The Corporation is the latest anti-capitalist blockbuster to hit our screens. Emma Bircham spoke to writer Joel Bakan about the rise of corporate power and his optimism that we can fight it.
You started writing the book and making the film before the big corporate scandals of Enron and WorldCom and even before the Seattle protests in 1999. What made you start this project at that time?
It was around 1997 that I began the project. A number of things were happening. It seemed that corporations were being transformed into something quite different than had existed before as a result of economic globalisation, neoliberal policies, deregulation, privatisation and the relaxation of merger and acquisition requirements in corporate law. All these things were moving in the same direction of giving corporations more freedom, more power, and more scope to operate in the world, making it more difficult for states to control them.
A second thing that was happening was the rise of the corporate social responsibility movement beginning in 1995 to 1996. Thirdly, it seemed to me that while we had this very important institution in the world, governing our lives, people knew very little about it. What they did know about it tended to be based on corporate public relations, this notion that corporations could be good citizens, and that now they were being nice and good for the environment, and all that stuff.
They were becoming more powerful, the public image of them was becoming more benevolent, and we knew very little about them, and so I thought it would be important to create a work that would actually look at the corporation as an institution.
This is a demystification of the corporation as an organisation, rather than a critique of individual corporations. Why is it important to frame the argument in those terms? Do you see it as necessary to move the debate along?
Yes, I think so. I think that it is very easy to vilify the individuals who are the CEOs, or the owners, the shareholders, or the managers or directors. But I've never felt satisfied with approaches that focus just on personnel. I've always been more drawn to structural critique.
Also I don't think it is accurate because I think lots of people who work in corporations are decent people. A lot of the people I teach in my classes go on to become corporate lawyers and it is just not my view of the world that those people are automatically bad. They are nice to their kids. They play hockey.
What is much more interesting to me is what happens when people who are, let's assume, basically decent go into an institutional culture like the corporation that is created by laws, and has a set of imperatives, a set of principles and rules. They either follow them, or they can't be there.
So, while not wanting to relieve people of moral responsibility for what they do when they are in that capacity, it is also important to look at the nature of the institution and how it shapes their behaviours. It is that complicated place that The Corporation tries to get at.
Without using Marxist language of alienation and exploitation you seem to argue that, under capitalism, objects of human creation, corporations, have come to control us as though they were an external force. Is that a fair comment?
Marx was attempting to demystify the way that the economy works, to show that it is not separate from politics, that it is a political force - it is a human social creation. I don't think he was the first to do this. But I do think his work was crucial and important and, yes, it was influential on my own. Gramsci is also influential on my thinking, and various others. Ralph Miliband is an important figure, as are Leo Panitch, Bob Jessop, David Harvey and other critics.
But one of the things I tried to do in The Corporation was to take the often very dense and difficult discourse of social theory and to try to write a book that could be influential on people's minds and actions, even if they weren't that interested in theory.
You describe privatisation as a process of de-democratisation of society. More and more of what matters, what we would like to have control over, is moved into a sphere over which we have no control. You would like to get that back.
Yes. We are going in the wrong direction. I would be the last person to say that our current democracies are actually democratic. I think our democracies are flawed in terms of the ideals they are supposed to be serving. However, it seems to me we are moving even further away from those ideals when we deregulate, when we privatise.
We are being sold this bill of goods, that somehow in our capacity as consumers we have this incredible power to control corporations, that we can get them to act socially responsibly with our dollars. This is bollocks, for a whole host of reasons. What kind of democracy has votes distributed entirely unevenly across the citizenry?
I think that the fundamental idea of having active citizens, in political institutions, setting the terms for their own existence, is a good idea. Democracy is a great idea, and a great ideal, and with privatisation we are moving further away from realising that, and that is worrying.
In the book you are able to go into more detail than in the film about what you see as the alternative. You place a lot of faith in the government. What kind of democracy do you think is necessary if the power of corporations is to be controlled?
I believe that we need a deepening of participation of citizens in their own self-government. I believe that we have to lose the mythology that says that economic production and the economy in general is something unto itself that can just be treated as wealth creation, and that somehow when we define wealth we don't think about the health of our bodies and our minds, we don't think about things like the health of our environment.
In order to actually promote democracy, you have to promote social equality as well. You can't have a democratic system operating in a truly participatory way with the kinds of radical inequalities that we have in terms of time, and in terms of resources, and in terms of just trying to survive. It is a large project, self-government, genuine self-government, but I believe if it was working properly we wouldn't have the problems that we do.
We need to activate people as citizens. If we get citizens to feel that they are empowered to do something, then I think things happen. If people feel they have ownership over their society, over themselves, over their governing institutions, then they act like they do, and they demand things and only good can come from that.
In the film you use a lot of different techniques to get across a sophisticated critique in a popular and engaging way. Was that difficult to do?
Yes. It was very difficult in both the film and the book, perhaps for me more than the other film-makers because I am an academic. To translate my ideas from high social theory to popular film, graphic, music, all of that MTV approach to things, humour, drama, was both fascinating and wonderful, and at times a little uncomfortable.
I felt that in both the book and the film it was necessary to take out some of the nuance that I would want as an academic and I really had to tell myself you cannot judge this by your usual academic standards. You are in a different discursive domain and it doesn't make sense to judge what you are doing by the standards of the other one and it also doesn't make sense to denigrate what you are doing.
One of the most exciting things about a film like this is the audience. Why is the appetite for this kind of critique in documentary form growing?
On the one hand, the problems that the world is facing, as a result of the unleashing of market forces, are hitting people increasingly. There is little sense of any economic security at all. People are working harder for less money. There are obvious environmental problems: rates of asthma among children are going up, rates of obesity among children are going up, and so on. The negative and harmful effects of the corporation are being felt more deeply and more broadly as the unhampered power of the corporation continues to consolidate itself.
On the other hand, the media seems to be becoming more and more unreal. The news is alarmist and random. There is a fire over here, and a terrorist act over there, and it all seems the same. There is no analysis, no perspective. It is all random events.
So people, on the one hand, are feeling the world is in crisis and, on the other hand, they are not getting any sense of why. And what non-fiction books and documentary films do is try and tell you why. They try to give you a story, an argument, an analysis. Those things don't exist in the news and I think that people want them now because they recognise that they need them.
You encourage people to go in groups to the film and 'talk, learn, act'. Why is that important?
It is part of a commitment to collective action. I believe that one of the problems with our world today is that we are being told time and again that we are just individuals, that we can't act politically. Maybe we can decide if we are going to buy Reeboks instead of Nikes and that is the end of our political power. So it seems that there is something quite subversive in consumerist culture to tell people to do things collectively, and to actually engage, and debate, and discuss and think about what to do, and what to do next.
Are you optimistic?
I am an optimist. Every regime says it is at the end of history. The Roman Empire said this is the end of history - we are not going anywhere - from here on it is going to be the Roman Empire for the rest of time. The Communist Party in Eastern Europe said it would be the end of history. Hitler, the church, the monarchy, said it is the end of history. History always ends, according to power holders, with their power.
It is exactly at the point where a regime is seeing itself as omnipotent, that it is actually most vulnerable, because it is at that point that it forgets that it has to earn the loyalty of people, or it can't survive. No regime can survive for very long by using the point of a gun. Eventually you have to get the people on side.
I guess I am optimistic because I don't believe that people are that stupid. Despite the media onslaught, we are capable of seeing through it. We are capable of creating works like this one, or like Michael Moore's, work that criticises and causes people to think.
After the success of the book and the film what would you like to do next? Will you do more of this kind of work that has been so successful?
It is pretty hard once having gone the route of what is often called the 'public intellectual' to go back to doing theory that only three other people are going to read. But at the same time, I think that theory is of crucial importance and, once this thing dies down, I would like to explore some of these ideas in a more scholarly way. I really believe that the work that intellectuals do, although it may not be widely distributed, is highly influential, and without that work there is no way that this work could be done.
This work is based on years of studying social theory. It doesn't read that way, but that is because it is a kind of translation. But it is based on a depth of knowledge and reading and all the scholars that have come before me and that I have relied upon, in forming my thoughts about it. So the intellectual process is a very important one and I want to continue being part of it. I also want to continue doing this more popular work and figure out a way to do both.