Thanks to Canadian filmmakers Mark Archbarand and Jennifer Abbott’s 2003 doc The Corporation (which was subsequently turned into the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by the film’s writer, University of British Columbia law professor Joel Bakan) I’ve long been aware that corporations have been granted personhood in the eyes of our law. (And been dismayed that though corporations are people, too, they rarely suffer serious consequences for breaking the law.)
So I was surprised by how utterly unnerved I felt during this year’s IDFA, when I caught the premiere of another Canadian doc, The Corporate Coup d’Etat. Emmy Award-winner Fred Peabody (All Government’s Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone) tackles the same topic as his countrymen’s earlier film, while updating it for the current worldwide mess we find ourselves in. Frighteningly, Peabody makes the compelling case that today’s rising authoritarianism and declining democracy can be traced right back to these faceless, if not nameless, “individuals.” And unlike catastrophes like climate change, stopping corporations is on nearly no nation’s global agenda.
The film begins with a deep dive into the fascinating history of corporatism – a concept initially developed by none other than Trump’s go-to guy for “interesting” quotes, Mussolini. While the idea that a large interest group must control the state in order for it to prosper might on its face sound illogical, Mussolini had a lot of Italy’s intellectuals on his side. Indeed, with the placing of group interests above any one individual’s interests at its core, corporatism just made good old common sense. (And speaking of Trump, one historian Peabody interviews considers our current president the endgame of the corporate-dominated system. We’ve really nowhere left to go except fascism.)
The film’s notable talking heads include distinguished journos Matt Taibbi, Sarah Jaffe and Chris Hedges. And entertaining philosophers such as Cornel West – who emphasizes that Trump, “the white, no-nothing, neo-fascist face of America,” is merely continuing the corporate policies of Obama. Who West calls, “the refined, smiling, black face of corporate America.” (Hedges, for his part, points out that Obama is both a man and a brand.) Camden, NJ is also a running motif – a “sacrifice zone” as Hedges puts it (as Streisand sings over cinematic shots of the most desperate areas of this once thriving city). Like Youngstown, Ohio – or many Third World countries, for that matter – it’s a shining example of how capitalism exploited and then destroyed for profit.
We learn how Justice Powell’s memorandum of the early 70s – which reads in part that the “American business executive is truly the forgotten man” – began the reign of the corporations. Hedges accurately describes the rise of the “faux liberal class” – starting with Clinton who “felt your pain” yet carried out a corporatist agenda. (Enter NAFTA.) And since unions were the counterforce to corporations the corporations had no choice but to dismantle them to survive. We meet a laid-off steelworker living in a trailer park who straightforwardly notes that all politicians, regardless of party, are corporate puppets who “can’t even think for themselves anymore.” “When people are thirsty they’re gonna drink shitty water – they don’t care if the water’s dirty,” a Democratic party leader in this steel mill town notes, explaining why his constituency voted for Trump.
And yet, as Obama himself has reminded us, Trump is the symptom and not the cause. Peabody’s doc points out that the whipping up of racial and xenophobic hatred actually started as soon as Obama was elected president – and was done in large part by corporations worried he’d try to redistribute wealth. (Hence Citizens United.) Elites, of course, want us to believe that democracy is a byproduct of the free market. But those laid-off workers in the Ohio trailer park know what’s truly going on. Agreeing that Trump is constantly contradictory, they also believe that there’s no such thing as an “honest politician.” One burly man even admits that Trump didn’t drain the swamp – he simply moved it into the White House. Far from operating with the wool over their eyes, these folks see clearer than any coastal elite. They’re the conscripted soldiers on the frontlines of corporate warfare.
Trump is so beloved by his base because he’s not one of the political insider gang – but also because he’ll lie before dashing hopes. Democrats – and especially Obama who was a supposed savior but who instead continued with the corporatist agenda – “set the stage” for Trump, notes one academic. Cornel West, for his part, likens the “history of democracy” to the “history of the blues.” (One black talking head even calls the Trump era a “cultural awakening for both sides.”) Yet West also stresses that corporate elites want to divide us – that it’s a calculated strategy. (And soon we’re treated to clips from Lumet’s masterful Network. “The world is a business, Mr. Beale.” Indeed.)
Much like the military industrial complex the “corporate coup d’Etat” is nothing new, the term coined all the way back in ’95, just as the Internet age was ramping up. Hedges posits that we’re living in a “post-literate society.” We don’t think. We just consume images. West playfully says that “history is a mystery” and that there’s a “Trump inside all of us” – i.e., that ability to hate. And yet Peabody finds a way to end on a hopeful note, when he turns his lens on a woman living in a tent city. She serves any food she manages to scrounge up to her equally impoverished neighbors before she feeds herself – just because it’s the right thing to do. (Which leads to Hedges quoting a Russian novelist, “Evil is impotent in the face of humankind.”)
But as images of the anti-Trump inaugural protest flash across the screen I suddenly begin to doubt. Is this just another left-wing propaganda doc? And then it hits me. No. Though the corporations would love to divide and conquer us into believing so.
Photos courtesy International Documentary Film Festival