To Joel Bakan, corporations are the economic and social trademarks of contemporary North American society— and they’re occupying a very powerful role.
Ahead of his talk at a Uniter Speaker Series event on Wednesday, Sept. 19, the UBC law professor, author, filmmaker and oft jazz musician discussed his recent works and what led him to the critical examination of big business.
“I got the idea back in the late 1990s,” he recalls. It was a time when a “number of things were converging globally… the corporation (has) now become a key institution in North America.”
In Bakan’s 2004 work The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, the author took on the task of investigating large-scale enterprise as extra judicial, meaning it functions in such a way that constantly serves its own interests— and those of its shareholders— ahead of ethical and legal concerns.
“Health, worker safety and other provisions are incidental to its operation,” says Bakan. “One of the things that always struck me was what a bizarre institution corporations actually are. They are deemed ‘persons’ with the same natural rights, but the owners have limited liability.
“There is a disconnect,” he continues, “between the public face that has been created for corporations and their actual institutional makeup.”
Bakan’s first book received critical praise, was translated into multiple languages and became an award-winning documentary that appeared at the Sundance Film Festival.
Yet, among the text’s heavier subject matter lay conclusions that point to a future with greater regulation and accountability, buttressed by the solidarity of democratic citizens.
“I grant people the agency to be informed about the world around them, in the context of a large propaganda machine to disinform them. My work is driven by a hope for citizens to create a fair and just society.
“The conclusions in (The Corporation) are: we can change this.”
These themes— ones that are markedly anti-globalization— persist in Bakan’s latest book, Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children, published in August 2011.
In it, Bakan demystifies the popular belief that corporations are entirely beneficial job creators, and suggests that only one force, the profit motive, truly guides them.
“Children are an opportunity for creating wealth,” he says. “They are targets for consumer goods, video gaming, social media… (and) also an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies.
“Thirty years ago, it was rare to find mental disorders among children and psychotropic drugs to treat them. How did we get there? Part of the answer is that pharmaceutical companies have made a major push in terms of their marketing and science to tap into the potential of selling drugs to kids.”
Such alarming circumstances may rattle the proverbial cage of mainstream economic orthodoxy, but Bakan sees cooperation and collective participation as the keys to change.
“There are no magic bullets and no easy routes, but we have different paths and they are the responsibility of social critics to flesh out.
“Part of my goal is to reveal how to move forward,” he concludes, and to pass on a very important lesson: “citizenship is an obligation.”
Hear Joel Bakan speak on Wednesday, Sept. 19 in Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall at the University of Winnipeg (515 Portage Ave.) at 7:30 p.m. The lecture, sponsored by The Uniter Speaker Series, is free and open to the public.
Published in Volume 67, Number 2 of The Uniter (September 12, 2012)