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Review: The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel

November 13, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

In 2003, co-directors Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar released The Corporation, a documentary based upon a book by Canadian professor Joel Bakan that sought to psychoanalyze corporations as if they were people, and came to the conclusion that they would be diagnosed as psychopaths.

Now, seventeen years later, Abbott has returned with The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel, this time co-directing with Bakan himself. The themes explored in Bakan’s latest book, The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad for Democracy, provide the basis for this cinematic sequel.

This film explores how, in the nearly two decades since the first one, corporations have tried to rebrand themselves as the “good guys” through virtue-signalling, and are pretending to care about issues to continue turning a profit. The film hits on a number of billionaire targets, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and BP Oil’s John Browne, who have all tried to sell themselves as agents of positive social change, even if it runs counter to what their company’s are actually doing.

While paying lip service to social issues like climate change and racial justice, these corporations are gaining increasing power and exerting more control over our lives through monopolies on education, technology, and natural resources. A few compelling examples given in the film include the investments Bill Gates is making in education through his controversial Bridge Schools program in Africa, Amazon’s cornering of the market on smart home devices, and the privatization of drinking water.

This is allowing corporations to serve more and more as the de facto government. The film theorizes a vicious cycle in which corporations accept massive tax cuts to increase their profits and keep money out of government coffers, and then step up to fund the social programs that the government can no longer afford to. For example, the government bailed out the banks after the 2008 economic crash, and when Detroit filed for bankruptcy several years later, becoming the largest municipality to do so, JPMorgan stepped in to invest in rebuilding the city.

This leads to distrust in the entire governmental system, causing people to want to burn the whole thing down in response. These are all things that led to Donald Trump being elected in 2016, and the film is correct in its assessment that he is a symptom of a larger issue, and not the disease itself. The main issue is that corporations have become more powerful and profitable than ever, while many real people have found themselves worse off, leading to social unrest and resentment amongst the working class.

This has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cost many people their jobs while CEOs such as Amazon’s Bezos, now the richest man in history, continue to rake in massive profits. The film was already in production before the pandemic hit, and it’s interesting to watch how it shifts, with the subjects starting to appear remotely rather than for sit-down interviews.

The film’s panel of academics, journalists and activists touch upon a recurrent theme of consumerism, including how corporate values have successfully been redefined as American values. Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, sums it up quite nicely partway through the film when he draws the distinction that we have drifted from “having a market economy, to being a market society.” He goes on to explain that a market economy is “a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity, but a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale.”

In the last act, Abbott and Bakan start to focus on the various social movements that have sprung up in response to all of this, drawing direct lines from the Occupy movement to the rise of Bernie Sanders and other progressive politicians around the world. Finally, the film touches upon the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out this summer after the horrific police murder of George Floyd. It’s here that the film starts to feel a little rushed, but seeing as these demonstrations were literally taking place while the film was finishing up production, it’s understandable why they weren’t given more focus.

This is one of those documentaries that offers a lot of information and different ideas, and the directors do a good job of keeping it fast-paced and engaging. While a lot of these themes have been covered in other films, The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel is still a thought provoking documentary that does a good job of exploring the increasing role that corporations play in our lives.

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel is opening in select theatres across Canada today, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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