Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Corporation

Dir: Mark Achbar
Viewed: From the Couch

Monday was a strange day. Still immensely sad about Wallace's suicide, I spent a good deal of the day hunting around on the Internet for remembrances, stories, and anything I could get my hands on. My Wallace collection thousands of miles away, I made due with the one story from the February Harper's and the scattered links to his stories and essays. I was also sick, so I decided to watch The Corporation, winner at Sundance in 2004 and elsewhere, a movie I had wanted to see for a while but had never gotten around to. Oh, and of course Wall Street was suffering it's greatest crisis in 79 years.

This was a strange collection of events, but there are some common threads (well, except the illness) that made Monday so weird. Anyone who read Wallace knew that he was fascinated by the functions of corporations: the bureaucracy, the marketing, the collective thought. He was also interested in the dynamics of the international financial system (though not to the degree of his acolyte Jonathan Franzen) and the vast complex systems that we create for ourselves. There is no question that enormous systems of corporate and financial systems structure a great deal not only of economic life, but social, cultural, and even psychological life as well. As The Corporation makes all too clear, the depth and penetration of the institutional attempts to re-wire our brain is a very real process.

The first response to this, if you are even a halfway decent person not completely immersed in in self-gratification by means of consumer products and entertainment, is outrage. This is certainly the response intended by The Corporation, which ends its long argument with an injunction from none other than Michael Moore to go out and do something about it. There is certainly no shortage of things you can do - get involved in politics, especially local politics, organize community reaction to such seemingly mundane matters like zoning and tax breaks, vote, etc. As propaganda, it's great.

The Corporation is not a perfect film - it suffers from an often condescending tone (cartoons, stock film, etc.) and the distracting hyperbole of Moore and Noam Chomsky that make it all to easy for people not interested in change to dismiss - but it is a very clever film, mixing serious economic and historic argument with simple investigative reporting. The most novel claim, a fascinating argument that had me hooked when I first heard the producer Marc Achbar explain it a few years ago, is that the modern corporation is a psychopath. While this might make some intuitive sense, it seems at first as just some radical rhetoric. But as the movie demonstrates, the diagnosis of the corporation as psychopath comes as a result of not some inherent evil, but through the decisions of case law in American courts. The two primary decisions:

1) After the Civil War, corporations attained the legal rights of an individual person. 'They' could own land, file suits in court, and apply for patents. In legal terms, they were literally personified - except, notably, in the case of punishment by incarceration.

2) Publicly owned corporations had to put the bottom line first. No matter what else a board of directors would like to do for the community, environment, or their own self-conscience, they would be open to stockholder lawsuits if they pursued these goals ahead of profits.

The result, a legally defined person who is also legally bound to pursue their own self-interest at the expense of outside interests. In other words, a psychopath. It's a brilliant syllogism:

P1) The corporation is an individual
P2) The corporation is concerned only with their own needs, even at the expense of others
P3) A psychopath is a person concerned with their own needs, even at the expense of others
C) The corporation is a psychopath

Once this argument is made, the rest of the film is dedicated to supporting evidence of the second premise: that corporations pursue profit motivations at the expense of community, powerless individuals, and American democracy itself. There's Monsanto getting approval for it's bovine HGH drug despite a worldwide surplus of milk, the absence of claims it works, and the possible harmful effects to humans; there's a marketing company that interviews parents in order to design their advertisements to better encourage the kids' nagging; there's the blatant political corruption, the callousness towards the environment, and the most shocking (and disputable) claim - that biotechnology and synthetic products created by Monsanto, DuPont, etc are the direct causes of the worldwide cancer epidemic. These segment are emotionally powerful, but to any close observer of the regular news, they should be familiar. The real strength of the film is the logic of the argument. It's not just that companies are evil, but that that their evilness is not natural, or simply the result of capitalism, but is contingent upon a series of legal decisions, decisions that American democracy is free to revoke at any time.

Now Wallace certainly shared the belief that we have created these mammoth organizations and structures with little forethought, and they they pose a danger to our politics, our social relations, and our souls. But Wallace was also quick to deny that they were automatically bad or evil. In a radio interview on The Connection, he explained that he was looking beyond how corporate and bureaucratic systems functioned or what their effects were, and wanted to know how and why individual human being got caught up with these systems to begin with. After all, they are our creations. Nothing, not external circumstance, nor a greedy few individuals, nor the logic of capitalism can explain it. It was, I think Wallace was arguing, too easy to take either the communist position that capitalism was inherently destructive and would collapse on itself or the anarchist position that there are 100 evil people in Davos who are pulling the strings. Instead, he believed there was fundamental lack of something - what he called a "lost, infinite thing" in his Kenyon speech - that made us susceptible to creating and joining these organizations and institutions.

Wallace attended church, as he surprisingly reveled in "The View from Mrs. Thompson's", and possessed a strong moralism that marked his biggest departure from postmodernist fiction, and it's not a major leap to suggest that this lost, infinite thing was faith in God. His words on worship in the Kenyon speech speak for themselves (a sort of rhetorical version of Dylan's "You Gotta Serve Somebody"). So it's possible to conclude that our lack of faith has led instead to a worship of business (The Corporation used the phrase "high-priest" to describe C.E.O. and Greenspan was "The Oracle" after all).

But another possibility, and one that would help explain the figurative meltdown of the global financial system, is that our current worship was created, at every level, by a self-constructed hierarchy of values. We could have lost God and replaced it with many things, with art, with family, with devotion to sports, etc., but we seem to have replaced it with a devotion to money and status that far outstrips previous civilizations. Like the psychopathic corporations were not natural, our current obsessions are not natural. The people making the loans knew they were involved in shady dealings but needed to support lifestyles that had people in their mid-20s out-earning their parents. The buyers, led on by dreams of new house, bought into the politically useful fiction that ownership is stability. The breakdown of our lending institutions was, as almost everybody has realized by now, due to a sick and pervasive hunger for something at almost every level.

Not that this needs reminding, but this is what makes McCain's current response to the collapsing market - that it was simple Wall Street greed - most unfortunate. The greed was there, sure, but it was merely a symptom of nothing short of a complete moral breakdown in American society, one that owes it's breakdown not to natural elements, but to systematic legal, judicial, and congressional changes, changes that came almost overwhelmingly at the behest of Republicans. Prescription drugs, including those that would allow us to fuck better, eat more without consequence, and sleep more without conscience, were allowed to be advertised on TV; media companies were allowed to operate several stations and newspapers in one town; tax incentives were given to home buyers while rent control was gutted; unions were replaced by foreign workers though carefully negotiated trade deals; family and communities were torn apart by the market in labor that fools like Thomas Freidman tried to argue were good for us. Everything that afflicted both the health of the American economy and American soul has been done by us in specific legislation. Like the corporate psychopath, the individual psychopaths who sold homes to the unemployed or created the derivatives that allowed this to go on - the ones who got us into this mess - were not inevitable, but created.

Wallace's fundamental critique of systems (if just one could be posited), was that they destroy what we most need and replace it with what we think we most desire. This is undoubtedly true, but it's also true that these critiques can be made not only through art, but in rational arguments like those found in The Corporation, or Fast Food Nation (the book), or even Al Gore. Behind the gimmicky portrayal and the blabbering of Moore, The Corporation came as close to an academic argument as I can imagine. It may not provide the inspiration in the same way Wallace smacked your head and said "look, dammit," but for those already alerted, it can be a powerful device. The crumbling of the American economy, which will continue, rest assured, has nothing to do with Wallace's death other than simple coincidence, but there is a link between our profound blindness to the systems that orient our values and the fall of powerful financial institutions. The latter, for sure, are going to wake some people up. People who have long slumbered in comfort - individuals no different, really, in their mental illness from the corporations where they work - are going to be forced to see how false their idol was. It's a long time coming, and it's going to be one bitch of a wake-up call, but the psychopaths of this country are going to know what Wallace was talking about whether they want to or not.

The Corporation Part 1 (Google Video)

The Corporation Part 2


Anonymous said...

Being a first time homebuyers can be both an exhilarating and frightening experience all at the same time. After all, you have probably long dreamed of the day when you would buy your first home. At the same time, purchasing a home is a major commitment that involves spending a great deal of money.

Padraic said...

Hmm, I think that automatically triggered comment spam really missed my whole argument!

I say we leave this one up there Sean for it's perverse articulation of what I was talking about. All other automated fronts for psychopaths be warned, however: we will delete you.