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The corporate psychopath exposed

By Simon Hooper for CNN

In "The Corporation" Bakan, center, and fellow filmmakers Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott analyze the workings of modern business.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- You can guess how Joel Bakan feels about modern companies from the title of his book: "The Corporation: The pathological pursuit of profit and power".

For Bakan, a Canadian law professor, his eponymous subject is a self-interested, manipulative, amoral and irresponsible character which, were it a person, would be diagnosed as clinically insane.

Bakan's polemical portrait, also adapted into a two-and-a-half hour documentary, is a tale of Enron-esque corruption, the erosion of workers' rights, the unethical exploitation of the developing world and an unhealthy involvement in political process.

"The problem with corporate capitalism is that selfishness and greed have become these unmodified values," Bakan told CNN.

"If you are in business then your moral imperative is to create wealth for your shareholders.

"What you have is a legally created person who is legally required always to act in its own self interest and the idea is that if a human person was only able to act in its own self interests we'd generally diagnose that person as a psychopath.

"We can go through the characteristics that define this particular disorder, one by one, and see how they might apply to corporations."

At the heart of Bakan's argument is the idea that, since its legal personification during the mid-1800s, the corporation has risen relentlessly to become the dominant institution in western society -- the equivalent of the church, the monarchy or the Communist Party during other historical eras.

Initially created as instruments of government policy, as illustrated by the great trading companies of the 17th and 18th centuries, Bakan argues that companies now exist purely to pursue profits with no interest or obligation to the societies in which they exist.

"Corporations have become so powerful that we've deregulated many of their activities, we've handed over many of our social services to them through privatization and we've loosened up merger and acquisition requirements to let them get as big as they want."

But can a corporation really have a personality? Bakan argues that the essentially anti-social nature of a company will predominate even if those in charge have good intentions. As for Corporate Social Responsibility, Bakan describes the concept as an "oxymoron."

"You might as well ask a great white shark to be nice to fish or a fox to go vegetarian," he argues in the film.

But John Micklethwait, the author of "The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea" and U.S. editor of "The Economist", disagrees.

"The corporation is legally a person, but the real question is whether it's ultimately fair to compare them to people," he says.

"The best way to think of the company is as a technology and, like all other forms of technologies, it can be used for good or evil. It doesn't have a mind of its own. The mind is driven by the people who run it. What the company is is a devastating piece of technology."

Micklethwait also believes Bakan has under-estimated the historical significance of companies and over-stated the influence of their modern successors.

"When people talk about companies now being more powerful than ever before, that is straightforwardly wrong," he says.

"Microsoft makes a huge amount of money but it doesn't actually run a country in the same way the East India Company did. Wal-Mart is roughly the same size as a country like Colombia, which may be dysfunctional but it can send you to prison, it can put you in the army and it can do a whole host of things a company can't do."

For Micklethwait the main issue is less the flawed corporate world than the absence of a credible alternative.

"When people question corporations they have to ask, 'What else?' Corporations have got defects but look at the countries that have not got corporations. The number of companies a country has is not a bad indicator of how free it is."

And while Bakan while criticize the way big business operates, he accepts society is at a crossroads in terms of alternative visions.

"We accept that the corporation is a self-interested mechanism and we accept that it's a very efficient tool for creating wealth, he says. "But we need to balance the creation of profit and the creation of wealth against the destruction of other values."

-- CNN's Paula Sailes contributed to this report.

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