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Hard headed corporations

By David Ritter - posted Thursday, 20 March 2008

In the recent Oscar winner There will be Blood, director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day Lewis have created a memorable new cinematic villain in the self-described “oil man” Daniel Plainview. Following a trajectory of intransigent single-mindedness driven by ravening ambition and a fixated hatred of competitors, Plainview builds a business empire founded on black gold.

Yet despite his ostensible success, the protagonist is ultimately consumed by his own loathing and envy. In the high camp melodrama of the final scene Plainview, who has become visibly degraded by an excessive life, exacts a violent and debasing retribution on one of his enemies. Dishonest, avaricious, callous and even murderous, Plainview represents every high-flying corporate executive who has gone too far, a forerunner of the “disgraced ex CEO” of contemporary headlines.

From Christopher Skase to Ken Lay and Conrad Black to Ray Williams, we recognise Plainview’s spiritual heirs: “former tycoon” is one of the caricatures of our age, appearing in a familiar script featuring corporate collapse, massive shareholder losses and complex criminal charges.


However, the problem with focusing on single bad corporate apples is that identifying the behavior of individuals can detract from deeper analysis. There will be Blood is largely silent on the underlying structures of poorly regulated resource exploitation and capitalism that provide the opportunity for Plainview’s exploits.

As entertainment writer Tasha Robinson noted recently, the film departs from the book on which it is based, Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, with the former being confined to a depiction of personal psychosis, while the latter is an indictment of the systemic excesses of unrestrained capitalism. The motion picture even counterpoints the crazed Plainview with the responsible men of Union Oil who, if not exactly charming, are certainly evoked as the reasonable face of American business.

The ambiguous shift of emphasis from Sinclair’s critique of the system to the portrayal of a heinous individual in There will be Blood is symptomatic of an age in which we gleefully seize upon “disgraced ex CEOs”, but are often passively witting in our trust of corporations and the market they serve.

The idea of the corporation as a social stake-holder that will act responsibly and even progressively features prominently within contemporary political discourse. Needless to say, individual businesses may well take an active lead on matters as diverse as literacy, consumer protection, reconciliation, environmental protection or youth programs. Yet whenever a corporation puts its best social responsibility foot forward it will be because the stride takes the business one step further down the path of profit-making.

Publicly listed companies are not charitable institutions and providing a maximum return for shareholders is legally required as a matter of law. The case for corporate social responsibility is entirely hard headed, because when businesses are seen as responsive, regulatory risks are lowered, reputational capital is increased and the brand is enhanced. However, no matter how “socially responsible” they might be, corporations will not deliberately act in ways that jeopardise the bottom line.

Taking one example, in the realm of climate change and environmental degradation, much has been made of the business leading the charge. However as the London Independent reported in January, the climate crisis ranks well down in the list of concerns of the world's biggest companies. Nothing, not even ecological disaster and the potential end of civilisation will interfere with the profit motive, because corporations and the market mechanism itself are amoral and inhuman.


Overall, global warming ranked eighth in business leaders’ concerns, coming in behind a whole raft of other issues centered revenue and market share, including increasing sales, reducing costs, developing new products and services, competing for talented staff, securing growth in emerging markets, innovation and technology.

Recent events associated with ABC Learning demonstrate the nature of the problem. Media notice has been heavily focused on the fortunes of so-called “childcare entrepreneurs” Eddy and Le Neve Groves, directors of ABC Learning.

On the other hand, insufficient attention has been given to the more important underlying question of whether it is appropriate to corporatise and commoditise caring for children in the first place. Do we actually want there to be such a chilling phenomenon as “childcare entrepreneurs” at all? We should be deeply troubled, as trenchant critic Anne Manne argued some years ago, by the prospect of “McDonaldising child care”.

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About the Author

David Ritter is a lawyer and an historian based at UWA. David is The New Critic's London based Editor-at-Large.

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