The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan
|The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan|
|Category: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: Magda Healey|
|Summary: I liked The Corporation a lot. It makes an incredibly valid point and it makes it in a lucid, clear, well argued but by no means boring way. There are plenty of case stories and interviews, personal asides and anecdotes as well as solid research an scholarship. Better than Michael Moore and less highbrow than Chomsky, Bakan will make you think and possibly even persuade to do something.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 240||Date: June 2005|
|Publisher: Constable and Robinson|
...it is better to ask why we have tyranny than whether it can be benevolent.
This quotation from Noam Chomsky could be the motto to Joel's Bakan book. Hailed by reviewers as 'Fahrenheit 9/11 for people who think' and described by The Economist itself as 'surprisingly rational and coherent' this accompanying volume to the award-winning documentary of the same title (link at bottom right) is at least as much worth reading as the film is worth watching, perhaps even more as the argument that Bakan makes yields itself more to the verbal analysis then to on-screen depiction.
The starting premise seems to be both attractive and simplistic: despite constant talk of corporate social responsibility, corporations (large, publicly-traded and formed on the Anglo-Saxon model) are psychopathic beasts running rampantly out of control. Bakan is a law professor though and his core argument is by no mean simplistic and lies in the analysis of legal situation.
Despite the author's being a law scholar, the book is not a dry treaty, it's a popular book written for a mass readership and if anything can be accused of being bit to simple rather than overtly complicated. It is, essentially, a book with one pivotal thesis: fundamentally and inherently, corporations are psychopathic and cannot be any other way. Regardless of the moral values of the people who run any individual company, corporations' sole and whole purpose is to maximise profits for their owners. They are legally obliged to do so with disregard to anybody else's interest, unless taking into account such interest is beneficial to the bottom line.
This main thesis is repeated throughout (maybe even too often); the rest is an analysis of examples and consequences. Big names from both sides of the divide appear frequently (from No-Logo Naomi Klein to Milton Friedman himself) and examples of corporate good deeds and misdemeanours are described and analysed.
Corporations would like us to believe that they could be trusted to behave in a socially responsible way and work for the public good: that the tyranny could be benevolent. And of course, some do, and some work for the public good, sometimes. But, as Bakan argues, it can be only done in service of the profits and thus cannot be relied upon. It would be illegal, or even, as Milton Friedman claims, immoral, for corporations to behave otherwise.
Corporations would also like us to believe that we can rely on self-regulation and market pressure from consumer and shareholders in order to keep them in check and that the democratic control and government regulation is unnecessary. That corporations should be the partners of the government. This notion is so ubiquitous now that it's not often argued with, but Bakan questions it and a very valid point he makes. The notion of partnership suggest equal rights: but democratically elected government and corporations are not equal. The government which, has to be remembered, creates the corporate entity also controls it and has the power to invoke its charter.
The weakness of the government is illusory: the governments are not weak, they simply are playing more and more on the corporate side. The power has been redistributed towards protecting the interests of corporations and not the interest of the public. The state still regulates the corporations, but more in the corporations' interest. But it doesn't have to be this way.
The democratic process, however ailing, is still the best and pretty much the only (bar outright revolution) way we - we The People - can attempt to exert any control over corporations. The way forward is to change the legal mandate of the corporation, building in regard for other stakeholders. This has to be supported by external regulations and control, enforceable and enforced. To make it work, the political process should be made more truly democratic and less reliant corporate financing.
After all corporations are our creations. The have no lives, no capacities, no powers beyond what we, through our governments, give them.
I liked The Corporation a lot. It makes an incredibly valid point and it makes it in a lucid, clear, well argumented but by no means boring way. There are plenty of case stories and interviews, personal asides and anecdotes as well as solid research an scholarship.
But its simplicity is also one of the problems with "The Corporation". It is a one-idea book and although therein lies its strength it can seem almost monomaniac in its endless repetitions of the mantra.
A bigger problem, at least for a non-American reader is in the fact that Bakan concerns himself exclusively with the Anglo-American model of corporate business. He doesn't look to how things can be done - are done - in other countries, especially countries where the European social model of capitalism operates, like Sweden and Germany. I am not entirely sure if I am correct, but I believe that for example German corporations have a legal duty to uphold interests of other stakeholders. It would be interesting, and would probably strengthen the argument if examples of existing solutions could be explored.
And lastly, the book is a little bit too populist in some of its examples to my taste. This opens it to criticism from nit-pickers 'from the other side' and could have been avoided. Thimerosal (a vaccine preservative that, allegedly, could be causing autism in children) is mentioned even though as far as I know there is absolutely no scientific basis for those claims and autism is a congenital condition. And the advertisements for junk food and alleged obesity epidemic also get a rather long treatment in a portrayal of poor parents insidiously manipulated into first letting their children watch TV for hours and then providing the advertised products in quantities that become detrimental to their health.
Regardless of the above, "The Corporation" in both its printed and televised formats comes highly recommended. Better than Michael Moore and less highbrow than Chomsky, Bakan will make you think and possibly even persuade to do something.
This book belongs to the same stable of books as Naomi Klein's No Logo, Noreena Hertz's The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy and reviewed here George Monbiot's Captive State.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.