Law professor Joel Bakan talks about the corporate takeover of society
Psychopath. That’s the chilling diagnosis that the Canadian documentary The Corporation issued in 2004 for our modern day business organizations. The film, co-written by UBC law professor Joel Bakan, argues that if a corporation is indeed a legal person–as it is seen in the eyes of the law in much of the western world–then this person is exhibiting definite psychopathic tendencies.
Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the film’s release on June 4, Bakan talks about the current state of the corporation and its grip on our everyday lives.
How have corporations changed since the film’s release in 2004?
Over the last decade, our society as a whole has now taken on the operating principles that define the corporation. We are no longer a society that has corporations within it, but we have become a corporate society. That’s the shift I’m working on understanding in the sequel I’m writing. We have become less able to constrain the harmful consequences of the corporation and in fact, our governments and public institutions have increasingly become even more beholden to and dominated by business corporations.
However, I never advocated getting rid of corporations. What I argued is that the corporation is a spectacular device for amassing large amounts of capital to fund and finance large projects. I think they’re good at what they do. But a lawnmower is good at mowing the lawn. We wouldn’t use it to vacuum our living room rug. Our democratic institutions should be independent of the undue influence of corporations. We need to rescue them from corrosion and corruption.
You argue corporate social responsibility is an oxymoron. Why?
Because of its legal structure, a corporation is unable to be genuinely socially responsible. The notion that they could be responsible to a broad society doesn’t make any sense when they’re legally required to be responsible to their shareholders. If we want to protect environmental and social interests, rather than saying “Please corporation, be socially responsible,” we need to pass a law to say, “You’re not allowed to pollute that stream.”
But corporations break laws all the time. How would more laws stop them?
They do this because sometimes it’s more expensive to comply with the law than to break it and pay the fine. It’s almost a calculated decision. They think, “We’re not going to comply with that regulation, we’ll just pay the fine. We’ll pollute the stream and pay the $10,000 fine because it’s cheaper than diverting the pollutants to another place.” If there is the political will, it is possible to create laws and enforce mechanisms that would properly regulate corporations. We just don’t do it.
A screening of The Corporation will take place on Monday, May 26 at 7 p.m. at Vancouver’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. A panel discussion hosted by Joel Bakan will follow.