The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power

Norbert Ruebsaat

A corporation is a fiction in the sense that it is a group of people who are imagined by law to be one person. The “limited liability” clause in corporation law deems the real persons who own the fictional corporate person not responsible for the latter’s actions because the law says those actions have been taken by the fictional person, not the real persons. A corporation is required by law to make profits for its shareholders (the real persons who are its owners) and it is breaking the law if it fails to do so. Thus, when a corporation breaks an environmental or human rights law, the obeying of which would cut into its profits, that corporation is acting legally because corporate law, which governs fictions, supersedes human rights and environmental law, which governs reality. This absurd twist of logic and jurisprudence, which Joel Bakan demonstrates in The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (Viking Canada) and in the film it is based on, turns notions about corporate responsibility and accountability into oxymorons. A corporate person must by law act like a psychopath: he must callously disregard the feelings of others, he must eschew stable relationships, he must disregard others’ safety, he must deceive and lie and he must never feel guilty. Corporate executives may not act responsibly, even if they want to, because their job (as employees of a fiction) is to make profits, and making profits is by nature an irresponsible activity. Social responsibility, when practised by corporate persons, is therefore advertising, not moral conduct. Because they behave like psychopaths, corporations were outlawed in Britain (where they were invented) between 1720 and 1825; today they wield more power than all but the wealthiest governments (who ceased, in the 1980s, to regulate most corporate activities), and they threaten global survival. Corporations, like all but the best fictions, are autocracies, not democracies, and it is this understanding that readers of the book, like viewers of the film (the smartest documentary ever to be made in B.C., by the way), are taking to heart. Bakan shows how we might come to know that corporations, which were created by governments, can be uncreated and/or re-created by governments—and only by democratic governments, because it is only in democracies that real people, not fictional ones, make and administer law. Only real people, Bakan wishes us to know, will curb the psychopathic nature of incorporated will to power, which is not nature at all, but culture.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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