The Corporation: a Critical Introduction
The corporation is the dominant business form of contemporary capitalism, a legal fiction and social organization developed to minimize risk while maximizing surplus value extraction. Embodying a “structure of irresponsibility” through the legal construct of limited liability—which ensures corporate immunity for a dizzying swath of bad acts —corporations today cause, finance, or directly or indirectly profit from near daily human-rights violations and international crimes, mostly in the Global South; from child slavery in Nigeria, genocide in the Congo, the killing of an Ogoni Valley human rights activist, and the deaths of over a thousand Bangladeshi workers due to a multicorporate price squeeze. Yet, by the logic of modern capitalism, the corporation is also seemingly necessary, overcoming fragmentation in order to more effectively channel capital, coordinate production, and maximize profit. How can we understand the structure, history, and economic and social significance of the corporation? And what might a study of the corporation tell us about the history, future, and very nature of global capitalism?
In this course we will explore the past, present, and possible futures of the corporation with a specific eye to its relationship to capitalism, tracing the corporation’s origins as an instrument of imperialism in the sixteenth century onwards, to its role in the global spread of capitalism and the imposition of capitalist law through the colonial Dutch and British East India Companies as well as the dozens of other companies involved in corporate imperialism and the scramble for Africa. We will trouble the mainstream scholarship that treats the corporation ahistorically and as unquestionably ‘natural’ and ‘good’ using a range of texts, film, and legal scholarship to contextualize modern business involvement in wars, civil conflicts, labor exploitation, human rights abuses, and serious environmental harm. We will question common understandings of the “benevolent nonprofit” given the substantive relationships with state power and private money that constitute the nonprofit industrial complex. Over the course of four weeks, we will ask: just how integral is the legal institution of the corporate within the history of capitalism, and how have interventions from the Supreme Court and international bodies changed the corporation’s function in the 21st century? Where do new formations like the “B Corp,” the apparently voluntaristic “corporate social responsibility” trend, or attempts to “feminize” business fit into this picture? Can shoring up corporate accountability through human rights laws, domestic law like the Alien Tort Statute, and the international criminal court curb encroachments upon environment, people, and cultures? Or, as Grietje Baars argues, are these interventions simply an integral part of the law and logic of capital? And, if corporate policy and regulations are co-produced by large states and corporations, what is the true endgame of reform within domestic and international legal systems?
Our core texts will include Grietje Baars’ The Corporation, Law, and Capitalism, and Joel Bakan’s The Corporation, with additional readings from Lua Kamal Yuille, China Mieville, Peter Drucker, Jennifer Ambrust, and Allan Norrie; and Supreme Court cases including Citizens United v. FEC, Arthur Anderson, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch, and Nestle v. Doe, among others.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
September 13 — October 04, 2023