The Beast with No Name: Mark Achbar and Joel Bakan with Williams Cole
The Corporation, a film directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, and written by Joel Bakan, recently premiered in New York City after breaking box office records for a documentary in Canada. The Rail’s Williams Cole sat down with Mr. Achbar and Mr. Bakan (who also wrote the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Power and Profit, published earlier this year by the Free Press). The interview took place in a midtown Starbucks on June 11th, the national day of mourning for Ronald Reagan.
Williams Cole (Rail): Since today is the national day of mourning for Reagan maybe we could start by talking about what Reagan did for the role of corporations? I think the memorial service is starting right now, so it’s very appropriate.
Joel Bakan: Reagan was really the first president to have an administration with a central ideology of deregulation and privatization, of allowing corporations greater leeway to grow, of creating various welfare regimes for corporations and taking money away from real people, and of creating tax breaks for corporations. This whole kind of agenda is very much associated with Reagan and in England with Margaret Thatcher. The seeds for this change were planted in the 1970s when businesspeople in the United States realized that the new social regulation that Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson brought in were a real threat. There was a realization in corporate America that this was not good for the bottom line, that all these regulatory regimes made it harder to be profitable. So business in the early 1970s became political. Prior to that time there were very few representatives of major corporations in Washington. At the end of the 1970s, every major corporation had representation in Washington. There was a huge political movement on the part of the business community to get into Washington, start lobbying, and start putting money into campaigns. Ultimately the chickens came home to roost with the election of Ronald Reagan and the rest is an unfortunate history.
Rail: From your point of view is there any hope of reversing the Reagan Revolution?
Bakan: Entirely. I’m very optimistic and very hopeful that one of the ways that people become active in making social change is to understand the world that they’re a part of. Part of what drove Mark and Jennifer Abbott and me to make this film is to get out a realistic conception about what the corporation is about—a view that counters the fluffy images that are put out there by the public relations industry.
Rail: We’re here at Starbucks, and while I agree with the main thesis of your book and the film that the corporation is essentially psychopathic, I’m wondering what makes the exception. I read recently that Starbucks, for example, actually has a diverse workforce and treats its workers pretty well. Is there a new "hip" identity that corporations try to put forth that does actually affect the way the corporation is run?
Bakan: Corporations will do whatever they can to make money, including being nice to employees and the environment if that improves morale—and thus productivity—and helps attract customers. Being good sometimes helps a corporation do well. But a corporation must always justify its good deeds on this basis. It can never be good for the sake of being good, as an end in itself. That is the law. And that creates a profound limit on just how good a corporation can be.
Rail: Given the dominance of corporations in America for many decades now, has there been a project, book or film that has been close to your work, or are you surprised that there haven’t been more works done about the corporation?
Mark Achbar: I think there have been a lot of films made dealing with particular corporate harms and these are very important and essential films. But it occurred to us that nobody had yet backed up far enough to look at the phenomenon, the broader institutional phenomenon that is the corporation to the point that we can see it as the dominant institution of our time, as the church was in another time or the monarchy or the Communist Party somewhere else. And so we thought that was a really interesting window on a set of problems and concerns for all of us as filmmakers—globalization, the surrender of government to corporate power, and a lot of the harms that come from that.
Rail: How does being from Canada shape your perspective and ability to take on these issues?
Achbar: As Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, once said, "It’s the God-given right of Canadians to fuck with American politics." We have a whole system of cultural institutions that are designed to support independent production. These exist largely because we understand that as a nation, we must tell our own stories and create our own images, if we are to have any kind of coherent culture. Without this, the U.S. dominance of the media would swamp us entirely. As it is, 1% of theatrical screen time is devoted to Canadian feature films. That jumped to 2% in the first quarter of this year, and this was attributed to the popularity of The Corporation.
Bakan: In Canada, we don’t export a lot, we import a lot. One of the things we do export—we export hockey players, we export documentary films, we do that very well. And cultural critique of the United States, that’s probably our third major export. And the reason for that is, as Canadians we live in a quite different system than you do. I guess it’s a more socialized system. This film, for example, was funded 80% by Canadian taxpayers. But it’s also that we’re in a position in Canada where we have a very intimate distance with the United States. We’re not you, we’re not part of you but at the same time we’re very close and very profoundly affected by everything that goes on in the United States. In a way we feel like we’re taxed without representation. In response, you have Naomi Klein and others like us, and Michael Moore made a lot of Bowling for Columbine in Canada. So Canada becomes this kind of hotbed of intelligent critique of what goes on in the United States and I see this film as very much in that vein.
Rail: Where you expecting the kind of attacks in the Canadian press that you got?
Achbar: I expected far worse. For the most part it’s been a love-in—with the odd ideological zealot losing control from time to time. There’s only been like three all-out attacks. And one of those was an extreme eco-activist for whom this was an old story. I expect a more polarized response in the U.S. The country and its media are just more polarized.
Rail: I know the film has done phenomenally well in Canada. Do you think American audiences are ready for it? Are you worried about the distribution given the power of corporations here?
Achbar: The film has done extremely well in Canada. The distributor was cautious at first but after the first weekend we set records and they opened it in a bunch more cities. In the two major population centers, Toronto and Vancouver, it hasn’t left—it’s still on the screen now, five months later. This is a feature documentary critical of large corporations! We just broke through the $1.5 million mark at the box office. That’s just in Canada. It’s phenomenal. And it’s the reference point for feature documentaries in Canada and they’re talking about changing the way films are funded as a result, so it’s extraordinary. In terms of corporations, distribution and censorship in America, well, you saw them draw the line or at least make the calculation with the Disney/Michael Moore debacle. That was interesting to see how it would play out. But it was all in the interest of maximum profit and if Disney felt that the tax hit they were going to get from Jeb Bush was going to be greater than the money they would potentially make from distributing Fahrenheit 9/11 well, it’s just a calculation. You wouldn’t even call it a political decision—it’s a mechanical, mathematical formula that calculates political impact but it’s not necessarily done for ideological reasons.
Rail: So does the success of both Moore’s film and your film suggest that market theory might work a little if there’s demand?
Achbar: I think there’s a market for political documentaries. I think this market has not been well served in the past and it’s just breaking out now. I mean, if you want to look at the dissenting group of the populace as a market, they haven’t been well served at least in feature films. There’s a lot of crap out there. And finally a couple of films come along that are intelligent and address important issues and resonate with people and they jump on them and fanatically promote the films to their friends and even to people who are not necessarily of that persuasion to start with. I’ve had stories of people who got their conservative brother or uncle or dad or friend to go see the film because it’s interesting enough and has enough high-level business people like Milton Friedman and CEO’s and so then they come back to their liberal counterpart and they say "I finally understand what you’ve been on about all these years."
Bakan: I actually think this film could catch fire even more down here than in Canada. The reason I think that is because it’s about the United States, it’s about you guys, it’s about your companies and people like to see things that are about them. And the reason I think there’s a market for this now is more than just there wasn’t the product there before. Especially with the Bush administration in power, I think people are watching their jobs go offshore and working two jobs now instead of one and having no security and seeing the environment destroyed and seeing Coke machines in the hallways of their kids schools and their phone companies not working, never being able to get through to a human being when they’re trying to call a corporation. It’s one thing after another and there are so many layers of frustration and fear about the corporate world. And this feeling in not just among activists in the street but among people sitting in their homes in middle America.
I think what we’ve done is make a film where they can actually go and sit for a little more than two hours and have an understanding about what’s really going on. They’re not going to get it through the mainstream media, they’re not going to get it through entertainment television. They’re not going to get it through so-called reality shows, which have nothing to do with reality. Documentary films like ours, like Michael Moore’s, like Super Size Me, these are films that attempt to grapple with reality and create a story about reality. Not just a bunch of random shots—it’s all so horrible, terrorism, this and that—but to say, "here’s a perspective about what’s going on and why it’s going on and here’s the big picture." And that’s something people haven’t had and that’s why they’re going to theaters in droves to see these films. There’s a thirst for it because they’re anxious—they see the world going to bad places and they don’t know why. They want to engage in these issues.