Thanks to pioneering UBC psychologist and researcher Robert Hare, the world is far more aware of the personality disorder known as psychopathy.
His landmark 1993 book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, described in vivid detail how charismatic, pathologically lying, and predatory con artists are able to manipulate their victims, perpetrate horrific violent and financial crimes, and cause untold havoc in society.
Ten years later, another UBC pioneering academic, law professor Joel Bakan, applied this concept to the business world in another landmark book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit.
To go along with this, he also wrote a companion documentary, The Corporation, which was directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott.
This film, like the book, applied diagnostic criteria from Hare’s psychopathy checklist to make a strong case that corporations are inherently deceitful, callous, lack remorse, greedy, and utterly driven by self-interest.
In fact, a singleminded focus on profits is the directors’ fiduciary duty to shareholders.
But when the UBC law professor attended a 10th-anniversary screening of the film, he had an epiphany.
“All of the issues that we looked at—climate change, crisis in democracy, inequality—had gotten much worse,” Bakan told the Straight by phone.
“Corporations had gotten bigger and more powerful. At the same time, they were now projecting themselves as though they were our saviours.”
Leaders in this movement were JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, former BP chairman John Browne, and the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, and Unilever vice president John Coyne.
So Bakan decided to write a new book and direct a new film, along with Abbott, to explore how this confluence of events unfolded.
Corporations ingratiate themselves to citizens
After more than five years of work and interviews with leading critics and defenders of corporations, they completed The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel, which is being shown at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival.
“Obviously, the first film didn’t do the trick of containing corporate capitalism, so that’s why we call it ‘the unfortunately necessary sequel’,” Bakan said.
This charm offensive began around 2005, not long after The Corporation screened on the festival circuit. And the psychopathy metaphor runs through the new film.
The filmmakers note that the definition of this disorder has been amended to include the following phrase: “Use of seduction, charm, glibness, or ingratiation to achieve one’s ends.”
And if there’s one central ingratiator in the New Corporation, it’s Dimon, who appears on-screen crowing repeatedly about his efforts to save Detroit.
The Motor City has gone into a steep decline as a result of corporations moving out and financial-services companies, including Dimon’s, contributing to the 2008 economic meltdown. That led to a massive number of home foreclosures, creating the very poverty that Dimon pledges to alleviate.
“There are a number of things about Jamie Dimon that make him really important,” Bakan explained. “To begin with this, he’s the head of the Business Roundtable in the United States, which is the premier organization of major CEOs from major companies in the U.S.”
Bakan pointed out that the Business Roundtable has been the leading voice advocating the concept of a “new corporation” devoted to doing good in the world. And Dimon runs the largest bank in the U.S.
The JPMorgan Chase CEO also happened to be in Davos, Switzerland in 2018 when the filmmakers travelled there to interview corporate titans at the World Economic Forum.
Trump and Trudeau show up
In addition to Dimon, they also filmed U.S. president Donald Trump bragging about massive corporate tax cuts and receiving loud applause.
"I was in the same room as Donald Trump—one of the more chilling moments in my life, watching him deliver that speech," Bakan recalled.
Paradoxically, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is seen expressing the important role corporations can play in helping solve the world's problems.
What's remarkable is the number of pro-corporate voices that Bakan and Abbott interviewed to advance this point of view.
Their commments are butted up against those of many leading critics of corporations, young and old, who contextualize what they feel is occurring.
One of those intellectuals, education historian Diane Ravitch, points out in the film that corporations are trying to gain market share in a multitude of areas that have traditionally been considered the sphere of the public sector.
Bakan praised his codirector, Abbott, for creating a compelling narrative in a world that seems to have gone haywire. The editing by Peter Roeck added tremendous pace.
And the original music by Matt Robertson and the sound design of Velcrow Ripper injected a sinister mood to go along with horrific images of Australian climate fires, an exploding Deep Horizon oil derrick in the Gulf of Mexico, and sea turtles choking on plastic.
"We just had a fantastic team for making this," Bakan declared.
But this film is not all doom and gloom, notwithstanding all of this.
In fact, The New Corporation suggests that growing links between anticorporate activism and electoral politics may possibly portend a brighter future.
This newer movement is demonstrated by the political success of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Seattle councilmember Kshama Sawant, and Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, among others.
And the contributions of Sen. Bernie Sanders to this trend receive far fairer treatment than what you normally see on the cable news channels.
"I think we were trying to look at what we were describing as a new kind of democratic politics that merges activism with electoral office," Bakan said.
“The story line was that a lot of people after [the] Occupy [movement] realized that it wasn’t enough to simply protest and occupy the streets—that it was necessary really to make a play for occupying political office."