Tag Archives: Corporations

The New Corporation: Joel Bakan interview

The New Corporation: Joel Bakan interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 March 2021

Published in 2004 alongside the 2003 film documentary of the same name, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power was a timely and influential critique of the central institution of contemporary capitalism.

Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has now published a sequel – The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy. And, true to form, he has also co-directed a documentary based on his new book. Ian Sinclair asked Bakan about his book, whether corporations have really changed and what concerned citizens can do about corporate power.

Ian Sinclair: In your 2004 book and 2003 documentary you argued corporations, as institutions, are imbued with the character traits of a human psychopath. What is the central argument of your new book? 

Joel Bakan: Shortly after that book and film were released, companies began making sweeping commitments to social and environmental good. One hundred percent carbon neutrality, zero waste to landfills, 100% recycling, moves to renewables, proclamations about inequality and climate change, cascades of corporate programmes designed to help people in need and promote sustainability – all promises signaling that companies were now part of the solution, no longer the problem. It was as though they were saying, “we’re not psychopaths anymore; we’re good actors now, caring and conscientious,” a clear rebuttal to my earlier charge. I felt I needed to answer that – not least because these ideas would soon define big business’ overarching ethos, and also bring everyone else, including many progressive people, under their spell. This project is my answer.

I argue that the apparent turn to good – the ‘new corporation movement’, as I describe it – is animated by corporations’ discovery of something human psychopaths have known all along: a sheen of charm works better than overt skulduggery. Commitments by companies to social responsibility and sustainability, along with pious claims to be conscientious and caring, create a sheen that, in turn, hides their legally-imbued self-interested character. It’s not that that character necessarily bars companies from doing good. But it does limit the kinds of good they can do to what will help them do well – a profound limit – while also requiring they do bad when that, rather than doing good, is the best way to do well. No one in business denies any of this. None say social and environmental values should trump financial ones. Rather, what they say is that companies should, when possible, leverage the former to serve the latter. Hardly a road to the New Jerusalem.

IS: Can you give a couple of examples of how these “new” corporations act in contradiction to their socially conscious public rhetoric? 

JB: Here are some examples from the book. British Petroleum’s criminal negligence leading to the Deepwater Horizon disaster is juxtaposed to the company’s green branding. Volkswagen’s emissions scandal is compared to its reputation as an environmental leader while the scandal was unfolding but hidden. Honeywell’s boast that its manufacturing plants are super-sustainable is set against the company’s weapon-making, including nuclear weapons, inside those sustainable plants. British American Tobacco’s claim its tobacco fields are biodiverse is set against its use of those fields to make a product that kills people and makes them ill. Google’s vaunted use of renewable energy is compared to the fact it helps fossil fuel companies boost production with its Artificial Intelligence. And fossil fuel companies’ commitments to the Paris climate accord are contrasted to their intensive lobbying to ensure it imposed few real constraints on them, and contained no mandatory enforcement mechanisms. 

What these and other stories show is that while it is true corporations pursue social and environmental goals, and sometimes do some good, they necessarily pursue those goals within limits created by the legal imperative to serve self-interest. And those limits – in marked contrast to the limitless possibilities for goodness conjured by corporate marketing and public relations campaigns – are, as noted, profound.

IS: What do you mean by the book’s subtitle “How ‘good’ corporations are bad for democracy”? 

JB: Many, including some on the left, acknowledge the kinds of corporate deceptions and limits I talk about. But they say in response: “Isn’t it at least better than nothing that corporations try to do some good, and sometimes succeed?” My answer is “no”. It’s worse than nothing. And that’s because the notion that corporations can be good actors, along with the entire new corporation movement it animates, is part of a worrying ideological trope. It suggests that, because corporations are good now, we should welcome, not resist, their increasing power, impunity, and control over society; we should trust them to regulate themselves, to run our schools and water systems, to partner with democratic governments, rather than be subject to their sovereignty. That is why the new corporation’s charm offensive is not just deceptive, but dangerous. It puts a smiling face on all of neoliberalism, not only on the corporations operating within it.

This all became clear to me during a visit to the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos (which plays a central role in the book and film). There I spoke with many new corporation leaders, none more candid than Richard Edelman, one of the world’s top business gurus. Corporations have become “good actors,” he told me, “agents of change” ready to “fill a void” left by retreating governments. “I’m not much of a believer in political citizenship,” he continued. “I actually believe much more in the power of the marketplace.” I found chilling this casual dismissal of “political citizenship” (in other words, democracy) in favour of markets – and all the more so for reflecting (as was confirmed during my further wanderings around Davos) a core belief among new corporation advocates, the supposed ‘good guys’ of capitalism, that because corporations are now publicly-minded, ready to take the lead on social and environmental issues, governments can, and should, retreat from doing the same. Which helps explain how new corporations can both celebrate social and environmental values while, at the same time, lobbying vociferously against governments’ efforts to protect those very values through regulation and programmes designed to foster equality, justice and the public good. 

IS: In terms of how concerned citizens should respond to corporate power, you argue “protest is not enough”. What do you propose? 

JB: My book and film end on a note of hope, showing how people around the world are working and fighting for deeper ideals of democracy, of justice, of planetary survival – sometimes with and through governments, other times against and outside of them. The Black Lives Matter protests, uprisings against autocratic rule in eastern Europe, climate protests by school children, indigenous struggles against colonialism, experiments in participatory democracy – these are some of the stories I feature, and that give me hope. I also argue that though the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and injustices (a dynamic I explore throughout the book), there are some signs of hope in how, at least to some extent, people’s responses to it exhibit counter-neoliberal sensibilities of humanism and the importance of collective endeavor.

But you’re quite right, I also argue protest is not enough, while insisting it is often necessary. Because corporations are created and enabled by government and the state, as are the market systems they plie for profit, I argue, challenging their power and impunity must happen from within state institutions as well as from outside. I feature in the book and film progressive movements that have sought this kind of political presence within the state, and show how their work is aimed not only at getting a place within existing democratic institutions, but also, once there, deepening the democratic character of those institutions. The latter aim, I argue, requires at a minimum bringing the social into democracy. Political democracy cannot exist in any real way without a foundation of social equality and justice. It’s the growing separation between these two realms, the social and political, that now threatens democracy so profoundly. That (along with many other things) needs to change, and there are signs – which I point to in my book and film – that it just might.

The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy is published by Vintage.

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel documentary is playing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival from 18-26 March on Barbican Cinema On Demand. Joel Bakan and co-director Jennifer Abbott will take part in a Live Zoom ScreenTalk about their film on Sunday 21 March at 5pm. Buy tickets here: https://ff.hrw.org/london

Book review. The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy by Joel Bakan

Book review. The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad For Democracy by Joel Bakan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News

August-September 2021

Published in 2004 alongside the film documentary of the same name, Joel Bakan’s The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power was a timely and influential assault on the central institution of contemporary capitalism.

Bakan has now written a sequel, a response to the ‘trend of corporations claiming to be different, to have changed into caring and conscientious actors – ready to lead the way in solving society’s problems.’ This shift is, it seems, a reaction to public concern, with Larry Fink from investment management firm BlackRock writing to business leaders in 2018 to tell them ‘Society is demanding that companies serve a social purpose.’

Bakan, Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, is having none of it. ‘Making money for themselves and their shareholders remains their top priority’, he notes about these ‘new’ corporations. ‘So while they might care about social and environmental values, they care only to the point such caring might cut into profits.’

Despite their progressive-sounding public rhetoric these profit-seeking entities fight against ‘policies aimed to promote social welfare’ including workers’ rights and unions, taxes on wealth and regulations that restrict the power of big business to rule the world.

Bakan weaves numerous shocking examples of corporate malfeasance into the book, including Volkswagen fitting a ‘defeat device’ in diesel engine cars sold in the US that detected when they were being tested and changed the environmental performance to improve results. Elsewhere he highlights how Johnson & Johnson were caught hiding from consumers and regulators the fact some of its products used by children included harmful materials.

With corporate influence weakening democratic institutions, Bakan’s solution is more and deeper democracy – to ‘expand the floor of the cage’, as Noam Chomsky says. ‘Protest is not enough’, Baken argues. ‘Electoral movements are needed to put sovereign power behind the values and energy people express in the streets’. He highlights the successes two municipal politicians have had in taming corporate power – activist turned Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, and Seattle City Council Kshama Sawant, who was re-elected in 2019 despite a multimillion dollar lobbying effort from Amazon.

Though perhaps not as hard-hitting or revelatory as his 2004 book, The New Corporation is nevertheless a hugely important polemic. Written in an accessible journalistic style, with plenty of footnotes for those wishing to investigate further, it could be a valuable and inspiring campaigning tool for both experienced anti-corporation activists and those new to the topic.

Book review. ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’ by Arundhati Roy

Book review. ‘Capitalism: A Ghost Story’ by Arundhati Roy
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August – September 2015

Indian writer and dissident Arundhati Roy’s work has long embodied John Pilger’s belief that a journalist should be ‘an agent of ordinary people, not of those who seek to control them.’ Scathing and lucid, the slim Capitalism: A Ghost Story, is no exception.

Made up of seven short, accessible essays, Roy deftly skewers the hypocrisy and rapacious nature of India’s elite, highlighting the extreme inequality and poverty, corruption and subjugation that are endemic in ‘The World’s Largest Democracy’.

The book’s first section explains how the influence of big business has neutered many NGOs and charities working in the Global South. For Roy, this corporate patronage is all about ‘turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists… luring them away from radical confrontation’.

Elsewhere Roy slays several liberal sacred cows including Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, the Gates Foundation, and Muhammad Yunus’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning micro-finance initiative, the Grameen Bank.

She peppers her denunciations with shocking facts. For example, the richest 100 Indians own assets equivalent to a quarter of the nation’s GDP, while 80 percent of Indians live on less than 50 US cents a day.

Meanwhile, in the central state of Chhattisgarh, a government-organised militia has burned, raped and murdered its way across hundreds of villages, forcing 50,000 people into police camps and 350,000 people to flee.

Those, like this reviewer, who are unfamiliar with India will wish that a map had been provided. A glossary explaining Indian terms, place names and people would also be very useful.

However, these are small criticisms of a fascinating primer on contemporary India, a country whose importance in global affairs will only grow in the years ahead. With many non-US progressives seemingly more knowledgeable about the actions of the US than their home nations, Roy’s book is a timely reminder that many people’s focus of concern is back to front.

Capitalism: A Ghost Story is published by Verso, priced £7.99.

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
November 2013

The UK has a growing obesity problem. According to the annual Health Survey for England in 1980 6 per cent of men were obese – that is they had a Body Mass Index of over 30. By 1993 this had more than doubled to 13.2 per cent and by 2011 23.6 per cent of men were obese. The medical problems associated with obesity are well known – Type 2 Diabetes, Coronary Heart Disease, hypertension, respiratory problems, stroke and certain cancers. The Government’s 2007 landmark Foresight report estimates that by 2050 obesity and being overweight could cost the NHS £9.7 billion, with the wider cost to society estimated at £49.9 billion.

So who or what is to blame for the rise in obesity? “Ultimately it comes down to will”, argued Eastern Daily Press columnist Steve Downes recently. “What can society do to change people’s habits? Nothing, really.” You might expect the author of the best-selling memoir My Mad Fat Teenage Diary to have a wider lens of analysis. If so you’d be wrong. Writing in The Guardian last month Rae Earl noted people are often obese because of “deep-rooted psychological factors.” As adults, Earl concluded, “our weight is our personal responsibility.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on Downes and Earl – they are simply repeating popular arguments that blame obesity on the individual. As a 2010 article in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs explains “studies demonstrate repeatedly that judgments about obesity are linked to values of individualism, self-determination, political conservativism, and secular morality.”

There are many problems with focussing on individual behaviour when discussing obesity. First, a culture that points the finger at individuals can stigmatise, leading to bullying, discrimination and mental health problems such as depression. Research shows overweight patients sometimes delay visiting the doctor because of fear of embarrassment or judgment. Second, blaming personal choices does not help to explain obesity levels when one considers obesity has substantially increased since the 1970s and its prevalence differs considerably across national borders and social classes.

As the Foresight report notes “People in the UK today don’t have less willpower and are not more glutoness than previous generations.” And, I would add, British people are not lazier than many of their less obese European neighbours, and middle-class people do not take more personal responsibility than generally heavier working-class people. Discussing the Foresight report, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government Sir David King notes “individuals have much less choice in the matter of their weight than they would assume”. This is especially true for the poorest members of society, who tend to have much less control and choice over how they live their lives. So rather than obesity being down to personal willpower the Foresight report explains society “has radically altered over the past five decades with major changes in work patterns, transport, food production and food sales.” These changes have resulted in what experts call an “obesogenic environment”, where the political and economic structures of society end up actually encouraging obesity among the population

Some of these societal shifts include: a huge increase in the availability and affordability of calorie-dense but nutrient-poor processed foods; an increase in private car use and a corresponding decrease in the level of cycling and walking; the selling off of school playing fields; a lax planning system that has led to out-of-town supermarkets and fast food outlets being placed close to schools; healthy food ‘deserts’ in poor areas. In addition there has been a massive increase in the level of food advertising. With the UK having the dubious distinction of being the advertising capital of Europe, Food Analyst Cindy van Rijswick notes “the impact of promotions, advertising and marketing from the processed food industry is higher than in other countries.”

Arguably, many of these causes can be traced back to the neoliberal turn the country took with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the pro-business and individualistic rhetoric and policies that followed. In a letter to The Guardian earlier this year, the Secretary of The Equality Trust explained that research “shows more people are obese in more unequal countries”. And sure enough the US, UK and Australia – arguably the three Western nations where the grip of neoliberal thinking is strongest – have some of the highest levels of obesity in the Western world.

If an individualistic analysis can’t explain the rise in obesity, it’s unlikely to be useful in solving the problem either. In fact personalising the problem makes solving the crisis harder, according to Dr Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University: “As long as we have this belief that obese people are lazy and lacking in discipline, it will be hard to get support for policies that change the environment, which are likely to have a much larger impact than trying to change individuals”.

So if the rise in obesity is due to a wholesale transformation of society, then the solutions will also have to be on the same scale – led by strong government action. Radically changing the transport system so it discourages private car use and builds infrastructure to encourage cycling and walking would be a first step. The planning system needs to be altered so it encourages health living, rather than working to maximise profits for the food industry. Advertising of unhealthy foods, especially to children, needs to be highly regulated as it is in Sweden where TV advertising aimed at children under 12 has been banned since 1991. And taxes could be levelled on unhealthy foods, as Mexico is about to do.

All this, of course, would require the Government to take on corporate power. However, Professor Tim Lang and Dr Geof Rayner from the Centre for Food Policy at City University point out “there is a powerful temptation in Government to limit actions to a choice-based, personalization approach, in part because this style of intervention is aligned to the commercial sector’s own customer management and marketing methods.”

Indeed corporate influence on Government policy is so great that in 2010 The Guardian made the eye-popping revelation that “The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald’s and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity.”

“Either you have democracy or you have private power – you can’t have both”, wrote Robert Newman in his 2003 novel The Fountain At The Centre Of The World. I’d like to amend Newman’s wise words in terms of obesity: Either you have a healthy population or you have private power – you can’t have both.