The corporation is a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster at the heart of many contemporary versions of conspiracy. It is easy enough to demonstrate that many corporations avoid tax, fix prices through cartels, knowingly sell dangerous products, engage in industrial espionage, deliberately mislead people through their advertising, and covertly attempt to influence state policies (Punch).
It is also evident that the majority of film representations of corporations—Wall Street, Robocop, Other People’s Money, and Erin Brockovich, to name but a few— generally present corporations as Machiavellian places in which dirty deals are done behind closed doors (Parker).
What is more difficult is to establish that corporations are actually key conspirators in destabilizing states that have policies that are hostile to corporate interests, or even engineer wars in order to sell more weapons. This is an area where the boundaries between enthusiastic business practice and illegal activity, as well as the boundaries between the state and the corporation, are difficult to distinguish.
Corporations are fictional entities, legally constructed nonhumans that are exempt from some of the laws of a particular state. Like similar words— “company,” “organization,” “association”—“corporation” is a word that refers to the collective activity of a group of individuals, usually those engaged in some form of commercial business. (Note that the root of the word “conspiracy” comes from “breathing together”—again suggesting a collective activity.)
Given that within capitalist societies this collective activity is usually aimed at maximizing profitability, it is hardly surprising that corporations should often be regarded as quasi-conspiratorial arrangements almost by definition.
It is “common sense” that corporations are primarily motivated by making profits, so whatever else they claim (about caring for customers, employees, the environment, and so on) is likely to be no more than a public relations exercise.
The first English corporations were charitable institutions (hospitals, schools, and churches), which used the legal framework of incorporation to avoid death duties and other taxes. Having a license from the Crown meant that, in certain defined circumstances—which did not initially include profit making—they would be treated as different from the people who inhabited them.
When, by the end of the sixteenth century, similar charters were awarded to trade associations, this gradually led to the construction of large profit-making companies of shareholders such as the Company of Merchants Adventurers (1505), and, perhaps the best known, the East India Company with its vast transnational reach.
While the Judeo-Christian world exemplifies a sustained suspicion of businesspeople and their organizations, from the moneylenders in the temple to Shylock’s pound of flesh, it is in the United States of the late nineteenth century that contemporary corporate conspiracism fully emerges. Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary of 1911, defined the corporation as “An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility”.
At that time, the organization of the U.S. economy under the control of various corporate alliances known as “trusts” ensured that prices for producer and consumer goods were set in smoke-filled rooms and profits guaranteed.
After World War I had ended, the Great Depression, the stock market crash, muckraking journalism, and substantial attempts at union organization by the Industrial Workers of the World and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), together with violent resistance to the corporate vested interests, all turned this sense of unease into widespread social concern.
The brave promise of a United States of social opportunity now sees the “little guy” suffering under the new yoke of big organization. Social commentary books such as Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons (1934) and many fictional works all took aim at the new decadent U.S. aristocracy.
“In short order the railroad presidents, the copper barons, the big dry-goods merchants and the steel masters became Senators, ruling in the highest councils of the national government, and sometimes scattered twenty-dollar gold pieces to the newsboys of Washington.
But they also became in even greater number lay leaders of churches, trustees of universities, partners or owners of newspapers or press services and figures of fashionable, cultured society”. Ultimately, this diagnosis resulted in the New Deal administration that attempted to enforce antitrust legislation, unemployment insurance, and a whole host of new regulatory bodies.
The rise of the Progressive Party and the “trustbusters”—the movement agitating against the industrial trusts— was in some sense a response to the widespread sense of corruption and collusion, and the perception that both big business and big politics were effectively in each other’s pockets.
Although corporate conspiracism seems to have faded somewhat after World War II, the reemergence of common ideas about corporate conspiracies in the 1970s is sometimes explained with respect to the end of a broadly Keynesian welfare state. It is also clear that the boundaries between big money and big politics were again becoming permeable.
The activities of Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” in making profits from U.S. foreign policy, and the counterculture’s demonology of all matters associated with the “one-dimensional society” of “organization man” set the scene for a renewed suspicion of corporations that has lasted up to the present day.
In academic work in the social sciences, the popularity of metaphors like “McDonaldization” or “Coca-Colonization,” combined with the enduring attraction of Marxist or Weberian models of the state as a mediator of corporate power, has meant that (outside the business school) corporations are generally regarded with considerable hostility and scepticism.
In political and economic terms the 1970s saw the beginning of the collapse of the social contract and a return to the mode of permanent crisis which had characterized the 1930s and 1940s. Margaret Thatcher talked of “rolling back the state” and “giving managers the right to manage” while Ronald Reagan promised to “get government off the backs of the people.”
It seemed that big business had undergone its short period of rehabilitation, and was now once again ready to challenge the rights of workers (whether air traffic controllers or miners) and the right of the state to regulate corporate activities. Or, perhaps as Noam Chomsky argues, this was merely the public justification. The postwar period illustrated that corporations had learned that they could use the shelter of the state to shore up their political legitimacy at the same time that they were feeding at the public trough.
So this period was characterized by simultaneous protectionism and intervention—massive “defense” spending combined with state subsidy and/or tax relief to industries that were under threat. None of these policies actually changed much in the 1970s; the corporate trough remained full while the language of market liberalism became more strident and self-righteous (Frank).
The rise of concerns about business ethics and social responsibility from the 1980s onward reflected both liberal concerns about business power, as well as a variety of attempts by corporations to claim the language of ethics and turn it to a profit.
Managers and organizations were now falling over each other to make glossy public statements about equal opportunities policies; gender, age, and ethnicity issues; social cost accounting; environmental responsibility; community involvement and sponsorship; business scandals; whistle-blowing; consumer redress; corporate governance, and so on.
There were also, of course, plenty of consultants willing to help formulate these statements. Market liberals and theologians likewise rapidly developed a stream of ideas that stressed spirituality, soul, and the moral foundations of market institutions in favor of “back to basics” values rooted in notions of community and responsibility.
In parallel, and over the last twenty years or so, business ethics has become an accepted part of the business school canon. Ethics is becoming a big business itself, part of a long public relations campaign to relegitimize business in the face of widespread public unease.
The latest version of corporations as conspiratorial can be found in the contemporary anticorporate and anticapitalist protest movements. From the 1970s onward, the Bretton Woods consensus (the postwar international agreement on exchange rates) was beginning to be unpicked and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank began acting as the emissaries of structural readjustment to market forces.
Although there were many attempts to expose corporate power in relation to global hegemony from the 1970s onward (Barnet and Müller; Barnet and Cavanagh), it was the 1999 “Battle in Seattle” that brought these ideas to a much wider public.
Since then, a rainbow alliance of activists have summit-hopped their way around the meetings of the World Trade Organization and associated bodies in order to expose the extent to which corporations are increasingly displacing states and their citizens in most areas of decision making.
The attempt to liberalize global trade, sometimes misleadingly given the catchall term “globalization,” has provoked massive discontent from left-wing radicals to right-wing protectionist nationalists (Spark).
Critics suggest that terms such as “liberalization” and “free trade” actually translate into the right of powerful corporations to determine state policies and prevent any local attempts to protect wage rates, local skills, and levels of taxation (Klein; Monbiot).
The “freedom” being engineered by and for these global corporations is one that allows them to exploit any natural resource, labor force, or form of intellectual property in order to make their profits.
From the Robber Barons to the global corporations, there exists a century-long lineage of suspicion about corporate activities, although it is difficult to disentangle legitimate concern from wild speculation. There are some well-known and documented cases in which it is obvious that corporations acted to cover up decisions and activities that were both immoral and illegal.
For example, in the 1970s the Ford company calculated that it was cheaper to pay compensation to relatives and victims of its badly designed Pinto model than to pay for a major redesign of the car’s electrical system (Punch, 23). On the other hand, there are examples of lobbying that is legitimate, yet suspicious.
George W. Bush’s decision to pull out of the global warming agreements in 2001 was almost certainly related to the fact that his campaign had been substantially financed by fossil-fuel corporations. There are also examples of corporations doing business with highly oppressive governments, or even assisting with intervention in political matters.
In any case, the divide between legality and illegality is unclear and possibly unhelpful. If it is accepted that corporations are silently taking over the functions of democratic states, then perhaps legal distinctions are themselves compromised by hegemonic understandings of the proper role of business.
In some senses, these are matters of representation and trust. The widespread acceptance of conspiracy tales about corporations simply reflects the fact that big business is not widely trusted. It is assumed that senior decision-makers in business are motivated by money and career considerations, so any story that involves the suggestion of dirty dealing is treated as possible, if not probable.
The image of a shark in a suit sitting at the top of his skyscraper is a powerful one in many contemporary films and novels. In some sense, these “masters of the universe” do live in a different world to the majority of the world’s population. As A. Starr puts it, everybody knows there is a conspiracy, and understands the self-interest of the conspiracists, but what galls is the level of deceit about such matters (Starr, 8).
Hence the shadowy activities of groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations, Bilderbergers, U.S. Business Roundtable, Trilateral Commission, World Economic Forum, Conférence de Montréal, and Transatlantic Business Dialogue are themselves treated as a self-evident threat. Rather excitingly, “they” are organizing against “us,” so exposing the conspiracy becomes a kind of moral crusade in itself (Smith).
It is a small step from these “facts” to suggesting that “they” are also responsible for concealing the secret of the everlasting lightbulb, or sponsoring the assassinations of politicians who are hostile to their interests. Or indeed, that corporate domination reflects the interests of a cabal of rich Jews or Masons who are silently organizing a new world order (Spark). In a real sense, corporations are conspiratorial.
The questions that remain concern the content of the conspiracies, and whether the citizens of democratic states should regard these as legitimate business practices or dangerously antidemocratic symptoms of corporate rule.