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July 17, 2004

Pathological Pursuit of Profit

After reading the book a couple of weeks ago, we saw the documentary film version of The Corporation last night. Of the two, I recommend the book. It's a quick read, very accessible, and it's packed with terrific nuggets of information. By comparison the movie seemed overly long, depressing, and at times downright boring. To be fair, I'm probably being harsh on the movie both because I've read the book and because I had such high hopes. After reading the book, I hoped the movie would be a pithy, riveting, incisive distillation of the book, a highly accessible and even entertaining vehicle that would carry the book's main message—corporations are, by definition, anti-democratic and antisocial—to a wide popular audience. And while the movie is great and I highly recommend it, I fear it's a little too much on the spinach side of cinema to really reach or convince large numbers of people.

The filmmakers have provided an excellent summary of the movie so you can get the gist of what it's about if it's not coming to your area. (It's only in very limited release right now.) The movie is long almost by necessity; the negative effects of the modern corporation reach so many aspects of the world and of society that even at over two hours long the movie could only skim the surface of a few of them. Because it was so packed with information, it's hard to pick out highlights. Still, one scene stands out in my memory as a compelling reason to pay attention to the issue of the pathological pursuit of profit that is the sole reason for the corporation's existence. That reason comes from Ray Anderson, the Chairman of Interface, Inc. (a carpet company). He compares our current situation to the early stages of human flight where people would stand on the edge of a cliff with some wings strapped to their backs and jump off, hoping they could fly. If the cliff was high enough, the jumper might initially think he was flying, but really he was just in freefall, rushing to his death. According to Anderson, the world is in just such a position today, except we're all the jumper, and when we gave corporations the rights of a person we jumped off a huge cliff. Our wings are the corporate/capitalist system that we think is flying, but really we're in freefall. It's easy to think we're still flying because the cliff was so high, but some people can see farther ahead and they see the ground rushing up to meet us and they know we're plummeting to our destruction. Those are the people (like the makers of this film) who are shouting warnings and working to wake people up to the fact that the corporate takeover of life on earth is not sustainable. In fact, the pathological pursuit of profit is rushing us headlong to the end of life as we know it.

I guess I'm a sucker for extended metaphors.

But like I said, the book is better than the movie. It covers much the same ground, but adds more depth, such as describing how the dominant position of the corporation in society has created an entirely new kind of person:

"The corporation has essentially replaced the church in terms of who you are," says Edison Schools financier Michael Moe. It wants the same thing as the church, he says: "obedient constituents that . . . pay [their] dues and follow the rules." Human nature is neither static nor universal. It tends to reflect the social orders people inhabit. Throughout history, dominant institutions have established roles and identities for their subjects that meshed with their own institutional natures, needs and interests: God-fearing subjects for the church, lords and serfs for feudal orders, citizens for democratic governments (134).

And what kind of subjects does the corporation want? Subjects like itself: "purely self-interested, incapable of concern for others, amoral, and without conscience" (134). Sounds a lot like those Enron traders caught on tape (also here), doesn't it?

The book also contains a great indictment of one of the darling little ploys of business— "deregulation":

Deregulation . . . rests on the suspect premise that corporations will respect social and environmental interests without being compelled by government to do so. No one would seriously suggest that individuals should regulate themselves, that laws against murder, assault, and theft are unnecessary because people are socially responsible. Yet oddly, we are asked to believe that corporate persons—institutional psychopaths who lack any sense of moral conviction and who have the power and motivation to cause harm and devastation in the world—should be left free to govern themselves (110-111).

Corporations further argue that they should be free to govern themselves because they're already just helpless pawns in the hands of the all-powerful control of "the market." They say, "don't regulate us; the market will tell us what we can and can't do because if we behave badly then people won't buy our stuff." And while this sounds very nice and many people are taken in by it, it's really an argument for selling democracy to the highest bidder.

One premise of democracy is that, as citizens, all people are equal, at least within the political sphere. Everyone has one vote, regardless of his or her wealth or social position, and that means, in relation to corporations, that every citizen has an equal say about how these powerful entities must behave. Moving regulation of corporations from government to the market immunizes them to the effects of citizens' participation in the political process and leaves their control to an institution where one dollar—not one person—equals one vote. "At least in democracy each person is formally equally," says political economist Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Trade Union Program at Harvard University. "The humblest citizen, the most prestigious citizen still only has one vote. But when we move that power over to the marketplace, the humblest and the wealthiest are totally asymmetrical. And one has such immense power that they can literally crush the other completely and utterly and fully. So that's one of the reasons historically we've always felt the need to regulate markets." (145-6).

Something to think about the next time the FCC tries to decrease regulations on media ownership, for example.

Both the book and the movie end with gestures of hope that active citizens who care and are paying attention have some ability to take their society and the world back from corporation control, and return it to citizen control. And that's really the bottom line of these pieces: Corporations are, by definition and by law, antisocial. They have become frighteningly powerful. However, they are not unstoppable, and we are not helpless against them. I hope that last part is true, because if we're rushing headlong to disaster, the ground seems to be getting closer everyday.

Posted July 17, 2004 12:10 PM | ai books ai movies

Ohh.. those evil, faceless coporations! They scare me as much as the things in I, Robot.
Of course, hyperbole is so much more fun than realizing that a corporation is made up of people!
And pathological pursuit of profits? What about the profit motive is indicative of a mental disorder?
(Your jihad against corporations and capitalism is getting to be almost as bad as mine against the religious right.)

Posted by: justin at July 17, 2004 08:00 PM

Dude, read the book and then tell me I'm being hyperbolic. Look at the legal definition of a corporation and how the law treats corporations. Yes, corporations are made up of people, none of whom are liable for its actions. Therefore, the structure of the corporation allows people to do all kinds of things with immunity. That's the beauty of it as a profit-making machine: The people who make up a corporation may all be (and generally are) good people who do not intend to hurt other people and the world; however, the corporation acts as a screen for their actions so they can do things as corporate officers/employees they wouldn't do as individuals.

What about the profit motive is indicative of mental disorder? Perhaps nothing, except when profit becomes the *only* motive, then it's completely antisocial. When my only motive is profit, I'll clearcut forests, dump pollutants down the river, fire all my employees and move my factories halfway around the world to save a few pennies on labor. These are antisocial actions that corporations take all the time, all in the name of profit. The fact that Americans are socialized to praise profit and the profit motive (i.e., the fact that you need to ask the question) shows just how complete the corporate takeover of U.S. society has been.

Again: Read the book. I would genuinely love to hear what you think of it.

Oh, and the jihad against the religious right needs a lot more warriors, as far as I'm concerned. Go get 'em!

Posted by: ambimb at July 18, 2004 08:30 AM

I understand where you are coming from, but we just have a fundamental disagreement about the profit motive. Using your example about clearcutting, etc. the profit motive could also be harnessed to encourage corporations NOT to do those things. Using public pressure and information groups can discourage consumers from purchasing goods made by such companies. As consumers move to other firms, the offending company has no choice but to abide by what the market now says are acceptable norms. (Personally, I do not buy Nike products and haven't for years b/c of their labor issues.)

Also, I think that if your view that capitalism is somehow bad obtains, then it would be based on unchecked avarice (more or less). Yet, the system that many people who feel this way promote is a more socialistic one. But for socialism to work, people would have to be fairly altruistic, because socialism does not have the same incentives to work, save and invest that capitalism does (at least to some degree).

So, the argument against capitalism is that human nature is avaricious and capitalism allows this to go unchecked; and, yet the crucial underpinning for socialism is a need for humans to be inherently altruistic. It just seems logically inconsistent. (yes, I know that I am oversimplifying.)

Posted by: justin at July 18, 2004 03:32 PM

You know, I agree with the argument that consumers have to be organized and educated so as to stop rewarding/endorsing the behavior of corporations that abuse their workers, the environment, the law or what have you. But I would be remiss if I didn't point out that for consumers to do so would mean that, at base, they desire to act in the altruistic manner you find to be a characteristic of socialism. Which is to say that if socialism can't work because it requires an altruism that it is unrealistic to expect humans to possess, than capitalism fails for the same reason.

Anyway, to put all the weight for promoting responsible corporate behavior on the consumer is a little bit of blaming the victim. In present day society, our being is never produced solely by ourselves. Rather, because we rely on the labor and products of others for our day to day existence, some part of us is always socially produced and mediated, some part of us is necessarily social, because it is produced by someone else for us (this is a thumbnail bastardization of Marx but it'll do for my purposes here).

You are absolutely correct to suggest that there is a mechanism for forcing correct corporate behavior inherent to capitalism and I applaud your resistance to anti-social corporate behavior. But I would suggest that, given the way our being is constituted in modern society, to be effective such behavior has to move beyond an individualized volunteerism to engage the more complex dynamics of the interaction between individual and societal forms like the corporation.

In a capitalist society, the heart of that relation is the expression of value, always a social phenomena because you can't have money as the form of value if others won't accept it as such, and the logic of its accumulation that defines the epoch as capitalist. That logic makes accumulation an end unto itself and that's where the problem is.

To look at the world in such terms is a wrong as if you were to ignore the business practices of Nike and continue to purchase their product precisely because it ignores the social dimension that obtains in the production of the wealth capital tries ceaselessly to deploy and accumulate. Which is to say that your refusal to buy Nike and the critique of the corporate profit motive share a common end. You both speak of responsibility to a larger world and demand that corporations not wear the blinders of profit that reduce everything down to the bottom line on a balance sheet, human costs be damned. If asking for that kind of responsibility is altruistic, then I think we are collectively in very deep trouble.

Posted by: Famous P at July 19, 2004 06:17 PM

I couldn't resist posting this as a means of underscoring why movies and books like "The Corporation" are so important for denaturalizing the profit motive. In an article on the Build-A-Bear mall store chain, which you can find here (, the writer sums up the idea behind the chain thusly: "access to the means of production becomes interactive retail entertainment." How much can someone who has been taught as a child that work is all about making teddy bears be expected to care about the plight of child laborers over seas? Not only that but, what can they understand work to be when they are paying for the "privilege" of doing it?

Posted by: Famous P at July 20, 2004 10:30 AM

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