Much ado about corporations (Part 1)

Canada desperately needs an open dialogue about the growing power of the corporations in our society. The Corporation, a new award-winning film by the BC-based team of Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar, and Joel Bakan, is a 145 minute primer on the origins and developments of this powerful legal institution. The film is catalyzing just such a discussion.

Audiences are enthusiastic. The film sold out its shows at the Sundance Film Festival and is playing to big audiences in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto. However, right-wing pundits are on the attack.

In a number of separate articles and columns, the Canwest/Global media empireled by reactionary zealot Terrance Corcoranhave pilloried the film, calling it:

  • a head-hammering leftist polemic
  • foolishness
  • a self-indulgent display of ideological warfare
  • evil, ugly and dishonest pack of liesxD6set[s] new standards for inconsistency, misrepresentation, distortion and twisted logic, even for radical leftists.
  • and
  • a grotesque caricature of the role of corporations in society.

In their seething critiques, these corporate apologists continually mix up three distinct concerns with the modern corporation: (1) limited liability, (2) corporations’ growing rights as “persons,” and corporate governance.

[Is this a conscious attempt to confuse and mislead their audiences about the real issues -ED]

Limited Liability
The issue of limited liability is only touched on in the film. Since the British parliament amended laws to create the “Limited” company in the 19th century, shareholders have been protected against claims resulting from debts owed or damages caused from by corporations. Ironically, some argue that this change was intended to encourage small investors (the little guy) to save and invest without fear. Whatever its origin, the limited liability given to the modern corporation is a significant public policy issue. Why should some groups of people be able to cause damages (environmental, social, health, economic, fraud) and not be held liable?

Terrance Corcoran scoffs that the film implies that “Ccorporations are the evil perpetrators of pollution, death, disease and destruction.” But the reality is they often are.

The film shows famous and less well known examples: Bechtel, a California engineering company, depriving poor Bolivian peasants of clean water, Monsanto selling a bovine hormone that poisons the milk supply, and then stopping Fox News from airing an expose about it.

Limited liability creates a one-way valve, where shareholders potentially benefit from any profits derived by the company, but are insolated from paying for the damage done. For a just, equitable and sustainable world to exist, this must stop.

The film examines the legal fiction that the shareholder-owned corporation is a person. It dissects the special status these legal fictions have attained, making it difficult for sovereign governments to control corporations-and then begins an inquiry into what kind of a person corporations are.

What outrages right-wing pundits is the resulting tongue-in-cheek diagnosis of the corporation as a psychopath. Like psychopaths, the film says corporations are deceitful, lack a conscience, and are unable to sustain relationships or take responsibility.

The purpose of this, a Michael Moore-esque inquiry, is to address the social, environmental and economic impacts of the legal status of corporations. As the director says, “What’s unique about this project is we look not at any particular corporation but at the institution.”

The film’s thesis is that corporations are creations of government, originally chartered for particular purposes that were ostensibly in the public interest. Therefore corporations have no inherent or natural rights.

The ongoing attempt to expand corporate rights- corporations only gained protection of corporate property rights and speech in the last generation-needs to examined closely.

Should corporations be granted Charter protections such as the right of association? Clearly not, but multinational egg producers argued this in an attempt to strike down regulations in a case Sierra Legal Defence Fund was involved in while I worked there.

Should campaign finance limitations on corporate donations be struck down on the basis that corporations have a constitutionally protected right to free speech? No!

In fact, the film points out that government’s give corporations their charters, and it is time governments took back the rights of corporations. In other words, if corporate rights undermine or conflict with a broader public interest, they should be limited.

As people concerned about creating a just, equitable and sustainable world, it behooves us to begin collaborating on reforming the corporate structure to make it more reflective of the values of civil society. How can we do that?

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