The following is a review of Joel Bakan's The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power published by Simon and Schuster, 2004.
The book, The Corporation, and the simultaneously released documentary of the same name, were instant popular successes having received unprecedented hype, at least in this neck of the woods (British Colombia). Regional libraries purchased over a thousand copies and the Vancouver Public Library named it 2004 book of the year. The documentary received two dozen awards at various film festivals including Robert Redford's Sundance. It was named the best documentary of 2004 by the Environmental Media Association.
The book is a simple straightforward manifesto for "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) barely 160 pages long plus introduction, footnotes and bibliography. The bibliography lists the usual suspects from the Canadian faux left: Judy Rebick, Linda McQuaig, Maude Barlow, Murray Dobbins, Tony Clarke, and the darling of Lord Thomson of Fleet's revolutionary brigades, Naomi Klein. From south of the border he draws from luminaries like "stupid white man" Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, Mike Davis and of course the ivory tower anarchist Gnome Chomsky (who was tapped to write a gushing promo for the book's jacket). Internationally he draws from neo-Luddites Euro-American Jeremy Rifkin, Vandana Shiva (recently presented the prestigious "Bullshit Prize for Sustaining Poverty" by the Indian Farmers' Federation) and George Soros. The remainder of the bibliography is padded with famous economists like Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and John Galbraith and ballasted with dozens of lesser thans from the CSR pulp mill. Not surprisingly Bakan's heroes in British history are the pathetic romantic mythologist Sir Walter Scott and the venomous reactionary Lord Chancellor Edward Thurlow.
Professor Bakan probably wouldn't define his work as an "environmentalist" tract. This is because the Big Lies of resource depletion and planetary endangerment have been so thoroughly pile driven into the bedrock of his brain as to be accepted as unquestionable premises upon which to build. In the text alone there are 93 references to the "environment" and additional references are found in the footnotes. Bakan believes we are "endangering the planet as a whole" (p. 60) and that "the earth (is) spiraling toward ecological catastrophe" (p. 141). He approvingly relays CSR ringleader Ray Anderson's belief that corporations are "driving the biosphere to destruction."(p. 71). Nowhere does Bakan provide evidence for this impending catastrophe. Nowhere does he even acknowledge this is a contested political opinion.
As a manifesto The Corporation is a call to action. It has a specific agenda spelled out in the final chapter. The primary plank in the platform is to sharply increase state regulation of industry so as to "ensure that they respect.the environment." More specifically: "Regulations designed to protect the environment and people's health and safety should be based on the precautionary principle, which prescribes that corporations be prohibited from acting in ways that are reasonably likely to cause harm, even if definitive proof that such harm will occur does not exist." (p. 162)
He goes on to say "parks boards should play greater roles in the regulatory system" particularly with regard to restricting "urban sprawl, "box" retailers, and environmentally damaging practices."
He wants to criminalize corporate political donations or:
"At a minimum, their influence should be scaled back to a degree commensurate with that of other organizations, such as unions, environmental and consumer groups, and human rights advocates."(p.162)
Bakan believes "parks, nature reserves, genes and other biological materials and the public space" should be deemed "too precious, vulnerable, or morally sacred to be subject to corporate exploitation."
Much of the text is scare mongering around the growing power of corporations, which is humorous coming from an academic situated in Vancouver. This area was under the de facto and de jure control of the Hudson's Bay Company for much of its existence before power slipped to the directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Viewed through the grander lens of history the current epoch is the one when "corporations" have exerted the least influence on British Columbia.
Bakan's general conspiracy theory about the corporate coup is hypocritical and a product of a damningly selective historiography. He belabors the tale, a staple of the Left, of a very real fascist coup plot in America in the 1930s which had gone as far as offering bribes to popular military leaders to physically seize the White House. Although Bakan wishes to pin this on "Corporate America" he lists the dynastic houses of Rockefeller, Mellon, DuPont and Pew as financial backers of the plot - men who "decided to look into European methods, with the idea of introducing them into America". What Bakan neglects to mention is that these dynasties were not attainted for this treason but rather have gone on to play a central role in US politics and culture. More specifically these dynasties are the brains and bucks behind US environmentalism.
In the same vein Bakan lists Henry Ford as the "corporate social responsibility pioneer." Henry was a goose-stepping Nazi. He had the Iron Cross pinned to his lapel by high-ranking officers of the Third Reich and he was probably the most published and prolific writer of anti-Jewish hate literature in history. His family and the philanthropic ventures which he founded boast about having created the US environmental movement. Henry's great grandson William II, whom Bakan fawns over, defines himself as a lifelong environmentalist and has clearly put politics ahead of economics in his management of the Ford Motor Co.
But the Ford Foundation is nowhere mentioned in Bakan's manifesto. Nor is the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts or any other bankrollers of the archconservative NGO-civil society-global-social-justice movement. They have been whitewashed over. They don't exist; at least not in polite company.
Amazingly, Bakan actually says, after chronicling the large amount of money flowing from certain big businesses into the political arena:
"where are the desperately needed countervailing lobbies to represent the interests of average citizens? Where are the millions of dollars acting in their interests? Alas, they are notably absent." (p.107)
With the phrase "average citizen" Bakan is clearly means the "civil society" social movement of fake grass roots NGOs. The big philanthropic foundations, and the oligarchs behind them, are handing billions of dollars per year to his precious NGO civil society. Moreover, these elite crowds are masters at levering matching funds from the state for their pet projects. Bakan prefers to be willfully blind to all this.
When Bakan speaks of "the corporation" he is not broadly discussing all legally incorporated entities for this would include small businesses, NGOs, non-profit societies, philanthropic entities and state-owned enterprises. No, to him "the corporation" means exclusively:
"the large Anglo-American publicly traded business, as opposed to small incorporated businesses, or small or large not-for-profit corporations or privately owned ones." (p. 3)
Why does he single these organizations out for attack?
According to Bakan these corporations are institutionally psychopathic. He works the psychopathic metaphor ad nauseum. They suffer this infirmity, according to Bakan, because they are mandated to be self-interested. He never broaches the begged question of whether small business is any less greedy than large. In his simplicity it doesn't occur to him address the possibility that everyone is self-interested - even middle class propagandists.
What really distinguishes large publicly traded Anglo-American corporations is that they are the primary engines of growth; they are foci of social and technological change. They are the driving force behind internationalism and modernity.
Who are these companies? Bakan admits their share ownership is spread broadly over the public. He is annoyed of the degree to which common people have been brought into shareholding. Many of the demonized corporations are owned by worker's pension funds, small investors and widely held mutual funds. These companies are owned "by the people". But there is more. The corporations are genuinely "companies" of workers and managers, engineers and janitors. It is the tens of millions of workers within these companies who have the most to loose if regulations and taxes stifle the development and profitability of these enterprises. Moreover these corporations thrive because of the scores of millions of customers who voluntarily buy the cars, shoes or appliances they sell. Broadly speaking the target for Bakan's attack is the "forces of production" within modern society that true archconservatives view with contempt.
With the hypocrisy of a crusading monk Bakan attacks corporate advertising to children. Brainwashing children is something eco-fascists have been hard at for generations. Bakan relates a personal anecdote, one of many, of how he stormed out of an eco-troubadour Raffi concert with his young son when he learned an automobile company was co-sponsoring the event.
The hypocrisy comes off in sheets. Bakan holds corporations responsible if their female employees are attacked on the way home from work in some ill-policed Third World town yet shudders at the thought of corporations expanding into policing services. Bakan wants big business to lift developing countries out of poverty but complains if they export capital into, or import cheap goods out of, those countries. He bemoans the political activism of corporations yet he wants them to join the very political CSR crusade.
But the reality which must bite the hardest for the "ole' King and Church mob", rallying so dutifully around this book and documentary, is that The Corporation is corporate propaganda.
For starters, Simon & Schuster isn't some radical basement press.
The people he quotes the most in the book, Ray Anderson, Robert Monks and Chris Komisarjevsky are professional corporate propagandists. They are the intelligentsia atop the thoroughly "corporate" corporate social responsibility movement.
Monks, who Bakan fills several pages quoting, is the head of an "international investment firm" with hundreds of employees. Komisarjevsky is the CEO of the oft-demonized multi-national public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. For almost a decade these professional corporate bureaucrats have engaged in a top-down, public relations and political lobbying campaign - namely the CSR crusade. There are politically influential and deep-pocketed interests backing the likes of Monks, Anderson and Komisarjevsky. And their CSR crusade has made considerable headway - emerging as near orthodoxy.
Bakan quotes (the aptly named) Komisarjevsky as saying:
"Corporate social responsibility is a mandate that companies have today. They don't have any choice. The fact of the matter is that when you look at the research, our research as well as other research you'll find that.those people who shape opinions.are saying to companies, 'Yes, we want to earn a return, but we want you to do it right. And we want you to do it in a responsible way. We don't want you to abuse the environment." (p. 144)
Bakan argues hard for a new auditing process to ensure major retailers don't use sweatshop labor. He then tells us Wal-Mart, Kathy Lee, Toys' 'R' Us, Nike and the Gap already have such programs. Thus Bakan is simply demanding all firms be compelled to follow the lead of the big corporations. Big business has long understood that a more stringent regulatory environment can be a mechanism to suppress competition. To board the big businesses bandwagon to restrain trade isn't going out onto to some radical thin limb. Nor is it "anti-corporate."
Bakan sees nothing odd about Sir John Browne, head of one of the largest oil and gas companies, being praised by a broad coalition of eco-groups. Sir John was honored by the Earth Day Network at a large public ceremony on Earth Day (April 22) 1999. This is okay to Bakan because Sir John's BP and Royal Dutch Shell have "embraced the green agenda". Bakan notes that tobacco giant ABT donated a seminal seven million dollars to the International Center for Corporate Social Responsibility. Bakan recalls a recent New York conference at which "a hundred CEOs from the world's largest corporations met with their counterparts from NGOs such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International along with national ambassadors" to sign a CSR manifesto.
Mother England, the fountain of Bakan's inspiration, has since 2000 had a state ministry dedicated to the spread of CSR. This was the first such ministry but most European countries have followed suit. The organization "CSR-Europe" is a conference of 18 such state bodies and 64 major multinationals including Coca-Cola, Starbucks, BP, Shell, Unilever, and Volkswagen. CSR-Europe has organized indoctrination workshops attended by 500,000 managers from nearly 2,000 major European enterprises.
The CSR campaign is thus the process whereby the piecemeal "greenmailing" and protectionist boycotts of yesteryear go wholesale. A battle is being fought across the boardrooms of the Western world. Companies not cooperating with the green, anti-liberal agenda are being targeted with all manner of agitation and harassment. A slow-growth anti-Western, anti-development ideology is being forced onto industry at the highest levels. Appeasement rules! Many businesses are buying security through mimicking foundation philanthropic handouts to green groups and civil society only making the beast bigger and hungrier. Many major corporations, particularly European ones, are already onside. The social class lurking behind this archconservative movement is the old money, big money European aristocrats and the New England wannabe-aristocrats. Bakan's sycophantic, twirpy little pamphlet is but one regrettable forgettable salvo in this monstrous cannonade.
William Kay BA LL B is businessman living in Western Canada.
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