Hot Docs 2019: ‘The Corporate Coup D’État’ Examines For-Profit Politics

Fred Peabody’s new film, The Corporate Coup D’État, borrows its name from the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul’s 1995 lecture, The Unconscious Civilization, in which he says, “It could be argued that we are in the midst of a coup d’état in slow motion.” This is the first sentence one hears when watching Peabody’s film, set hauntingly against the backdrop of footage from Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States of America. As Saul’s voice is heard declaring the steady and unopposed rise of faceless corporatism that is destroying the livelihoods of entire populations, slowed down footage of Trump being sworn into office floods the screen.

The Corporate Coup D’État reminds us that we are witnessing capitalist America’s deep descent into the fiery hellscape of white supremacy and neo-Fascism that has been brewing for centuries. This is what happens when private wealth exploits a society that has still yet to meaningfully reckon with the injustices of colonialism and slavery. The complicity of silence has been replaced by loud-and-proud racism and xenophobia. Free speech is conflated with hate speech. Disproportionate statistics of the overrepresentation of African Americans, Latin Americans, and Indigenous Peoples in the criminal justice system continue to be ignored. Military spending outweighs social spending. Everything and everyone has a price.

While Peabody’s film is not as impassioned as early Michael Moore, as revelatory as Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, or as artful as Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, it harnesses a sense of urgency that is well suited for today’s fractured economic and socio-political climate. Rather than looking to pit large political ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism, and socialism against one another, The Corporate Coup D’État deconstructs political deception. The film examines how Trump’s brand of neo-Fascist demagoguery employs polarizing rhetoric to divide communities against one another in order to distract everyday citizens from the manifestations of corporate greed. And while Trump’s agenda is certainly destructive, the film frames his existence as the logical outcome of decades’ worth of deregulation, privatization, voter suppression, tax cuts, lobbying, and punitive policies.

Peabody toggles through clips of Trump supporters saying that his economic policies are saving the working and middle classes and contrasts them with footage of the deindustrialization of America. He ventures to Youngstown, Ohio, Springsteen song in tow, revisiting the former glory of American steelworkers. There is footage of the great unionized jobs of the past that once fostered a sense of community. Now, those steel mills are dismantled, homes are foreclosed, an opioid crisis feasts on the hopelessness of once living souls, and former voting Democrats feel deceived by politicians who said that they had their best interests in mind. Yet, many believe that Trump is conscious of their concerns and will return jobs and industry to America. The film illustrates that during the last presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton failed to mention the growing lack of blue-collar jobs in the rust belt, while Donald Trump promised that he would bring back coal plants and manufacturing to the hard-pressed region.

The film investigates contemporary corporatism by outlining the ideas advanced by former Supreme Court judge and corporate lawyer Lewis Powell in the 1970s. In a memo to former President Richard Nixon, Powell warned the government of an “attack on the free enterprise system,” and that in order to combat the proliferation of Keynesian economics, such as increased government spending on social welfare needs, it was necessary for “corporations to use their power and money to build counter-institutions and to take over and destroy liberal institutions.” This call for increased corporate power witnessed the rise of economic rationalism and the lobbyist agenda that is so influential in the United States today. While many capitalists speak of the “inevitability of the marketplace,” the steady defunding of public infrastructure has been a conscious decision made by politicians that believe in for-profit interests. The rise of private prisons, charter schools, and private health care institutions confirms this sentiment. To illustrate the decay of social accountability, Peabody documents homeless individuals sleeping on the steps of dilapidated libraries, shuttered hospitals with tangled weeds growing from the bricks, and endless blocks of spacious boarded-up homes. Rather than repair the boulevards of the once bustling Camden, New Jersey, a freeway was built over top of it, leaving the predominantly African-American population neglected and isolated from opportunities to improve their families’ economic circumstances.

In one of the most poignant sections of the film, journalist Chris Hedges ventures to a soup kitchen in Camden. During conversations with soup kitchen staff and volunteers, it is evident that the number of family visits has increased in recent years. While 20% of the soup kitchen’s clientele are homeless or out of work, the majority of its frequent visitors are sheltered, but cannot support themselves with minimum wages and must supplement their salaries with subsidized meals. Many visitors were once school teachers that lost their jobs due to the steady defunding of public education and one man talked about how after returning from prison, he was unable to find lasting work because of his criminal record. Individuals are not receiving adequate support for substance dependency or their mental health needs. With most industry at the mercy of constantly shifting globalized interests, there is no opportunity for rehabilitation. When capital becomes increasingly borderless and the majority of individuals are confined to inescapable squalor, long-term community investment is easily ignored.

Another scene in The Corporate Coup D’État that proves to be emblematic of the current political reality is when another journalist, Lee Fang, heads to Capitol Hill to interview politicians that supported the rollback of the Dodd-Frank banking regulations. Introduced by the Obama administration in 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act was positioned as a method to uphold greater protections in order to prohibit banks’ predatory lending strategies and large-scale corporate greed. However, in 2018, the Trump administration and banking lobbyists passed a number of measures to reverse the Dodd-Frank legislation, further deregulating the behaviour of the American financial industry. Unsurprisingly, when Fang attempts to question various politicians on why they voted for the rollback, they refuse to answer his questions. This lack of transparency from both the Republican and Democrat supporters of this counter-legislation illustrates the utter disregard for the harm that is caused when corporate interests pervade the political arena.

While there are a plethora of anti-corporatist messages within Peabody’s film, one cannot help but ask for more. Though he captures both the large-scale and individual consequences of American corporatism, what is missing is the conversation about how the general public can resist its insidiousness and apply further pressure towards the capitalist status quo. It is clear that many of the current inequalities in Anglo democracies are outcomes of a top-down application of power, yet knowing this, how does one begin to mount an opposing attack? In an era of corporate mergers that continue to destroy employment opportunities, there must be a new form of public education that illustrates how wealthy elites continue to consolidate control in order to selfishly exploit the public. Where Peabody could have advanced his film even further is if he illustrated how corporations deceptively swallow local businesses, setting off a chain reaction that bankrupts entire communities. Unfortunately, political discourse overshadows the fact that most of capitalism’s biggest exploits are hidden from the public domain. In order to combat this, citizens must continue to develop critical tools to investigate the ways that the neoliberal legal system disenfranchises impoverished, racialized, and Indigenous communities.

To strive for transformative change in society, there must be less of an incentive for already wealthy individuals to simply sell out their ideas and become acquired by larger, wealthier corporations. Not only does this neglect any sort of social responsibility, but it allows shadowy business agendas to swindle entire constituencies to vote against their interests. This is where socially conscious politicians and front-line community organizers must mobilize support and educate the masses on how to create change from the bottom-up. The public needs to know the names of the individuals that are enacting these harmful decisions and hold them more accountable for their shameful behaviour. They must answer the questions that they have been avoiding for years. If the beneficiaries of harmful corporatism, such as the Koch brothers, continue to divide and conquer the entire American population while hiding behind the inequitable political system that they helped create, then what is going to stop them from continuing to do the same in the future?

The Corporate Coup D’État makes its Canadian debut at Hot Docs 2019 in Toronto, Canada. Purchase tickets here.


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