In the Belly of the Beastby Saul Austerlitz
Directed by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan
Making a feature film about corporations is a bit like trying to cram the entire history of the United States on the back of an index card. After all, the corporation is a phenomenon that has existed for well over 100 years, and its tentacles extend into every aspect of modern life the world over. Yet while Mark Achbar (director of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media) and his two collaborators, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, have done plenty of cramming in The Corporation, they emerge largely successful. This briskly edited 145-minute tour of corporate influence covers a wide swath of topics: the history of corporations, the damage done by their human-unfriendly policies, and potential areas of transition in the corporate outlook.
The Corporation humorously ticks off the World Health Organization’s DSM-IV indicators of psychopathy and enumerates multiple instances of corporate behavior that confirm the diagnosis. While one might snicker at the notion of a corporate entity as a human being, both the film and American law argue in favor of such an understanding.* Following the Civil War, the 14th Amendment, intended to free the slaves, was twisted into allowing corporations the same constitutional rights as a flesh-and-blood individual. The unintended consequences of this ruling have been the ballooning of corporate influence, both in the United States and elsewhere, and the lack of accountability for corporate entities.
Assuming audience familiarity with such recent corporate debacles as Enron and WorldCom (each company’s logo is flashed knowingly during an opening montage), The Corporation moves on to other tales of corporate malfeasance. Its ultimate point, however, is that the stories of corporate misbehavior are the norm and that the corporation, by the terms of its existence, is a profit-making entity with no ability to maintain a social conscience.
The examples of this are truly stomach churning. A representative of the National Labor Committee representative holds up clothing made in foreign sweatshops and ticks off the minuscule amount the workers were paid for their efforts. (A sweatshirt made for Yale, my alma mater, made its lucky creator three cents.) Goons at a sweatshop making Kathie Lee Gifford's line of clothing intimidate and brutalize employees into avoiding overseas labor inspectors. The Monsanto company creates a cow hormone that increases milk productivity but causes the cows themselves to bloat horribly. Corporations repeatedly form cozy relationships with tyrannical, fascist regimes, from IBM and Coca-Cola's efforts in Nazi Germany to Shell's invaluable assistance to Sani Abacha's Nigerian dictatorship.
The Corporation presents such a powerful case for increased regulation and awareness of corporate power that its occasional missteps-- such as its reliance on overused talking heads like Noam Chomsky's-- do not matter much. The filmmakers suggest that those unconvinced by their case consider the story of International Water, a British multinational, and its attempts to privatize the water supply in Bolivia, or the origin of Coca-Cola's Fanta line of drinks, created to exploit the crucial German market while World War II was raging. The Corporation tells a necessary story, and a central one in our 21st-century world. While antiglobalization diehards have long been on the anticorporate bandwagon, The Corporation is an exploration of corporationism (to coin a term) for those of us without bandannas tied over our faces and who lack the overwhelming urge to ransack our local McDonald's. It is a passionate wake-up call, demanding renewed attention to the ways in which unchecked corporate power threatens us all.
The Corporation also provides something of a role model in Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface, the world's largest commercial carpet manufacturer. Anderson, awakened to the overwhelming destruction that Interface's work had been doing to the environment, committed his company to leaving no footprint within a few years' time. A truly admirable man, Anderson is single-handedly attempting to right the sinking ship of corporate morals. But a question remains, one that is profoundly damning to the hopes of reforming corporations in any fashion: If Anderson had held such progressive ideals throughout his corporate career, what would the likelihood have been of his becoming CEO?
*See Sarah Stodola, "How Corporations Stole Our Identities,"; in the November 2003 issue of the Rail, available online at www.brooklynrail.org.
Saul Austerlitz writes about film for New York Press and other local publications.