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The Pathological Belief in Rhetorical Questions

The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, by Joel Bakan, Viking, Canada, 2004

Like the documentary film with which it was co-created, the subject matter alone makes this book worth the price of admission. The emergence of corporations as the dominant economic and cultural institution in human societies is turning out to be the unspectacular but crucial political and cultural crisis of the 21st century, even though it is overshadowed by the much more visible-to-the-mass-media rise of international terrorism.

Most of us—pro and con alike—identify the transformation of the political and cultural landscape as “globalization.” It has been has been building since the mid 1970s, and in the last three decades corporations have morphed into trans-border behemoths able to control national, regional and locally elected governments, and possess asset bases and production levels greater than many small countries. Since corporations operate within the constitutional democracies with the rights of individual human beings but without most of the social and legal constraints and responsibilities of citizenship, they have met with little effective resistance in their efforts to impose a world-wide commodity and financial marketplace as both the model for and primary arena of human exchange.

The documentary film version of The Corporation, which has been playing in big city theatres across Canada this spring, has created a minor media sensation. The book is less likely to, because its greater depth of detail and analytic testimony exposes some fairly profound flaws in its approach. The most debilitating of these is that neither version of The Corporation is likely to change the mind of anyone who already has a mild opinion on the subject or hasn’t just tumbled off a banana truck. There exists an increasingly partisan division of opinion about whether the transformation in effective control from governments to corporations is for good or ill, evolutional or pathological. Bakan is firmly on the for ill/pathological side of the divide, and the book’s hook, which is that modern corporations behave, in relation to the societies over which they now effectively preside, as social psychopaths, is considerably more galvanizing in the documentary film than in the book.

In the film version, the psychopathy theme occupies a major part of the narrative. In the book, corporations-as-social-psychopaths shares the stage with a rhetorically weighted strain of democratic fundamentalism similar to that which has hamstrung the liberal left across Western civilization since the flow of political energy and power began to reverse in the mid 1970s.

What do I mean by democratic fundamentalism? First, fundamentalists are those who feel no need to argue the rightness of their core beliefs or defend their supporting data against other organizations of facts and ideas. In its most ludicrous (and destructive) formulation, this can be fundamentalist Christians refusing to debate the literality of the Old Testament against those who recognize it only as the ancient historical testimony of desert nomads crazed by political oppression, malnutrition, psychotropic drugs and blowing sand. For Christian fundamentalists, the world began in 4004 BCE because that’s what Old Testament arithmetic interpretation tells them. Science and carbon dating be damned—the reason why civilization developed first in the Middle East was that there was no jungle to hide the lurking Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops.

With democratic fundamentalists—of whom Noam Chomsky is the best known and most prestigious example—it is more complicated, in part because their fundamentalist closures are more genteel and less aggressive than those of other fundamentalisms. It is best identified by the tone of its argumentative rhetoric, which is elevated, aggrieved, and elegaically Virgilian. Anyone who disagrees is insufficiently cultivated or poorly informed. Or both.

A passage from page 107 of The Corporation, offers a chewy illustration of what I mean. The passage, which demonstrates this democratic fundamentalism at work, follows a disingenuous claim during an interview by a corporate leader that his political donations and lobbying exert no influence over those who receive his money. In the documentary film, the corporate leader’s claim required no comment. But without the visuals the documentary film exploits so effectively, Bakan can’t resist delivering a heavy-handed editorial, and attaching several rhetorical questions, the latter of which are today’s signals that one is among believers: “Yet where are the desperately needed countervailing lobbies to represent the interests of average citizens?” he writes. “Where are the millions of dollars acting in their interests? Alas, they are notably absent.”

A quick parsing of this passage reveals two supposed rhetorical questions (I sure as hell don’t know the answer to either question), a cliché, (“average citizens”) a wild inflation (“desperately needed”) and a word, “alas”, which hasn’t been used in a normal human conversation for 200 years.

It might be possible to pass this off simply as lousy writing. But let’s not. There are dozens of examples of this sort of inflation within , and each of them undermines—and characterizes–the book in the same ways. Mostly they make it unpleasant to read, and occasionally, incomprehensible unless one is carrying a full set of a priori judgments. At best, they signal to today’s wary readers that alternate interpretations are available, and that the author is trying to persuade by tricks, not by open argument and factual disclosure. In today’s discursive environments, rhetorical questions breed only cynicism, and the destructive illusion that questions that gravely need to be addressed have already been taken care of.

In one particularly irritating jumble of rhetoric and anecdote aimed at convincing readers that corporations have turned back the clock on sweatshop manufacturing, Bakan uses the example of the infamous 1911 sweatshop fire in New York City that incinerated 146 locked-in workers as his baseline for illegal and abusive work conditions. The supporting evidence that the condition has returned full-blown within the borders of the United State, aside from a community organizer’s opinion that it has, comes from a recent NYC fire scare in which the pre-conditions were ostensibly similar to those of the 1911 fire. This is a disturbing datum, and so is the supporting testimony material Bakan presents about offshore corporate sweatshops. But in order to secure this at a rhetorical level as spectacle, he subjects readers to “Bienvenido Hernandez, a leather worker on the building’s tenth floor, ran to the window when he saw the smoke and tried to escape by descending a cloth rope hanging out of it. He lost his grip in the freezing air of a cold January day and plummeted down, snapping his spine when he landed on a nearby rooftop. He died soon after.”

Now, most people today know the yellow journalist’s trick of attaching a physical body—spectacularly maimed and better dead than alive—to convince us that we’re surrounded by murderers, monsters and molesters, because television and the tabloids have subjected us to it ad nauseum. But in a book that is supposed to be serious discourse, this sort of emotionalization is intellectually patronizing. Most sensible readers of the book will accept that sweatshop conditions are on the rise, and that there are manufacturers who lock their workers in and don’t provide for adequate worker safety even in major American cities. It doesn’t quite follow that these work conditions are once again universal, and dropping a body from the 10th floor to demonstrate that it is won’t convince anyone in full possession of their faculties. Those inclined not to believe will simply point to the evidence that Bienvenedo Hernandez panicked, and that the building evidently didn’t subsequently burn because the “plummeter” was the only death that resulted. Worst of all, it invites the skepticism of readers in search of a balanced argument.

What’s particularly demoralizing about this is that Bakan isn’t short of relevant facts. Like his mentor Chomsky, he has lots of them, and like Chomsky, he’s got nearly all of them straight. Where the problem lies is in the exclusion of counterweighting or qualifying facts and sets of facts, which are simply ignored or disqualified as insincere corporate propaganda. One of the weaknesses in the book is that it gets too caught up in its corporations-as-psychos metaphor, and has to ignore the economic and political influence within capitalism of huge blocks of capital from pension and mutual funds which tend to behave exactly the same way that corporations do, but without an overt political program.

That said, Bakan is particularly effective in pointing to the sophisticated legal ramifications of corporate-engendered globalism and its social and cultural pathologies. The book’s sixth and final chapter, “Reckonings,” deals directly with these concerns and is, along with many of the accompanying notes, the most illuminating part of the book. This isn’t surprising, given that its author is a University of British Columbia law professor, and is most comfortable and articulate explaining points of local, national and international law.

Bakan, like Chomsky, seems to believe it is enough simply to treat the philosophical protestations of the corporations with supercilious contempt, or implying that their sincerity is fraudulent. That locks him into the fabulously unproductive binary struggle between regulators and exploiters, the latter of whom he rejects without examining or arguing through their terms or their facts—a tactic that demonstrably hasn’t been working very well for at least 25 years. We already know that the corporatists don’t argue fairly either, and don’t feel even slightly compelled to. But what makes democracy a trustable system of human relations is that it has never presented itself as a set of values that are above the requirement that their rightness and relevance needs to be argued.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Bakan wrote this book, and I think The Corporation–both the book and the documentary film—are accurate in their overall description of the dangers out-of-control corporations present to democracy and to each of us as individuals. But the way this book is written and argued makes it a lost opportunity to convince the corporatists that they’re fouling their own nests as well as ours. The fight against Globalism isn’t going to be won with devotional literature, and with the exceptions noted above, that’s what most of this book is.

1683 w. May 31st, 2004

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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