The new company
I can still remember the red pill moment when I saw Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's 2003 documentary, The Corporation, with my best friend as an analyst at a major bank before the financial crisis. “Are companies people? What the hell? "I was practically yelling." Yes, "he simply replied with a weary shrug. For many unsuspecting progressives like me who did not know that corporate power like the coronavirus had spread and for decades all branches of our government had been silent hijacked, The Corporation was both a horror film and a wake-up call, the true deep state conspiracy.
Since then we have seen the great recession and our current economic calamity / health disaster / awakening of racial injustice. However, companies continue to shrug their shoulders. And follow a well-worn game book: break the government. Explain, as Reagan infamous put it, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." Then follow the tired Trump line, "I alone can fix it." Rinse and repeat.
Or rather, renamed as “socially responsible” this time, um, people. This is where Joel Bakan (who wrote the 2003 document based on his book) and Jennifer Abbott's The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel pick up. This indeed necessary film pulls the curtain back on the lucrative privatization of the common good and how normal business has been facilitated since benevolent rule over the world became the new spin. Of course, as The Corporation so convincingly pointed out nearly two decades ago, the original problem is that corporations also fit tightly into the definition of psychopaths. So now we have green, woken up psychopaths. Welcome to the Davos sponsored matrix.
Fortunately, ahead of the Toronto International Film Festival premiere on September 13, the filmmaker was able to chat with the Canada-based co-directors to discuss fighting the gas light and more.
Filmmakers: It's been 17 years since The Corporation's TIFF premiere, which Jennifer co-directed and edited with Mark Achbar, and which Joel wrote (and based on his book). How did this sequel come about – and why now, a dozen years after the financial crisis? Have you been in production the whole time?
Bakan: After The Corporation's 10th anniversary, I started thinking about a sequel. The original film and book challenged the company and its power over society. But after the film came out, corporate power continued to grow. Corporate losses such as the 2008 crisis continued to increase. And the bigger crises that we had looked at – climate crisis, democracy crisis, inequality crisis – accelerated dangerously. Obviously the first film hadn't done the trick.
At the same time, around 2005, companies had started positioning themselves as the good guys – effectively saying (and some types of companies actually told me so), "We may have been psychopaths before, but now we're better, or at least it's getting better." . “And they used this new image to gain even more power over society, until we went from a society that contained problematic companies (as we documented in the first film) to a society that is essentially contained in them .
I started working on a book on all of this in 2012 (to be released by Penguin Random House this month), and in 2015 producer Trish Dolman suggested a sequel to the film. I wrote a detailed treatment. We have secured the financing. Then Trump was elected, which brought all corporate power problems to a subtle and dangerous point. Jenn came into production in 2017 and we were on our way to the races. (As it turned out, more like a turtle than a hare.)
Abbott: I didn't even want to do the sequel! As one of the directors and editors of the first film, I was terrified of the idea of killing another monster from a movie like The Corporation. I cut the first film from 400 hours of footage and was on the verge of collapse when it was released. And while the problems we examined in the first film have certainly worsened, much of our original criticism stands.
I was also in the process of making another film, The Magnitude of All Things, about ecological grief and climate change – which it turns out is also currently being released. I was fully occupied with that, along with the single parent.
And then Donald Trump was elected. The veil fell. There was no longer even the pretext that governments and corporations were acting independently. With Trump's election, everything was spat out into the open; The system was manipulated in favor of the plutocratic class, and now they did it in clear sight. And while Trump is a symptom and not the cause of many of the crises we face today, the world was suddenly a different place for me and there were compelling reasons to go ahead. So I joined the race. Or, to break away from Joel's analogy, became one of the turtles stubbornly trotting to the finish line.
Filmmakers: This sequel features a plethora of insightful thinkers, from writers to activists to politicians. How did you decide who to include in the final cut? Was there anyone you reached out to but couldn't go on camera?
Bakan: I had my wish-list of activists, politicians and intellectuals. You were in the original treatment and most of them made it into the movie. We would have loved to have had Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but couldn't.
For people in the business world, Davos was high on the list as it really is the hub for the new kind of capitalism and enterprise that we are criticizing. We were lucky enough to be able to go there and interview the event director and organizer, the economist Klaus Schwab. BP was also high on my list as it was featured in my first book (though not in the movie) and we got to interview former CEO Lord John Browne which was great. Unilever and JP Morgan Chase were evident as they and their CEOS are viewed as leaders of the new corporate movement and they also have a place in the film. We tried to attract a lot of other executives – especially from big tech companies – but for some reason they didn't return our calls.
Abbott: I also had my wish list of activists, politicians, and intellectuals, some of whom we were able to interview and some of whom we couldn't. This is a good introduction to some of the differences between the sequel and the first film.
For the first film we were able to secure an interview with the late economist Milton Friedman early on. That opened doors to others in the corporate world. Of course, we were also new to the scene and didn't have a reputation that preceded us (at least not with the name The Corporation). Understandably, we often got radio silence when we reached out to some company insiders for the second film.
But we did manage to get interviews with some leading figures from the corporate world and other footage as well. The footage we use of Jamie Dimon, for example, speaks volumes as he is left speechless by Katie Porter and grilling him over the low wages JP Morgan Chase pays his employees. We also filmed in Davos. And many leading thinkers and activists have certainly accepted our invitation to participate and shone in their eloquence.
Filmmakers: One of the most memorable shots in the film shows graffiti on a wall that says, “Corona is the virus. Capitalism is the pandemic. “Which made me wonder how our collective global nightmare affected the film. Has the pandemic disrupted production or affected processing? Does it affect your publication to TIFF?
Abbott: Fortunately, we had finished production and were in the mail when the pandemic hit. However, with the pandemic affecting almost all of the themes in our film so heavily, there is a risk that the sequel will be out of date even before it's released if not taken into account.
And so for the first of two times we broke the picture lock to incorporate not only the injustices that Covid-19 exposed, but also the way the pandemic showed us that we are not just the selfish, consumerist ones Individuals are who the corporate ideology defines us as. It was also so important to Joel and me that we include the relationship of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19 to the destruction of nature and the abuse of non-human animals. The pandemic is a wake-up call to humanity. Unless corporate capitalism stops the destruction of nature and respects species other than living things with inherent rights, more pandemics are on the way. And who knows with what masculinity.
Bakan: Yes, the film was essentially canned when the pandemic hit Canada. Jenn and I – and also our brilliant editor Peter Roeck – firmly believed that we had to open the can, add to the film and re-cut. Our producers managed to find the time and resources, so we did that.
It sure was a challenge. At the same time, the way the pandemic played out hit almost every note we had previously developed in the film. It was truly a remarkably poignant case study that touched on all of our main arguments. So we built pandemic content into the different sections of the film and then created specific pandemic sections in both the diagnostic and prescriptive parts of the film. One of the things I'm particularly proud of is integrating self-isolation back interviews with people who appeared in our original recordings.
Filmmakers: Another global development that has recently taken place is the growing support for Black Lives Matter, which I believe poses one of the greatest existential threats to the company as it is at its core an anti-capitalist movement. So do you see the BLM-specific, socially responsible renaming of companies that ultimately win hearts and minds (and dollars)? Could any of BLM's tactics actually change the structure of the company?
Abbott: Even though we had finished the film and ran out of time and resources, we insisted on including a section on the extraordinary and ongoing uprising following George Floyd's brutal murder. We negotiated for two weeks and I think the recording changed the film.
The narrative arc of the film, and especially what I'll call Act 2, drives us into despair of the existential crises we face today, largely due to the destructiveness of corporate capitalism. And then we show resistance. But only with the passion, momentum, and success of the BLM insurgency in infiltrating the mainstream and bringing about systemic change could we record a story that had enough hope to match the desperation of Act 2.
Suddenly, and I mean suddenly, the mainstream was questioning the public allocation of funds to the police, military, schools and hospitals. Suddenly, the racist roots of capitalism in slavery and colonization are at the center of public discourse when colonial statues topple over. Suddenly the mainstream admits the existence of systemic racism. And suddenly, due to the combination of the pandemic and insurrection, the system itself is being challenged in a way that I have not seen in my life. To me, the inclusion of the insurrection made our film, which is actually a call to action, authentically hopeful.
Bakan: The movie was back in the can when George Floyd was brutally killed by the police, sparking the riot that continues as we speak. This time we really ran out of time and resources, but we felt it was necessary to address it again. As you point out, this actually poses an existential threat to the company (despite the sugary and transparent attempts by the companies to position themselves as allies – further evidence of the “new” company).
We examine the insurrection both as an indictment of the racial inequality on which corporate capitalism is built and which continues to consolidate, and as an example of a remarkable movement that not only exposes but deeply questions the intersecting racial and economic injustice of corporate capitalism represents. It's a powerfully poignant and inspiring ending to the film.
Filmmakers: It has also long been believed that corporate reforms could result from increasing diversity in boardrooms and at the C-suite level. But if companies are psychopathic, as your original film suggested, wouldn't that be another brilliant rebrand in practice? Can a psychopath be redeemed or should he just be eliminated completely?
Bakan: The power of the analysis in both films (and their respective books) is that they examine the company as an institution with a particular legal structure and set of imperatives. This legal structure has not changed for publicly traded companies, although various reforms have been implemented – such as greater diversity in boards of directors and management teams, better governance structures and even a legal license to take into account non-shareholder interests (as long as this is not the case) Affect the interests of the shareholders).
None of them have the central corporate imperative to prioritize the financial interests of shareholders above all else – including democracy, diversity, racial justice, human rights, climate and the environment. And that's the fundamental problem, as we show in the film. In my book I compare the company to ice hockey. Hockey is basically a violent sport – speed, hard surfaces, and persistent attempts to own the puck and inevitably get it on the net result in violence. We can change some of the rules – ban head controls, non-contact icing, larger area of ice behind the net, etc., which may make the game safer. But it's still hockey and it's still violent. Some players and teams may play less violently, while others may play more violently. But they still play hockey.
This also applies to the corporate game. There are basic rules that make a company a company within capitalist systems – mainly that those who invest in a company are entitled to have their money used in their interests. If we change this rule, we will no longer have a capitalist enterprise – and in fact we will no longer have capitalism as we know it. That's because corporations are an integral part of how industrial capitalism works.
So it's too easy to say, "Okay, let's get rid of companies" or "Let's reform companies". But not really the answer either. The first will not happen unless there is broader systemic change in capitalism. And the latter may have some positive effects, but none that will change things significantly. So our solution is to strengthen democracy, take it back from the corporate interests that have seized it, and let it work the way it should – participatory, public interest-driven, equity-driven, egalitarian, and robust and genuine scrutiny Corporate power and impunity. At some point in the future we may have a society that is different from a corporate capitalist. In the meantime, our best hope, and the best first step to get there, is to revive democratic citizenship and democracy itself so that governance is actually for and by the people – and includes corporations enough to keep the public going Protect interest.
Abbott: Yes, I agree with everything Joel has to say on the subject, and I thank Joel and his books for making substantial contributions to understanding the struggle between business and democracy.
Even before Joel and I worked together almost 20 years ago, we all had, independently of one another, a fascination with “derification” and “making the familiar weird”. In fact, every single one of my films has tried to do this in some way. And so also with the films of the (new) Corporation – now in the plural! – One of our broadest goals is to highlight what appears to be “normal” and “natural” as socially constructed.
While it may seem like "the way it is" to many, corporate capitalism arose and is sustained by a series of conscious and well-calculated decisions. When this is the case, we can make different choices. We can create different economies and different institutions. We can develop further. We can change it. Can a psychopathic facility be redeemed or should it be eliminated to directly answer your question? My answer would be that through reflection, better understanding, and thoughtful action, we can create institutions and systems that are more just, more equitable, more compassionate, and more livable. If our films open up an imaginative space for this, I believe that something valuable will be done.