In 2003, a Canadian documentary called The Corporation helped audiences understand that the law treats a corporation just like a person—and if it were a person, it would fit the description of a psychopath.
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel premieres on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s based on Joel Bakan’s new book, The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations are Bad for Democracy. Bakan is a professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law and executive producer of the new film, which he co-directed. We spoke with him about the project.
To what degree did your original version of The Corporation achieve its goals?
The idea of the first project was to develop a critical awareness of the corporation and hopefully have that percolate into policy and governance structures to contain the power of these institutions, which we had revealed as too powerful, too threatening to democracy, and dangerous to society and the environment.
About 10 years after the film and book I looked around and thought, “Wow, we tried to slay the dragon of corporate capitalism but it has actually become much more powerful, and the fire it’s breathing is much more dangerous. We really need to go back to the drawing board.” And I started thinking about a sequel.
What were corporations doing during that time to increase their power?
After the film and book came out, I spoke to a lot of business groups. People would say to me, “You know, Joel, you’re right. The corporation was problematic. We were acting in bad ways, but we’ve cleaned up our act now.”
That’s why I called this one The New Corporation, because corporations did a substantial makeover and started to position themselves as providers of solutions to world problems, rather than creators of those problems. If you go to the website of any major corporation, you’ll think you’ve accidentally landed at an activist group’s website. It’s all about solving poverty, solving climate change, solving social and environmental problems.
I was struck by this disjunction that on one hand, things seemed to be getting worse on all fronts—climate change, workers’ rights, human rights—and on the other hand, corporations were saying, “We’ve become better.” That tension is what drives the narrative in both the book and the film.
We hear a lot about “corporate social responsibility” these days, but I take it you’re skeptical?
The way the corporation is constructed does not allow it to ever put social and environmental values as fundamental goals. No matter how goodhearted and well-intentioned a CEO might be, he can’t say to his shareholders, “You know what, I’m going to pursue these environmental values and it’s going to cost you money.” That is simply not within the rules of what a CEO can do and what a corporation can do.
It’s been 17 years since The Corporation. If the new film has the impact you hope, what will things look like in another 17 years?
We’ll have a much deeper, more social, more environmental democracy. We will have corporations in their rightful place of being governed by democratic institutions rather than governing democratic institutions. We will have democracy operating in robust ways at the local, regional, state and federal levels.
It’s not that we won’t have corporations and markets, but we will have them contained to doing the things they do well. Markets are a good way to organize production. They’re not necessarily a good way to run a school or a water system or a social welfare service.
In both the book and the film, we look at places where democracy is actually starting to evolve in interesting and more robust ways that aren’t beholden to corporate power. I don’t know if I’m optimistic, but I’m hopeful.
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel will be available for online streaming at Bell Digital Cinema for 24 hours beginning Sept. 16 at 3 p.m. PDT.