In 2003, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s acclaimed documentary The Corporation argued that the American impulse to regard corporations as “people” is essentially amoral and psychopathological. The film also emphasized that, in the age of globalization, conferring personhood on corporations is no longer a peculiarly American fetish. The film featured interviews with left-of-center heavyweights such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and even The Economist, a magazine known for celebrating deregulation and the free market, hailed it as a “surprisingly rational and coherent attack on capitalism’s most important institution.”
Abbott and Joel Bakan’s The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel (Bakan, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote the commentary for the original film), which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, maintains that, in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, the movers and shakers among the 1 percent have subtly refined their tactics. In the tradition of American snake oil, many of the most rapacious multinational corporations decided to rebrand themselves as altruistic and socially responsible entities. In light of the recent efforts of almost every corporation, whether Goldman Sachs or Netflix, to anoint themselves as overnight supporters of Black Lives Matter, Abbott and Bakan’s film couldn’t be more pertinent to the current moment.
Early in the film, JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon’s initiative to invest millions of dollars into Detroit’s ravaged economy becomes emblematic of the faux idealism proffered by the titans of American capitalism. The filmmakers soon make mincemeat of Dimon’s commitment to rebuild Detroit and his rapturous reception at Davos, the Swiss playground of the rich where the economic elite meet for self-congratulatory confabs. As interviewees like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and columnist Paul Mason make clear, it’s highly disingenuous for bankers, who helped plunge Detroit into economic hardship in the first place, to pose as white knights.
The schemes of the hucksters at Bridge International Academies comprise another of Abbott and Bakan’s trenchant case studies. Launched with funding from Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the International Finance Corporation, an offshoot of the World Bank, Bridge International has opened numerous for-profit schools in Africa. Despite the veneer of altruism, the schools Bridge International funds are staffed by poorly paid teachers with little or no experience who tend to read from scripts instead of interacting with their students. As Diane Ravitch, known for her work on behalf of public schools, remarks, the World Bank should not be in charge of educational policy.
Privatizing education has been on the conservative agenda for many years now and The New Corporation views this phenomenon as only one byproduct of the impulse to “starve the beast” by cutting taxes and limiting government spending. These policies have even promoted the privatization of basic needs such as access to water, a maneuver that journalist Juan Gonzalez labels the shrinkage of the “public commons.” Needless to say, austerity has also curtailed the traditional leverage wielded by labor unions in the years since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher expressed an almost fundamentalist faith in free market solutions that serve corporate interests while minimizing the ability of workers to control their own lives.
The New Corporation is also rightfully dismissive of oil executives who, in keeping with the superficially kinder and gentler face of multinational capital, claim to be sensitive to environmental needs. John Browne, the former CEO of British Petroleum, provides the filmmakers with a perfect foil. Despite his insistence that the oil industry should be concerned with climate change and environmental devastation, the investigative journalist Abrahm Lustgarten’s research reveals that cost-cutting during Browne’s regime led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Like the Occupy movement that swept the world in 2011-2012, Abbott and Bakan applaud the efforts of ordinary people, the so-called 99 percent, to fight back against corporate malfeasance. The film is hopeful about the electoral successes of anti-corporate politicians such as Kshama Sawant, a socialist member of the Seattle City Council who led the fight for the $15 an hour minimum wage, and Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona who ran on a platform to prevent evictions of homeowners unable to make good on their mortgage debt.
Of course, despite their admirable goal of unmasking the hypocrisy of so-called “socially responsible” corporations, it seems that Abbott and Bakan neglected to fully investigate the credentials of one interviewee who represents their side of the debate. Micah White, the sole spokesperson for the Occupy movement in The New Corporation, has been labeled the “ultimate Occupy grifter” by Jacobin. Pilloried by many as a scam artist who boasted that he was Occupy’s “co-creator” and a promoter of numerous for-profit ventures such as a partnership with Google Glass, he exemplifies what the film is attacking and is not a genuine anti-establishment voice. It’s a pity the filmmakers didn’t include an interview with the late David Graeber, a more authentic advocate of grassroots dissent and a genuine anti-corporate warrior.