‘The New Corporation’ at TIFF: No such thing as corporate social responsibility

Another most fitting film to premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival is the Canadian “unfortunately necessary” sequel to Mark Achbar’s The Corporation, the 2½ hour blockbuster doc released back in 2003 at TIFF. It went on to win several awards and become the ultimate filmic analysis of the most dominant institution in modern society. (It can be viewed in full HERE on YouTube.)

Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott’s The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel (trailer) is not only a sequel but an expansion on the original theory that since corporations are deemed as “people,” they can be psychologically analyzed in the same manner. So after diagnosing key aspects of the corporation’s behavior it is determined to be—psychopathic!

In this sequel an additional criterion is added to the Personality Diagnostic Checklist used in the original film: the use of seduction, charm, glibness or ingratiation to achieve one’s ends. It exposes the fact that companies, in addition to the other major faults listed, are now “desperately rebranding themselves as socially responsible!”

The New Corporation Book by Joel Bakan

The film carries the tagline “corona is the virus—capitalism is the pandemic.” The greed economy of capitalism is killing us and the entire world. The planet is in crisis! But most CEOs benignly respond that “making money for shareholders is not the only goal on the hill.” The doc might agree that certain CEOs’ concerns for the environment and for workers are genuine, but this desire to do good is ultimately in conflict with the need to make money.

The film is lined with noted commentators, including Robert Reich and his terse observation that cuts to the bone: “There is no such thing as corporate responsibility.” Their bottom line is to make profits, and if not, they fail. Programmer Steve Gravestock states that the film “examines how, since the 2008 economic collapse, corporations claim to have changed, passing themselves off as socially responsible.” He adds, “It’s an excellent reminder of the virtues of representative democracy—when you elect representatives who protect people and communities instead of corporations and capital.”

The film uses titles designed as urgent newspaper headlines to move it along at a brisk pace. It travels to the neoliberal celebration of greed, The World Economic Forum at Davos, where committed activists like Al Gore and Greta Thunberg bump up against prominent global capitalists. The film also revisits members of the Occupy Movement who claim it was searching for a different type of democracy than corporate democracy.

A large segment in the doc takes place in my hometown of Detroit, one of the hardest-hit cities since the 2008 economic crisis. It reveals the role of powerful corporations, like Chase Morgan and Quicken Loans that further exploit the people with mortgage loans that could never be paid off. The city to this day is suffering from tens of thousands of evictions and bankruptcies, poverty and homelessness.

So the gimmick and structural basis of this sequel is the creation of a “playbook” or checklist for corporations on how to appear socially responsible while making super profits. Some of them include:

#1. Present yourself as a friend and ally. Bill Gates and his Bridge International Academies are used as an example, in which he calls for “creative capitalism”—by making money from helping the poor. Private schools for the poor is a $51 billion industry!

#2. Turn people against your adversaries: An example is to blame the government for problems caused by corporate greed.

#3. Don’t pay your fair share of taxes: Corporations save millions in offshore tax havens.

#4. Take whatever you can by privatizing industry. The economization of every aspect of life will prevent, for example, free access to water. Privatized schools are not only diminishing the roles of unions but also eliminating teachers with digital teaching. The film makes a point that although technology and science are neutral, it’s politicized to benefit corporations.

#5. Use information to control people, as we see in new data collection and surveillance.

Additional points include: manipulate people’s worldview; push consumerism; exploit unequal advantage; control those who might control you; break laws that get in your way; blame others for capitalist failure; and when governments fail, put faith in corporations. The end game is to win at all costs!

Are we actually going to challenge the power of corporations? This is what 2020 and at least the decade ahead of us will be about.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.