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On the Origin of Corporations

How today's Wall Street profiteers follow in the footsteps of the buccaneers and privateers of yesteryear.

This is the tenth of a series of blogs based on excerpts adapted from the 2nd edition of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. I wrote Agenda to spur a national conversation on economic policy issues and options that are otherwise largely ignored. This blog series is intended to contribute to that conversation. —DK


East India Co

The Fleet of the East India Co., Homeward Bound from China, Under the Command of Sir Nanthaniel Dance by William Daniell, 1804. The East India Company was chartered in 1600 to aid in Britain's colonization of India, and in the early 1800s the company exported tea from China using illegal opium to pay for its purchases.

Painting by William Daniell, 1804.

Like many Americans, I grew up believing that conservative values were about local control and personal responsibility for family, community, and nature. It seemed curious to me that the political alliance that drove a rollback of the Roosevelt-era policies that created the American middle class called itself conservative and dismissed its liberal opponents as un-American.

Eventually, however, I discovered that the term conservative harkens back to a day when conservatives were monarchists who considered democracy a threat to social order and the seas were ruled by buccaneers and privateers. That was a clarifying moment.

Buccaneer is a colorful name for the pirates of old who pursued personal fortune with rules of their own making. They were, in their time, an iconic expression of “free market” capitalism.

Privateers were buccaneers to whom a king granted legal immunity and safe harbor in return for a share of the booty. Their charge was to extract physical wealth from foreign lands and peoples by whatever means—including the execution of rulers and the slaughter and enslavement of native inhabitants.

Hernán Cortés claimed the Mexican empire of Montezuma for Spain. Hernando de Soto made his initial mark trading slaves in Central America and later allied with Francisco Pizarro to take control of the Inca empire based in Peru. 

Some privateers operated powerful naval forces. In 1671, Sir Henry Morgan (yes, appreciative British kings granted favored privateers with titles of nobility in recognition of their service) launched an assault on Panama City with thirty-six ships and nearly two thousand brigands, defeating a large Spanish force and looting the city as it burned to the ground.

As with the buccaneers and privateers of days past, Wall Street’s major players find it more profitable to expropriate the wealth of others than to find honest jobs producing goods and services beneficial to their communities.

Eventually, the ruling monarchs turned from swashbuckling adventurers and chartered pirates to chartered corporations as their favored instruments of colonial expansion, administration, and pillage. The sale of public shares enabled a single firm to amass virtually unlimited financial capital and assured the continuity of the enterprise beyond the death of its founders. Limited liability absolved the owners of personal liability for the firm’s losses or misdeeds.

Corporations chartered by the British Crown established several of the earliest colonial settlements in what later became the United States and populated them with bonded laborers—many involuntarily transported from England—to work their properties. The importation of slaves from Africa followed.

The East India Company (chartered in 1600) was the primary instrument of Britain’s colonization of India, a country the company ruled until 1784 much as if it were a private estate. In the early 1800s, the East India Company established a thriving business exporting tea from China, paying for its purchases with illegal opium.

The Dutch East India Company (chartered in 1602) established its sovereignty over what is now Indonesia and reduced the local people to poverty by displacing them from their lands to grow spices for sale in Europe.

Roulette wheel, photo by John WardellBankers, Bookies, and Gamblers
What is the proper role and social function of a bank? The answer starts with getting the question right.

It is no exaggeration to characterize these forerunners of contemporary publicly traded limited liability corporations as, in effect, legally sanctioned and protected crime syndicates with private armies and navies backed by a mandate from their home governments to extort tribute, expropriate land and other wealth, monopolize markets, trade slaves, deal drugs, and profit from financial scams.

Wall Street hedge fund managers, day traders, currency traders, and other unlicensed phantom-wealth speculators are the independent, unlicensed buccaneers of our day. Wall Street banks are modern day commissioned privateers who ply a similar trade with state backing and safe harbor. The economy is their ocean. Publicly traded corporations serve as their favored vessels of plunder, financial leverage is their favored weapon, and the state is their servant-guardian.

As with the buccaneers and privateers of days past, Wall Street’s major players find it more profitable to expropriate the wealth of others than to find honest jobs producing goods and services beneficial to their communities. They walk away with their fees, commissions, and bonus packages and leave it to others to pick up the costs of federal bailouts, gyrating economic cycles, collapsing environmental systems, broken families, shattered communities, and the export of jobs along with the manufacturing, technology, and research capacities that go with them.

They seek self-enrichment by plundering wealth they had no part in creating, enjoy substantial legal immunity, and acknowledge no duty or accountability other than to themselves. Legal or not, taking the property of another through deception, fraud, and expropriation is theft. Only tyrannies guarantee the liberty of the few to plunder the wealth of the many.

[Next: Phantom Wealth and False Expectations]


David Korten author picDavid Korten (livingeconomiesforum.org) is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine and co-chair of the New Economy Working Group. This Agenda for a New Economy blog series is co-sponsored by CSRwire.com and YesMagazine.org based on excerpts from Agenda for a New Economy, 2nd edition.

The ideas presented here are developed in greater detail in Agenda for a New Economy available from the YES! Magazine web store — where there are 3 WAYS TO GET THE BOOK and a 22% discount!

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More by David Korten:

  • 10 Common Sense Principles for a New Economy
    It’s time we the people declare our independence from the money-favoring Wall Street economy.
  • Jobs, Not Handouts
    Wall Street's plunge shows what's wrong with phantom wealth. Why support that system when we could be creating jobs in the real economy?
  • The Illusion of Money
    Real wealth or phantom assets? David Korten explores the difference between the kind of wealth that makes life better and the phantom wealth created by financial speculation.
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