When the fascination with the Showtime’s series “Dexter” – about the serial-killing medical examiner – was on the rise, I remembered a documentary called The Corporation, which was released about 10 years ago. In it, the filmmakers postulate that since the law recognizes corporate “personhood,” certain corporations can (or ought to) be given the same anti-social or amoral labels that we call “pathologies” when they occur in persons of the non-corporate variety, i.e. humans.
By law, a corporation can only consider the interests of its shareholders. It is legally bound to put its bottom line before everything else, even the public good.
There have been diagnostic tools and conceptual frameworks that have been used to rate or gauge a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies. People who are psychopathic or sociopathic (the sociopath is more socially adept than the psychopath) prey ruthlessly on others using charm, deceit, violence or other methods that allow them to get what they want. The symptoms of psychopathy include lack of a conscience or sense of guilt, lack of empathy, egocentricity, pathological lying, repeated violations of social norms, disregard for the law, shallow emotions, and a history of victimizing others.
Let us look at some of those behaviors as outlined by noted psychiatrists and psychologists:
— Manipulation and conning
Sociopoaths never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviors as permissible. They appear to be charming, yet are covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their victim as merely an instrument to be used. They may dominate and humiliate their victims.
— Grandiose sense of self
They feel entitled to certain things, as “their right.”
— Pathological lying
They have no problem lying coolly, and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. They can create — and get caught up in — a complex belief about their own powers and abilities. They are extremely convincing and even able to pass lie detector tests.
— Lack of remorse, shame or guilt
A deep seated rage, which is split off and repressed, is at their core. Sociopaths do not see others as people, but as targets and opportunities. Instead of friends, they have victims and accomplices (who usually end up as victims, too). The end always justifies the means for sociopaths, and they let nothing stand in their way.
— Irresponsibility and unreliability
They are not concerned about potentially wrecking others’ lives and dreams. They are oblivious or indifferent to the devastation they cause. They do not accept blame themselves, instead blaming others, even for acts they obviously committed.
— Need for stimulation
They live on the edge. Verbal outbursts and physical punishments are normal. Promiscuity and gambling are common.
— Callousness, lack of empathy
Sociopaths are unable to empathize with the pain of their victims, having only contempt for others’ feelings of distress — and readily taking advantage of them.
— Poor behavioral and impulse controls
Rage and abuse from sociopaths, alternating with small expressions of love and approval, produce an addictive cycle for abuser and abused, as well as creating hopelessness in the victim. They believe they are all-powerful, all-knowing, entitled to every wish, with no sense of personal boundaries and no concern for their impact on others.
— Criminal or entrepreneurial versatility
Sociopaths change their image as needed to avoid prosecution. Their life stories change readily.
All these behaviors, over the years, have been on full display in corporate America. For example, look at the pollution and adverse health effects that emerge as a result of corporate malfeasance. Think of the genesis of the petrochemical industry, and its links to cancer, birth defects and other toxic effects. Or look at the harm to the biosphere — so-called “externalities,” the environmental costs to future generations — resulting from the way corporations operate. When we consider this seriously, we must ask the question: What sort of sociopathic monster have we created?
Lacking remorse is one characteristic that defines sociopathy or psychopathy: having done something terrible, they don’t feel badly about it. A corporation is much the same — unless it gets caught (like when a sociopath/psychopath gets caught committing a crime, they readily claim to feel remorse if it serves their immediate purposes).
Prison can be an effective deterrent. The richer you are, the less a fine will harm you — but a year is still worth as much to a rich person as to a poor one. Unfortunately, you can’t lock up an abstraction like a corporation, and their directors have little or no criminal liability. So instead, fines become just another cost of doing business.
When pollution turns a profit, individuals divide the money. Enron and other scandal-plagued corporations may have been forced to pay the piper, but in relation to corporate wrongdoing as a whole, this isn’t even a drop in the bucket.
The real entitlement problem
When empathy and ethics fail, there is still the fear of certain consequences that help keep a great many individuals in check. Even human psychopaths can be deterred by the threat of punishment. The corporation, by and large, has no such compunction.
Take, for example, the news in January of 2009 that Merrill Lynch paid out $15 billion in bonuses. Merrill Lynch took $10 billion from the TARP, allegedly to fill holes in its balance sheet. But instead of using it to repair its financial health, it simply put the money into the pockets of its employees.
There always has been that sense of entitlement on Wall Street, and it became even more enlarged during the bubble years. Many simply cannot comprehend that they might not deserve massive pay packages. The sociopathic mind can’t grasp the idea that they might be working in broken institutions that would be unable keep the lights on if not for the fact for their being the beneficiaries of billions in taxpayer dollars.
Another example of corporate sociopathic behavior has been health insurance companies’ policies and practices. The purging of millions of people from health care coverage for reasons ranging from an infant being too big or too small, to acne, to rape being considered a preexisting condition. While they engage in such practices, health insurance companies try to project to the public the image of themselves as wondrous benefactors. Here, the victim doesn’t know that it’s victim until it’s too late.
As far as goes corporate responsibility, we watched that illusion vanish before our very eyes during the 2008 financial implosion. Sociopaths tend to be irresponsible. And that means that their behavior doesn’t take into account what’s likely to happen to somebody else. Their behavior puts other people at risk all the time.
I’ll end with the corporation as sociopathic serial killer. The Bhopal disaster in 1984 leading to the deaths of thousands as a result of corporate misconduct; the nearly 45,000 that die each year because of lack of health insurance (and the thousands more who die because they are under-covered); the U.S. government’s involvement with the corporation Blackwater (now known as Xe) and its hit squads that are responsible for many deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan; the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska that claimed 570 lives (with 8,394 claims of personal injury as well) — this list could go on and on.
This writer has said it before and will say it again: We live not in a democracy, but rather a corporatocracy. We have become in many ways corporations’ willing victims and believers of their pathological lies. We are the willfully-ignorant pawns in their cons and manipulations. Their foundations and charitable works may have a veneer of benevolence to them, but for the most part, they shield a more selfish and insatiable motive: the bottom line.
As a society and nation — like the fans of Dexter — we have become emotionally invested in the sociopath; we have too often rationalized the murderous actions of serial killers. Nevertheless, corporations lack what makes a real, human individual truly accountable — corporations may legally possess something called “personhood,” but they are persons without bodies to imprison and without souls to save.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.