Diagnosing the Corporation: Psychopathy in the Business World
By Mille Stocks
Corporate personhood, that is the establishment of corporate entities as singular human beings in law, began at the end of the American Civil War. In 1868, African Americans gained constitutional rights via the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment; which established ‘de jure’ equality through the allocation of civil and legal rights, prohibiting the deprivation of “life, liberty, or property”. In a grossly paradoxical turn of events, corporate lawyers operating within the context of this ratification argued that they too, as entities made up of many people, should be bestowed the same legal status; thus beginning the humanisation of corporations. Having established personhood, academic discourse into corporate personality began.
Before addressing the relevance of psychopathy to the corporate world, it is first crucial to problematise the term itself. Popularised by film and other media, the term ‘psychopath’ is utilised beyond academic jargon. It is therefore to be expected that a plethora of preconceived behavioural associations are made; derived from infamous caricatures such as: Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill and Patrick Bateman, to list a few. Having always attributed the term to people, it initially feels an ill-suited descriptor for more abstract entities such as corporations. Despite this, it is possible to compartmentalise the disorder into a myriad of maladaptive, egocentric and socially damaging behaviour which, in a seemingly absurd nature, is reminiscent of actions undertaken within the corporate world.
Perhaps the most concrete argument in perceiving corporations as psychopaths lies in their severe lack of empathy, which results in a disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others. In an interview, Chomsky put forth the argument that corporations are, in a traditional sense, facist, “more totalitarian than most institutions we call totalitarian in the political arena” and therefore an enemy to democracy in that they operate in an entirely top-down system. Prototypes of such systems have been at the forefront of social theory and critique for hundreds of years, with philosophers such as Marx arguing that capitalism, and instruments of capitalism, can flourish only within a context of exploitation. They rely on the “oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another”. This interpretation, which demonstrates the way in which corporations operate primarily to benefit themselves with disregard for workers and consumers, is indicative also of the egoism of the corporate personality.
Other shared traits include deception and immorality, foundational characteristics in psychopathic behaviour. For example, the general harm to the biosphere, as indicated by corporate furtherance of hyper-consumerism and other environmental disasters. Moreover, their reckless disregard for others — as seen in the multiple Nestlé formula milk scandals and, more recently, in data scandals such as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica breach. These cases of misconduct have often been labelled by media as ‘bad apples’, though it appears more plausible to consider this a fundamental ‘personality’ flaw in the nature of corporations, one that “thrives perhaps as the most significant threat to ethical corporate behaviour around the world.”
The anti-social behaviour often present within corporate decisions, including recurrent law breaking and a disregard for social norms, characteristics associated with psychopathy, further this argument. In his book, Bakan argues that corporations are no longer purely economic institutions, securing dominance over a plethora of social constructs in day to day life: “They determine what we eat, what we watch, what we wear, where we work, and what we do. We are inescapably surrounded by their culture, iconography, and ideology ”. Crucially, this power is so dominant it is able to challenge governmental authority, now acting as a social institution in its own right. Catalysed by economic globalisation, corporate power has enhanced to a point wherein it is able to “evade the authority of governments”; with establishments such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) becoming “a significant fetter on nations’ abilities to protect their citizens from corporate misdeeds”. In some cases, corporations have amassed more wealth, and by association more power, than entire countries. Metaphorically speaking, they are analogous to Frankenstein’s monster — acreation which has overwhelmed it’s creator.
Fundamentally, we are in a crisis wherein insurmountable power is held by social institutions which, in many ways, establish behavioural patterns consistent with that of a psychopath. Most terrifyingly, unlike our classical understanding, this entity has “no soul to save and no body to incarcerate”12. Consequentially, we are left with fearful concerns of accountability and control to loom over society.