An Alternative Syllabus for Understanding Corporate America

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We live a corporate world, and the evidence flashes in front of our eyes 5,000 times a day. Though there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this kind of business, and it can be used to further laudable common goals, our current corporatism, and the laws that enable it, have had disastrous results for our economy, government, environment, and bodies. The relaxing of anti-trust laws and the establishment of corporate personhood are largely responsible for the domination of our society by these inhuman giants. Thankfully, this trend in its many facets is well documented. A significant percentage of popular documentary films take big business as their subject matter, as do many popular nonfiction books, television shows and radio programs. These works are crucial in educating us and providing a view of the forest that can be hard to see from within our consumerist trees. We’ve rounded up a few of the most important and well done documentaries about our corporate society. They range from satirical to heartbreaking, but at their core they are all deadly serious.

Life Inc.

Life Inc. may be one of the most underrated and important books of our generation, and its author Douglas Rushkoff one of our most important and perceptive thinkers about how to solve the problems of our time. Rushkoff is a self described “generalist.” He’s written books about the benefits of psychedelic drugs, taught media classes at NYU and The New School, played in a seminal industrial band, invented the term “viral,” and made acclaimed Frontline documentaries on marketing. His current project is organizing a conference to take place in New York in October called Contact that will explore our options in seizing the technological means of production from the corporations that control the internet, and threaten its future.

In Life Inc., Rushkoff focuses on an unconventional history of corporatism: how our economic system, through a mix of mistakes and intentional decisions, ended up the way it did. In the book, he tackles ideas that we often forget are even questionable, like what biases are inherent in our system of currency and how they could be better. The book is mind opening, entertaining and inspiring, and provides essential insights to understanding how we have progressed to a stage in our society where everything, even ourselves, has become part of the consumerist corporate system. And despite the serious, in-depth subject matter, it is a fun and compelling read.

The Corporation

The Corporation, a Canadian film released in 2003, uses the metaphor of corporate personhood (that corporations are legally considered people by our government) to satirically demonstrate the disasters that legislation has created. The film methodically proves that if a corporation was really a person, it would exhibit every symptom doctors use to diagnose sociopaths. It’s a long, depressing movie, and can be difficult to watch, but it is the most thorough documentary on the real-world results of the preferential treatment world governments give corporations. By lifting the shiny curtain of marketing and showing what lies behind, it gives us a necessary glimpse at a sobering reality.

Food, Inc.

In 2006, Michael Pollan wrote the highly controversial, bestselling, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which brought the connections between food, environmentalism and politics into the mainstream. The book was eventually adapted into the movie Food Inc., which gained the local and organic movements even more attention. What was unique about both the book and the film was Pollan’s willingness to discuss the subtleties in the morality of our food choices, such as the drawbacks of the corporatization of organic food and the convoluted relationship between diabetes, fast food, farmers, corporations like Monsanto, and government farm subsidies. The film reveals a food system that is severely flawed, and is creating health and environmental problems the world over. Pollan does not offer a single solution, but rather suggests making small changes to our individual diets and food buying habits, and most importantly, encourages an awareness of where our food comes from and the processes through which it is produced.

This American Life‘s Planet Money

Let’s get this straight: no one, no matter how well versed in economics and finance, fully understands the intricacies of what brought on our current recession. But for most people, even the basics of our meltdown are difficult to grasp. Over the past two years, the always brilliant NPR radio show This American Life set out to change this. With help from their correspondents at Planet Money, Ira Glass and team lay out in the most straighforward, easy to understand manner possible just what brought down our economy, whose fault it was, and what is going to happen next. And as always, they do it in a way that has moments of tenderness, humor and humanity. If you are still struggling to understand just what happened, and why it could easily happen again, these podcasts are highly recommended.

Sicko

Michael Moore has devoted much of his career to making movies about American corporatism. From his earliest movie, Roger and Me, to his most recent, Capitalism: A Love Story, he’s investigated a wide variety of the issues that the corporate world creates for average Americans. Our personal favorite is Sicko, a film that exposed the complete dysfunction of our medical system, largely due to huge HMOs and pharmaceutical companies. Moore never fails to present his points in a dramatic fashion, and the movie’s highpoint does not disappoint: he takes sick 9/11 first responders, unable to get medical coverage in America, to our nemesis country Cuba, where they are treated for free without question. Say what you will about the bias of his movies, but they are an incredibly effective means of telling an important story that is too frequently excluded from our profit-driven news media.

The Yes Men Fix The World

The Yes Men Fix The World is the second film documenting the outrageous actions of a duo of brilliant pranksters. The Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, continually demonstrate how easy it is to deceive in this era of supposedly limitless information. They began their now-prolific pranking when they put up a website mocking the World Trade Organization, and, to their surprise, were contacted to speak at conferences as WTO representatives in Austria. After this initial success, they have repeated this formula over and over to great success. They’ve spoken at conferences to thousands as the “representatives” of huge corporations and appeared on network television in front of millions posing as corporate spokespeople. The Yes Men use these stunts to illuminate the falsity, greed, and corruption that plagues so much of the corporate community. The victims of their pranks often don’t realize what is going on until its too late.

An incredible example of this is documented in the film, in which the duo speak to the largest global corporate oil conference, pretending to be high-level Exxon executives. The speech concerns the future of energy, and their solution to the destruction of global warming and the depletion of natural resources is to create a new kind of fuel: Vivoleum. What they skirt around until the end of the talk is that Vivoleum is made of people — the people who were destined to be killed by the impending environmental disaster. By the time they get around to this small detail, they have hundreds of oil executives holding lit candles supposedly made of Vivoleum and containing human hair, and play a memorial video for the janitor (Reggie Watts) who has supposedly given his body for this noble cause.

What makes The Yes Men’s campaigns so effective are the dilemmas they present for the corporations involved. When they appeared on national television claiming to be Dow Chemical spokespeople apologizing for the Bhopal disaster that killed thousands and promising to donate $12 billion to correct all of their wrongdoings, the company received harsh backlash for confirming that it was a prank. When Bichlbaum was asked by an interviewer about how he could lie to millions of people, he simply responded that he was being truthful, in that what he said was what Dow should actually be doing. Dow lost $2 billion dollars in stock value over the incident.

Inside Job

If you want to know more about how our Escher-like financial system created the recession that we are still struggling to recover from, Inside Job is a must see. The Oscar-winning documentary gives a holistic view of the many sources of our economic crisis. A major focus of the film is the conflicts of interest that are created when government, finance, and academia depend too closely on each other. The film argues specifically that academics sometimes skew their opinion of the sensibility of financial policies based on what is beneficial for banks and high level investors, as they frequently act as advisers for those sectors on the side. The film manages to be accessible and entertaining despite its esoteric subject matter. Watch it instead of Jersey Shore the next time you’re spending a night at home.

Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room

In the past ten years, Enron has become the most easily recognized symbol of corporate greed. This isn’t by accident. Ken Lay and cronies persistently took advantage of every conceivable morally reprehensible method of making themselves rich while screwing over anyone and everyone else. These included: diverting company money to offshore accounts, firing 15% of the staff every year, and taking any step necessary to ensure they still looked like they were doing well, despite their mounting debt and strategic failures. The Smartest Guys In The Room, based on a bestselling 2003 book, explores this absurd story, and ensures that the audience it clear on the fact that it could easily happen again. Although the Enron scandal was disgusting, we can at least take comfort in the fact that without it, and others like it, Arrested Development may have never existed.

Why We Fight

In Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address, given on the cusp of the Vietnam war, he warned the country to “beware the military-industrial complex.” This 2005 film argues that we ignored his advice. The striking documentary interviews top historians and political advisors along with people like John McCain to piece together the story of how our war efforts over the last half century have been fueled by our economic needs. It’s an essential film for anyone looking to learn about why we continue to enter wars that are seemingly impossible to win.