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Capitalist Offenses

Flick Chick


Published August 18, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

People who came away from Fahrenheit 9/11 in tears might need to visit a therapist after seeing another documentary that cuts even deeper. Among other things, Michael Moore's box-office hit criticizes the corruption of our economic system under the Bush-Cheney regime. The Corporation, now playing at the Roxy in Burlington and coming soon to the Savoy in Montpelier, grapples with the very nature of capitalism.

Halliburton's current inability to account for billions of taxpayer dollars intended to support U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait merely underscores the common wisdom that big business wags the proverbial dogs of war. The Corporation, directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, helps explain how we get ourselves into so many god-awful quagmires.

The 145-minute film, which delivers troubling facts within an entertaining format, is an expose of the multinational Godzillas that plunder the Earth and all its inhabitants. The cinematic monster has a brief cameo, in fact.

The litany of damage is staggering, from the forests to the oceans to the air we breathe to entire indigenous cultures. The outlook for the world may be grim, but the film's leftie talking heads such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and the ubiquitous Moore keep hope alive.

One of the most shocking segments concerns Bolivia's third largest city, Cochabam-ba, where a subsidiary of Bechtel was allowed to privatize the local waterworks and dramatically increase prices in early 2000. Poor, thirsty residents were even prohibited from collecting rain! Although their government imposed martial law, Cochabambans staged a bloody but successful revolt against the San Francisco-based conglomerate.

The flipside of avarice is represented by Interface, a major carpet manufacturer headquartered in Atlanta. CEO-founder Ray Anderson underwent what he describes as an epiphany in 1994 while reading Paul Hawkens' The Ecology of Commerce. At the time, Anderson's firm was responsible for some 900 pollutants. After reorganizing the $1.4 billion operation on principles of sustainability, the "green" rug maker has preached this environmental credo to his counterparts in other industries.

Unfortunately, few top executives or their cheerleaders seem to give a damn. On camera, a Wall Street commodities trader acknowledges that he and his colleagues were excited to hear about the 2001 terrorist attacks because the value of gold was sure to increase. It doubled.

The advertising that drives our voracious consumer society gets its own segment in this movie. Initiative, a mega-marketing company, pays psychologists to calculate "the nag factor." This research benefits corporate clients, who then design promotions that induce children to bug their parents for the latest product. The terrible irony is that American kids are salivating for goods that might well have been made by underage workers in Third World sweatshops.

The issue of bovine growth hormone that has roiled Vermont also crops up in the film, albeit 1700 miles away from the Green Mountains. Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, husband-and-wife investigative reporters from Florida, recount how they were fired by a Fox News affiliate in Tampa. Their 1998 series about the health hazards of BGH was spiked after a complaint from Monsanto, which produces the genetically engineered substance.

Akre initially won a $245,000 jury verdict in a lawsuit against the network under the Sunshine State's whistle-blower statute. The decision was overturned when an appeals court deemed it legal for a TV broadcast to deliberately lie or distort the news.

The Corporation traces the history of malfeasance, which may include IBM collaborating with Hitler. In the pre-computer era, the company allegedly shared its punch-card technology with the Nazis, who were then able to collate data about Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other groups confined to concentration camps.

Coca-Cola, anxious to continue selling soda to the Third Reich without besmirching its reputation, devised the Fanta brand for that purpose.

These days, corporations are permitted to patent virtually every living thing, including bacteria. Human beings are off limits... for the moment.

Under an 1880 Supreme Court interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, corporations are defined as "persons." They have the same rights we enjoy and no doubt many more privileges. So, do greedy businesses have the same potential to go mad?

The documentary is based on Joel Ba-kan's book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. That designation -- pathological -- is not a casual idea.

Your therapist probably would be impressed by the standard mental-health checklist the Canadian co-directors use to advance their argument. They contend that corporate exploitation, deceit and disregard for the well-being of others can lead to only one diagnosis: "psychopath." Lunacy prevails.