In a rare instance of solidarity, Hollywood and religious leaders have identified the next major threat to the world's welfare: the multinational corporation.
In this year's remake of the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate, audiences are being subjected to more than two hours of ideological demagoguery and grandiose conspiracy theory. Moviegoers familiar with the original will be surprised to learn that gone are the Chinese Communists seeking to control the world via the mind control of a key political leader. Chinese Communists, of course, still exist and are still in control of the lives of hundreds of millions of people. But Communists are no longer sinister enough in the eyes of Hollywood to merit such an important role. Moviemakers have found a new target.
In the recently released version, which is approaching $50 million in gross sales, the source of evil is a multinational company. The Manchurian Global Corporation, “the geopolitical extension” of every president since Nixon, is the villain. This explains the film's promotional tagline: “This summer everything is under control.” Manchurian Global, a clumsy and thinly-veiled fictional representation of companies such as Halliburton, is Hollywood's manifestation of real-life corporate evil. The satirical elements that were hallmarks of the original are absent, as director Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia) attempts to turn his remake into a serious and sustained critique of globalization, capitalism, and politics, playing on people's worst fears along the way.
The evil empire represented by Manchurian Global becomes the catch-all for stereotypical Hollywood villainy. The remake takes potshots, for example, at biotech foods, which in the film is used as a cover by a villainous rogue scientist. The scientist is, of course, a geneticist who pursued Nazi-esque eugenics during South African apartheid.
Unfortunately, a number of religious leaders – who should know better – have bought into the warped and delusional view of the business world presented by this summer's The Manchurian Candidate. Some of these religious leaders argue that the multinational company, unregulated and driven only by insatiable thirst for profit, is the source of all evil. Using imagery like the “evil empire” to describe the global economy, they warn us the multinational Tower of Babel is covered by advertisements from corporations that control our minds, our purchasing decisions, and our pocketbooks.
In recent weeks, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) has been meeting in Ghana and considering the nature of justice and evil in our world. It turns out that the free market and the multinational corporations that control it have “created job loss and grinding poverty, an unprecedented rise in crime and violence, ecological degradation, and the spread of HIV/AIDS.” The answer, WARC proposes, is “creating effective institutions of global governance,” which will counterbalance the “unaccountable power of transnational corporations and organizations who often operate around the world with impunity.”
This is bad political theory, bad economics, and bad theology. Corporations and those who lead them are accountable both to their shareholders and to those who purchase their products. They cannot force us to buy their products and most operate under strict legal requirements imposed by their governments. It is, instead, “institutions of global governance” that are some of the most unaccountable organizations on earth. Does anyone recall voting for a United Nations representative? Is the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund accountable to the citizens whose taxes pay its bills?
Both WARC and those behind the remake of The Manchurian Candidate buy into the theory that there are a handful of people somewhere (usually New York) who “control” the free market economy. In one sense, such concern is valid. Any time the economy is controlled by a small group of people, the possibility for destruction, starvation, and the proliferation of poverty increases. The last century is a powerful witness to this truth.
Multinational corporations, however, are not the usual perpetrators of such tyranny. Rather, those with the most blood on their hands are the kinds of political entities espoused by members of WARC as the remedy. They would replace tyranny at the nation-state level with tyranny at the global level, in the name of guarding us against the growth of the Tower of Babel.
But the free market, properly conceived, is the ultimate divestiture of power. It is power in the hands of people. What these church leaders should be prophetically defying is government tyranny that tramples property rights, restricts trade, and fosters multi-generational poverty.
Theologically, it seems strange that evil is incorporated. There is no doubt that there is a kind of systemic sin that can encompass an organization, group, or even an entire nation. Both President Reagan and Pope John Paul II recognized the collective evil that was the former Soviet Union. The Tower of Babel does exist. But contemporary theological pundits too often speak of evil as if it occurs only in systemic form. There is too little emphasis on individual sin or individual responsibility.
Dr. Philip Wickeri teaches evangelism and mission at the San Francisco Theological Seminary after having spent 23 years working in China. His comments to the gathering of delegates at the WARC meeting are telling: “We are facing a crisis in Christianity today brought on by what more and more people are interpreting to be the twin challenges of globalization and empire. The United States is the center of empire, its financial organizer, political arbiter and military enforcer.” What a curious comment – from someone who spent much of his life under Chinese Communism – in this summer of the fifteenth anniversary of Tiananmen Square.