Marina Welker


In the award-winning documentary The Corporation, public intellectuals and activists characterize corporations as “externalizing machines,” “doom machines,” “persons with no moral conscience,” and “monsters trying to devour as much profit as possible at anyone’s expense.” In other footage, people on the street personify corporations: “General Electric: a kind old man with lots of stories;” “Nike: young, energetic;” “Microsoft: aggressive;” “McDonald’s: young, outgoing, enthusiastic;” “Monsanto: immaculately dressed;” “Disney: goofy;” “The Body Shop: deceptive.” The documentary, like screenwriter and legal scholar Joel Bakan’s book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, imparts dissonant messages about corporations. On the one hand, the film challenges the appropriateness of extending legal personhood to them. On the other hand, it perpetuates and reinforces the popular trope of personhood by framing corporations as actors with the capacity—and legal obligation—to formulate and act upon an intention: maximizing profits for shareholders. Evaluating corporations according to standard criteria derived from individual clinical psychology, the film finds that the dominant institution of our time is a psychopath. And not just your run-of-the-mill human psychopath. Corporations are jacked up with superpowers: omniscience, immortality, unlimited size, and mobility. The film serves up the orthodox corporation as a figure of unbearable terror and infinite irresponsibility. This Article argues that Bakan and his film collaborators implicitly draw on a liberal model of personhood to depict the corporation as Homo economicus, the ideal culprit in a forensic context. After examining the social appeal and problematic legal foundations of this account, I turn to how social studies of the state and anthropological theories of personhood may extend social analysis of corporations in other directions, if corporations are understood as open and unstable phenomena. I then draw on my research on mining in Indonesia to explore the issue of violence and human rights abuses carried out by state forces in extractive industry zones, using this material to explore the limits of the model of the corporation as a free-standing, self-constituting subject in forensic contexts.