The Corporation as a posthuman construct

So, in a clever if misguided tactic designed to avoid work yesterday, I decided to watch The Corporation. Within the first five minutes, however– and a testament to how university has only exacerbated my chronic poindexterishness– the documentary had me sitting up scrabbling for a pen and a scrap of paper to take notes.

The Corporation is a documentary about “the rise of the dominant institution of our time.” It investigates the psychology (or psychosis) of the corporation by drawing on its legal status as “a person” and then asking “what kind of person is it?” The documentary is based on the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan.

What struck me immediately as I was watching was indeed this social construction of the corporate as a “person”, an individual entity. This entity is made up of other individuals, other consciousnesses, and the whole construction resembles something not unlike Hayles’ posthuman.

You start with a group of people who want to invest their money in a company, then these people apply for a charter as a corporation. This government issues a charter for that corporation. Now that corporation operates legally as an “individual person”. It is not a group of people. It is under the law a legal “person”.

This quotation from an educational video on Imperial Steel borrowed for the film, which describes the corporation as “a part of our daily living…it is a member of our society”, gives us the “corporate citizen”, a citizen with “no soul to be damned, and no body to be kicked.” It has no conscience. Or, at least, that’s how that popular phrase of Baron Thurlow’s goes.

Immediately following this moment in the film is an interview with Michael Moore:

The mistake that a lot of people make when they think about corporations is they think, you know, corporations are like us. They think they have feelings, they have politics, they have belief systems, they really only have one thing: the bottom line. How to make as much money as they can in any given quarter. That’s it.

Some might say this is the mainstay of capitalism. I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate, however. As someone who works for a corporation and is also a shareholder of the same, I can say that such human characteristics as politics, belief systems, and feelings all exist within a corporate culture, often tailored to a specific enterprise. Is that culture a ruse? Is it phoney? That I can’t say. As a single consciousness, one tiny voice, amid the greater hivemind collective, I can say it seems real enough to me, but I lack a broader perspective.

The film does point out that corporations, as individuals, have prime directives they must answer to that ordinary humans do not. They are required by law to place the financial interests of their owners above competing interests. Noam Chomsky tells us that this is not a law of nature, that it is a decision of our legal system imposed upon them so that they are only concerned with short term profit rather than a common good.

Is this any different from a computer that can only perform those functions for which it is constructed? A corporation, like a computer, is created– no, constructed— by humans. It is not a product of nature. It is a hybrid and a chimera, like Haraway’s cyborgs. And if we are the designers, don’t we have the power to redesign its parameters?

On the topic of designs, later in the film, corporations are described as “externalizing machines”, in the same way a shark is supposed to be a “killing machine”. This refers to the economist’s notion of “externalities”, the idea that there are unintended consequences of an exchange between two parties on a third party. These consequences, usually, are ultimately brushed off by the corporations as something beyond their responsibilities. This is not a question of malevolence or will, they tell us. The corporation behaves according to a particular set of priorities, functions. And at this point we could nod and point to Thurlow’s insight– the corporation has no conscience. I would ask, if that’s so, does that mean the posthuman, which under many cases can be you and me, are we also lacking conscience? Is the loss of conscience a by-product of our social evolution? Or is it that corporations have a conscience only when we allow them to?

One of the more interesting– and disturbing– parts of the film is when the producers evaluate the “personality” of the corporate “person”. The “pathology of commerce”.

a checklist is employed, using actual diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the DSM-IV, the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social “personality”: It is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism. […] Concluding this point-by-point analysis, a disturbing diagnosis is delivered: the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism fully meets the diagnostic criteria of a “psychopath.” (synopsis)

Is this diagnosis a result of the supposed lack of conscience of the corporation? It can mimic empathy, caring and altruism (I found this particularly interesting after reading Philip K. Dick and his eerily similar depictions of androids and junkies). But these are fake; it’s a simulation. A pretense. …How often are we, as humans, completely above self-interest? Are our feelings of empathy, our caring, our sense of altruism, are they real or are they also a sham? Somewhere under all that, is there perhaps a kernel of self-interest motivating our actions? Our we like actors taking cues… machines responding to input? What drives us that’s so different from the corporation or the artificial intelligence?

The documentary nears its conclusion with a final few words from Moore, who describes his experience with Bowling for Columbine. Unbeknownst to him when he visited Columbine, the single largest industry and employer of the majority of the parents of the students at Columbine was Lockheed-Martin, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers. Moore talks about how he mentioned this to the parents of the children affected by the Columbine shooting, and how none of them seemed to make the connect between what happened at the school and what they did for a living. Later on, Moore thought about his own origins, how his parents and his wife’s parents in Flint, MI were auto workers, assembling and manufacturing cars. And he has this insight:

There isn’t a single one of us in Flint, any of us, including us, who ever stopped to think this thing we do for a living, the building of automobiles, is probably the single biggest reason why the polar ice caps are gonna melt and end civilization as we know it. There’s no connect between “I’m just an assembler on an assembly line building a car, which is good for people and society, it moves them around,” but never stopped to think about the larger picture and the larger responsibility of what we’re doing. Ultimately, we have to, as individuals, accept responsibility for our collective action and the larger harm that it causes, you know, in our world.

It makes you wonder, in our complicity, are we encouraging the decline of our civilization? Are we promoting a culture of psychopathy? Is posthuman culture inherently a psychopathic culture? …And what does that say about us, us posthuman subjects?

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