Review: Joel Bakan’s The Corporation

The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan is a book as well as a documentary movie. No, the movie isn’t as entertaining as recent documentaries by Michael Moore but Bakan isn’t overtly trying to influence current elections. Bakan briefly describes the historical evolution of the corporation from its small beginnings in the 1600s to its banishment by the English Parliament in 1720 through to its current domination of government and society.

Major points:

  • Corporations pursue their own economic interest regardless of harmful consequences to people and the environment, externalizing its true costs.
  • Governments have abdicated control by freeing corporations from legal constraints and granting authority over society through privatization.
  • Corporate social responsibility. Although it accomplishes much, it is often a token gesture, and temporary, masking the corporation’s true character.
  • Corporate governance, no matter how reformed, appears to leave us with an undemocratic one share, one vote, not one person, one vote.

“Dodge v. Ford still stands for the legal principle that managers and directors have a legal duty to put shareholders’ interests above all others and no legal authority to serve any others.”

Shareholders can’t be held liable for the corporation’s actions because of limited liability. Directors are protected because they have no direct involvement in the decisions leading to crimes. Executives also escape liability unless they are proven to have been “directing minds.” That leaves the corporation itself and Bakan argues in favor of revoking charters.

“The notion that business and government are and should be partners is ubiquitous, unremarkable, and repeated like a mantra by leaders in both domains.” “Partners should be equals. One partner should not wield power over the other.” “Democracy, on the other hand, is necessarily hierarchical. It requires that the people, through the governments they elect, have sovereignty over corporations, not equality with them.”

Robert Monks sees pension funds as a “proxy for the public good” but Bakan argues that it is still one share equals one vote. Asked if Monks had reduced harms caused by corporate externalities at many companies he has helped reform, “his simple answer was ‘No.’”

“Deregulation is really a form of dedemocratization, as it denies ‘the people,’acting through their democratic representatives in government, the only official political vehicle they currently have to control corporate behavior.” The rising dependency on nongovernmental institutions as a substitute for governmental regulations is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. “The corporations get all the coercive power and resources of the state, while citizens are left with nongovernmental organizations and the market’s invisible hand.”

“The corporation is not an independent ‘person’ with its own rights, needs, and desires that regulators must respect. It is a state-created tool for advancing social and economic policy. As such it has only one institutional purpose: to serve the public interest.”

In the final analysis, Bakan says he would rely on improving the regulatory system.

  • Staffing enforcement agencies at realistic levels, setting fines at a deterrent level, bar repeat offenders from government contracts, and suspend the charters of flagrant violators.
  • Regulations based on the precautionary principle.
  • Allow local governments to play a greater role in regulations, since they are “more willing and able to forge alliances with citizens groups around particular issues.”
  • Protect and enhance trade unions, as well as environmental, consumer, human rights and other organizations.
  • Phase out political donations by corporations and place tighter restrictions the on revolving door of personnel.
  • Proportional representation to encourage disillusioned citizens to participate.
  • Create a robust public sphere to protect that which is too precious to leave to corporate exploitation.

Although most of Bakan’s major points are valid, I’m not ready to give up trying to make corporations more democratic from within or more socially responsible through public and investor pressure.

Pension funds are something of a proxy for the public good and many are not run on one share one vote. At CalPERS, for example, members elect about half the board and the other half are elected by the public or are appointed by elected officials. Although it isn’t ideal, it comes closer to one person one vote than most other institutional investors and CalPERS has a record of fighting for many of the type of reforms Bakan advocates.

SRI funds may not operate as democratically as CalPERS or have as long an investment horizon (which considers externalities) but they do raise public awareness of needed reforms.

Bakan seems to want it both ways with nongovernmental organizations. On the one hand he says they are powerless, on the other he wants them protected and enhanced. Pushing regulations to the local level seems likely to result in deregulation and local governments compete for corporate crumbs.

What is clear is that corporations must be accountable to the larger society or else we’re all in trouble. Government is our only hope when it comes to protecting the commons, like reducing the magnitude of global warming. However, we’ll need all the tools in our bag to get the job done. Saying we need to give government the power to regulate doesn’t make it so. Yet, Bakan’s analysis does well to point to the fact that corporations are social constructs that must be channeled to serve the public interest. Perhaps the book and the movie will inspire action.

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