UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 3 | Mar.
The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power
UBC law professor Joel Bakan has a hit movie on his hands.
The Corporation, which Variety calls a "cogent, entertaining,
even rabble rousing indictment of perhaps the most influential
institutional model of our era," has won critical acclaim,
audience appreciation and awards from such film festivals
as the the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam
and the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
It is currently playing in a number of Canadian centres,
including Vancouver, and will be released in select U.S. cities
Penguin Group has just released Bakan's book, The Corporation:
The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, upon which the
film is based to Canadian bookstores; Simon and Schuster will
do the same in the U.S. later this month.
Bakan recently sat down with UBC Reports to talk about the
Q. The film deals with a phenomenon so pervasive that it
is difficult to see. What first inspired you to tackle this?
Around 1996, I realized the world was changing in some profound
ways. Corporations were being transformed from economic institutions
into governing institutions, ones that were governing societies
and the lives of individuals in ways that they had never done
At the same time, I thought, people know very little about
the corporation as an institution. We are aware necessarily
of corporations; they touch every aspect of our lives. But
we don't understand how the corporation operates as an institution
-- and, as corporations gain more power over our lives and
societies, we really need to, especially in light of the corporation's
peculiar institutional character, which, in the book and the
movie, we liken to that of a psychopath.
Q. The climate when you started this project was quite different
than today, given recent scandals like Enron. Even six or
seven years ago, CEOs were still being hailed as heroes.
Well, I'd like to say we were prescient. But we may
have just been lucky in terms of the timing. Certainly around
1997, several things were clear. One is that due to the processes
of economic globalization, privatization, deregulation and
relaxation of merger and acquisition requirements, corporations
were becoming much larger and much more powerful than they
had ever been. They were operating on an international scale
and they were pressuring governments in ways that they had
never had the capacity to pressure them before. So the corporation
was truly looking like it was becoming the world's dominant
At the same time, government was in rapid retreat from its
traditional role of providing checks and balances on corporate
power through deregulation, and, through the process of privatization,
governments were handing over to corporations authority over
the fundamental institutions of civil society.
None of this was going unnoticed by the citizenry. This was
also the moment when the anti-globalization movement really
gained momentum. The first major demonstration in North America
was on this campus in response to the APEC meeting.
And people in the business world were responding, both to
the new powers and freedoms of corporations and to the dissent
in the streets. This is the time business people really started
to embrace corporate social responsibility. 'Well, we have
all this power, and people are getting mad at us,' they seemed
to be saying. 'So we better be more socially responsible,
or at least appear that way.'
So a lot was going on. It made sense to start a project aimed
at understanding the corporation's institutional nature
Q. You make the analogy that the corporation is a psychopath.
Can you explain?
A psychopath is defined as a person who is pathologically
self-interested, lacks the capacity to be concerned about
others, lacks the capacity to feel guilt or remorse when others
are harmed, and lacks the capacity to feel any moral obligation
to comply with legal or social norms.
A corporation is a legal person that is programmed to only
be able to serve its own self-interests and that lacks the
capacity to be concerned about others as an end in itself.
And I thought, well, that's interesting -- you have this legal
person created that has been given the personality of a psychopath.
This is particularly noteworthy at a moment in history when
corporations are becoming so powerful. Here we, as a society,
have created our dominant economic institution in the image
of a psychopath. And now we are giving it the power to control
Q. A lot of people hear about corporate social responsibility
and think -- this is great, they're making great strides.
But it's not really quite that simple, is it?
I think it's better that corporations try to be socially
responsible than not. It's better that we as consumers
and investors try to be ethical and socially responsible than
not. And I think there are some very sincere and committed
people within the business world who want to push the envelope
as far as it can be pushed in terms of trying to do good.
But there is still an envelope there. Ultimately corporate
directors and managers are legally incapacitated from pursuing
social and environmental goods unless they can make the case
that such actions will lead to more profit, corporate social
responsibility must always be a means to the self-interested
ends of the corporation. And that imposes profound limits
on how far it can be taken.
Ultimately we need democratic legal regulation of corporations.
We can't simply put our faith in markets or benevolent
CEOs to stop the spiral towards ecological disaster, and corporate
assaults on human welfare and rights.
Q. Mark Achbar told The Globe and Mail "we have to force
corporations to be sustainable."
I can't come up with a five-year plan as to what we
need to do. But I think there are certain principles and one
of them is that we need to have structures in place where
citizens actually participate in shaping the world that they
live in, democracy, in other words.
Whether that means that we have to abolish corporations or
we have to impose greater constraints on corporations or we
have to re-engineer the corporation so that it's designed
to serve public interests rather than only private interests,
or some combination of all of that, I don't really know.
What I do know is that we need to reinvigorate our sense as
individuals of citizenship and do what we can do and what
we have to do, to try to regain control of corporations democratically.
Q. When you look back at the project, is there one thing
that stands out as the most disturbing?
Actually I was pleasantly surprised -- pleasantly surprised
by the humanity of many of the people we encountered along
the way. The lesson that I learned is that it's very hard
to take people's humanity away. They remain human beings even
if what they're doing in institutional contexts, in particular
that of the corporation, is quite inhuman. To me, that's very