Absolute power

Johann Hari is gripped by two documentaries on the dark side of big business

We are living in a new Golden Age for American documentaries. During the Clinton years, the mainstream US media was a stagnant bog of disingenuous "balance" and "impartiality", usually counter-balanced only by deranged right-wing shock-jockery. Then two men changed everything: the strange twin-set of George Bush's administration and Michael Moore's movies.

This year's Cambridge Film Festival presents the British premiere of two of their most impressive children. The Corporation is Fahrenheit 9/11 for people who think: a sober analysis of "the dominant institution in our world today, comparable to the power of the Church, the monarchy and the Communist Party" in previous societies.

A handful of private companies now determine to a large extent what we value, what we eat, and how we dream. Five-year-old American children are more likely to recognise pictures of Ronald McDonald than George Washington or Jesus Christ. And corporations wield even more power over people in developing countries; the film takes us inside an Indonesian factory where terrified 13-year-old workers take home just 0.3 per cent of the retail price of the clothes they make.

Yet the corporation has existed in its current form for only 150 years. In a revolutionary US court ruling in the late 19th century, corporations were granted all the legal rights of a person. This ruling gives Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott the structure for their film. Treating the corporation as a human being - as US law demands - they ask: what kind of person is this? In discussion with leading psychiatrists, they diagnose that the corporation can be deemed only a psychopath.

"What does it mean," they ask, "if the leading institution of our time is psychotic?" The results are shown with unhysterical clarity: environmental destruction and callous disregard for basic human rights.

Yet despite the clarity of this argument, the film also unwittingly exposes the tensions among those of us who believe that corporate power must be restrained. What coherent philosophy should we offer as an alternative? The film-makers don't seem to have made up their minds. The two most dominant voices in the film are Noam Chomsky - an anarchist who does not believe corporations generate any wealth at all, and advocates the abolition of all markets - and Michael Moore, who is vaguely anti-capitalist.

Yet more sophisticated voices are presented - an argument that businesses are necessary for wealth creation but must be kept in their place. "The corporation is a paradox. It creates great wealth but causes other great and hidden harms," the film says at one point.

The implication of this is that corporations should not be destroyed but, instead, counter-balanced by strong trade unions and tightly locked into a system of democratic regulations. We shouldn't kill the madman but drug him. This is classic European social democracy. It's unfortunate that this more subtle argument is not stated more clearly in an otherwise devastating and precise piece of film-making.

In Super Size Me, the New York-based film-maker Morgan Spurlock decided last year to test McDonald's claim that their food is healthy. He pledged to live for 30 days on nothing but McDonald's. I watched the results especially closely, since I have been conducting a similar experiment myself for the past decade. My idea of a balanced diet is KFC for breakfast, Burger King for lunch and McDonald's for dinner.

Refreshingly, Spurlock spurns the lazy, obvious argument, making it clear that he too loves the food (although it takes time for him to adjust to the McGas and McStomach Ache that follows).

Yet a project that starts out as a fun jaunt quickly mutates into a Polanski-esque horror flick. Within a week he is impotent and experiencing strange pains in his penis. Within a fortnight he is waking up unable to breathe, stricken with chest pains. Within three weeks, his dietician gawps at Morgan's liver test and says, "Basically, it is turning into paté. You should stop this experiment now before you permanently damage your body." By the end of his experiment, he has gained 10 per cent of his own body weight and can barely make it up his own stairs.

My own flabby, clogged heart was so chilled by the movie I didn't eat a Big Mac for six whole hours. Nobody should underestimate the power of these documentaries to change the world.


'Super Size Me' will be screened on Saturday 10 July at 6pm, and Sunday 11 July at 3.15pm. 'The Corporation' screens 17-18 July