Blog, Joel Bakan

Discussing the “Charming” Psychopathy of Corporations with Filmmaker Joel Bakan

By Izzy Almasi 

What do you think of when you hear the word “psychopath?” Is it Norman Bates dressed in his darling mother’s clothes? Perhaps it’s Christian Bale’s handsome face spattered with blood in American Psycho. I’m sure the logo of a large corporation like Nike or Apple wasn’t the first image to pop into your head.

Joel Bakan, the world-famous filmmaker, lawyer, author and esteemed jazz guitarist, has made it his mission to reveal the true psychopathy and dangers of large corporations fed by capitalist pursuits in his latest film The New Corporation.

“We were learning about corporations and we were learning that they were persons, that the law sort of created them, constituted them, recognized them as these artificial beings,” says Bakan in a recent Zoom interview with Skaana podcast host Mark Leiren-Young. “We create this person. And then we imbue it with a personality that says it can only act in its own self-interest. It can’t act in ways that care for others, or for the environment, or for nature, or nonhuman animals, or any of that. It always has to act in its own self-interest. And what is that self-interest, basically? The collective financial interests of the shareholders that constitute the corporation.”

Bakan’s 2003 documentary The Corporation, which won 26 international awards including an Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival, and was based on his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, reveals the corruption, exploitation, and interference in democracy that came as a result of the rise of the contemporary corporation.

Now at the start of 2021, not only is the film more relevant than ever, but the events of the last decade have unfortunately warranted a documentary sequel, The New Corporation, based on his 2020 book The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations are Bad for Democracy.

“Here we are, ten years out from [The Corporation] and every single thing that the film addressed — climate change, species extinction, the rise of anti-democratic movements. I mean, everything — inequality, racial, economic inequality, colonialism. Every single issue has gotten worse,” says Bakan.

Bakan identifies a variety of issues that give corporations the power to get away with various crimes, misdemeanors and violations of democracy. It is not only the sheer magnitude of these companies that imbue them with such power, but the recognition of their “personhood” within the eyes of the law.

“The law says what a human being is, all that we recognize [the human being] as a subject of law,” says Bakan. “Sometimes we take large groups of human beings and say, ‘They’re not human beings for the purpose of law.’ And then sometimes we take non-human beings and say, ‘They are persons for the purpose of law.’ And that’s what we do with corporations. And the reason we do that is because capitalism requires that.”

But Bakan maintains hope for the future. The continued efforts of climate strikes, social justice movements, and the presence of progressive politicians in positions of power, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, and Senator Bernie Sanders, signals a shift from grassroots activism to exercises in democracy that can wield real change.

“What we’re seeing, I think, is a rediscovery of democratic ‘large P’ politics as something that activists should be doing and need to be doing,” says Bakan. “Not just occupying the streets, not just occupying the squares of cities, but actually occupying the institutions of government and bringing into those institutions values that belie the sort of hegemony of economic and corporate values that have built up and deepened over the last 40 years.”

To listen to the full interview, head to Spotifywww.skaana.orgApple Podcasts, or Stitcher. For more information about The New Corporation, Bakan’s books and his work, check out his website. Be sure to read his 2020 article in The Globe and Mailand follow him on Twitter (@joelbakan).

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Help us make waves for the SRKW!

The New Corporation writer, Joel Bakan, on Personhood, Psychopaths and Why the World Won’t be Saved by “Nice Corporations.”