The Corporate Commonwealth traces the evolution of corporations during the English Renaissance and explores the many types of corporations that once flourished. Along the way, the book offers important insights into our own definitions of fiction, politics, and value.
Henry S. Turner uses the resources of economic and political history, literary analysis, and political philosophy to demonstrate how a number of English institutions with corporate associations—including universities, guilds, towns and cities, and religious groups—were gradually narrowed to the commercial, for-profit corporation we know today, and how the joint-stock corporation, in turn, became both a template for the modern state and a political force that the state could no longer contain. Through innovative readings of works by Thomas More, William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Hobbes, among others, Turner tracks the corporation from the courts to the stage, from commonwealth to colony, and from the object of utopian fiction to the subject of tragic violence. A provocative look at the corporation’s peculiar character as both an institution and a person, The Corporate Commonwealth uses the past to suggest ways in which today’s corporations might be refashioned into a source of progressive and collective public action.
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The Corporate Commonwealth
Pluralism and Political Fictions in England, 1516â"1651
By Henry S. Turner
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Corporation as Common Constitution
Then if we should watch a polis come to be in discourse, I replied, we would also see the justice and the injustice of it come to be?
Perhaps, he replied.
So if that happened, there is hope that what we seek would be easier to see?
Yes, much easier.
Do you think we should try to go through with it? For I suspect it is no small task. Think about it.
I have, Adeimantus replied. Please continue.
— Republic, 369b
The year is 1516, on a day. We don't know when precisely, but it is after lunch. Two friends sit rapt in a garden as a stranger tells a story too fantastic to be believed (figure 1). He has just returned from the other side of the world, he says, where he lived among a people whom no traveler has seen before. These people have existed for a long time, and yet they remain completely unknown. They live in fabulous cities with great gardens and temples. They share all things in common, and so they know no poverty. They live a life of pleasure and learning, and yet they work more diligently and are more pious than any other community. Their sense of justice is unparalleled, the stranger claims, warming to his subject:
I would gladly hear any man compare the justice that is among them with that of all other nations; among whom, may I perish, if I see anything that looks either like justice or equity. For what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the commonwealth [Reipublicae], should live in great luxury and splendor upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a plowman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labors so necessary, that no commonwealth [Reipublicae] could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs?
In 1516, arguments like these are almost unimaginable. And now, after several hours of speaking, the stranger offers a final judgment rooted in his personal experience as a traveler but also in principles gleaned from authorities that he and his friends recognize and respect. Because of this threefold grounding — in experience, in principle, and in common agreement — the stranger's judgment does not rest as an opinion; it urges a general definition that would stand beyond any individual conviction:
Now I have described to you, as exactly as I could, the form of that commonwealth [Reipublicae] which I judge not merely the best but the only one which can rightly claim the name of a "commonwealth."
The stranger makes a strong claim, and his audience is understandably skeptical. Like a signature for the story that has produced it, Respublica describes not a particular place but a form of association that should characterize all political groups. In short, the stranger has described not a particular community but an idea, and in so doing he has also demonstrated something else: the way ideas in general are created from the movements of a special kind of imaginative discourse.
Many readers will recognize the speaker as Raphael Hythloday, literary creation and sometime mouthpiece of Sir Thomas More, and they will know the other name for the political community here called by its proper name, Respublica: its name is "Utopia." The difference between the two names is the difference between philosophy and fiction, a difference that had already been measured by Socrates, Plato's counterpart to Hythloday, in his own Republic, the most obvious inspiration for More's own work. Like Plato, More was concerned with how philosophy might relate to the domain of politics, and like Plato he turns finally to a type of hypothetical imagination in order to accomplish his project. And as in Plato, a certain level of irony renders the result difficult to characterize. As a work of philosophy, Utopia seeks fundamental definitions for ideas, including a definition for philosophy itself; as a work of fiction, it explores how an act of hypothetical imagination might produce legitimate definitions of political ideas in ways that are complementary to philosophy but nonetheless distinct from it. Its philosophical and formal projects run concurrently, and then run together. For all these reasons, Utopia has persistently captured the attention of later writers who seek a definition for politics, or who wish to imagine an alternative to the political forms in which they live. And yet for this reason there as many interpretations of Utopia as there are writers to voice them. "Almost everything about More's Utopia is debatable," the historian Quentin Skinner has written, "but at least the general subject-matter of the book is not in doubt. ... His concern ... is with 'the best state of a commonwealth.'"
De optimo reipublicae statu: a definition for the name "Utopia" (figure 2). As through a distorting mirror, we see reflected in More's title the extended political future of the entire sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as the two major historiographical traditions that have dominated accounts of early modern political thought. Although More still uses the term "state" in its ordinary sense of "condition" or "quality," his title already anticipates the rise of the modern state as a centralizing administrative authority over a political territory, a development that Skinner himself has described in exemplary detail. In respublica, meanwhile, we hear a term frequently translated as "commonwealth" or "state" but also the distinct tradition of classical republicanism, with its emphasis on citizenship, office holding, and public virtue. Literary critics and historians alike seeking to track the origins of both traditions back to sixteenth-century England have looked with interest at the example of Utopia, and they have found themselves wrestling with the work's irony and complex puns, its many allusions, and its formal self-awareness — in short, with its distinctively literary character. At every turn, Utopia unsettles us by consistently referring our attention away from its propositional content and toward the form in which that content has been expressed, making any conclusive statement of its political vision impossible. Nevertheless, if I begin with More's Utopia, I do so to advance a proposition of my own: the work has resisted our historiographical accounts of its political imagination because More has modeled his ideal community on a form of association that was foundational to his period but whose full political potential we have forgotten. This model, which has once again become central to our own debates over de optimo reipublicae statu, is that of the corporation.
The central problem confronting More when he sat down to write Utopia was not a simple one, but it may be stated straightforwardly: how could the lived experience of participation in a world made up of corporate associations, each with its distinctive freedoms, rituals, rules, authority, and purposes, be reconciled with the aggressively expanding power of an autocratic sovereign, on the one hand, and the tradition of classical thought about political community, on the other, in which these associations had little place? (figure 3). Holbein's famous portrait of More, robed in authority with an alert, slightly intimidating expression, conceals from us the degree to which his status, privileges, duties, income, favors, and loyalties extended across many different corporate forms at several scales, including a Carthusian monastery; a residential Oxford college; the "company" or "society" of the Inns of Court; the City of London; the Mercer's Company; the House of Commons; that network of offices, courts, chambers, and councils that collectively made up the "Crown" — the "mysterious Crown," as Ernest Barker once put it, "which is responsible for nothing and serves chiefly as a bracket to unite an indefinite series of 1+1+1" — and the enormous international body of the church. To invoke the figure of More as we have known him in early modern studies since his appearance as the avatar of Renaissance self-fashioning almost thirty years ago in the pioneering work of Stephen Greenblatt, we may say that to sit "at the table of the great" was not simply to learn a lesson about power and self-appearance for others but to learn a series of difficult and painful lessons — a mortal one, in More's case — about overlapping sovereignties, the inevitability of mixed allegiances, and the conflicting systems of value that define "oneself" as an ethical and political subject.
Today we are apt to hear the word "corporation" with a sense of foreboding and a hiss of disapproval: the arguments of Hythloday about justice have become those of Occupy Wall Street, whose rallying cry began circulating into the most unlikely contexts, an antibrand to fight against the logic of finance capital. And in many respects the society Hythloday describes bears an uncanny resemblance to corporate types we know only too well. Utopia produces a uniformity of personality that many readers have found disturbing. Its central government imagines citizens and food alike as quantitative units to be moved from one family or one city to another in order to achieve a rational political body — a perfect illustration of the biopolitical management of populations that Foucault identified as characteristic of large-scale governmentality and a mode of power that today's corporations have extended in ways that Foucault could only imagine. Daily life in Utopia is regulated by a centralized surveillance system and an utter lack of individual privacy; exile, slavery, or capital punishment face those who disturb the social order. The Utopian government pursues a manipulative foreign policy calculated to advance its own interests, facilitated by bribes and, if the occasion demands it, open war. When necessary, the Utopians expand beyond their island through a colonizing logic that imposes its system of values on new territories either by ideology or by force.
But the closer we examine Utopia, the more we discern the outlines of a political world that looks very different from the for-profit corporations we know today. Most famously, Utopia is founded upon a principle of common property, where all resources are shared according to need. Money holds no value there; gold is used for chamber pots; jewels and conspicuous consumption provoke the Utopians' derision. Women may serve as both soldiers and priests, and all forms of religious worship are welcome. The structure of everyday life reduces work to a minimum, leaving citizens free to attend lectures, to play games, or to improve roads, bridges, and other public resources — an enthusiasm for public action that sustains the community through participation and common agreement. Hythloday describes a world whose fundamental political elements are not even individuals but rather groups of all kinds: families, trade affiliations, armies, hospitals, dining halls, temples, political offices, "orders" of scholars and priests. When Hythloday observes, at the end of his narrative, that the Utopians "have adopted such institutions [instituta] of life as have laid the foundations of the commonwealth not only most happily, but also to last forever, as far as human prescience can forecast" (151), he touches on Utopia's essence: it is a corporation of corporations, a political totality made up of other groups and persons that endures beyond any one of its members.
In seeking to provide a portrait of a corporate community organized around the common good, More has translated for his own moment a tradition of argument that extends back to the very origins of political philosophy. Aristotle maintains that "the common life" is the first problem for any inquiry into the nature of the polis, and a significant portion of his Politics is concerned with specifying both the content and the form of this common good — that is, its definition (which is finally an ethical concept of the good life lived under justice) but also the best arrangement of elements that might produce it. This formal arrangement of elements is essential to the politeia, the "polity" or the "constitution," for "a constitution is a form of organization of the inhabitants of a polis," a way of "controlling the common life," and above all for ensuring the "good life" and not "life merely," as Aristotle argues.
Constitutions take different forms, Aristotle continues, because every political community has different parts, each of which must be integrated into a system of governance and allocating resources. In this way, the constitution simply formalizes the fact of plurality, which for Aristotle lies at the foundation of any community that deserves to be called "political." "A polis is a composite thing, in the same sense as any other of things that are wholes but consist of many parts," Aristotle argues, sharply opposing himself to Socrates, who had taken the unity of the polis as a foundational premise and who finds in a principle of unity the essence of justice. But surely the end toward which Socrates aims is flawed from the beginning, Aristotle argues:
I refer to the ideal of the fullest possible unity of the entire polis, which Socrates takes as his fundamental principle. Yet it is clear that if the process of unification advances beyond a certain point the polis will not be a polis at all; for a polis essentially consists of a multitude of persons, and if its unification is carried beyond a certain point polis will be reduced to family and family to individual, for we should pronounce the family to be a more complete unity than the polis, and the single person than the family; so that even if any lawgiver were able to unify the polis, he must not do so, for he will destroy it in the process. And not only does a polis consist of a multitude of human beings, it consists of human beings differing in kind. A collection of persons all alike does not constitute a polis. (2.1.3–4)
On the one hand, Aristotle insists repeatedly on the inevitability of plurality; on the other, he clearly states that the unity of the whole always precedes the part, on logical and ontological grounds, if not historically. The polis may arise from a collection of households, but it is "prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually. For the whole must necessarily be prior to the part; since when the whole body is destroyed, foot or hand will not exist except in an equivocal sense" (Politics, 1.1.11). This unity becomes especially visible in a democracy, Aristotle continues, since here, "just as the multitude becomes a single man with many feet and many hands and many senses, so also it becomes one personality as regards the moral and intellectual faculties" (Politics, 3.6.4). With the image of the body politic, Aristotle is again responding directly to Plato, who had used a similar analogy (Republic, 462d); the image will become one of the most enduring figures for a political community — for the polis that Aristotle himself describes as a "composite" substance.
Utopia often seems pulled between the two accounts of plurality and unity that we find in Plato and Aristotle, and it focuses a series of questions that are fundamental to any act of constitutional imagination, especially to a democratic one. Is thepolis to be understood as a homogeneity, a "one" made up of elements that are themselves as undifferentiated as possible within themselves? Or does the unity of the polis contain a plurality of elements, each of which contains multitudes — even to the point where its unity is called into question? More abstractly, how are parts defined, and how are wholes imagined? At what point does a part form a new whole, and how does the whole that the part forms differ from the whole from which that part has been taken? More gives these questions an expression so novel that he founds an entire genre of writing: the genre that we call, borrowing the proper name back from him, "utopic." What is it about utopic writing that makes it a necessary mode of expression for political philosophy, a mode that both Plato and Aristotle had, in their own ways, also explored? For as Aristotle points out, political philosophy simply cannot proceed without an act of hypothetical invention, in which the entire character of a living community may be founded from nothing and then be directed toward the future (Politics, 4.1.2). He even explains democracy with a mimetic metaphor, arguing that these constitutions have been designed to "imitate" (mimeîtai) the very inequality that they have been designed to eliminate. By taking turns in office in an artificial imitation of a life that has been forgotten, Aristotle argues, citizens act as if they are superior to their fellows even though they are formally identical to them: "for some govern and others are governed by turn, as though becoming other persons" (Politics, 2.1.6). Someone must rule, after all; the constitutional arrangement of a democracy is for Aristotle a kind of mimetic supplement that restores a measure of differential power and a vertical hierarchy to an otherwise equal and horizontal field.
Excerpted from The Corporate Commonwealth by Henry S. Turner. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsList of Figures
1 Corporation as Common Constitution
What Is a Corporation?
Pluralism, Corporations, and the State
Toward a Compositional Ontology of Corporations
2 The Political Economy of Sir Thomas Smith
A New Philosophy of Value
The Society of Commonwealth
The Law of Commonwealth
3 Richard Hooker’s Corporate Christians
Discipline as Constitution: Calvin in Geneva
The Nature of the Ecclesiastical Polity
The Corporate Personality of the Society Supernatural
The King’s Two Publics
From the Laws to Leviathan: Temporalities of the Corporation
4 The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Corporation
“Fine, Try Out, Alter, Change, Reduce, Turn and Transmute”: Smith’s Society of the New Art
Planting the Commonwealth: Smith’s Ulster Project
“To Buy, Sel, Truck, Change and Permute al”: Hakluyt’s Corporate Imaginary
In a Joint and Corporate Voice
Free Liberty, Power, and Authority; or . . .
5 Dekker and Company
The Companies and Their Art
Sharing the Company
Dekker’s Corporate Theater: The Shoemaker’s Holiday
The Character of the Corporate Person
6 Shakespeare’s Thing of Nothing
Shares, Parts, and Personation: Hamlet
Incorporate in Rome: Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar
The Plague of Company in the Body o’th’ Weal: Timon of Athens and Coriolanus
7 Francis Bacon’s Political Ecology
Collecting the Notion
Common Forms: Axioms and Words
Incorporate Form and Corporate Spirit
The Politics of Nature
The State of Nature: New Atlantis
8 Leviathan, Incorporated
Persons Natural, Artificial, and Fictional
Persons Mechanical, Theatrical, and Real
Coda Universitas, 1216–2016