The 2003 documentary The Corporation was that rare political doc with the power to claw scales off eyes. Rather than simply asserting that big companies were destroying the world, it looked at the legal frameworks that created them and saw that, wittingly or not, the system all but guaranteed they would behave badly. It was required by law that they place profit-seeking above any social or ethical concerns.
According to Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott’s The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel, that doc (along with some other world events) had a big impact — albeit a mostly performative one, in which corporations saw how the world was defining them and worked hard to change the narrative. Better-looking but less satisfyingly structured and revelatory than the first, The New Corporation does a fine job of summarizing how things have changed in nearly two decades, with business scraping away more of the planet’s wealth even as it projects an image of good citizenship. Remarkably, the film then manages to see hope for democracy in the years to come.
The recap of the first film and its effects culminates around 2005, when big global brands went on a “major charm offensive” and CEOs started making declarations like “that cult of ‘shareholder value’ has seen its day.” Boardrooms (or at least their PR teams) embraced notions of a “new kind of corporation” espoused by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum. That’s the group whose annual shindig, commonly referred to by the name of the town where it’s held — Davos — places titans of commerce and politics in rooms where they can congratulate each other for their high ideals and maybe drink with Bono.
The movie allows that many of these people, like former BP CEO John Browne, may sincerely believe they’re working to save the planet or that their companies have mended their ways. But plentiful interviewees say the facts don’t match the intent: In Browne’s case, they draw a straight line from a cost-cutting philosophy he prioritized to tragedies like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Abbott and Bakan see another kind of deluded hypocrisy in JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who very publicly pledged vast sums to help rebuild Detroit. What he wasn’t so public about, some note here, is that his company’s recklessness and greed had a lot to do with wrecking the city to begin with.
The film launches into a dissection of what it calls “The New Corporate Playbook,” itemizing the ways companies can boost their bottom lines while looking like public servants. While many discussion-worthy stories are addressed here — like companies building chains of for-profit schools in impoverished countries, or the attempt to privatize practically every public service in the U.S. — the playbook conceit only partly serves the subject matter. And it’s nowhere near as enlightening as the last film’s killer metaphor, which gave a psychological analysis to the fictional “person” a generic corporation represents, and concluded he’s a psychopath.
When the playbook talk ends midway through, the film becomes a grab-bag of topics very familiar from dozens of other recent docs. Abbott and Bakan have insightful interviewees on hand — academics like Berkeley’s Wendy Brown; opinionated journos like Anand Giridharadas; and the requisite Robert Reich — but spinning through climate change, COVID-19 and the Occupy era in half an hour, it’s hard to find something new to say.
The doc’s last thirty minutes present despair as a threat as large as corporate power, and look everywhere for signs of hope. The fact that many of its examples of progressive victory come from around 2013, or three years before The Great Darkness, is not terribly encouraging. Still, the grassroots activists-turned-politicians it champions are still swingin’, and if Noam Chomsky can characterize Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid as not a failure but a success (for its inspirational value in downballot progressive campaigns), who are we to argue? The New Corporation seems far, far less likely to sway pro-business viewers than its predecessor. But that’s the world we’re living in now. Maybe it can be changed.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production company: Grant Street
Directors: Joel Bakan, Jennifer Abbott
Screenwriter: Joel Bakan
Producers: Trish Dolman, Betsy Carson
Executive producer: Joel Bakan
Director of photography: Ian Kerr
Editor: Peter Roeck
Composer: Matt Robertson