the first half of the transcript of my interview with Joel Bakan, creator of THE CORPORATION-- a must see movie that documents how corporations operate like psychopaths.
link to audio podcast.
Thanks to Dick Overfield for transcript checking
R.K.: And welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio show WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township, New Jersey reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey. Online at iTunes. Look for my name, Rob Kall, K-AL-L or go to opednews.com/podcasts and you can find hundreds of interviews there.
My guest tonight is Joel Bakan. He is a professor at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law. He studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and served as Law Clerk in 1985 for Chief Justice Brian Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada. He wrote the book and created the movie, The Corporation:The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, one of the most successful documentaries ever produced. The most successful one ever produced in Canada. And more recently he is the author of, Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children. Welcome to the show.
J.B.: Thanks for having me on, Rob.
R.K.: It's a pleasure. You have done such an important work. I know it's been years ago, but can you" the book and "The Corporation" movie, it seems that both the books you've done and the movie are very related. Can you describe the message of both of them, briefly and we can jump into some newer stuff?
J.B.: Well, I suppose the message is that we have created an institution that is, if you were to analogize it to a human being, would be psychopathic in terms of its character and then we've given it increasing amounts of power to the point where arguably it now plays a substantial role in governing society and in governing those who allegedly govern us.
So, it's really an attempt to reveal that; to challenge notions that corporations are benevolent or socially responsible at their core and to just suggest that we the people need to reestablish, or establish control of these institutions so that they can't sort of willy-nilly trod upon public goods.
R.K.: And how about your newer book, Childhood Under Siege?
J.B.: Well, I suppose, related to what I just said, the one public good that's quite important is that of childhood and that of the well being and health of our children. And in "The Corporation" I look at that albeit as sort of a one part of one chapter. And as I was writing, The Corporation, I was also-I have a couple of young kids- and I started to become really interested in that and I thought as I was doing, The Corportation, this is something I want to return to and do a fuller treatment of. So I wrote this last book which basically is a vastly expanded look at that issue of what happens when we let this psychopathic institution loose on those who are most vulnerable among us, namely our children.
I look at the issues that are important these days, marketing to kids, pharmaceuticals, the pharmaceutical industry and how it targets kids, the unique vulnerabilities of kids to environmental toxins, the corporatization of our school system, the re-emergence of child labor in the United States and in Canada. So those are sort of the range of issues I look at.
R.K.: Okay. So you did the movie, "The Corporation," ten years ago. Actually longer, it actually came out I think in 2003. What have you learned since then and how is your thinking changed? Do you see things as better or worse?
J.B.: I have learned the project was a massive failure if measured from the perspective of trying to change the course that we sort of identified our society was on because our society has continued on that course and I think things have in many ways become worse. I mean, if worse is defined by corporations having a more substantial role in governing society then things have become worse because they do.
And they do in part because of the successful ideological move that the corporate sector and industry have made which is to convince, I think, a broad swath of public thinking, and certainly thinking among governments, that corporations are, in fact, benevolent. So, the central message of our film about the institutional character of corporations seems not to have much of an impact, at least on the broader society.
At the same time, and I am forever an optimist, I understand your show is based on an optimistic premise that our society is becoming more bottom up and at the same time I do remain optimistic that people, both individually and collectively, eventually can see through the ideological charades that are put before them. I think the Occupy movement was a great example of that.
I think a smaller movement here and there and increasing dissatisfaction with the way things are on main streets and small cities" I mean we are seeing indications in many different places and many different ways that the corporate agenda is starting to be seen for what it is and that people are starting to believe they need to do something about it. That is because I think it's related to some of what has happened since "The Corporation" film and book. There is a wide-spread view among economic and political elites that capitalism has triumphed and that we're at the end of history. That this is" we've tried socialism, we've tried all these other things, but now we have finally reached the system that is going to be with us for all time.
And, you know, that's" every sort of power system has basically conveyed the same idea. They always believe that they are there forever and for all time. And it is usually at that moment, when they are the most arrogant about their power that they are the most vulnerable and history shows that time and time again.
And in some ways I feel that corporate capitalism is at that moment. I don't know how or when things will unfold in a way that begins to substantially challenge it, but I do feel that it is on shaky ground even as it declares ultimate triumph.
R.K.: What do you see as answers to the psychopathic corporation and to corporate capitalism in the malignant form that you have described in your movie?
J.B.: Well, I think you know the short answer is democracy. I think the"it'll take a long time and much controversy to unpack exactly what that means, but if we look at how that question was answered going back to Roosevelt and the New Deal in the United States, they were asking the same question. And the answer they gave is we need to create a system and, yes, it had it's flaws and problems and it wasn't perfect, but we need to create a system that enables the public, the people through their democratic institutions to basically hedge in, fence in, constrain, incentivize this institution to do less harm and do more good.
So accepting the premise that the corporation as an institution is particularly good at organizing large projects, whether it's building railways, or steam ships-as it was at the turn of the century when the corporation came into existence- or creating networks of computers, whatever it happens to be, let's just assume for the sake of argument it can do some things fairly well. So then the question is, and this was the question that was answered by Roosevelt: how much are we prepared to allow it to externalize its various costs on to society as it does these things that they supposedly do well?
Are we prepared to allow it to exploit workers to the point where they have no say in their"? No, we're not! So let's pass some laws that legalize collective bargaining and that create a system of collective bargaining and that legitimate unions. And, you know, the same thing we can look at unfolding over the century with environmental protection, consumer protection. So that's how the question was answered before.
And one answer that I offer, which is effectively the answer I offer, in the last chapter of, The Corporation, is: let's return to that project. Let's return to the project of trying to create public constraints on corporations to ensure that they do less harm and that the good they do isn't at the expense of a lot of harm.
Let's see them as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. And let's treat them in those terms and let's see our sovereign democratic government as being their handlers rather than those who are being handled by them. So it's really a kind of almost a reactionary argument. It's saying: let's go back to the project that we were building beginning in the 1930's and let's continue that project.
Other people have much more radical solutions- let's get rid of the corporation, let's do this, let's do that. I tend to be a very pragmatic thinker and I'm interested in what I can do tomorrow. So I'm very involved in my country and Canada with political parties. I am not out in the streets, but I am" I work with the progressive political party to try to get them elected and try to bring about these kinds of changes.
So my analysis might be quite radical. My solutions are, I think. We can take our existing democratic institutions and reclaim them and reorient them to do what they're supposed to do.
So, I would have arguments with the Occupy people and my basic argument was: it's not enough to Occupy the streets, we have to Occupy our government. That's what we're supposed to be doing in a democracy because they've been occupied by an alien force, namely the corporation. So we have to take them back.
R.K.: Yeah, well, that was my next question. Government has become more and more corporatized with more and more appointees coming from corporations with massive conflicts of interest. Do you still see government as the primary answer? It sounds like you do. And are there alternative solutions as well outside of government?
J.B.: I am a constitutional lawyer as well as a commercial lawyer and I have, you know" I studied my American constitutional law at Harvard. I am quite familiar with the US Constitution and, when I look at the US Constitution, I say this is a pretty good system. This is a pretty good system of checks and balances, both in terms of what happens within state and federal government and what happens between state and federal government- not a bad system.
If I were sitting down to draw up a system, this is" I could see myself coming up with this one. The problem is it's been hijacked as you point out. And so the question then becomes: what do we do about that? Do we try to get it back and make it work in accordance with the principles it was supposed to work with, or do we operate outside of it and try to create something different? And the problem with the latter approach, I guess, is that it leaves people without very much tangible in terms of a strategy to latch onto.
So yes, we can go into the streets and we can protest, but ultimately when we're doing that, we're doing that in order to try to get government to do something differently. You know, we can engage in" and I'm certainly not suggesting this, I don't think it's a good idea"armed struggle would be, you know" what do we do if we're not trying to make government work? Because basically the state is responsible for" I mean it's responsible for enforcing property rights, contract rights, for taxing. How can we just make it go away and come up with something else?
Or could we come from the bottom up and make it work the way it's supposed to work. And I'm not saying that's easy, but it strikes me as easier and more realistic than trying to work outside of it.
R.K.: So what kind of changes do you feel" given how corporatized government and the electoral process has become, what kind of changes do you feel are needed?
J.B.: Well to de-corporatize it. So I, for example, am involved in a political party in Canada that is, you know, that has a very" I guess what would be called a left agenda. And I am interested in sort of both pushing it to adopt good policies and also trying to get it into governmental power. I think that, in many different ways, across the United States you have groups that are working to try to de-corporatize.
You have many, many groups, for example, that work to get their city governments to pass resolutions supporting overturning the Citizens United case with a constitutional amendment. So far that hasn't been successful, but it created a mass public movement. It mobilized people to do something. And you've got communities that, in terms of the "Childhood" book, you've got communities that are working hard to" it seems like a small thing, but it has mass effect- get Coke machines out of the hallways of their schools.
So at the local level you have people operating as citizens and trying to do something and even at the federal level, I mean, you do" the person who has the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, David Michaels, has fabulous ideas about regulations. He was a very, very progressive epidemiologist before he was in his position. So you know there are people who want to do things.
I think if there was a massive" if every citizen in the United States took seriously their responsibilities as citizens and actually became involved in democratic politics as much as they are able, I think a lot could happen and would happen. And maybe I am naïve, but you know" so when I think of bottom up I think of the people actually reclaiming their rightful role and responsibility in a democracy, nothing more radical than that and I think that would make the world a much better place.
R.K.: It's certainly is a good thing, but it's kind of a vague idea.
J.B.: It's a vague idea to" bottom up is a vague idea, too. It's vague and"
R.K.: Fair enough.
J.B.: And I can tell you what I do concretely on a daily basis"
R.K.: Tell me!
J.B.: As I said, I write. I try to educate the public. I am involved in various kinds of non-governmental organizations, in particular, some unions, and I am involved quite substantially in a political party, The New Democratic Party in Canada (NDP), which is the official opposition federally. And you know, it's historically part of the Socialist International. It's a progressive political party and I believe my time as a citizen is best spent trying to get that party elected and trying to help it maintain it's momentum in being a critical voice in Canadian politics. So that's what I do.
R.K.: Okay. So are there people who have been in touch with who have seen the movie and been inspired by it who stand out as taking positive actions?
J.B.: Yeah. It's really one of the most gratifying sort of aspects of that film that I occasionally get the email and, I am sure there are many anecdotal stories out there than the ones I hear, but somebody says: I saw your film, or I read your book and it changed the way I think about these things; and, you know, I was on my way to becoming a chartered accountant and I just completely changed my career course and I am now working for Move-On, or some other organization. And, you know, that is very gratifying to me. It is hard for me to gauge in a less anecdotal more empirical way what the effect of the work has been, but as I said at the outset, it clearly hasn't changed the world because the issues that we addressed have not progressed in a positive way.
R.K.: Others have written about how different inventions have changed human cultures, even the way people think and perceive, particularly the invention of writing, printing, the Gutenberg Press. What about the corporation? Do you see ways that the existence of corporations has changed the way that people see, think; the way the culture functions?
J.B.: Yes, that's a great question. That's a really interesting point. The corporation itself was a product of inventions, namely the invention of the steam engine which led to the possibility of creating large scale industry be it large factories, or in particular railroads were very much a precipitating factor. And once you had these large entities you needed more money to fund them and finance then than you could get from existing business forms, namely the partnership.
And so the corporation was actually invented to be a financing vehicle for large industry that in turn was made possible through the invention of the steam engine. And then, once the corporation was invented, yes, it had a profound impact on our society. And what I am tracing in" to kind of try to put this in a nutshell,what I am tracing in my current work is how the operating principles of the corporation, which I identified as psychopathic in the corporation, have now in effect become the operating principles of our society as a whole.
So that the corporation is no longer just an institution within our society, but we are becoming, or have become, a corporate society. One that has, in effect, adopted those narrowly self-interested operating principles to define what we're supposed to be doing as a society, to create a kind of hyper individualism, to corrode any sense of collective, or solidaristic ties among us, to suggest that there are no values anymore. There is only value.
There is only economic value. That's all that matters. So when we actually" I mean, if you were able to go up 33,000 feet, or to another planet and look down on the Earth and say: what makes those people tick? What makes those societies operate? What is the kind of presumption, what are the principles that they operate in accordance with? We would see principles and presumptions that are remarkably similar to those that basically are at the heart of the corporation as an invention.
So I do think that you know the answer to your question is: yes, the corporation as an invention has had a profound effect on us. And the reasons for its ability to do that have to do with, again, its operating principles are ones that say it always has to profit, it always has to grow, it always has to get bigger, more powerful, and more profitable. That's part of its DNA. That's part of its operating code.
And that is exactly what it's done over the last hundred years of its history. It's gone from a fairly insignificant institution in the middle of the nineteenth century to a very significant one in the middle of the twentieth century; to a dominant one that is dominating us, not just in real terms, but in ideological terms as well, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
R.K.: Now, evil, the kind of evil that psychopaths perpetrate, it's been around for a long time. But I wonder, now going along these lines, if the existence and the growth of the corporation hasn't increased the presence of psychopaths and psychopathic individual behavior among us.
J.B.: Yeah, I think, when I spoke with Robert Hare, who is sort of the world's leading experts on psychopaths, and I said: we all engage in psychopathic behavior. And he said to me: No. No, that's not true; either you are a psychopath, or you're not. But I am not sure I actually agree with that because the way that I see the corporation is that what it does within it is to suggest that when you're within its normative structure, it is okay to act in a psychopathic way.
So you may be the nicest person in the world, and you may be really a great husband and father, and whatever. And then, you go to work in the corporation and you're working for a video game company and you're job is not to be nice, your job is institutionally defined as making decisions that will sell product and so you decide that it's good to ramp up the violent content of a game that is being aimed at a nine year old kid, even though you wouldn't allow your own nine year old son, or daughter to look at that game. In your capacity as a corporate executive, that's okay. So that the incentives, the rewards, the punishment, the very keeping of your job in a corporation at the level of senior management requires you to do things that as a person you may not find right and requires the ability" so it does, I think, increase psychopathic behavior.
And there are people who do this kind of work, including Robert Hare who look, not like I did at the institution itself, but look at Wall Street from a psychological perspective and the way that the whole system of corporate incentives and rewards and punishment basically makes people more psychopathic. It encourages them to engage in psychopathic behavior.
And I think if you follow the line of thinking that I was involved" that I stated before, namely that the values of the corporation are now becoming more pervasive across institutions and society, within society itself, then it follows logically that we're creating a society that is effectively normalizing a kind of hyper, self-interested approach to life that arguably borders on, if not is psychopathic.
R.K.: So, what are some of the operating principles of corporations that have become operating principles of our society as a whole? Are there particular corporate principles, or values that are the most strongly" are becoming more and more strongly represented among individuals and in our culture?
J.B.: Yeah, I think there are two and the main one is that, when you look at the legal constitution of the corporation, the corporations are legally required always to act in their own best interest. So that's what the law says. And what that means is that self interest is effectively made an over-riding goal for the corporation and it's not by good choice of a manager, or an executive. That is what the legal obligation is- that his or her decisions have to be justified as prioritizing and elevating the self-interest of the company over every other interest be it the environment, be it children, the health of workers, whatever.
And so that's where I drew the analogy with a psychopath. It's that the definition of a psychopath is that they are unable to feel concern for others, that they see social conventions as things to strategize around rather than to internalize. You know that they don't feel equally. They don't feel obliged, morally to obey the law. They'll simply obey it if they fear getting caught. Everything is referenced back to their self interest and their inability to be concerned for others.
And, as a legal fact, that is how corporations are required to operate and that's not some kind of radical or crazy idea. If you ask" go down to Wall Street, or any where else, and ask your top corporate lawyers: what is the central operating principle of a corporation? They'll say: well, managers and directors always have to act in the best interest of the company. So that's just a legal fact. So that's one principle that I think is expanding beyond the corporation and governing our society. More generally, when you look at"
J.B.: Oh! How?"so, I was going to say, when you look at our different institutions, our civil institutions, let's say, science or education, if you look at those two areas, you'll see increasingly the question is no longer that that scientist ask" is no longer what is in the public good. Scientists are increasingly not working in the public domain, but they're working private domains and their primary concern is really to advance the interests of the company they work for, or to advance their own interest.
So this idea of science as this public good has very much been shattered into a bunch of individual pieces. Science is now about the individual self interests of the scientists, of the companies that are funding it, and so on and so forth. You look at education, you see the same thing. That we're moving through a period where increasingly we're seeing for-profit companies running schools. We're seeing schools being run on the basis solely of how can we produce workers for the globalized economy.
The whole notion of other values, that we're trying to develop the hearts and souls and minds of students, that we're trying to provide a liberal education that will enable them to think critically, and act as citizens in our democratic society, that's all kind of- oh, yeah, that's all fine and good, but really, what we're concerned about is that they can get a job, some low paying, low skilled job within our globalized economy.
Or a high skilled job, but it's all about their self interest as individuals in the economy and the economy's self interest in having trained workers. It's no longer about all of these other values. And you can do this, you know, across the board. I mean, whatever culture, same thing. Arts-same thing.
R.K.: Now wait, wait! How is it the same for culture? How is it the same for arts? I want to"you're a good thinker. I want to get into how you see this in culture and arts.
part two of the transcript coming on Tuesday morning, June 17.