obligation have created an entity that, according to Monks, is like a shark. It maximizes its profits by “externalizing” all of its costs.
The film-makers have organized their critique around the criteria for diagnosing psychopathology. Their view is that if the corporation is a “person” it’s mental state can be evaluated according to the provisions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Compared against that list — inability to maintain long-term relationships, tendency to lie, lack of concern for the impact of its behavior on others — the corporation gets a diagnosis that indicates severe pathology.
Parents should know that the movie is not rated. Its content may be disturbing for some viewers, but it raises very significant questions for discussion with mature children and teenagers, especially about the influence of advertising and the challenges of accountability.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Michael Moore’s television series The Awful Truth.