We should NOT trust corporations

Joel Bakan, rozmówca Tygodnika, fot. Simon Fraser University z Flickr / CC BY 2.0

We talk with Joel Bakan about the „new corporations” scam, why corporations will not save the world and how each of us can fight against corporate power.

Joel Bakan – professor of Law at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Rhodes Scholar and former assistant to Canadian Supreme Court Chief Justice Brian Dickson, he is an internationally recognized authority on law. He is the author of numerous publications on the impact of law on social and economic life and the book „The Corporation”, translated into more than twenty languages, which became an international bestseller. The book was the basis for a critically acclaimed documentary film Bakan co-produced and wrote. Bakan’s most recent materials are the book and film „The New Corporation”.

Kalina Czop, Rafał Górski: Due to coronavirus, pharmaceutic corporations don’t come out of newspaper’s first pages. In your book “Childhood under siege: How big business targets children”, which was published in Poland in 2013, you mentioned that criminal activity is an immanent quality of pharmaceutical industry.

This is similar to the thoughts written by John la Carre in book “The Constant Gardener”, which also regards the richest industrial sector in world. Pharmaceutical industry is not only responsible for creating new medications for various diseases but also it brings on those diseases. I’ve got no doubts that those concerns are using people as they were guinea pigs.

In your book, you are using the case of Pfizer corporation which was sentenced to the largest ever fine of 1.3 billion dollars in 2009 because of serious infringing the law.

In the movie “The New Corporation” there is an information that the court sentenced Johnson&Johnson as responsible for opioids overdose epidemic.

Today, corporations like Pfizer and Johnson&Johnson are offering us the COVID-19 vaccination. Should we trust corporations that they are controlling their own demeanour and that they behave responsibly towards others?

Joel Bakan: The short answer to your long question is – no, we shouldn’t trust corporations. I have spent the last 20 years writing about why we shouldn’t trust corporations, and the reason why we shouldn’t do it is because institutionally and legally they are constituted always to serve their own self-interest. In my book and film, “The Corporation,” I argue that corporations are like human psychopaths – they are incapable of being concerned about others and respecting others’ interests. They are programmed, by their legal structure, always to serve their own interests. 

In terms of that structure and that character which they have as institutions, it would be folly for us to trust them. We don’t trust psychopaths. We don’t trust people who are incapable of being concern about us, that are concerned only about themselves.

But the problem is – and this relates to the issue of big pharmaceutical companies – that we depend on them. We depend on them even though we don’t trust them. And that’s not only true for pharmaceutical corporations. It’s true for everything we do in life. We drive the cars corporations produce; we wear the clothing they produce, eat the food they produce. That is the reality we live in. It’s not the reality we necessarily desire – we would, perhaps, in an ideal world, have worker cooperatives involved in production, and other more human and trustworthy ways to produce what we need. But we don’t live in that world, and we still need to eat, wear clothes, we still need bicycles and cars, airplanes and all the things that we depend on including the computer and the programme that I am talking to you on right now.

We are entirely dependent, but we can’t trust them – that is the paradox, that is our dilemma. When it comes to pharmaceutical companies, there is no question – and I have written about it in all my books – pharmaceutical companies are not trustworthy, they are involved in criminal activity, they pursue self-interest in ways that harm people, especially vulnerable people. Pfizer, Johnson&Johnson, for example; these companies helped fuel the opioid crisis. Courts have found the guilty. Even before the opioids crisis they and other major pharma companies had long records of criminal activity. They have been prosecuted and have settled cases or been brought to trial by government authorities around the world.

Pharmaceutical companies engage in all kinds of nefarious activities: kick-back programmes with doctors and pharmacists to promote prescriptions of their products; undue influence over science and clinical trials which they sponsor, and over the various manuals, education, and protocols of the medical profession; they push for over prescription, and overdiagnosis. They have a problematic history of doing clinical trials in the Global South on poor people, victims over the years of colonialism, and taking advantage of their poverty to offer them rewards for being involved in risky, clinical trials.

There is no doubt that the pharmaceutical industry is a problem. But, just as we wear clothes, use computers, and eat food, we also depend upon the products that pharmaceutical companies produce. We take the Paracetamol when we have a headache, antibiotics when we have sore throat, chemotherapy when we have cancer, we take. I don’t know many people, including those who are very sceptical and critical of corporations’ power, who don’t take these treatments when they need them. That is the paradox we are in – that we depend on corporations, including pharma companies, but we don’t trust them. That is the paradox we need to work towards eliminating, but, in the meantime, it is the paradox we must navigate.

The other piece that I think is important here is that many of the products that pharmaceutical companies make – cancer treatments, vaccines, and so on – are dependent upon publicly-funded basic science, science funded by taxpayers, by public agencies. There is a huge public investment – huge investment by citizens, as taxpayers – in the production of pharmaceuticals, and yet it’s companies that make all the profits. That’s a problem too because the companies will always say, “Look – don’t regulate us, let us do what we do, because we are providing such an incredible innovation – a new vaccine or a new drug that will cure cancer or whatever. We are the good guys”. What they never say is that the reason they can do all of that is not that they are private heroes, but that they are public beneficiaries. But that fact tends to be ideologically obscured, and the privatisation of public funding that goes on is left unquestioned.

All of this is relevant to the current COVID vaccine debates. The corporations that have made these vaccines, and are reaping extraordinary profits from them, have relied on a body of scientific knowledge that is largely the result of public investment. And the vaccines raise that same paradox I spoke of earlier – that we depend on the pharma corporations to make the vaccines, but we don’t trust them. We must grapple with this when deciding whether to take a vaccine or not. I don’t think it makes sense to simply say that because they are bad corporations we can’t take the vaccine, because if we say that, we have to say that about all the other corporate-made drugs we depend on, for headaches, sore throats, cancer, and so on, not to mention everything else – our clothes, food, bicycles, and so on. We can’t completely opt out of corporate-made products, because we depend on them. But nor should we trust that all these products are good for us. So, with the vaccines that’s the paradox – we can’t presume they are bad for us because they are made by corporations, but nor should we presume they are good for us.  

We are in the middle, and we have to look at all the facts with a sceptical eye, while avoiding jumping to conclusions on the basis of presumptions. This is very difficult. We need to look at all kinds of issues that happened around of introducing the vaccine. We can look at the facts that it happened to quickly, that government regulators just kind of rolled over and said, “Do whatever you want”, that there wasn’t sufficient time to actually test the vaccines. But we also need to look at COVID, the disease, its terrible impacts, the harm to society and life if we don’t slow or stop it. It’s very personal choice that has to be based on solid information, which, I acknowledge, is hard to come by, not least because of the influence of big pharma over scientific information.  My own personal choice, as a person who is very sceptical of corporate power, is I decided to take a vaccine. The science about COVID and the vaccines overwhelmingly point in that direction, I believe, even when it’s read with the scepticism it deserves.  

I wish we weren’t in this situation – this paradox between trust and dependence; a truly good society would not have this paradox. A start, even within the constraints of corporate capitalism, would be better oversight and better regulations by truly democratic governments not unduly influenced by big business. But that’s not where we are. And, with respect to pharma and the vaccines, we are in a pandemic, and so we have to make that difficult choice.  

Since 2005 corporations have been promoting new propaganda. What it’s all about?

The reason why it was necessary to do a sequel to my movie and to my book was because beginning around 2005 corporations started to say that they were no longer the problem in the world, that they were going to become the solutions.

It was something very different than the corporate social responsibility we’ve seen since the 1980s, where corporations said they would try to be better, would give some money to poor people, try not to ruin the environment, but always quite peripheral – always at the margins of what they were doing. What started to happen around 2005 is corporations began saying that those social values, those environmental values, were no longer at the margins of what they do. They were now at the centre. They began to say that those things are just as important as making money.

When you go to the website of McDonald, Chevrolet or General Motors, any big company, the first thing on the website is not “We try to make money,” or “We are good at making money”; the first thing is, “We are trying to save the world – here are our programmes”.  When you go to the McDonald website you may think: “Did I hit the wrong page? Am I at United Nations?”. Did I accidently click on the site of an activist organization? It’s all about “saving the world”.

It really increased since 2005, to the point where corporations are basically now saying that their main job is to solve the world’s problems, like climate change, hunger, poverty, inequality. They are no longer the problem, they’re telling us, they are the solutions. You can see it everywhere – it’s the dominant way that corporations present themselves today. It’s very different than what was in the early 2000s when I wrote the first book and made the first film. This is the reason why I wrote the second book, with the subtitle: “How ‘good’ corporations are bad for democracy”.

In researching that book, and the film I made that is based on it, I went to the World Economic Forum Meeting in Davos, and I talked to CEO’S and business pundits there, and what I discovered from those conversations is this whole notion of “the good corporation” is really part of a play to take over everything. It’s a play to present corporations as though they are publicly-minded institutions, and that they can therefore take the place of governments.

What’s happening now is corporations are saying “Look! We are good. We recycle our waste, we use less water, we use green energy, we are good now. We give money to poor people and worry about inequality – we are just like governments, we care about public interest”.

Corporations claim that they care about society, which means, they say, they are actually better options than governments for governing society. They say they don’t need to be regulated because they are good now and they can regulate themselves; that they should run schools, water systems, they should partner with the United Nations and figure out how to solve world hunger. But, of course, doing all these things in ways that make money for them. Not in ways that necessarily serve the public interest. That’s what is happening now.

I spoke with Richard Edelman in Davos – the world’s top business guru. Edelman&Company is the firm that advises companies and corporations, tells them what they should be doing, helps them market themselves, and helps them create their images. I asked Edelman, “So tell me what’s going on with this new » good corporation «?”. And he said that it is amazing – corporations are becoming good actors now and it’s no longer just a peripheral thing, it’s a fundamental strategy, “And therefore”, he said, corporations can “fill the void left by government”.  

So, I asked him “What about democracy? What happens to democracy when corporations are doing what governments are supposed to do?” Because whatever we say about government – they might not be working well, but they are at least institutionally democratic and at least we should try to make them work democratically. Corporations are not at all democratic, they can’t be democratic, that’s not how they are made or put together. Edelman replied– and I am quoting him directly – “I am not much of a believer in political citizenship, I believe in the power of the marketplace”.

“Political citizenship” is, by another name, democracy. So, what he seemed to be saying was that that we should forget about democracy, because it’s part of the past and the power of marketplace is the future. The reason why I wrote my second book, and I made a second film, about corporations is to challenge this idea of the new corporation, to reveal that all of this talk about newness, of goodness, of social and environmental value – all of that talk is a play by corporations to take more power, to, in a fact, replace, or at least replace much of what governments do.

According to your words, would you say that we are no longer ruled by politicians which have been chosen in elections, but we are ruled by corporations?

This is another paradox – we talked about paradox of trust and dependence with respect to corporations. We also have paradoxes around government.  Institutions of government formally control the state, and in nations that are democratic, that means democratic institutions have formal control over how society is governed. The problem, however, is that those institutions are heavily influenced by corporations, elections are also heavily influenced by corporations. And what corporations have done with their influence over democratic governments over the last 40 years is to push back the role of the social state, to push back the roles of the government in representing the people to serving their interests, whether in terms of health, education, clean air, safety, democratic processes, or so many other public goods.  

Corporations have been on a very effective campaign over past 40 years to clear all of this away and thus create better conditions and more opportunities for profit-making – what’s often described as neoliberalism. They have expanded their power, diminished democratic control of them, and eviscerated democratic provision and protection of the public good. They have been quite successful in doing all of that, and we are at the point where the state has been diminished in terms of its ability to act democratically. And, as I argue in my book, when you diminish democracy’s positive and real roles in people’s lives, it becomes an abstraction. People don’t feel passionately about abstractions. So, democracy no longer has a strong hold on their political imaginations. I suggest this is a significant factor for explaining the democratic victories of anti-democratic regimes around the world.

So, corporations are very much in control of government agendas rather than the people. And that’s a problem. There are 3 ways that you can go with that problem: one way you can is the way which Richard Edelman implies and that is that we should just give up on the idea of robust democracy, let corporations fill the void left by its evisceration at their hands; put out the white flag and say: “You win – it’s all yours” – accept that governments don’t have much democratic power anymore, let corporations step in to run everything. This not the way that I think we should choose.

The second way is revolution – to just overturn the entire system and try to create another, one that is truly democratic, egalitarian and green, that isn’t based on the extraction of capital from workers and the natural environment. This sounds good in the abstract, but when you look at history, these kinds of revolutionary movements tend not to work, and they often lead to worse abuses than the ones that they have been fighting against.

The third approach is to try to reclaim democracy. We have these institutions that are at least formally democratic – let’s work to make them substantively democratic. Let’s work to make them actually democratic, to change public consciousness, to educate, to propagate ideas like your organisation is doing, to create awareness, to create a democratic sensibility. Let’s work at the local level, let’s work in our unions, in our civil society organisations, in our political parties. Because it’s not just a question of running candidates for a progressive party – they won’t get elected if public consciousness is still completely hijacked and beholden to the corporate values that are pumped out so strongly and so intensely by corporations and their cheerleaders in government and civil society. There is a lot of education that needs to happen, and it needs to be aligned with actions, with protest, with proposition and ideas about what a better world would look like.  

I am not saying it’s easy, I am not even saying that it’s likely to be successful. I hope it is. But for me, it’s the only plausible and sensible option. Giving up is not an option, surrendering to corporate power is not an option. So, this kind of thinking about current democratic institutions, to make them work the way that they are supposed to work, is what I advocate and what I advocated in the end of my book. I look at a lot of examples of successful, local progressive political movements that are also aligned with electoral movement. The idea of is to occupy democracy, not only the streets and squares; recapture democracy. I am not saying that it’s easy, but for me this is a path that is morally sensible and practically possible. 

This is the way that citizens can fight against corporations–psychopaths. I remember my happiness when I heard that Chevron corporation withdrew from Poland. We were helping farmers from Żurawlow, who had been blocking Chevron corporation investments for 15 months. Chevron was planning to mine shale gas. 6 months ago, I watched the film “Dark Waters” in which the lawyer won the battle against DuPont corporation. Could you give us other examples when the citizens defeated the corporations?

In my own country and region, a lot of indigenous activists have combined with environmental activist to stop pipelines. This is the most recent and closest local victory with international ramifications. People in Australia have waged a campaign against the Adani coal mine which is proposed in their area, and they had some victories. We talk about it a lot in the film, we go to Australia, we do that story in that film. However, it’s unclear what is going to happen right now, because they seem to be facing defeat. But it’s also a very powerful movement.

I have my own challenge against corporations happening right now which I am hoping to win. As you may know I am a lawyer, a professor of law at the University of British Columbia, and I am challenging twitter’s censorship of my film “The New Corporations”. It blocked our ability to promote a Tweet featuring a trailer of the film, claiming the Tweet was political, inappropriate, that it was sensitive targeting, which was surprising to me. The film’s basic message is what I have been talking about with you, that corporate power is something we should worry about; that we need to recapture democracy – it’s a pro-democracy message. But Twitter decided to ban its promotion. So, I am suing Twitter for violating my free speech. You can learn more about the case here.

There are many cases brought against corporations for their harmful actions. Despite all the problems with corruption, when you look at European countries, including your own, when you look at the European Union, at the United States’ government, at Canadian government and other governments around the world, there is, despite everything, a lot of prosecutions of big corporations for environmental harm, for corruption, for fraud, for harm to consumers.

It’s also important to remember that, even though the system is very broken, it still works sometimes. Even with all the corporate influence on governments, even with all the inadequacies of regulation – governments are still going after corporations, suing them, and successfully stopping them from causing certain kinds of harm.

I don’t want to be overly-optimist, but I think that it’s very important for activists to understand that nothing is totally broken. Everything is somewhat broken, but not completely, not, I hope, beyond repair. It gives hope to see that the parts which aren’t broken still work sometimes, that there are very committed prosecutors in the US Department of Justice, for example, who see it as life mission to stop corporations form causing harm. And you have the same in all countries.

It’s shades of grey, it’s not all black and white, and I think it’s very important for activists to understand that is not all is destroyed, that there is something to build on.  

Now, having said all of that, I want to be very clear to say that the systems for holding corporations accountable and stopping them from causing harm are totally inadequate and corrupt in many ways.  My point is only that, despite all of that, they sometimes work, and are at least something to work from, to try to make better.

I would like to focus on telecommunications corporations for a while. In 2011 in your book “Childhood under siege…” you emphasised on children’s addiction to mobile phones. You mentioned also the electrosmog and wrote that there is no way to ignore radiation. That telecommunication industry invests a lot in research, public relation strategies and lobby to cast doubt on potential connection between mobile phones and cancer. The official statement says that it is not settled if mobile phone can have detrimental effects on human health. But The Wireless Association, the organization which defends telecommunication corporations’ deals, ignored the fact that this thesis does not fully agree if mobile phones are completely safe. There are vivid but not yet crucial evidence that mobile phones can affect especially young people. What has changed in 10 years? 

I think one thing that has changed is more younger people have mobile phones now. When I was writing that book, my kids were 14 and 15 and they wanted mobile phones. My wife and I were really thinking we shouldn’t give them mobile phones, that we should wait. And we did – we waited. Today, the idea that it’s controversial for a 14-year-old to have a mobile phone is ridiculous. Three-year-olds now have mobile phones or mobile devices that they use to play on.

One of the things I was trying to get at in that book in 2011 was the fact that science has been so overtaken by corporations that it’s focused on getting certain results – in particular in getting results that prove that what corporations make is safe. And that’s not just a problem for mobile phones and radiation. That’s a problem for pharmaceuticals, that is a problem for soft drinks like Coca-Cola, candies, and junk food.

As a parent, I want to know if I am exposing my child to harm when I give my child a cell phone or when I give my child a Coca-Cola or a pharmaceutical. And I want to know what kind of harm I am exposing my child to. Because sometimes we must balance risks. If our child needs some pharmaceutical drug, we must balance risk. If we, as citizens and consumers, want to make good choices, and if governments want to decide what needs to be regulated, we need to have good knowledge. The problem is we don’t have it. And we don’t because we don’t have sufficient safeguards to protect science from corporate influence.

We haven’t taken this task seriously enough as a society to create real firewalls between corporate influence and the production of scientific knowledge. That’s also true of climate change, it’s true of pharmaceuticals, it’s true of food.

And again, this links back to the good cooperation idea. We have companies like Coca-Cola,   saying that they are going to solve world hunger and that we should rely on them. For example, in India they provide, what they call, nutraceutical drinks. These are drinks that they enrich with vitamins and minerals. The problem is, they’re also filled with lots of sugar. In fact, one nutraceutical drink, which can replace a meal for a person who is starving, has roughly the amount of sugar which is the maximum recommended for a child in a day by the World Health Organization. So, they are partially solving one problem, but they are also creating others: obesity and diabetes.

The other problem is when Coca-Cola says that they going to solve world hunger by providing replacements for food in the form of drinks. That’s a ridiculous policy. For solving world hunger, you should ensure that people have a proper balanced meal three times a day.

To make the proper assessment, whether we’re policy makers or we’re citizens or we’re consumers, we need to know the truth.  And we’re at the point where we legitimately don’t trust science because it’s been so overtaken by corporate interests. The whole cell phone radiation thing it’s just one example of this much larger problem which is that as a society we really need to figure out how we can promote and conduct high quality science with integrity and without corporations’ influence.

In Poland trade unions are tumbling. They have black press and there is no attention in media for works councils. Corporations are blocking attempts to create new trade unions. Governments, regardless of being left, centre or right, talk a lot about employees but in economic resources categories, not in human being aspects. National Labour Inspectorate is weak. Corporations do whatever they want. How it looks like in your country?

It’s the same in Canada, it’s the same in the United States. The problem is all around the world. Maybe Germany and France have a slightly stronger labour movement. But you know, one of the main goals of corporations over the last 40 years has been to destroy the organized labour movement. And they’ve gone a long way towards that end. It’s a part of the ideology of the new corporation movement to claim that trade unions are old fashioned, that they’re anachronistic, and based on an old industrial model.

I’m not saying every trade union and every labour organization is perfect. They have work to do to update, as do all organizations and democratic institutions. They’re not perfect, but they address a problem that has not disappeared, and that has, in fact, gotten worse. And that is that an individual employee is in a radically unequal position when dealing with a large employer, especially a transnational corporation. The reason why the labour movement began in the first place was to help balance out this profound inequality between individual worker and large employer. That problem has not gone away, and nor will it any time soon if ever.

So, the only way employees can have any kind of control over their working conditions is by acting collectively, both in bargaining with their employers and in forming and working with political parties that represent their interests so as to secure protections from the state. This is not least because they are up against collectives – collectives of capital, which is what corporations are. Though the law treats a corporation as though it’s one person, that’s just a trick. In fact, it is a collectivity of shareholders – it collects all the economic investments of all the shareholders and wields the resulting economic (and social and political power). The only way the sole individual worker can be effective against that power, which is incentivized to extract as much labour as possible for as little cost, is to get together with colleagues and act, bargain and work politically collectively.  

Corporations resist unions with pious promises to look after their employees. This is another trope that has become even more pronounced with the new corporation movement. But this is a deception. Corporations, because of their self-interested programs, see workers as human resources, not as human beings, from which to extract labour and generate profit. So, you can’t trust a corporation to look after its workforce. We need trade unions and I think it is one of the projects of the next decade or so to reinvigorate vehicles for collective action by workers. Will those vehicles look exactly the same as the trade unions of the early 20th century? Probably not. The workplace has changed, and unions need to adapt. But that does not deny the need for them.

The labour movement and governments are grappling with the fact the workplace itself is being changing in ways that make traditional forms of collective action among employees difficult.  We’re moving towards a gig economy, an Uber model of work relations where workers are reconceived as independent contractors, as sole businesspeople. In this way, notions of employment and its reciprocal obligations, and the workplace itself, are disappearing, posing real problems for collective empowerment of workers.

This is a real challenge for the labour movement. Some unions are doing a really good job with it. Uber drivers, for example, are forming unions, and there have been some successful legal cases where in the UK those unions of Uber drivers are required to be recognized by Uber. So, there’s some good work happening there.  

The fundamental principle we need to understand is – workers have no power if they are alone. We need to figure out vehicles for workers to act collectively in independent organizations, not organizations sponsored by corporations, which increasingly is happening now, not nice human resource programs that says that corporation itself wants to treat everybody well. None of that. What we need are legally constituted and defined organizations that enable workers to act collectively in relation to those who profit from their work.

When you were talking about those big corporations saying that they will take care of their own people and their own employees, I thought about those big offices where you have those “Fruit Thursdays” or special coaching sessions or the yoga hours. I always feel like it’s all about over productivity because even when you have those coaching meetings or those yoga trainings, it’s all about making you work more, work better.


It’s not about your health…

Of course. It has to be about making employees work longer and more efficiently because if the corporation’s sole obligation is to make money for its shareholders – which it is – then it has to justify everything it does in that way. If it gives its employees yoga and it gives its employees nice food, it must justify all of that on the ground that that will help it make money. A corporation can never say honestly that it wants to help employees because they’re human beings. It’s not allowed to say that, regardless of what might be genuine feelings of its managers.  When you see all the yoga, the meditation, the mindfulness, and organic food in the cafeteria, you’ll always see it being justified on the ground it will make workers more productive. And if they’re more productive, they make more money for the company.

And they will stay with the corporation because they’ll believe that the corporation really cares about them.

Yes. And the other important point to make is that even if in corporations there are a lot of those yoga programs, the mindfulness, and the organic food – usually that’s aimed at the management and high-skilled employees. It’s typically not for the employees on the shop floor. When you go to Silicon Valley, when you go to the Google campus or the Facebook campus and you see all the young employees wearing tennis shoes and jeans, playing foosball and having free food. Those are the top tier employees. Those are the engineers and the software creators. When you go outside and see the parking attendant, the lunchroom workers who are making all that free food, the gardeners, groundskeepers, maintenance workers and janitors – none of them are playing foosball. None of them are getting free food. They’re just like workers everywhere else.

Finally – would you like to give a word or advice over to Polish activists who fight against corporations?

Just keep up the struggle. When you look at world history, people have always struggled. There’s always been struggles for justice and for a better world. There has always been power to struggle against. We have to struggle for a better world because that’s our human duty. Even if it looks like we are not going to win, that’s not really the issue. When we are activists, we have to see our involvement, our actions, our commitment and our struggles as essential to what makes us human. It is not about winning and losing, though, of course, it is better to win than to lose.

If you think about it only in terms of winning or losing, you’ll be frustrated and depressed all the time. If you think about it as something that is part of your destiny as a human being, and that is helping you understand what it means to be human, what is your meaning in life and your purpose on earth, then I think it is a deep and beautiful thing. Like playing music or writing poetry, it’s part of our aspiration as human beings to be human.

Kalina Czop, Rafał Górski

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