The Corporation: A Documentary

In law, the corporation is a ``person''. But what kind of person is it?

Considering the odd legal fiction that deems a corporation a ``person'' in the eyes of the law, the feature documentary employees a checklist, based on actual diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and DSM IV, the standard tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. What emerges is a disturbing diagnosis.

Self-interested, amoral, callous and deceitful, a corporation's operational principles make it anti-social. It breaches social and legal standards to get its way even while it mimics the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism. It suffers no guilt. Diagnosis: the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism fully meets the diagnostic criteria of a psychopath.


74 Responses:

  1. eternalfight says:

    Corporations are the evil entities which manufacture all the hardware and a lot of the software you use to access the Intenet. They're the ones who provide telecommunications, transportation, utilities... those damn companies, when will they start doing something for ME?

    I think we should all just be one big happy family and get rid of profit motives. If people are altruistic and only engage in economic activity because it benefits society as a whole, our country will be MUCH better off. Look at how well that worked in Russia!

    • nosrialleon says:

      Invoking communism in the face of a critique of capitalism really seems like it should be a subsection of Godwin's Law...

      • jck says:

        Agreed, or it ought to have its own Law name - I love the assumption that because you have a beef with one particular aspect of modern capitalism that you're somehow rejecting the entire concept outright.

        This is yet another symptom of the scourge of black & white thinking. Remember, kids, gray is a evil Liberal myth!

    • jwz says:

      Corporations do not invent things, or manufacture things. Humans do. And humans are held accountable for their actions in precisely the ways that corporations are not.

      • harryh says:

        > held accountable for their actions in precisely the
        > ways that corporations are not.

        Corporations pay taxes. They can be fined. They can be restricted from doing certain types of business.

        What else do you want?

        • jayrtfm says:

          I want a corporate death penalty, where the officers of an executed company cannot hold office or significant voting stock in another company for at least 10 years.

          • coldacid says:

            I concur with this. On top, the company (or companies) in question should have their assets taken (and given to any victims of the company and any remainder divided between the three layers of government), IP placed in the public domain, and have their charters revoked.

            Sadly, I doubt that we'll get to see this in our lifetimes.

            • volkris says:

              I meant to reply to this one but accidentally replied to the parent...

              The problem with this is that a whole heck of a lot of innocent people would be hurt.

              • jayrtfm says:

                If the sole support head of a family goes to jail a lot of other people get hurt, but that doesn't stop us from imposing long sentences.

                • volkris says:

                  But here you're proposing to actually make sure the wife gets fired, kids get banned from school, and grandparents get slapped.

                  You're going really far out of your way to punish people who are very remotely involved with the actual transgression, and for what? It won't help disuade the people at top from doing Bad Things; they don't care about their employees as it is.

                  • jayrtfm says:

                    go google "corporate death penalty"
                    we used to revoke corporate charters. you'll find compelling arguments why we should be doing this again.
                    IMHO the harm done by the rare application of a death penalty is insignificant compared to the ongoing harm done by the corp.

                  • volkris says:

                    Yeah, we used to do lots of things. It doesn't mean we should be doing them again.

                    The corporate death penality goes out of its way to harm additional people without reason. It's senseless.

                  • coldacid says:

                    Bullshit. So it puts some people out of a job; there is nothing saying that they can't find another job, and there's always EI to tide them through the search. It prevents further harm, short- and long-term, by causing some short-term financial harm to employees of the deceased corporation.

                    Chances are, if the corporate death penalty is brought back, there will be services to help those who have suffered. And there's still severance pay.

                  • volkris says:

                    You're still not addressing the important part of my statement.

                    The magnitude of the damanges to the people and the structures in place to mitigate their pain doesn't matter much when the damage is being caused for no good reason.

                    That you'll help them back up is kind of unimportant, not to mention stupid, when you had no reason to knock them down in the first place.

                  • coldacid says:


                    The damage is caused for a damn good reason. If there's a tumour, you get cut open to have it removed. That's damage, and that's for a good reason.

                    <flamebait>Except I guess that you'd rather keep the tumour.</flamebait>

                  • volkris says:

                    You have yet to express the reason; you're continuing to fail to provide an answer!

                    What benefit comes from the marginal cost?

                  • volkris says:

                    You must have missed the word "marginal" in there.

                    I mean, we could also execute the extended families of every employee of the company, and this answer would fit that plan just as well.

                    You're already threatening to nail those who would be making the bad decisions. With this proposal you want to go farther and also threaten people who did absolutely no wrong. Why bother? This additional threat has no additional power to disuade. This last sentence is what I want you to counter, because otherwise the proposal is simply sadistic.

                  • jayrtfm says:

                    Did you read the links, or are you just spouting off UNINFORMED opinions?

                    "execute the extended families" ??? I really hope you can tell the difference between an argument about dissolving a fictional legal entity, and killing people. geez, what's next, do we encounter Godwin's law?

                    In theory, ANY punishment to a corp hurts innocents (CEO does a bad thing, corp gets fined so xmas bonus are canceled so little timmy doesn't get new sneakers)

                    Even if the threat has no power to dissuade, preventing convicted corporate officers from joining, or starting new corporations, would obviously eliminate then as a cause of problems.

                    Here's a concrete example on how the threat can be used to dissuade. A few weeks ago ConEd in NYC killed a woman who stepped on an electrified grate. The company blamed the worker who taped off a wire, the Union is claiming that the decrease in inspections and other systematic changes over the past few years are to blame.

                    ConEd will end up paying a few million in fines and settlements, and in a few years it will be forgotten. Management may run the numbers, and determine that it would be much more profitable to keep a lower inspection level, and just continue to kill someone every few years. (and I'd bet that we'll soon be seeing a Village Voice article that charges this has already happened)

                    If corp charter revocation was a possible penalty for further incidents that result in similar deaths, the safety vs profits equation could be more fairly balanced.

                  • editer says:

                    ConEd will end up paying a few million in fines and settlements, and in a few years it will be forgotten. Management may run the numbers, and determine that it would be much more profitable to keep a lower inspection level, and just continue to kill someone every few years.

                    Ford Motor Co., I'm told, did something like that with the Pinto: Rather than make a minor design modification to avert the explosions they were seeing in rear-end collisions, they figured it'd cost less to just pay some settlements to the families of the people that got killed.

                    I think I'd like to see a world where that sort of decision results in, at the least, a charter revocation.

                  • volkris says:

                    I really hope you can tell the difference between an argument about dissolving a fictional legal entity, and killing people.

                    In this context there's little difference. Both cause damage without specified benefit.

                  • jwz says:

                    Viewed from a sufficient level of abstraction, picking at a scab on your hand and murdering a million people are equivalent.

                  • volkris says:

                    That, or an appropriate context. Right.

                  • jayrtfm says:

                    1) if a corp breaks a law, should they be fined?

                    2) if paying the fine would force it into chp 7, should the fine be reduced?

                    3) if a corp restaurant changes the expiration dates on milk, has roaches in the salad bar, rat shit on the stoves and counters, and raw chicken dripping onto the tomatoes, should the health department be allowed to shut them down for 2 weeks?
                    If they clean it all up in two days and promises to be good, should they be allowed to reopen on the third day?
                    If not, what about if being closed for 2 weeks would send them to chp 7, harming the innocent waitresses?

                    4) If it's a chain of restaurants, with the majority of locations having repeated problems as above, what should be done to stop the corp from letting rats shit in your food?

                    5) this is based on personal experience:
                    lets say that you and some other people form a consulting company that's incorporated. My corp hires your corp with a verbal purchase order for $1,200 worth of your services. You do the work and submit the bill. My corp just ignores you after that.
                    A few phone calls and I offer to settle it for $100, less than 10%, an insult.
                    What can you do? since you're a corp, small claims is not an option, and to bring it to regular court would cost over $1,800. If you accept the $100 you can't get the benefit of the $1,100 loss on taxes.
                    You check the net, and discover that my corp does this often, so in the future other small business like yourself will be ripped off. You can't do anything to me personally since I'm protected by the corporation.

                    What can be done to stop me from continuing to steal from people like you? If somehow you do threaten my business, I can just dissolve the company and start a new corp.

                  • neptune609 says:

                    But all of this still doesn't answer the question!

                    How does threatening the employees help keep those in charge from making these anti-social decisions?

                  • jayrtfm says:

                    One way of looking at it is to think of the employees as intestinal bacteria in a rabid dog.
                    The innocent little buggers are just doing their job, helping to digest food and doing their part for the body. Does the animal control officer OR the dog think that the bacteria are of any relevance when the dog needs to be shot to prevent it from biting someone?

                    Currently, if you are working in a company, and your mid level manager has you doing illegal things, he can quash your protests by saying "don't worry, worst that can happen is a fine that we can afford" You can rationalize your doing it by thinking it's not so bad since the penalty is only a fine, and my boss is taking responsibility, I'm just following orders (sorry Godwin)

                    If the corp death penalty was an option, then your culpability in following orders could directly lead to the loss of your job, and the jobs of everyone you work with. If you try to work within the company system, then upper management would pay more attention to a threat of loosing the company than the threat of just some fines.

                    Does that answer your question?

                  • jayrtfm says:

                    One thing you're forgetting, those in charge ARE EMPLOYEES of the corporation. See:

                    In fact, those at the very top may be as innocent as the janitor who sweeps up at night.

                    Part of the strength of a corporation and its bureaucracy is that it can survive when parts are severed (as in you're fired, here's a weeks severance pay)

                    So when the "corporate person" steals and kills, what can be done to stop it?

                  • coldacid says:

                    If you don't get it by now, you probably never will.

                  • volkris says:

                    ...a reply that probably does a fair job indicating your full thought process on the topic.

                    "Well it must be right, because if it's not I'll never know what is!"

          • volkris says:

            Eh, this idea would punish a whole lot of innocent people.

          • volkris says:

            Eh, this idea would punish a whole lot of innocent people.

          • volkris says:

            Eh, the idea would punish a whole lot of innocent people.

        • nosrialleon says:

          As far as the big & nasty ones that always top the hate lists, they generally don't, they generally aren't, and it generally doesn't take on the rare occasion that they are.

          And in that is my answer to your question.

        • flipzagging says:

          The film's argument is that corporations, as we know them, are naturally predisposed to unethical behaviour. So punishment after the fact is pretty useless -- actually, when you think of who gets hurt if you slap fines on a company, it's worse than useless.

      • volkris says:

        Oh, you know better than that.

        Without the concentrations of resources provided by corporations humans would not be able to invent or manufacture many things we seek today.

        • jwz says:

          Humans working together often produce things better. Does that mean that the collective entity should be exempt from responsibility? Because that's how it works today.

          • volkris says:

            Oh, that isn't to say that corporate law is correct, but something like a corporation is really needed.

            • coldacid says:

              Regardless of that, corporations, or anything like them, should not be allowed to run over public interests or the good of the people.

              • volkris says:


                So I assume you will now provide a way to objectively and rationally measure public good.

                As in, "Uh, oh. This corporation has caused ten badions while only raising five goodions!"

                • mcoletti says:

                  Would you agree:

                  The last point is particularly objective and rational evidence of corporate wrong-doing.

                  I agree that corporations can and have done a lot of good for the public. In fact, I work for one of the largest, SAIC, that I feel, overall, is a good company. (Despite some shady dealings, such as with Verisign, I think the outfit is generally a good one.)

                  However, I do not think that corporations should enjoy the same rights as human beings. Moreover they should bear the full brunt of the law should they break same. Moreover they should pay their taxes. Moreover they should pay a fair amount of money for use of federal property, and they should clean up after themselves when they're done using it.

                  • volkris says:

                    This is not sufficiently quantitative. By presenting specific actions that, in your opinion, go against the public good, you are unable to account for the larger picture where these actions might easily be part of a larger strategy that benefits the public greatly.

                    The original statement was that corporations should not be allowed to "run over public interests or the good of the people," but even with these examples codified into law such a notion would still be very difficult to enforce.

            • stonemonkey says:

              I understand that groups of people working together to make something scales better than a bunch of individuals (in fact even making some things possible), but I am not sure I understand what you are saying?

              We need a corporation (like an S-corp) so that individuals in the group have limited liability? Did I get this right? Since from your other posts you appear to have a strong opinion on the subject; Perhaps you can expound on the need for corporations as a legal shield for individuals within a corporation?

              • volkris says:

                When did I ever say anything about shielding from liability?

                Corporations are needed, but that's not to say corporate law is correct as it currently stands.

                • stonemonkey says:

                  Well, ok, as a corporation exists to limit liability of it's owners/employees and you said something along the lines of:

                  "Oh, that isn't to say that corporate law is correct, but something like a corporation is really needed."

                  I connected the dots (wrongly). So what do you mean then?

                  • volkris says:

                    Corporations exist to do a lot more than just shielding the people involved from liability. This shielding is just one of the many perks of filing papers of incorporation.

                    All I'm saying is that we need to be encouraging these entities made up of pooled investment, and by codifying the entity into law we can do a lot to streamline the process. All of this stuff of liability exemption, special taxation, and "corporation as a person" is secondary from the purpose of a corporation.

                  • stonemonkey says:

                    As far as I can tell the sole legal purpose of corporations is for limited liability. The other things (like creating rules of governance) are all things a group of people could do without any laws existing. The double ('special') taxation is basically the corporations payment for limited liability (whereas a sole proprietor or partnership do not get double taxed, but they are personally liable for their companies actions). The fact that they are considered a 'person' seems to be the legal streamlining you mentioned (they potentially halve the number of laws this way). If you stripped away 'person', double-taxation, and limited liability what purpose would exist for someone to declare themselves a corporation?

                    I personally think that the officers and the board of a corporation should be held liable for a corporations actions regardless of their knowledge of the fraud/negligence being committed (if we must keep the 'person' concept...think of them as the corporate persons legal guardians). I am not talking about one sacrificial lamb (think Enron -- husband/wife lambs), but the whole group. That would limit fraud/negligence quite a bit in my book. I also do not think it would effect how many corporations existed. In fact, it would probably make them more efficient as well.

                    As far as encouraging corporations ('Stonemonkey Shrugged'), I think that their are inherent business advantages to groups of people doing things versus smaller groups (or individuals) doing things. The innate benefits of cooperation is easily seen everywhere. We do not need any legal encouragement.

                    Oh, finally a disclaimer: By saying the board/owners should be held accountable, I am really saying they should be held MORE accountable. What MORE means is open for discussion, but I think MORE is needed. Perhaps even to the point of the same liability as a sole proprietor.

                  • volkris says:

                    Some benefits of incorporation: (scratching head really hard to remember high school free enterprise)

                    Control. In a normal business one or two people have complete control over the entity (the law doesn't provide for a business to be owned by hundreds of people, all with complete control). In a corporation all of the shareholders get a say, but not control, through the election of officers.

                    Transferability. It is a major legal headache to sell your business to someone else. It is a easy to sell a share of a corporation to someone else.

                    Lifespan. Partially because of the ease of transferability, corporations can exist longer more easily than other businesses. It's easier to attract investment when investors aren't worried about the owner's failing health legally killing the business.

                    These are all I can think of right now, but they're things not easily done without corporate law.

    • acpizza says:

      all the hardware and a lot of the software you use to access the Intenet.

      If corporations want to contribute to the open source movement, even though they are doing so usually just doing it for their own low-cost solution, that fine.

      And if they decide they wanted to keep their software secret later on, and throw a tantrum like SCO is doing, the world will just laugh at them.

    • ciphergoth says:

      I'm reminded of a scene in "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman". "Richard doesn't want his tips, hee hee!"

      When someone says "The motor by which we currently drive production has serious problems", responding with "Oh, I suppose you don't WANT there to be a motor to drive production then?" just makes you look dim.

  2. deeptape says:

    While some folks are worried about the killer robots of the future *cough*Bill Joy*cough*, we already have quasi-autonomous entities functioning against the common good of mankind right now.

    Private corporations are less bound to the quarterly earnings fitness function than public ones, thus arguably less man-eating. ; )

  3. zok says:

    I was lucky enough to catch this on Sunday night. It's a great way to get really, really angry.

  4. rantzilla says:

    This is nothing new or astonishing. Though, I think it bears quoting Jerry Mander from his book In the Absence of the Sacred. From Chapter 7, Corporations as Machines:

    "Seeing corporate behavior as rooted in the people who work within them is like believing that the problems of television are attributable solely to its program content. With corporations, as with television, the basic problems are actually structural. They are problems inherent in the forms and rules by which these entities are compelled to operate. If the problems could be traced to the personnel involved, they could be solved by changing the personnel. Unfortunately, however, all employees are obliged to act in concert, to behave in accordance with corporate form and corporate law. If someone attempted to revolt against these tenets, it would only result in the corporation throwing the person out, and replacing that person with another who would act according to the rules. Form determines content. Corporations are machines."

    Also, under the section of Chapter 7, Corporate Schizophrenia:

    "If a corporation is not a person or thing, what is it? It is basically a concept that is given a name, and a legal existence, on paper. Though there is no such actual creature, our laws recognize the corporation as an entity. So does the population. We think of corporations as having concrete form, but their true existence is only on paper and in our minds."

    I quote these two passages to offer others something more to think about on this topic as well as to offer some background for my own opinions along these lines:

    It's all fine and dandy to say that "corporations are psychopaths", but what purpose does that serve other than to (as always) point the blame away from ourselves so we can say (as always) "those corporations are so evil, but at least I know I am good person". I mean, who among you is not a good person, compared to a corporation?

    But the point is not that corporations are evil. The point is that corporations are machines of our own invention that we no longer hold accountable to us (gee, much like our government these days). In fact, corporations are supported by the law in what they do. Sure they break a lot of laws; but remember this: a board of directors and CEO can be sued by the shareholders if the corporation does not take actions in the best interests of the shareholders, which is always to increase shareholder value. That is the law. Nowhere is there written a law that a corporation must take actions in the best interests of the communities in which they operate, or of the environment, or of general public health and well-being.

    And why is that? Because a corporation is a machine, just like any other, programmed by human beings. They act in the best interests of shareholders (human beings) according to laws written by and enforced by the government (human beings), which (does it still?) represents us (human beings).

    So to call a corporation a psychopath is just about as useful as calling your computer or your car or your refrigerator a psychopath. Corporations are all machines which are following very simple (though largely artificial) rules that we human beings dreamed up. The main difference is that your refrigerator in itself is generally not responsible for the destruction of the ecosystem, as well as the elimination of biological and cultural diversity, all in the name of profit.

    If anything, I like to think that the "psychopathic behavior" we attribute to corporations is really just a litmus test indicating the health of our society in general. But who here is astonished by that?

    • jwz says:

      So to call a corporation a psychopath is just about as useful as calling your computer or your car or your refrigerator a psychopath.

      Yes! It's exactly as useful as to call a "corporation" a "person."

      It was clear to me that "corporations are psychopaths" only has meaning if you accept the (legal! existing!) assertion that "corporations are people." Which is, to me, absurd. Obviously, corporations are trivially simple non-sentient machines, and if you by fiat declared any non-human (say, a squirrel) to be a "person" you could probably attribute to it any number of human-centric psychological disorders.

      For some time I've been using the phrase "plutotropic organism" to describe corporations: by analogy with "phototropic", e.g., leafy plants, a corporation is a stunningly simple mechanism which turns its leaves to face the nearest nourishing source of sweet, sweet money.

      It can't do anything else. It doesn't know how.

    • flipzagging says:

      You twigged onto the 'psychopath' metaphor but that's just the opening hook of the movie -- it's intended to make the audience see it's not just individual miscreants, that these problems are inherent.

      Your rant wasn't so much of a rebuttal as an unintentional synopsis.

    • greyfeld says:

      But the point is not that corporations are evil. The point is that corporations are machines of our own invention that we no longer hold accountable to us (gee, much like our government these days).

      To say that corporation are machines merely extends a metaphor, a metaphor which we face for a specific reason. That is, namely: the only reason that corporations exist AT ALL is that they are declared to be persons (the original metaphor) by governments.

      A corporation is a legal fiction created by govenrment action.

      It is the government that gives a corporation the rights of a living, breathing person, while limiting the responsibilities that ordinarily go with being a living, breathing person in society. In fact, that is the original point and purpose of the creation of corporations to begin with. The first corporations were called "Limited Liabiliy Companies", formed for the purpose of protecting the members from being responsible for the consequences of the actions of the group ("corporate" actions) beyond whatever amount they had invested in such activities. So the Company did things, and no individual Person was responsible. To make this work, the Company had to be treated as a Person, separate from the individuals which composed it. This release from responsibility had to be recognized in law, and that's the role of government in issuing corporate charters.

      Corporations are fictional non-entities which have been created ex hihilo as creatures of government, and taken on a soulless life of their own. All of the other characteristics of corporations flow from this. They have grown to the point that they now own their masters. Let all who rail against Big Govenrment take note of this.

      • sheilagh says:

        You did such a nice job expanding on "legal fiction", could you break down "Big Government" with similar/futher/other words? Ie, if people against Big Government (whatever you mean by that) are noticing that corporations have grown to become their own masters, what do you suggest as a next step or three?

        • greyfeld says:

          You did such a nice job expanding on "legal fiction", could you break down "Big Government" with similar/futher/other words? Ie, if people against Big Government (whatever you mean by that) are noticing that corporations have grown to become their own masters, what do you suggest as a next step or three?

          Sure. I meant to say,"People who like to rail against so-called Big Government" by which I mean people who are generally owned by or are in the pockets of the profit-motivated corporate economy, who do not want to see government spending money on anything that is designed to help actual humans, such as education, health care, or a minimum income for the elderly.

          It is government which concerns itself with such matters - things that help actual, as opposed to fictional, persons - which is generally called "Big Government" by those who tend to use the expression as a dirty word.

          My contention is that such rhetoric is a smokescreen hiding the fact that government is the creator and patron of corporations, which have become, not merely their own masters, as you suggest that I am saying, but more importantly, masters of the very governments that make their existence possible. Such governments exert tremendous power, including economic, police, and military power, on behalf of their corporate masters, and show no signs of getting smaller. Hence those who think that by aligning themselves with corporate interests they are actually opposing big government are being grossly deceived.

          The next steps should be to first, recognize that governments are here, and are permanent, and the real question is, what kinds of persons they should serve: real, or fictional? Second, revisit the definition of "person" such that the actions of corporations will have consequences for the persons who make decisions on their behalf. I think this is most needed for publicly traded companies, since sole proprietors, partnerships and closely held companies already have some personal responsibility associated. Otherwise, having more conversations like this would be immensely helpful.

          • sheilagh says:

            Excellent points, and it furthers my understanding. Thank you.

            I think one of the problems in this topic area is the use of the term "fictional" -- I think it diminishes the reality of corporations, which certainly do exist, however abstract their structure may be. It makes it too easy to discount them. "Oh, that's just FICTION."

            They are artificial(man made), albeit noncorporeal, in that they do not have flesh and bone that can be placed within the confines of our prison system. Indeed, what responsibilities do they have, and how can they be controlled by the social contracts that bind the rest of us, without some real cost to the corporation's freedom to keep behaving as per their usual?

            Has Microsoft paid any measurable/quantifiable price for behaving anticompetetively/monopolistically?

          • wilecoyote says:

            Not that I'm a libertarian or anything, but the obvious counterargument to that would be that corporations, in the end, are also formed by real people. Or are all those middle-class mom-and-dads who put their savings in investment funds fictional?

            BTW, if you wanted to take it to the extreme, you could say that all the dollars in your pocket are also a fiction (they are only printed pieces of paper, after all), and that doesn't make them any less valuable to you.

            • editer says:

              People may form corporations, but once they do, the corporation is a legal entity essentially separate from its creators. (That's the whole point, after all -- to separate ownership from accountability.)

              ISTR a few years ago some advocacy group placed ads in the big newspapers essentially stating that the directors of a (tobacco?) corporation were responsible for its actions and should be held accountable. There came a great hue and cry to the effect that that sort of connecting the dots Just Isn't Done.