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You Are What Consumes You
A Review of The Corporation

by Chuck Richardson
July 27, 2004

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There are two messages—one explicit, the other implicit—in The Corporation, a documentary film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan.

The explicit point is that if corporations are people, then they are psychopaths. In the first of the film’s three parts, Achbar & Company adroitly link the World Health Organization’s symptoms of psychopathology to corporate behavior.

The film’s tacit suggestion, however, is that the people who work for them and/or buy into corporate philosophy—as producers and/or consumers—are also psychopathic, or at least possess many of the same symptoms (you are what consumes you).

This subtlety, in my opinion, makes it a more intellectually stimulating film than Fahrenheit-911. Whereas F-911 limits itself by attending to the emotions of potential American swing voters and the left-wing faithful, The Corporation’s imagined audience is open-ended, appealing to honest, hard working people worldwide, many of them corporate employees or beneficiaries themselves. Since corporations are global entities, the film focuses on their planetary and species-wide effects, rather than one nation’s election. And it does this all in a way that allows people to feel their complicity in failing to resist the rise of totalitarianism in their societies, people like the pre-Stalinist soviets and Weimar Germans before us.

In many ways, The Corporation reveals how decent people permit such inhumane systems. Which brings us to another irony—it is a more profoundly political film than F-911. Its implicit message makes it so. In its first part, the film employs the most commonly used chart by mental health professionals for diagnosing psychopathy, checking off the symptoms (1) as the mélange of images and talking heads gradually render the logical verdict.

The corporation, the right wing economist Milton Friedman tells us, can’t be any more socially responsible than a building, so asking it to be something it can’t be is absurd. One can’t expect it to behave in a lawful way or put the common interests of the public and planet ahead of the private interests of its financial profiteers. Its primary reason for being is to make them money, it is legally bound to do so, and it’s the primary law they adhere to.

There’s the master of urban disguise, Marc Barry, who twenty-somethings might relate to Puck from MTV’s original The Real World. With at times spiked blond hair, a goatee and various costumes, this young millionaire proudly makes his way by stealing information from corporate executives on behalf of their competitors, and doesn’t feel any guilt about it. It’s just the way the world is, he says, while stylin’ and profilin’ for the camera.

Carlton Brown is a Wall Street commodities broker who resembles Charles Barkley. He’s a sharp dresser, very stylish, and it was the price of gold going up that was on his mind while he watched the twin towers come tumbling down. He felt nothing for anybody. Make them a commodity and I’ll pay attention, he said, more or less.

Then there’s America’s leading dissident intellectual, Noam Chomsky, telling the camera, “When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave owner, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual [but in good conscience, you can’t].”

Renowned progressive author Howard Zinn reminds us, as if we already knew, of course, that European fascism rose with the help of corporations. Does claiming that one didn’t know what was going on or that one was just following orders hold up in the end?

Perhaps most disturbing is the delusional blather of Michael Walker, president of the Fraser Institute. Walker waxes poetic, gesticulating with his hands to the point where, for particular emphasis, he would unconsciously use masturbatory gestures. Coupled by his gleaming eyes and somewhat flushed, glowing baldness, one could not escape the profound narcissism informing his vision of the world. Walker is jovial, nay downright jocular, when he agrees with the statement that every identifiable particle on earth should be privately owned and colonized by a corporation to benefit both its plump and happy workers and, of course, its stockholders…gesticulate.

Naturally, Walker seems oblivious to the film’s numerous case studies showing not only the already well-publicized harm to the environment, but also to the physical and mental health of workers and consumers damaged by corporate inhumanity.

But why and how can a corporation be considered a “person” and subjected to such an analysis, you ask? The filmmakers anticipated their audience’s resistance, thankfully, providing a perhaps too brief sketch of how corporations became legal persons in the United States.

Basically, corporate lawyers used the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (2), which recognized the rights of former slaves to be protected equally under the laws of the land in order to gain greater power for their business clients. (3) Equal protection meant that corporations as citizens of the United States had certain inalienable rights, among them free speech and protection from search and seizure of their private persons by government agencies without due process of law. So it didn’t take long for them to take everything over in the U.S. since they live longer, accumulate far more wealth and exercise far greater mobility than other types of people, who also compete with them for life, liberty and happiness.

OK, one might say, “But that’s just business. It’s economics. What’s it got to do with politics and my civil liberties? How does that affect me?”

The Corporation addresses these issues and assumptions by presenting the views of a wide range of people. You might see yourself somewhere in this film. Philosophers, corporate executives, Bolivian activists, college students, academics, farmers, housewives and others are interviewed, revealing through their own stories, words and actions the insanity that’s killing the world.

For one who has never thought of our culture’s principal institution this way, the prospect that their society’s dominant cultural system is psychopathic and forcing them to become psychopaths themselves by behaving the way they do, is unnerving.

The question is, what does one do about it?

First, educate one’s self. You can begin by checking out all the links below and seeing this film. I saw the CBC television version. Unfortunately, it’s in very limited release in the U.S. despite its having won numerous awards, including one at Sundance. However, you can encourage your local independent theatre owner to show the film, and get involved by going to The Corporation’s support site.

Finally, realize that one can’t bring about the political changes one desires without also nurturing the equivalent psychological or spiritual changes within one’s self.

The Corporation serves as something of an unsentimental mirror image of America’s perception of the world and its existence. It’s time we help ourselves heal before others intervene for us.


Chuck Richardson  is editor of An experienced poet, journalist, newspaper columnist, produced playwright and award-winning literary critic, he has just published his first book, Memos from Apartment 5, available now from Page Free Press. His writing has appeared on ZNet, The Smirking Chimp, Buffalo Report, Buffalo Alt Press, Graphic Truth, and, among others. He can be reached at


1. A callous unconcern for the feelings of others; an incapacity to maintain enduring relationships; reckless disregard for the safety of others; deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning others for profit; an incapacity to experience guilt; and failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior—Personality Diagnostic Checklist, World Health Organization ICD-10, Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV.

 In 1868 the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution had become law. Section 1 of that Amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

3. Where the film could have gone into greater detail? Ever hear of John Chandler Bancroft Davis? No? Well, he might just be the most pivotal character in American history, but you won’t read about him in any high school textbooks. One might say he’s something of an Iago, ostensibly working for Othello (“the people”) while serving secretive “private” interests (the “true” political-economic leadership). Born in 1822, Davis was the son of former Massachusetts Gov. John Davis. Thanks to his family’s connections, he rose to president of the Newburgh & New York Railroad, assistant U.S. secretary of state, ambassador to Germany and reporter of the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis’ pivotal act occurred while reporting Supreme Court decisions when he authored the headnotes to the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that defined the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation, and the Southern Pacific Railroad v. Santa Clara County case in 1886 that defined “corporate personhood.” Both “decisions” were based on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Whereas Plessy was overturned in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the corporate personhood case still serves as legal precedent and therefore remains the law of the land. Later courts have, without exception, refused to hear questions regarding the legality of corporate personhood, preferring instead to build upon the lie rather than expose it. Corporate personhood, by the way, is the belief (but legal reality) that corporations have inalienable human rights just like flesh and blood people. The former railroad president reported in the 1886 headnotes (which are not legally binding, but merely summations) that the Supreme Court had decided “corporations [were] persons,” but it had ruled no such thing. The result is that corporate attorneys for 118 years have been claiming their inhuman clients’ inalienable rights as human beings supported by a Supreme Court decision that never occurred. How did this happen? According to William Meyers, author of The Santa Clara Blues: Corporate Personhood versus Democracy, Davis’ act and the ensuing floodgate of decisions strengthening the false precedent were emergent from “the power and wealth of the class of people who owned corporations, and resulted in their even greater power and wealth.” As everyone knows, the U.S. saw the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the stealing of Indian land (Manifest Destiny in action), a population and farming explosion, as well as the Civil War and passage of the 14th Amendment (and the transition from slavery to wage slavery) during the 19th Century. Less recognized, however, is the fact that corporations became the preferred form of doing business, and began to dominate our politics, economy and culture. After the Civil War, corporations intensified their efforts to remove government oversight of their operations and began systematically bribing Congress. Most of the Supreme Court judges appointed to the bench were former corporate lawyers who had, at their clients’ behest, concocted the idea of “corporate personhood.” The idea was that if corporations could get the courts to agree that they were legal persons, they could assert that the state governments that chartered them would be constrained from exercising power over them thanks to the 14th Amendment. This, of course, would give corporations a great deal of leverage against legal restraint. The 1886 Santa Clara “decision,” a fiction Davis made real, resulted from a national campaign, and became law without legislation or a Constitutional amendment. Corporations merely announced to “we the people” that we held mistaken views about them, if we had any views at all, and that they had rights just like we did. Meyers, however, perceives such constitutional rights inverting “the relationship between the government and corporations. Recognized as persons, corporations lose much of their status as subjects of the government. Although artificial creations of their owners and the governments, as legal persons they have a degree of immunity to government supervision. Endowed with the court-recognized right to influence both elections and the law-making process, corporations now dominate not just the U.S. economy, but the government itself.”  We know this and we know it’s wrong, so why don’t we make the government face the truth? Perhaps we’re not free or brave enough to do so. More likely is the reality that “corporations” have attained absolute power, and have found “presidents,” Congresspersons and judges to champion their “truth” against the larger fact of the “union’s” real state.

Further Reading

The Emperor’s New Clothes, 5: America the Great, by Chuck Richardson.
The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, by Joel Bakan.
Interview Aesthetics by Mark Achbar

Other Articles by Chuck Richardson

* Can Dr. Frankenstein “Secure” this November’s Election?
* Fahrenheit 9/11: An Authoritarian View of American Fascism