Fireside Friday: January 1, 2021

Happy New Year! Good riddance 2020! Fireside this week. Next week, we’ll be finishing up our look at the Dothraki of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones by looking at how they are shown to fight and comparing that to the fighting patterns of actual historical horse-borne nomads.

Of course, it’s also the first day of a New Year. 2020 was a hard year for most of us and I don’t think anyone is sad to see it gone, but it was also the first full calendar year for A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry (which started in May, 2019). 2020 saw the blog reach a lot more people than 2019 – about four times more views and visitors averaged out on a per-month basis; 1.9 million page views in 2020 total.

I didn’t start this project to get tons of views, of course. I started it as a way to hopefully engage a broader section of the public with some solid history and have some fun enjoying and poking at history in popular culture along the way. In that, ACOUP has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. I know some academics will find counting views a bit crass, but the thing is, you cannot do public engagement without actually engaging some of the public and I see no hope for the humanities going forward unless we do more to foster public support and make the case that our studies provide value for everyone. I am hoping to begin also using ACOUP as a platform to highlight the work of other scholars in the coming year (more on that when it is ready), alongside my own unique brand of history, Clausewitz (drink!), and historical cat pictures.

2021 here we come. There should be a lot to look forward to!

Edit: Let me add a quick reminder for the comments: this is not a politics blog, nor will it become a politics blog, and I’d like to keep contemporary, or near-contemporary politics out of the comments section. Political debates tend to consume everything they touch and there are already a thousand places to debate politics on the internet. So let’s keep to our focus of history (mostly pre-modern) and pop-cultural depictions of historical events and concepts.

Christmas gifts, past and present. The plushie M4 Sherman and one of the Polybius Loebs were gifts this year.
And yes, the stocking with my name on it is mine and has been since I was not much larger than it is.
As for the two tiny stockings, well, let’s just say we may have some very modern historical cat pictures coming to the blog soon.

For this week’s musing, I want to muse on the idea of megacorporations. Now the megacorp is a staple speculative fiction trope, from the Spacer’s Guild of Dune to the megacorporations of Cyberpunk 2077. It is even sufficiently iconic to have gotten its own Stellaris expansion. But megacorporations – we’ll get to definitions in a moment – also existed historically, and I think the comparison between the historical organizations and the creations of speculative fiction are actually instructive.

The definition of a megacorp differs a bit, work to work. They are, of course, mega corporations in the literal sense; massive, vertically integrated companies that often have monopolistic control over multiple markets. But more fundamental to the defintion of the megacorp is that they typically employ their own armed forces and either enforce their own law or are at least able to ignore the law more generally. It is not enough for a company to be big, it has to generate the sort of wealth to which M. Licinius Crassus famously quipped “no one was truly rich who could not support an army at his own expense” (Plut. Cras. 2.7).

Which is to say that what really defines a megacorporation is that it trespasses into domains usually occupied by the state: military, police and judicial functions – the use of force. A megacorporation is, simply put, a corporation so large and powerful that it begins to act as a state, be that in the form of the private armies of Cyberpunk 2077, the privatized police force of the Robocop franchise, or the straight-up corporate governments of Stellaris (which in turn channel things like the Spacer’s Guild or the Ferengi Alliance) And that is core to the generally dystopian leaning of megacorporations – they are meant to reflect capitalism and corporate empire building taken to an extreme, to the point where it has swallowed the entire rest of the society.

Taking that definition to history, we can actually see a fair number of megacorporations; they are by no means common, but they do exist. Going very far back, the Roman societates (lit: ‘fellowships,’ but ‘business association’ or ‘company’ is an accurate enough rendering) of the publicani (businessmen who filled public contracts) exercised close to this sort of power in some of Rome’s early provinces. During the Middle and Late Roman Republic, the job of extracting tax revenue from the provinces was too administratively complex for the limited machinery of the Republic, so instead the senate directed the censors to auction the right to collect taxes. Groups of Roman businessmen (and often silent patrician partners) would group resources together to bid for the right to collect taxes from a province – any taxes they took in excess of that figure would be their profit.

These companies could be very large indeed. For instance, parts of the lex portorii Asiae (the customs laws for the Roman province of Asia) survive and include regulations for the relevant company including a slew of customs houses and guard posts (the law is incomplete, but mentions more than 30 collection points – all major ports – to which would also need to be added posts along the land routes into the province). From other evidence we know that the staff at customs posts included armed guards along with the expected tax collectors and book keepers. And we know that publicani were sometimes delegated local or Roman forces to do their work (e.g. Cic. Ad Att. 114, using Shackleton Bailey’s numbering). They also maintained the closest thing the Roman Republic had to a postal service (Cic. Ad Att. 108). It’s not clear exactly how many employees one of the larger tax collection companies might have had (and those for the province of Asia – equivalent to the west coast of Anatolia – would have been some of the largest), but it was clearly considerable, as were the sums of money involved.

To the cities and towns of a province, such Roman companies must have seemed like megacorporations, especially if they were in with the governor (which they generally were) and thus could call down the forces of Rome on recalcitrant taxpayers. And we certainly know that these publicani often collected substantially far more than was due to them under the law (the reason why ‘tax collector’ and ‘sinner’ seem to be nearly synonymous in the New Testament, a fact that gave Ernst Badian’s study of them, Publicans and Sinners, its title). At the same time, we see the clear limitations too: such companies were clearly subservient to the governor and to the Roman state. Administrative changes beginning under Julius Caesar and brought to completion under Augustus did away with some of the largest tax contracts and the influence of the societates publicanorum with them.

The great (and terrible) chartered trading companies offer a more promising historical parallel for the megacorporation, with much larger scope. The largest of these were the British East India Company (EIC, 1600-1874) and the Dutch East India Company (the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC, 1594-1800). The EIC at one point accounted for something close to half of the the world’s trade and the VOC at points had total or near-total monopolies on the trade of important and valuable spices. Both companies were absolutely massive and exercised direct, state-like authority over territory and people.

And the structure of these massive trading companies mirrors some of the elements of a megacorp. While both companies were, in theory, shipping companies, in practice they were massive vertically integrated conglomerates. Conquering the production areas (particularly India for the EIC and Java for the VOC), they essentially controlled the production chain from start to finish. That complete vertical integration meant that the companies also had to supply employees and colonial subjects, which in turn meant controlling trade and production in everything from food and clothes to weapons. Both companies had their own armies and fleets (the EIC boasted more than 25,000 company soldiers at its height, the VOC more than 10,000) and controlled and administered territory.

In short, they were the colonial Dutch and British governments for many millions of colonial subjects. For the people living in territory dominated by these companies, they really would have resembled the megacorps of speculative fiction, operating with effectively impunity and using their vast profits to field armies and navies capable of defeating local states and compelling them to follow the interests of the company (which remained profit-oriented).

(I feel the need to stop and note that ‘company rule’ in India and even more so in the Dutch East Indies was brutally exploitative, living up to – and in many cases quite surpassing – the normal dystopian billing of science fiction megacorporations. At the same time, it seems equally worth noting that the shift to direct colonial rule by the state was not always much better.)

So in once sense, the speculative fiction megacorp has already existed, but on the other one, the limits of these historical entities are informative too. First, it seems relevant that none of these companies were creatures of the markets, rather, they were created by state action – they were chartered companies, state monopolies, or both. These massive imperial trading companies (of which the EIC and VOC were the most successful, but not the only ones) were all created by their respective governments, armed with substantial privileges and typically given exclusive rights to certain trade – they were state-sanctioned monopolies (echoes of this also in the Japanese Zaibatsu state-sanctioned vertical monopolies; note that the Roman publicani were also state-sanctioned monopolies) whose monopolies were backed by state power to the point that their states (that is, Britain, the Dutch Republic, France and so on) would and did go to war to protect the trading rights of their monopoly trading companies.

Second, these megacorporations, far from being in a position to usurp the states that formed them (as fictional megacorporations often do), turn out to be extremely vulnerable to those states. The EIC was effectively nationalized by an act of parliament in 1858 (after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 discredited company rule in the eyes of the British government) and disbanded in 1874. The VOC was likewise nationalized by its parent government in 1796 and then dissolved in 1799. No effort was made by either company to resist being disbanded with any sort of force; it would have been a pointless gesture in any case. While the resources of the EIC were vast, the military capabilities of the British Empire were far greater. Moreover, the companies simply didn’t have the legitimacy to operate absent their state backing.

This is of course also true for the not-quite-megacorporations, like the great trusts of America’s gilded age (Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, etc.), or the Japanese zaibatsu or even modern super-sized corporate entities. Of the 10 largest companies in the world, four are straight up state-owned enterprises. Even for the private modern massive company, by and large when they try to fight their ‘home’ state, they lose, or at least are badly damaged without seriously inconveniencing the far greater power of the state (just ask AT&T or Microsoft).

I think it is worth stressing here, even in our age of massive mergers and (at least, before the pandemic) huge corporate profits, just how vast the gap in resources is between large states and the largest companies. The largest company by raw revenue in the world is Walmart; it’s gross revenue (before expenses) is around $525bn. Which sounds like a lot! Except that the tax revenue of its parent country, the United States, was $3.46 trillion (in 2019). Moreover, companies have to go through all sorts of expenses to generate that revenue (states, of course, have to go about collecting taxes, but that’s far cheaper; the IRS’s operating budget is $11.3bn, generating a staggering 300-fold return on investment); Walmart’s net income after the expenses of making that money is ‘only’ $14.88bn. If Walmart focused every last penny of those returns into building a private army then after a few years of build-up, it might be able to retain a military force roughly on par with…the Netherlands ($12.1bn); the military behemoth that is Canada ($22.2bn US) would still be solidly out of reach. And that’s the largest company in the world!

And that data point brings us to our last point – and the one I think is most relevantly applicable for speculative fiction megacorporations – historical megacorporations (by which I mean ‘true’ megacorps that took on major state functions over considerable territory, which is almost always what is meant in speculative fiction) are products of imperialism, produced by imperial states with limited state capacity ‘outsourcing’ key functions of imperial rule to private entities. And that explains why it seems that, historically, megacorporations don’t dominate the states that spawn them: they are almost always products and administrative arms of those states and thus still strongly subordinate to them.

I think that incorporating that historical reality might actually create storytelling opportunities if authors are willing to break out of the (I think quite less plausible) paradigm of megacorporations dominating the largest and most powerful communities that appear so often in science fiction. What if, instead of a corporate-dominated Earth (or even a corp-dominated Near-Future USA), you set a story in a near-future developing country which finds itself under the heel of a megacorporation that is essentially an arm of a foreign government, much like the EIC and VOC? Of course that would mean leavening the anti-capitalist message implicit in the dystopian megacorporation with an equally skeptical take about the utility of state power (it has always struck me that while speculative fiction has spent decades warning about the dangers of capitalist-corporate-power, the destructive potential of state power continues to utterly dwarf the damage companies do. Which is not to say that corporations do no damage of course, only that they have orders of magnitude less capability – and proven track record – to do damage compared to strong states).

(And as an aside, I know you can make an argument that Cyberpunk 2077 does actually adopt this megacorporation-as-colonialism framing, but that’s simply not how the characters in the game world think about or describe Arasoka – the biggest megacorp – which, in any event, appears to have effectively absorbed its home-state anyway. Arasoka isn’t an agent of the Japanese government, it is rather a global state in its own right and according to the lore has effectively controlled its home government for almost a century by the time of the game.)

In any event, it seems worth noting that the megacorporation is not some strange entity that might emerge in the far future with some sort of odd and unpredictable structure, but instead is a historical model of imperial governance that has existed in the past and (one may quibble here with definitions) continues to exist in the present. And, frankly, the historical version of this unusual institution is both quite different from the dystopian warnings of speculative fiction, but also – I think – rather more interesting.

On to the Recommendations!

First off, some experimental archaeology by Wayne Lee (on twitter as @MilHist_Lee) working to reconstruct the function of one of the very earliest firearms, the Chinese firelance (c. 1130, if not earlier). Some of the early efforts are up on Youtube, while Lee just recently posted the latest efforts to Twitter. We have a fairly good sense from the sources that these were used as incendiary weapons, presumably against siege equipment like ladders or siege towers (for more on that, check out T. Andrade, The Gunpowder Age (2017)). Based on that evidence, it seems like the fire lance was bouncing around as a weapon in China for a while before someone got the clever idea to stick a projectile in the barrel and convert an incendiary weapon into a missile weapon.

What I want to really highlight here is the underlying assumption to this method, which is I think a good one, and often underappreciated. The experiments to reconstruct a fire lance proceed from the assumption that it was originally a functional weapon. There are any number of reconstructions of weapons and armor out there, especially in order scholarship, which seem to have considered it no real obstacle that the reconstruction as presented produced a non-functional weapon (the example that springs to mind are many of the reconstructions of the Macedonian sarisa prior to Peter Connolly’s effort). Often in the case of melee weapons, these unworkable reconstructions are passed off on the assumption that people in the past were simply much tougher and stronger than modern soldiers and athletes, which is a poor assumption to say the least.

We know that the fire lance was around for a while, which means we can be fairly certain it worked, at least as its primary task. Proceeding to try to learn about it and reconstruct it based on that information (and thus ruling out all reconstructions which do not work) is, I think, a sound method. In any event, it’s always exciting to see what happens when someone lights some gunpowder, so I recommend checking out all of the tests above.

Next, this article in Salon by Gregory Daddis argues that, while most veterans and current service personnel serve honorably, the “blanket adulation” of veterans which makes even bad actors among the veteran community “an inviolable sect beyond reproach” has to stop. Daddis’ credentials to make the argument – as one of America’s foremost scholars on the American War in Vietnam and a veteran of both Iraq wars – are impeccable. More to the point, I think the argument is well made and probably overdue in its making. I’ve also been bothered by how, especially in the last four years, not only has the military been increasingly politicized, but the great moral shield that military service brings has come to be politicized with it.

It is especially a problem that it seems there is an emerging opinion which grows out of the ‘blanket adulation’ that Daddis discusses, which suggests that only veterans have the necessary knowledge and skills to conduct or guide security policy. But as Georges Clemenceau once aptly put it, “La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires (‘War! It is too important a thing to leave to military men’). Or, as Clausewitz says (drink!), “war should never be thought of as something autonomous, but always as an instrument of policy…the political aims are the business of government alone,” which is to say, not the business of generals, who are treated separately by Clausewitz.

I have related thoughts about the future of the All Volunteer Force and civil military relations that I am working on to hopefully appear in a different (but public-facing) venue. I’ll be sure to link when that appears.

Finally, a bit of a melancholy note, the public-facing Classics web-journal Eidolon (2015-2020) is closing shop. Donna Zuckerberg, Eidolon‘s founder, wrote her parting essay here. Doubtless most readers here will recognize that my philosophy for a public-facing study of the ancient world differs from Eidolon‘s in some key respects but I am still very much grieved to see it go. Classics, as a field, even more than History, is both desperately in need of, and often badly starved for, platforms and opportunities to speak to the public. In providing a forum for public-facing classics discussion, Eidolon provided a valuable – and underappreciated – service to the field. I can only hope that Eidolon‘s all-too-short tenure will inspire imitation, ideally an ecosystem of public-facing classics fora, each with different focuses and editorial sensibilities. In that vein, it is worth noting the existence of the Ancient World Magazine, as well as Karwansaray’s Ancient History magazine and Ancient Warfare magazine. Far more established, but also worthy of note is Archaeology, the public-facing magazine of the Archaeological Institute of America.

For the book recommendation, I want to recommend Michael J. Taylor’s very recent Soldiers & Silver: Mobilizing Resources in the Age of Roman Conquest (2020). Taylor’s book, which concerns itself with the resource demands, in manpower and cash (the soldiers and silver of the title), of warfare in the third and second centuries BC (the period of Rome’s initial overseas expansion) is valuable for a number of reasons. The introduction is, I think, one of the better quick introductions for the layperson to the Mediterranean state system, laying out the key great powers (Rome, Carthage, and the Seleucid, Antigonid and Ptolemaic kingdoms), their resources and the basic outlines of their systems of government. The description of the Seleucids as centered less on a country or a people and more on a wandering court is a particularly apt way to describe a quite unusual polity (and I wish I had thought of it first!).

Overall, the book drives a focused argument, contending that military manpower (measured through maximum mobilizations) serves as the clearest measure of military power in the ancient world and correlates far more clearly to victory than other factors, including cash revenue. Rome being the obvious winner in both manpower and the wars of this period, Taylor then probes the source of Rome’s manpower advantage, finding it in Roman civic and republican institutions. For readers looking to understand not just how Rome won (for that question, try to snag a copy of P. Connolly, Greece and Rome at War), but for why Rome won, Taylor delivers a capable answer, backed up by careful analysis of the statistics the sources give us. The great strength of this book is that it is comparative; all too often studies probing Roman victory focus too much on Rome and consequently miss things about Rome’s rivals (a point I made in Historia just this year about Carthage and the First Punic War, actually…). Taylor considers the systems of all of the major players in the Mediterranean state system (though alas, not as much the non-state peoples, but then every book has limits), and that fact alone puts this study head and shoulders above similar older efforts.

Obviously, since I am still at work on my own book project covering similar questions in the same time period, there are points where I have my differences with Taylor (otherwise I might well close up shop). Happily, though, they are not issues with what he does say, but differences with what isn’t said – the topics left undiscussed or where I would have gone further with the argument (and hopefully will with my own book project, when I finish it). This is, of course, an unavoidable difficulty with any book, since pages and research time are limited. It is a tempting trap for every review to fault a book (or an article) merely for not being the thing they would have written. For the book that Taylor has written, I think it is very good and well worth a read. By no means will the reader of Soldiers & Silver be led astray.

And that’s it for this week. Next week, some nomadic warfare!

262 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: January 1, 2021

    1. Seconding this. It had never even occurred to me (though it really should have), that megacorporations actually have historical analogues. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see one in fiction again without drawing the comparison.

      Like

    2. Agreed. I’ll note that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy does actually feature the power dynamic you mention where megacompanies are vastly powerful, but not in comparison to the nation states that give them legitimacy. (Also, Mars is very obviously a colonial state). Over time, this power dynamic shifts and eventually the corporations merge and subsume smaller countries, ultimately becoming the transnational corporations that effectively take over the state. It is the only piece of fiction I’ve read that attempts to show how truly vast corporations could take over states, and they do so not with military power (even the primarily MIC companies) but instead with information control and effectively dominating local elections of smaller countries. They eventually end up being so subsidized by the countries they control that they effectively gain taxes through the state. Its definitely closer to the speculative story you envision than most.

      Like

  1. Megacorporations like the Hudson Bay and North West Companies also fit the definition of megacorporation, having their own armies, laws, and fighting their own wars (sometimes with each other). Early post-colonization Canadian history is strongly defined by the struggle between corporation and devolved parliament for the first several decades.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was also the Hanseatic League, which did arise on its own without government creation. Then, timing was important, and the rise of states was its decline.

      Like

      1. Yes, the Hanseatic League is, I think important here: although if I recall correctly, its model was that it was, at its heart, an alliance of trading cities with their civic governments (i.e. states) running things (and the bigger cities – Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen having a lot more clout than the smaller ones). In relation to how the League worked, it’s interesting (to me at least) that it tried very hard to buy up land for its own trading towns and districts which would act as independent mini-cities without any oversight from the country they were notionally ‘in’: e.g. London’s Steelyard, King’s Lynn and Bergen, in these places it was ‘Lubeck Law’ that was in force rather than national law. So it is perhaps a bit closer to the ‘megacorp’ model. But even then they were unable to raise much in the way of armed forces on the rare occasions when they had to go toe-to-toe with more traditional states.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. The distinction between a state and a megacorp is functionally a false one. Once a corporation has infringed on the monopoly of force, they ARE a state.

          Like

        2. That was also my understanding. The Hanseatic League seems to be in the same category as OPEC, more or less – an alliance of governments with more economic power(especially in a single important sphere) than military power, working together to improve revenues.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The Hanseatic cities were states only in a limited sense: they were, very much, communities of great merchants. (Technically, they were communities of all burghers, but the merchants dominated.)

            However, you should not underestimate the power of Hansa. They could not challenge the Holy Roman Emperor, but they were quite able to wage war as equals against Denmark, Novgorod or Sweden.

            Of course, you could make a point that this meant that Hanseatic League was, in effect, a colonial charter company pursuing German economic colonialism in the Baltic and North Atlantic. And probably, you would not be very wrong.

            Like

        3. The point of using Lübeck law was not just the point of being legally separate. Having separate societies or classes under their own peculiar sets of laws was a staple of medieval Europe. In case of Hanseatic offices, it was economically useful: the Lübeck law was well developed and gave a good legal framework for doing business. Compared to local customs and legal traditions, doing business under Lübeck law gave you legal certainty and also gave you an assurance of personal safety.

          This is no different from doing business in Hong Kong to get your contracts under Common Law.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, and also a long-standing practice. Italian merchants had their own quarters in cities around the Mediterranean, governed by their own laws. Likewise, the Balkans in particular was dotted with towns and parts of cities where different communities (German, Jewish, Hungarian, Cuman..) had enclaves under their own laws and leaders.

            Like

    1. H. Beam Piper wrote a number of books and stories about megacorporations in space.

      Of course, Piper generally has a favorable view of colonial imperialism, so you have to be able to stomach that. The interstellar colonizers are the good guys and the natives should be grateful for their beneficent rule, but aren’t, so shooting them until they are is legitimate.

      “Uller Uprising” is the Anglo-Indian War in space, with nukes.

      “Little Fuzzy” is all about a megacorporation’s problems when a sapient species is discovered on Zarathustra, which means the Chartered Zarathustra Corporation is suddenly operating under a much more restrictive set of rules. At least here the megacorporation is the bad guy, though that changes in the sequel when the CEO has a conversion experience.

      “Four-Day Planet” is about political troubles among the survivors on a planet whose megacorporation went bankrupt decades ago.

      “When in the Course—” is about explorers who want to become a megacorporation by finding a habitable planet, but having found one, must gain control of it by siding with one local ruler to conquer the others. Later extensively rewritten as one of the founding alternate history novels “Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.”

      Like

      1. The Murderbot tales by Marta Randall take place in a mixed environment wherein our noble SecUnit is a refugee from the Corporation Rim (where it was formerly owned, but managed to bugger its ownership governor and escape).

        Like

  2. I often think the authoritan states with heavy state owned company network as sort of megacorporations. Russia is a good example of this. In many sense the country is run like a business with the “board of governors” reaping the profits. They even have some “privatized taxes” there. China or Saudi-Arabia would also make good examples.

    Like

  3. The picture of Solarian megacorps from the later books of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series actually resembles what you discuss quite a bit. There are a bunch of differences, and generally, they wield force either through corrupt collaborating governments or through the military force of the Solarian League (the giant imperial force) but there is for sure a picture of life for regular people under an economic monopoly of an out of system giant corporation.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. One example of a megacorp that produced megacorpses, was the one-man capitalism of King Leopold of Belgium and his private corporate possession of the Congo, later the Belgian Congo when the Belgian Parliament was stirred to responsibility to stifle the horrific injustices and crimes that were the Congo of King Leopold. I’m not sure that the number of dead has ever been accurately counted – the most believable number is about 10 million, which puts it comfortably in the same league as Stalin’s various “tender mercies”. I’m surprised that more capitalists don’t reference King Leopold’s Congo as a shining example of capitalism at its most unconstrained, most unregulated, most “pure” – ah well, as the saying goes, there are no atheists in the foxholes, no nuns in the brothels, and no capitalists in business …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure that a king recruiting followers to conquer a country for his (and his followers) enrichment, would historically have been called capitalism. I’m pretty sure that sort of thing predates capitalism by some centuries. Or millennia.

      Like

      1. True, but Leopold in the Congo was not acting as King of Belgium, specifically, but as a private citizen and investor; in fact, it’s an amazing (if horrible) historical example of the shift from personal, monarchial rule and all it’s supposed rules and religious reasons, to naked exploitation for profit. Basically, he never treated Congo like a fief to be ruled or a country he “wanted” as a king, but as a source of labour and resources in the colonial sense. Worth reading about.

        Like

        1. And yet somehow, the Congolese ended up being conquered by the servants of a King. But this conquering King was utterly unlike all previous conquering Kings, because he used the term “limited liability company”.

          Like

          1. Yes? Words have meanings? History is complicated and worth honest analysis? You could say “colonialist ventures functioned like pre-modern kings in some aspects” but that’s very different than saying “nothing new happened in the Belgian Congo.” Which would be wrong, and, unless I’m mistaken, what you’re implying.

            Like

          2. Yes, that’s precisely how it was different: A medieval king could not have done what Leopold did, and would have had no incentive to do so (the plunder of medieval kings would have looked very different) because their ability to marketise their plunder was much more limited.

            Like

          3. To judge from this thread, writers of fiction would be well advised to make a megacorporation the enemy, on the grounds that some people think that any action becomes more evil when a “corporation” does it.

            Like

          4. You know, I apologize for any snark earlier. I don’t think a company is any worse than a king, depending only on the crimes committed, but I do believe this is a classic “define your terms” argument where we are in the semantic weeds. So! Again, sorry for any snark. We can all learn from one another and enjoy the blog. Have a good new year!

            Like

          1. I think I can see a difference, and I’ll try to put my finger on it. In English legal theory at least, the monarch has property that belongs to them in their capacity as the Crown, that is, as an embodiment of one function of the state, and also property that belongs to them in their capacity as a private individual.
            Property that belongs to the royal family in their capacity as organs of the state is in effect being used for purposes of the state: what counts as state purposes are complex, because the wealth and prestige of the monarch are, if all is going well, the wealth and prestige of the state as a whole, and so the conspicuous consumption of the monarch reflects well on the body politic of the state as a whole. It’s also a sign that the monarch has sufficient resources to aid their subjects, or defend their subjects, or to put down rebellious subjects who get out of line. But it is possible for a medieval monarch to be spending their wealth excessively or on the wrong kinds of conspicous display, and that gets them into trouble. Spending on people who have ambiguous places in the power structure: mistresses, favourites, and other people whose relationship to the king is based on personal rather than political qualities, is particularly suspect.
            Wealth belonging to the monarch in a private capacity isn’t there for state purposes, nor yet for display. They have full discretion over what they do with it as long as they don’t flaunt it.

            Like

    2. Leopold was the government of the Congo, not a businessman, and used government power to produce government-scale atrocities. It was an unusual structure in that he was the constitutional monarch of a democratic state in Belgium, and the unquestioned dictator of a brutal tyranny in the Congo, but he did wear both hats at the same time. And it’s not like his government was the only super-violent kleptocracy out there in history.

      I know a lot of capitalists, and I’ve never met one who thought that murdering millions of people to make a buck was morally permissible. If you want an example that capitalists actually look to as unrestrained capitalism done right, you want John Cowperthwaite, not Leopold II.

      Like

      1. The Congo Free State was explicitly a business venture: Leopold was trying to extract as much rubber as possible before new rubber plantations came online and crashed the market, he was very explicit that the entire purpose was making a shitton of money to spend on his mistresses.

        Like

        1. I agree he was in it to make money. (Though good god, what was he buying his mistress? A new battleship every year?)

          This was why I mentioned that kleptocracies are a common form of government. Being in it to make money doesn’t mean you necessarily move from “government” to “business” – you can still be greedy as the government.

          Like

          1. The point is that Leopold wasn’t using his powers as King of Belgium: he was using his private fortune to hire a private army and establish a private state outside the jurisdiction of the belgian government. He was acting as a private businessman, not as a head-of-state.

            Like

      2. “I know a lot of capitalists, and I’ve never met one who thought that murdering millions of people to make a buck was morally permissible.”

        R.J. Reynolds.
        Phillip Morris

        etc.

        How many people have died due to smoking tobacco so that tobacco companies could make more money?

        Like

  5. With respect to your hope to bring history to people who weren’t otherwise studying it, you have very much succeeded, in me at least.

    After I devoured your blog’s existing content, I was inspired to find more, and found the Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan. And then his book on Rome, The Storm Before The Storm, a few other shorter niche podcasts on stuff like the history of policing in the US, and a lecture series on US reconstruction after the Civil War and-

    And. Well. I haven’t stopped.

    In the space Covid has gutted in my typical hobbies and interpersonal relationships, I found a love for understanding history on a better level than I had before. And I found it because of your blog. So thank you for that, very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Also check out Dan Carlin. His series on the first world war is very good and he has podcasts on numerous other topics as well.

      Like

  6. The better cyberpunk writers seem to be aware of the resource gaps between states and corporations. In the novels Neuromancer, Hardwired, Snow Crash; and Mike Pondsmith’s original Cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying game, there has been a massive reduction and fragmentation of state power. Being North Americans this is detailed as the USA being no longer united, but it is more or less implied to be world wide.
    So it isn’t a comparison between Walmart and the USA or even Canada, more between Walmart and say Arizona.

    Like

    1. The thing is, it’s hard to see how Walmart would continue to function without the support of a robust state power. Walmart employees depend on government assistance to survive, cops keep the stores from being looted, trucks drive on public roads, and the State Department negotiates favorable access to foreign markets. If you let Walmart keep what it pays in taxes and ask it to do all that stuff internally, would it do a better job? Personally, I doubt it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Also on the topic of foreign markets, it’s worth noting that the connection between state and corporate power is often far more blatant still in the poorer “developing” Third World countries from which First World multinationals like Walmart extract much of their raw materials and manufacturing labor. In such countries, the power of the nominally independent/postcolonial state is often enlisted as an extremely blatant extension of the interests of foreign capital in suppressing urban labor organizing and peasant land-reform movements such, an arrangement that suits the interests of local elites who get a small cut of the profits at least as well as it suits the interests of the First World multinationals who get to wash their hands of the resulting repression and violence.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s a bit hard to describe China (source of the majority of Walmart’s products) as only a “nominally independent/postcolonial state”, at the mercy of “First World multinationals”.

          Like

      2. They might manage if everything else stayed the same, but the economy around them would collapse, and they’d lose their customer base. So even if they could manage on paper, they still couldn’t in practice.

        Like

      3. Small states can still be robust. Current day example would be New Zealand, population 5 million, or Singapore, approaching 6 million. Both provide government assistance and health care, police, and public roads.
        Both though are smaller than a number of US cities, and our hypothetical Weyland-Yutani-Walmart would be able to offer a considerable amount of money.
        As a foreigner I read a little about the “negotiations” between Amazon and various US city/state governments about where to open a new hub, where the cities seemed to be falling over themselves to offer Amazon more and more autonomy. Not hard to imagine that happening with smaller countries.

        Like

        1. A robust government is one that provides a significant quantity of services, which it can generally only do by capturing a significant fraction of the country’s economic activity in the form of tax revenue. IOW, a government like New Zealand’s will always be the biggest game in town, because healthcare, education, public order, and infrastructure *are massive industries,* and whoever has a monopoly on them will dominate the economy. Whether the country is big or small doesn’t matter; if the government accounts for ~30% of all economic activity, then no private employer will be able to compete with it.

          Amazon’s planned mega-HQ is a special case that only works because the US is a massive common market and free travel area, and the various states aren’t allowed to exert leverage in the form of tariffs and travel restrictions. This allows Amazon to play the various states against each other, knowing that whichever state it picks, it will still have access to the other 49. In effect, there is a larger patron government- that of the United States- backing Amazon by forcing the states to grant it access. It’s unsurprising that a bunch of cities fell all over themselves to host it, since doing so would enable them to tax a portion of Amazon’s entire corporate empire, effectively drawing on resources from beyond their own borders. (And even then, it’s worth noting that one of the two cities chosen to host an HQ, New York, eventually changed its mind, and all Amazon could do about it was say “sorry you feel that way.” It’s also worth noting that all these negotiations took the form of Amazon petitioning various governments for privileges, rather than threatening to withdraw services or launch an invasion.) This arrangement falls apart in a world where, say, Maryland is independently sovereign, and is able to block traffic to the north of the new HQ in Arlington, VA unless Amazon gives it a cut.

          Like

  7. The Empire Companies are a really fascinating phenomenon, and I’m always glad to see interpretations such as the Rogue Traders of 40k.

    If I may make a request, perhaps a search function? It’s becoming a little hard to find particular articles. Thanks!

    Like

    1. While it isn’t a search function, looking through the list of “Tags” can get you to subsets of the posts that may help with that. They are on the left side of the screen on my PC, scrolled down a ways. Dunno about other devices. Example link for “vassalge”:

      https://acoup.blog/tag/vassalage/

      Like

    2. I have good luck just typing searches like “acoup polytheism” into Google, FWIW. The abbreviated name of the blog is pretty unique, so the results tend to be what you want.

      Like

  8. Your discussion of publicani reminds me of the places in the modern USA where the city has started outsourcing the job of parking enforcement to private companies.

    Like

  9. Another good article! Looking forward to the next Dothraki article too.

    While it’s true that the East India Company was eventually vulnerable to its origin state, it also had a significant influence over that state. In its early years it loaned money to Charles II, which gave it some leverage. The company employed many MPs. The book “Inglorious Empire” by Shashi Kapoor says “The London Chronicle listed, in 1784, the names of 29 members of Parliament with direct Indian connections; there were many more who owned shares in the company”. The same book says the EIC had an army of 260,000 men at the start of the 19th century.

    I’m not sure whether the nationalisation of the East India Company should be seen as an attack on the company by the state, or as a bailout of the company by the state after a catastrophic failure. The shareholders seem to have been pretty well compensated. Wikipedia says “Where possible, the stock was redeemed through commutation (i.e. exchanging the stock for other securities or money) on terms agreed with the stockholders… but stockholders who did not agree to commute their holdings had their stock compulsorily redeemed on 30 April 1874 by payment of £200 for every £100 of stock held”.

    Like

    1. Lending money can be a form of leverage. It can also be a form of being extorted. And lend enough money and you find the state has a positive incentive to do you in.

      Like

      1. Wasn’t this basically what happened to the Templars? The French king found an excellent way to avoid repaying his debts to them: he accused them of witchcraft and closed them down.

        Like

    2. Yes, just what I was going to point out: it makes far more sense to me for a megacorporation to essentially be able to use its money and influence to turn governments into their puppets: what else is corporate funding for political parties, after all? That way it doesn’t have to do the boring and unprofitable work of governments whilst still having the power and money.

      Also with the EIC: wasn’t the Tea Act which caused such unfortunate ructions in Boston also in part an attempt to bail-out the EIC after it found it had over-supplied itself with tea and needed a market, quickly?

      Like

    3. As far as I know the VOC was also in big trouble when it was nationalised. (Wikipedia calls it a “financial wreck”. ) So hardly at the height of its power.

      Like

    4. Yes, but the governing structure of the EIC was under the control of the British government, which regularly altered it to take more say. Also, in India it was under the direction of the state-appointed governors and later governors-general. The EIC was very much an arm of the British state.

      Like

  10. One of the things that has happened in my life time is that left-wing thought has become more uncritical of centralised state functions than it used to be. I think it’s partly a response to the somewhat selective rhetoric of cutback of state services by the right, but I suspect it’s rather more complex.

    I think there’s two things speculative or fantasy fiction can do. One is to explore whether an idea would actually work in practice; the other is to explore what an idea would look like if it worked. Cyberpunk is perhaps more an example of the latter.

    Like

      1. True, but other strains of left leaning thought led in exactly the other way: anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism etc. Ultimately, the ‘left-right’ binary isn’t very useful as a means of analysis. And that the word ‘Socialism’ is so vague that it means practically anything the speaker wants it to mean, up to an including the truly bizarre canard “the Nazis were Socialists,” that some people manage to believe.

        I think if anything, the crimes of Communism have made “the left” far more critical of state control than they were before the Second World War: far more people who call themselves ‘lefties’ would say now that the USSR was a betrayal of anything that might be called Socialism than would say that it was Socialism working. Whereas in the 1930s, the vast majority of people who thought of themselves as Socialists in the West were broadly pro-Stalin or pro-Trotsky. Orwell was one of very few outstanding exceptions. Most modern socialists (e.g. Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders), whatever one thinks of them, are not advocating a command economy or proletarian revolution. You could indeed say that they are less into state control than Socialists were in the 1970s, as they are not looking to impose price controls, currency export controls etc. which as I understand it were all the rage in post-War Socialist parties.

        Like

        1. Didn’t Crobyn praise venezuala and it’s nationalization of businesses as a sign of socialism at work?

          I get the feeling that the left wing in the west has a centrist and Far left contingent, and that the centrist side of the party is far too lenient and supportive of the far left.
          Alongside this is the ever increasing censorship of even politically central voices and the state approved monopoly that is google.
          Not to mention that now statues of Lincoln commissioned by ex-slaves have been removed for being “racist” and we are seeing a far more puritanical left wing.

          a bit of a tangent i know but i feel like it’s worth saying.

          Like

          1. It seems to me that the entire radical left program aims at concentrating power in federal hands and disappearing dissent and rewriting the past into an evil empire.

            Like

        2. There actually was a socialists in the thirties that were neither Stalinist nor Trotskyist. For example, the reformist socialists of the Social Democratic parties of Scandinavia.

          Like

          1. True, sorry I was being a bit sweeping: the ILP in the UK would be another example. I should have said “there were a lot of pro-Stalin types in the West who really should have known better”.

            Like

        3. I believe the starry-eyed Western admirers of Stalin in the thirties fondly believed that the USSR state was just on the verge of withering away.

          Like

        4. I find very few differences between Hitler and Nicolae Ceausescu, and I also find very few people who deny Ceausescu was a Communist. So it’s not a canard at all, let alone a bizarre one. It may be an error, but a reasonable one. (Hitler killed a lot fewer Socialists or Communists than Stalin or Mao did, so the fact Nazis killed Communists does not preclude them also being Communist.)

          Like

          1. Why you say, “I find very few differences”, what exactly do you mean? They both killed a lot of people. They both ran autocratic states. But where are the similarities beyond this?

            Hitler was more than happy to support big businesses (in fact, businesses gave him vast amounts of money and political cover so he could come to power and prevent the Communists doing so). Lenin shot businessmen and confiscated their property. The USSR was a command economy almost in its entirety, Hitler’s Germany was only consistently so regarding the arms industry, heavy infrastructure etc. and remained so until far later into the War: for much of the war it was less directed than that of the UK and USA, even: Nicholas’ Stargardt’s “The German War” is a book which covers this in some detail.

            In their propaganda, the Nazis did claim to support the (German) workers with social welfare programmes, but this was largely propaganda (especially after Hitler got rid of Roehm), and far less money was spent on this than was spent on armaments, heavy industry etc. etc. Yes, they called themselves the “Nationalist Socialist” party, but they were lying. They did a lot of it.

            And, yes, Stalin killed a lot of Socialists and Communists. But he did not say ‘Socialism is the Enemy, we need to wipe it out”, which was the Nazis’ second-biggest mission statement after their racism and anti-Semitism! Yes, killing a lot of Communists might not preclude them from being Communists, but I think that claiming that Communism is a great evil, and then trying to stamp it out probably does.

            Saying “They killed a lot of people, therefore they are the same” is a line of argument I have only ever seen being used by people who are on the right of the political spectrum wanting to distance themselves from the extreme right and claim that authoritarianism is only a problem of the left, and then claim by extension that their political opponents are going to bring in authoritarian government covertly, and defend themselves from any charge of authoritarianism. So, I would say that it is a canard.

            Like

    1. It’s because the federal government is what guaranteed civil rights verse the vociferous opposition of local governments. And it became extremely clear that the only way to enforce a left wing civil agenda (eg, you know, black people have the same rights as everyone else. Something still being struggled on today) you need the federal government. All a group in opposition to those rights really has to do is pull back on federal enforcement on those rights and the local systems in a distressing amount of America will happily regress. Since it is only through the federal government that left wing agenda has been successful, that’s naturally the place the left focuses on for things like universal health care and increased benefits for the poor in this country as well as maintaining civil rights.

      That said, there are vanishingly few American leftists these days okay with our defense spending and the concept of military interventions and forever war.

      I can’t speak too hard about leftwing movements in Europe, not being European and super interested in reading up on those movements.

      That said, there are still left anarchists out there, as well as leftists who think the current system is unrepairable and should be changed utterly or done away with and a new system rebuilt.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Another important cause of this change in America was the New Deal, in which the federal government implemented some forms of welfare and business regulation. This was an influential example of the federal government addressing economic problems that the states had not been able to solve, but it also set the legal precedents that let the federal government assume regulatory power that the Constitution, as interpreted previously, had not granted it. The 10th Amendment — “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” — means that the federal government can only do things the Constitution states it has the power to do, and the enumeration of federal power in the constitution had historically been interpreted narrowly. However, in cases such as Wickard v. Filburn, the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution’s statement (in Article 1, Section 8) that “The Congress shall have the power … To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes; … And To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers” as letting Congress make laws regulating any activity with a significant effect on interstate commerce, and thus made constitutional the federal spending and regulation of the New Deal. This obviously provided an example of effective federal action for the Left, but the Right did sometimes use the same powers to implement its preferred policies, as with the banning of most recreational drugs (marijuana is still banned nationwide by federal law even if that law is not consistently enforced), so that the result is that Congress is more powerful but, since control of Congress passes between the parties, the policies Congress makes are not necessarily more leftist. I expect that something similar will happen with the Supreme Court if the current trend of conservatives reacting to broad progressive federal court rulings by trying to appoint more conservative judges continues.

        However, it does not seem true to me that “it is only through the federal government that left wing agenda has been successful”. It is true that, in a country as diverse as the United States, a left-wing agenda can only be enforced on the whole country by the federal government, but many left-wing ideas have succeeded at the state level without federal help. Gay marriage was first tried and popularized through legalization at the state level, as currently seems to be happening with marijuana legalization (as long as the federal laws on it are not enforced) and as happened with previous progressive causes such as women’s suffrage and prohibition of alcohol. Likewise, state governments’ for leftist ideas such as benefits for the poor and publicly funded health care varies from state to state according to local support for those ideas (for instance, 38 of the 50 states have adopted the expansion of Medicaid eligibility partly paid for by Obamacare).

        Like

    2. One of the things that has happened in my life time is that left-wing thought has become more uncritical of centralised state functions than it used to be.

      I can guarantee that you were not alive when leftists were positively slavering over the USSR down to and including praising how enemies of the state just disappeared. The current crope can not be more uncritical of centralised state functions than that.

      Alas, left-wing thought has a LONG history of advocating being overtly dishonest on the grounds that power could be obtained that way.

      Like

      1. Tankies existed, that doesn’t mean they represented the whole of the left-wing any more than Stormfront represents the whole of the right wing.

        Like

        1. Sorry about the double post, Bret. It didn’t show up the first time so I figured I’d done something wrong and tried again.

          Like

    3. This probably depends on how big a tent you want to make “left-wing”. The Democratic Party is a center-right party by any measure, but still counts as “left” in popular perception and the punditsphere.

      Like

      1. I find it really interesting what people think of as “center”. Because aside from a small number of uniquely American issues (guns, healthcare, and the military), the Democrats are to the left of a lot of European center-left parties. And even on those specific issues, big parts of the party are a lot further left than is commonly realized.

        I could see this argument in the 90s, when the whole spectrum moved right for a time after the collapse of communism, the (perceived, at least) failure of the welfare state and (perceived at least) success of the privatization efforts of the 80s, and major sovereign debt troubles in some countries. At that point, only a few diehards were truly left-wing. But the pendulum has swung a long, long way back since then. It’s not difficult to find outright tankies today, and Sanders came close to winning the Democratic nomination twice.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Sanders came close to winning the Democratic nomination twice.

          Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. The Democratic Party and its base may well be drifting left, but that process is hardly finished; at the momment, it is still firmly in the right. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has a whole one Senator in its ranks (who isn’t even a Democrat); smething like 70% of the country agrees to Medicare for All, yet such a bill hasn’t even been brought to a vote in the House; etc.

          Like

          1. No, Mary, if you nominate Joe Biden, you are firmly in the right. He literally once described himself as “When it comes to civil rights and civil liberties, I’m a liberal but that’s it. I’m really quite conservative on most other issues.” Do you think he’s had some sort of come to Jesus moment and now sits anywhere close to the left wing of European states?

            Like

          2. I will continue to look at his policies and not a cherry-picked piece of rhetoric.

            You should stop using non-standard definitions of “right” and “left.”

            Like

          3. You should stop using non-standard definitions of “right” and “left.”

            Not to nitpick, but part of the whole point of this subthread is that by global standards, mainstream US political discourse runs on extremely non-standard definitions of “right” and “left,” so we’ve got a bit of a “healer, heal thyself” situation going on here.

            Like

          4. The global standard would be that defending and expanding social democracy (i.e. welfare states, universal healthcare, robust public services and infrastructure, state support for functions like childcare, etc) is a nominally center-left position, and even center-right politicians generally don’t dare to oppose such wildly popular programs openly, even if they often do strive to chip away at them incrementally.

            Compare this to mainstream US politics, in which milquetoast center-left social democrats like Bernie Sanders are considered to be fringe “far-left” figureheads, and yes it’s abundantly clear that mainstream US definitions are slanted extremely far to the right.

            Like

          5. Okay, cool, name a single left-wing accomplishment of the Democratic party over the past ten years other than the ACA, which is to the right of the health care policies of basically every single European party.

            Like

          6. One problem with terms like left and right is that they’re directions not positions. A political philosopher like Rawls may advocate an absolute notion of political justice, but politicians are making alterations to systems that already exist.
            Just because Bernie Sanders is for all I know advocating a health system somewhere to the right of the NHS in England and Wales doesn’t mean that he’d be campaigning for more private enterprise in the NHS if he were somehow to take up a political career in UK politics.
            The other problem is that they’re trying to collapse a number of different axes into one axis, which is more a function of how political parties have to work under plurality election systems than a function of how political ideals actually correlate. The UK Conservative Party for instance is an uncomfortable coalition between social conservatives (often economic populists) and economic libertarians (often social liberals – it was the Conservatives who brought in same-sex marriage in the UK) – united largely by a common enemy. The left I think is in practice less divided on ideals and more divided on how and how far to implement them.

            Liked by 1 person

        2. “Because aside from a small number of uniquely American issues (guns, healthcare, and the military), the Democrats are to the left of a lot of European center-left parties.”

          What are some of these issues that the Democrats are further left than ‘European’ (that itself being a exploitative vague term for both sides) parties on? It’s a claim I’ve seen put forward online a few times now, but never with accompanying examples.

          Like

          1. “They’re further to the left on most culture-war issues than most mainstream European left-wing parties.”

            Are they though?

            While I really, really don’t want to get into ‘what counts as culture war’ type semantics, this is both still vague and unsubstantiated. However, if we use ‘LGBT rights’ as an extremely crude metric for ‘culture war issues’ then the US scores notably worse than a good chunk of Europe (particularity the ones most often used to compare to the US, namely the Nordic countries, France, Germany and UK). Now, it may be that said issues are more contentious in the US (which if this is indeed a ‘left wing’ issue, could support the idea that the entire US establishment is further to the right than in ‘Europe’), and hence get talked about more, but that doesn’t tell us much about how left wing a specific party is, just what the current domestic issues are.

            Source: Gay Travel Index, via Wikipedia
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gay-friendly

            Like

          2. “They’re further to the left on most culture-war issues than most mainstream European left-wing parties.”

            Are they though?

            I think people are laboring under a weird kind of social-media tunnel vision that keeps them from fully grasping just how right-wing the Democratic Party has often been specifically when it comes to so-called “culture war” issues. (Besides which, the phrase “culture war” already contains a bit of an admission that the issues we’re talking about are a sound-and-fury distraction from the more fundamental issues being swept under the rug; “other than healthcare, fiscal policy, global military imperialism, the welfare state, public services…” has overtones of “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”)

            The 2016 feint by the Hillary Clinton campaign to position itself as the standard-bearer of “wokeness” contra Bernie Sanders (“if we broke up the big banks, would that end racism? would that end sexism?” etc etc) was wildly anachronistic not just by the standards of prior Democratic Party standard-bearers — Bill Clinton for instance having made his anti-antiracist dogwhistling into a bona-fide pre-Internet meme with moves like the “Sister Souljah moment” — but also by Hillary Clinton’s own standards as recently as eight years prior, when her campaign against Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary was framed around a softer but still distinct articulation of the kind of race-baiting “white working class” demagoguery that Democratic Party partisans would later go on to frantically disavow in the person of Donald Trump.

            Like

          3. I think people are laboring under a weird kind of social-media tunnel vision that keeps them from fully grasping just how right-wing the Democratic Party has often been specifically when it comes to so-called “culture war” issues.

            America’s abortion laws are way more permissive than virtually any European country’s, and the Democrats can be relied to fight tooth-and-nail to tighten restrictions. Support for gay marriage went from being virtually unknown outside of the extreme left fringe (twenty years ago) to controversial (ten years ago) to mandatory if you want to find work in large, predominantly Democrat-supporting, swathes of the country (today). The belief that gender is solely a matter of self-identification, and that anybody who identifies as a woman should be allowed to enter into women-only spaces no questions asked, likewise went from being fringe to being a prerequisite for inclusion in polite society. Critical race theory has exploded in popularity over the last ten years, chiefly in Democrat-voting strongholds such as academia. And so on. Really, anybody who says that the Democrats are “right-wing… specifically when it comes to so-called ‘culture war’ issues” reveals far more about their own ignorance of how the world outside their left-wing bubble thinks than about anything the Democratic Party has done.

            (Besides which, the phrase “culture war” already contains a bit of an admission that the issues we’re talking about are a sound-and-fury distraction from the more fundamental issues being swept under the rug; “other than healthcare, fiscal policy, global military imperialism, the welfare state, public services…” has overtones of “other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”)

            You’ve got it precisely backwards. Culture-war issues — how people conceptualise the good life, what they think the relationship is between man and society, or man and nature, who counts as human, what counts as moral, their place in history, and so on — are far more fundamental than specific policies or government programmes. “Politics is downstream from culture” is an oversimplification, but it’s an oversimplification with a lot of truth in it.

            The 2016 feint by the Hillary Clinton campaign to position itself as the standard-bearer of “wokeness” contra Bernie Sanders (“if we broke up the big banks, would that end racism? would that end sexism?” etc etc) was wildly anachronistic not just by the standards of prior Democratic Party standard-bearers — Bill Clinton for instance having made his anti-antiracist dogwhistling into a bona-fide pre-Internet meme with moves like the “Sister Souljah moment” — but also by Hillary Clinton’s own standards as recently as eight years prior,

            It’s true, the Democrats are wokening at a very rapid pace.

            the kind of race-baiting “white working class” demagoguery

            The fact that you equate appeals to the white working class with “race-baiting demagoguery” shows how enmeshed you are in your own particular ideological bubble.

            Like

          4. Aside from what Communard Scum pointed out, it’s also worth noting that the idea of gay marriage as an “extreme left fringe” position would be deeply offensive to the actual extreme left of the gay rights movement, which tends to regard marriage as a fundamentally conservative social institution, and gay marriage as a bid to neuter the radical potential of gay rights by admitting “respectable” gay couples into the “club” of the traditional nuclear family. (As UK Tory leader David Cameron put it when endorsing gay marriage in 2013, “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative, I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.”) If it’s become commonplace to describe Donald Trump’s pre-political businessman persona as a poor person’s idea of how a rich person behaves, one might similarly describe gay marriage as a right-wing culture warrior’s idea of what a far-left culture warrior believes.

            On the more general point, it’s one thing to argue that “politics is downstream from culture” (a phrase known as “the Breitbart Doctrine,” as long as we’re gonna be pointing fingers as to who does or doesn’t live in ideological bubbles) but there’s a pretty obvious reason why politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to love culture war pandering so much, even while oftentimes flipping their culture war positions on a dime: because nothing about the culture war necessarily requires them to commit to any actual policies that might affect the tangible interests of their donors/constituents one way or the other. Hence why someone like Barack Obama can be perceived as a left-wing culture war touchstone for doing basically nothing more than “presidenting while black,” or why someone Kamala Harris within a few short months can go from opportunistically criticizing Joe Biden as a segregationist, to opportunistically accepting the spot as his running mate.

            Like

          5. America’s abortion laws are way more permissive than virtually any European country’s, and the Democrats can be relied to fight tooth-and-nail to tighten restrictions. Support for gay marriage went from being virtually unknown outside of the extreme left fringe (twenty years ago) to controversial (ten years ago) to mandatory if you want to find work in large, predominantly Democrat-supporting, swathes of the country (today). The belief that gender is solely a matter of self-identification, and that anybody who identifies as a woman should be allowed to enter into women-only spaces no questions asked, likewise went from being fringe to being a prerequisite for inclusion in polite society. Critical race theory has exploded in popularity over the last ten years, chiefly in Democrat-voting strongholds such as academia. And so on. Really, anybody who says that the Democrats are “right-wing… specifically when it comes to so-called ‘culture war’ issues” reveals far more about their own ignorance of how the world outside their left-wing bubble thinks than about anything the Democratic Party has done.

            Both abortion and gay marriage were passed by the Supreme Court (which, this may shock you, is not the Democratic Party), and the Democratic Party does not control the hiring and firing decisions of “predominantly Democrat-supporting swaths of the country,” save perhaps some government positions, NGO, internal party positions, etc. Nor too does it determine what people believe, or what is a prerequisite for “inclusion in polite society,” or what people think in Democrat-voting strongholds such as academia.

            You are mistaking “the Democratic voter” (an amorphous entity with a thousand different political positions and oft-parochial opinions on various specific matters) for “the Democratic Party” (a specific organization with direct control over the levers of government). The Democratic voter is indeed drifting leftward; recently, the majority began self-identifying as liberals. But that does not mean the Democratic Party has followed after them, and I think that a fair appraisal would be that both parties are lagging well behind their base’s movement (if, indeed, they ever represented their bases that well at all).

            Like

          6. Both abortion and gay marriage were passed by the Supreme Court (which, this may shock you, is not the Democratic Party),

            And remind me, which party is it that makes gay rights a major plank in its policy platform? Which party screams “War on women!” at any attempts to bring their country’s abortion laws more in line with the Western norm?

            and the Democratic Party does not control the hiring and firing decisions of “predominantly Democrat-supporting swaths of the country,” save perhaps some government positions, NGO, internal party positions, etc. Nor too does it determine what people believe, or what is a prerequisite for “inclusion in polite society,” or what people think in Democrat-voting strongholds such as academia.

            I would argue that a party’s donors, activists, and assorted supporters also need to be considered in order to get an idea of whether a political party is driving the country leftwards or rightwards. Passing legislation is only one aspect of politics, and often not even the most important part. Though if you have any examples of Democrat-sponsored legislation which has sought to push back against the left-wing side in the culture wars, feel free to share.

            Like

          7. Aside from what Communard Scum pointed out, it’s also worth noting that the idea of gay marriage as an “extreme left fringe” position would be deeply offensive to the actual extreme left of the gay rights movement, which tends to regard marriage as a fundamentally conservative social institution, and gay marriage as a bid to neuter the radical potential of gay rights by admitting “respectable” gay couples into the “club” of the traditional nuclear family

            So there are even more fringier people out there. So what? That doesn’t change the fact that, a couple of decades ago, only a tiny minority of people were pushing for gay marriage, or that a politician who espoused the views that, say, Barack Obama held on the topic back in 2008, would find it impossible to rise to high office in the Democratic Party today.

            (a phrase known as “the Breitbart Doctrine,” as long as we’re gonna be pointing fingers as to who does or doesn’t live in ideological bubbles)

            I’ve heard various people cite the phrase approvingly, and not one of those people has used the term “Breitbart Doctrine”. Regardless, the question should be whether it’s true, not whether Andrew Breitbart believes it.

            Hence why someone like Barack Obama can be perceived as a left-wing culture war touchstone for doing basically nothing more than “presidenting while black,”

            I don’t think that Obamacare, DACA, or the various Dear Colleague letters regarding Title IX, count as “basically nothing”.

            Like

          8. Folks, let’s try as much as we can here to keep to the pre-modern history and pop-culture that is the topic of the blog. There are 101 places to debate politics, we need not add place 102.

            Like

  11. This always brings me into questions of where the line goes between a corporations and say, a large magnate family (someone like Bo Jonsson Grip) or other large landowner. Or for that matter organizations like the Hansa.

    Like

  12. It seems weird to divide in a historical post along the private company/state line; states are just as capable of being organized under capitalistic principles as companies are. The operative question isn’t whether the controller is someone in government, the question is whether the entity in control is “the people” or “a small number of people”. Famously (and with irony), modern China is effectively a massive state-capitalist society, since effective control over pretty much all property is in the hands of a small number of elites in the CCP.

    Like

    1. I thought capitalism was a free market which people are free to interact with under varying control from a governing body.

      Like

      1. Capitalism is the private ownership of capital goods for the ends of generating profit. A market of some sort follows naturally from that (how else would you arbitrage profit from your capital?), but that market being “free” to whatever degree that word is meaningful to the context is not inherent to the definition.

        Like

        1. …By that definition all economies that are not socialist are capitalist. One does not generally characterize a medieval guild as being capitalist. But it involved private ownership of capital goods for the ends of generating profit.

          Capitalism is specifically where most people don’t own capital, but work for an elite (the “capitalist class”) that does, with their labor governed by free contracts. The concept of “capitalist” was first put forward to describe Dutch mercantilism. (This does not apply to feudalism, for example, because there the commoner vs. elite divide is more over land, not capital; most capital in those societies is owned directly by the craftsmen who use it. But it’s still privately-owned for the ends of generating profit, which would make it capitalist by your definition, which is thus seen to be overly broad.)

          Like

      2. There is far more to capitalism than being a free market. There is a reason it is not called freemarketism. Capital, and the various corporate nonpersonal organizations in various ways such as banks and shareholder companies are a necessary parts of capitalism. A medieval peddler selling and buying stuff from peasants and craftsmen is not capitalism (at least as long as he don’t create a legal entity different from his private person as vehicle for his activity).

        Like

        1. It’s not called “freemarketism” because the name was invented by someone who wanted to disparage it, and it got stuck before anyone could use a more reasonable term.

          Like

      3. That’s free trade.

        “Capitalist” was coined to describe the beneficiaries of Dutch mercantilism, and “capitalism” to describe the quasi-mercantilist arrangements of early industrialism, in France. Both of those are quite distinct from free trade and often came into conflict with it. You can have free trade capitalism but you can also have mercantilist capitalism.

        Capitalism is the condition where most people do not own their own capital but are employees of an economic elite that does, with contracts free. In that regard it’s basically the industrial form of the “elite and free commoners” system that typified “complex chiefdom” political economies, in an obsolete but still useful anthropological model. (“Elite and commoners” sounds bad till you remember the alternatives, in that model, are tribal, which for political-economy terms means “everyone hand-to-mouth pure subsistence”, and state, which in this model means “elite, some commoners, but the lower ranks of commoners are slaves“.)

        Like

    2. “an economic system defined by private ownership of capital goods for profit”, specifically. The important key to my point is that “private ownership” is being opposed to “democratic ownership”, which is different from the usual definition of “state ownership” (which conflates democratic control with state control, too optimistically, in my opinion). The “for profit” part can be used to exclude feudal proto-states (although it is a grey area), but north korea probably still counts. Cuba probably doesn’t, but then, Cuba is run way more democratically than US media usually thinks.

      Like

      1. The only form of democratic ownership that has not just devolved into state ownership, which in turn works out to be private ownership by bureaucrats (see China, or the Soviet design bureaus), is those systems where every worker privately owns their own, individual capital—a guild-type system, where every worker in the given craft owns their own tools and contracts in their own name. In that kind of system, they only come together in the guild for things like training, setting industry standards, and insurance cooperatives.

        Of course, they seldom leave things that way, but engage in all kinds of rent-seeking behaviors that lead to either economic crisis or a massive shift in how the trade/craft is organized. Just like how capitalism often leads to crony capitalism and socialism always devolves into state corporatism. Part of the human condition is that all systems eventually decay and need to be either restored to their original basis or abolished and replaced.

        Like

  13. Poul Anderson had a period of free-wheeling companies in space. But in Mirkheim it ends, with the observation that all the surviving companies have aligned themselves with one government or another.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Well said – that’s exactly what bugs me about the concept of the sci-fi megacorp: it walks like a country and talks like a country, but doesn’t have the dynamics and failure modes of an actual political organisation. It’s basically a cheap crutch for lazy world building.

    “If Walmart focused every last penny of those returns into building a private army then after a few years of build-up, it might be able to retain a military force roughly on par with…the Netherlands ($12.1bn)”

    Except, of course, there’s a big huge difference between Walmart’s relationship with its employees, and a country’s relationship with its citizens. Nobody was born in Walmart, grew up speaking Walmart, got married and has a home in Walmart and wants to bequeath the Walmart he knew to his kids. A citizen willingly risks life and limb for his country, not for money, but because he believes it is worth it.

    Like

      1. This is a nitpick if anything, but I think “roughly on par” refers to force parity, not size. What matters when comparing two modern armed forces, is their overall effectiveness. In a modern military context, raw manpower isn’t all that important, nor does “lots of equipment” mean particularly much.

        Like

    1. Well, mercenaries fighting for money rather than a state or cause have been around for a long, long time.

      Maybe a future post on mercenaries would be interesting? Looking at how they compared to non-mercenary forces throughout history would be fascinating.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Seconded! I’d love a post about mercenaries throughout history and/or fantasy.

        My (enthusiastic amateur) understanding is that mercenaries are generally nice to have, but are either unmotivated and unreliable, or too expensive to form a solid military. Soldiers who believe they are fighting for their homes and loved ones are cheap *and* well motivated.

        Like

        1. For an extreme example, see the Italian condottieri, who often seem to have shared more fellow-feeling with the condottieri they were supposedly fighting than with the cities they were being employed by.

          Like

          1. They got a bad rep. Mercenaries often fought well, and stuck to their guns as much as any conscript. Hawkwood’s company, the Black Bands, the Catalan Great Company, the Swiss and landsknechts all did well in the field. Their captains took part in the bewildering politics of the age – but then so did the citizens – Italy in particular was full of exiles plotting their return, of factions willing to ally with outsiders, and of leaders who could go from ally to enemy and back several times in a week.

            Like

        2. Ha! Thirded. A post on the actual history of mercenaries versus their fictional depiction is exactly the sort of stuff to expect from this blog. (Quick, somebody clone Mr. Devereaux, he can’t do everything alone…)

          Like

        3. “My (enthusiastic amateur) understanding is that mercenaries are generally nice to have, but are either unmotivated and unreliable, or too expensive to form a solid military. Soldiers who believe they are fighting for their homes and loved ones are cheap *and* well motivated.”

          My understanding it that it’s not that simple, I’m afraid: it depends on plenty of factors and the whole context. One example would be the Swiss in the 15th-16th Centuries: available in fairly large quantities, hard-fighting (some units fought absolutely to the death, e.g. at Pavia in 1525), and almost always sticking to their contracts. Likewise Gallowglasses in Ireland, the French Foreign Legion etc. etc. Also, mercenaries were often thought to be more reliable than locals, especially as bodyguards – the Swiss Guard in Ancien Regime France and the Vatican, or the Roman Emperors’ Germans for instance – as they were less susceptible to court politics. This is not a hard and fast rule, of course, there are plenty of stories of crappy, unreliable or over-priced mercenaries, but the profession wouldn’t have lasted long if they were all like that.

          And as for ‘fighting for their homes and loved ones’ – this can be a strong motivating factor, but there are plenty of stories of unreliable levies, only too happy to leg it home when things got sticky. After all, if all that’s going to happen if your overlord lose the battle is that the tax-man’s got a different coat of arms on his surcote next year, why risk your life?

          Like

          1. One important point is training and equipment. In early modern period, the necessary training required of infantrymen to fight effectively in line was several months, at the very least. This could only be done by professional regiments. (In the continent, regiments were usually raised privately by colonels who got commissions for it, so the line between mercenary and regular was non-existent.) Usually, peasant levies were used only as the last resort, with desperately short training and very bad results.

            Sweden used conscript levies as its main method of raising armies during the 17th century. These performed actually very well because they were drilled to the same level of perfection as mercenaries and equipped quite as well. In addition, they were raised to a fanatic strain of state Lutheranism from childhood, which gave them a very strong ideological motivation.

            Like

          2. I wouldn’t exactly put the French Foreign Legion in the same category as mercenaries, since the Legion is part of the regular army (so can’t exactly chose its employer like a regular mercenary company), under the same military discipline as the regular soldiers and its members fight for slightly more than just money, since they’ll also receive the French nationality at the end of their service. Though the ‘open-for (nearly) all’ recruitment policy would appear mercenary.

            Like

        4. There was a Forgotten Realms novel, ‘Council of Blades’, by Paul Kidd, which was about a kingdom in a fantasy world which had basically been established by a number of mercenary companies.

          Like

      2. Mercenaries have also become extremely relevant these days, now that they are a major arm of Russian foreign policy.

        Like

          1. There’s a fairly big difference between “fill out the ranks for specific tasks” (U.S.) and “send them abroad to fight as a semi-deniable asset” (Russia).

            Like

        1. Mercenaries are noteworthy specifically as a Russian phenomenon? Hey, what’s a guy gotta do to get noticed around here, gun down a bunch of random Iraqis at a traffic circle?

          Like

      3. FWIW “Mercenaries of the Ancient World” by Serge Yalichev, (Constable, 1997) goes into some detail for the near East and Mediterranean area from 3000 bce to the end of the western Roman empire.

        Like

    2. Just as a point, fans of Taiwanese sports cheer for teams owned and name by/for various corporations and which don’t have a fixed and identifiable “home”, rather than teams that are ostensibly identified with a geographic location (though which can change locations at will, according to the interests of their owners).

      Like

      1. Japanese baseball fans, too. The Hanshin Tigers are owned by Hanshin Electric Railways, the Yomiuri Giants by the Yomiuri News media conglomerate, etc.

        Like

      2. And similar thing happens in eSports, if you believe them to be one. You cheer for a team owned by someone, there are no “regional” ones.

        Like

    3. Just from the stories I reckon there are people who have been born in a Walmart and grew up speaking Walmart 😛 They probably wouldn’t die for their superstore though.

      Like

  15. Welcome back Bret! I missed you! I think I may be addicted to your pedantry. 😁
    When you defined mega corporation I immediately thought of the East India company. The publicani did not occur to me but I see that they were an example.

    Like

  16. Happy New Year! Long time reader, first time poster, just wanted to thank you for your work on this blog and wish you a happy and safe new year.

    Like

  17. First, may I wish everyone a better and happier new year than we just had!

    Bret, as usual, I read with interest, but have nothing to add to the discussion. However, here are a few minor corrections you could make:
    operating with effectively impunity -> effective
    So in once sense, -> in one sense
    Walmart; it’s gross revenue -> its [no apostrophe in possessive its]
    army then after -> [missing comma]
    especially in order scholarship -> older scholarship

    Like

  18. “it has always struck me that while speculative fiction has spent decades warning about the dangers of capitalist-corporate-power, the destructive potential of state power continues to utterly dwarf the damage companies do”

    I’d say that speculative fiction about the destructive potential of state power is just dystopian fiction. You know, like “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Of course, the catch is it is counted as literary rather than speculative. It’s set in the future and involves (it’s in the background, but it’s there) speculative technology, so it fulfills at least the superficial genre requirements, even if serious literary critics keep it on the Aryan side of the sci-fi ghetto.

    (Fun fact: in the Eighties, Polish sci-fi community generated a whole subgenre of science fiction depicting various totalitarian societies. Essentially it was about “sticking it to the man” by hiding in the safety of the sci-fi ghetto, where state censors were much laxer than in mainstream. At its best, this current generated serious discussions of matters such as the power struggle within the state apparatus, or the development of underground economies beneath the reach of state control; at its worst, it produced thinly-veiled parodies full of bear-like aliens from Space East. You can think of it as the Soviet Bloc equivalent of cyberpunk, you know, Ronald Reagan being decidedly less of a reason to be scared when observed from the other side of the Iron Curtain.)

    There’s also speculative fiction written by libertarian or right-wing writers. These fellows sure do not mind free market as much as they mind state power, although even the best-written examples that I can recall tend not to be good literature. (I acknowledge I might be not well-read enough.)

    On the matter of historical megacorporations: how would you classify all these American banana planters? These do not seem to be state monopolies or performers of outsorced state functions, merely your average companies under a government that is both very protective of its citizens’ businesses and very fond of gunboats.

    As for the connection between “tax collector” and “sinner” in the New Testament, I’ve been taught that tax collectors were seen as more-or-less traitors for working for the Romans. But this explanation does not negate the other. You can be a traitor while also being a cruel taxman.

    Like

    1. If you want the prototypical example of libertarian mainstream speculative fiction that counts as “good literature”, look no further than Robert A. Heinlein. I find his politics more and more opposed to mine as i age, but dude could definitely write a story.

      Like

      1. On one point I agree with Heinlein, any system of government is bearable provided it has social and economic upward mobility. See Bret’s Sparta series for the consequences of only downward mobility

        Like

    2. English SF has had totalitarian societies as well. Larry Niven had multiple ones: the ARM of Known Space, with potentially sympathetic origins (controlling things worse than basement nukes) but creepy levels of rewriting history and psychology, and the State of the Integral Trees or World Out of Time. Vernor Vinge had the Peace Authority, and I think ‘States’ in a story or two, and then the Emergence of _Deepness in the Sky_.

      I feel there should be more, but it’s not my genre. Certainly plenty of authoritarian governments.

      Like

    3. how would you classify all these American banana planters? These do not seem to be state monopolies or performers of outsorced state functions

      The United Fruit Company (UFC), which I think is what you’re alluding to, comes moderately close to being a “megacorporation” in the context of the Central American countries it operated in (especially, e.g., Guatemala and Honduras). It had in many cases monopolistic control over banana production and export, had de facto control over ports and railways systems, built and operated schools and hospitals, and was apparently even hired in 1901 to manage part of the postal system of Guatemala.

      On the other hand, they don’t seem to have had much in the way of military force (unlike, say, the East India Company), and had to rely on convincing the US government to promote a coup d’etat in Guatemala when the latter’s government began expropriate some of the vast (and unused) land controlled by the UFC. (Ironically, the US government filed an antitrust suit in the same year [1954] against UFC for monopoly domination of the US banana import industry, which suggests the UFC wasn’t quite a “megacorporation” in the context of the United States.)

      Like

  19. The idea of private-sector corporate power and public-sector state power as mutually exclusive opposites, such that the political project of neoliberalism/libertarianism can be usefully understood as “rolling back the state” or “drowning the state in the bathtub” or some such, is an idea that historians who study neoliberalism have been pushing back against for quite a while now. A particularly good book to check out along those lines is Quinn Slobodian’s “Globalists: the End of Empires and the Birth of Neoliberalism” which suggests that instead of markets under neoliberalism being “freed” or “unfettered” from state regulation, a better image would be markets as protected or encased by state regulation, particularly when the regulations in question come from sectors of state power like central banks (let alone state-backed transnational economic institutions like the WTO, World Bank, IMF, etc) that are deliberately kept as insulated as possible from direct democratic political control. (Also worth noting that while Slobodian is pretty open about his left-wing viewpoint, having previously written two fairly sympathetic books about far-left Third World solidarity movements in West and East Germany, “Globalists” has also been praised for its fair-mindedness by figures at some of the highest levels of modern neoliberal economic thought, including Hayek’s authorized biographer Bruce Caldwell and former Mont Pelerin Society president Peter Boettke.)

    So yeah, the idea of megacorps assuming the de facto power of state institutions, such that state and corporate rule are at best two sides of the same coin and at worst all but indistinguishable, becomes less and less counterintuitive the more one manages to clear one’s head from gutter-level PragerU-style propaganda and pay attention to actual serious scholarship.

    Like

  20. Your comment re. Megacorporations was fascinating, although I can’t help but wonder if you’re missing a further historical parallel in the Italian City States. While its certainly less direct than your examples of VOC or EIC, it seems as though in many ways the usurpation of Italian states by the Podestas or Republics took the form of the wealthiest citizens assuming control, often through the bribery of the masses. (I actually don’t mean Venice here, which was one of the most stable states in pre-modern Europe, although I think there is an argument to be made that their control of Cyprus was roughly analogous to the VOC in Java or EIC in India.)

    The difficulty is that in a pre-modern era, its difficult to separate corporations from families and dynastic action. but many of the Signorial system in Italy often take more the tack of market action and economic action than they do the traditional state action. Certainly the Medicis seem to have co-opted Florence almost entirely, making the duchy into a expansion of their own power. That might be a more fitting comparison to Arasoka, where the interests of a family/corporation has effectively subsumed the interests of a state, although obviously Florence is a much smaller scale than the entirety of Japan in Cyberpunk.

    Like

  21. Your comments on the relative powers of corporations vs states are right as far as they go, but I think they’re missing an acknowledgement of how effective modern corporations can be at dissuading states from picking fights, through lobbying, political donations and regulatory capture. Why would they buy an army for tens of billions when senators cost millions and civil servants hundreds of thousands (in the cushy consulting gigs they know they’ll get after their retirement for their old employers in the industry)?

    Like

    1. That game is not new though. The Roman publicani were playing it in the first century BC (that’s a major topic in Badian’s book, referenced above). The problem with lobbying is that the lobbyist is a client, not a patron.

      Like

      1. That presumes there is a singular “state” that acts in a unified manner, and not say, a variety of different factions in need of support. (I think there is a tendency to view states as a lot more unitary than they usually are)

        Like

        1. There’s an apt metaphor I found, in a sci-fi book of all places. The state is like a giant’s hand, immensely powerful, but it is controlled by a thousand little brains, each trying to direct it towards its own purpose. Occasionally, enough of the little brains manage to agree, and then the giant hand moves and directs its immense power to effect changes in the world.

          The point being that a megacorp might well be able to bribe / lobby / influence the state into a particular action, but if it starts acting like a threat, enough of the little brains will react by agreeing that the giant hand must come down and squash the annoying thing. RIP megacorp.

          Like

  22. That’s too bad about Eidolon, which was often enjoyable, and even taught me some things. That said, the idea that what academia needs is more explicit hard-core leftism was always a little strange. So far as I can see, academia resembles a Stalinist kleptocracy, in which oppressive mandarins prate about social justice while systematically exploiting their underlings and extracting resources, via the taxman, from the larger society.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No, Bret didn’t say it, but Eidolon was pretty hard left in its “slant.” Nothing wrong with that, especially if, as Bret suggested, it were one of a hundred voices, but the idea frequently espoused on Eidolon that the humanities would be revived if they were even woker than they are is pretty weird. You have to be a real intellectual to believe anything that absurd.

        Like

    1. So far as I can see, academia resembles a Stalinist kleptocracy, in which oppressive mandarins prate about social justice while systematically exploiting their underlings and extracting resources, via the taxman, from the larger society.

      Personally it reminds me of the bit in Screwtape where the eponymous demon talks about making societies obsess over rooting out whichever vice they’re least likely to commit. Racism is probably less socially acceptable in the contemporary West than at any time in history, or in virtually any non-Western country, and yet large parts of academia want us to devote more and more effort to rooting out smaller and smaller instances of racism.

      Like

      1. Racism is probably less socially acceptable in the contemporary West than at any time in history, or in virtually any non-Western country, and yet large parts of academia want us to devote more and more effort to rooting out smaller and smaller instances of racism.

        That’s a vague, unspecific and emotional argument.

        It’s also nonsensical: If racism is a problem, then the goal for a more effective/better society is to get rid of as much as possible. You’ve been spending too much time in political rant space it looks like.

        Like

        1. That’s a vague, unspecific and emotional argument.

          Which part, if any, do you want to contest?

          It’s also nonsensical: If racism is a problem, then the goal for a more effective/better society is to get rid of as much as possible. You’ve been spending too much time in political rant space it looks like.

          Encouraging people to view everything through racialised lenses, and to see hidden racism in every innocuous statement or action, doesn’t produce a “more effective/better society”, it produces a fractured, Balkanised mess. It’s no coincidence that race relations have become worse at the same time as critical race theory has become mainstream.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Define “possible” as used in that sentence, because one possible meaning of it is “no matter how much prosperity, happiness, and human life has to be sacrificed to achieve it.”

          Like

  23. It’s interesting that you chose the Spacer’s Guild as Dune’s exemplar of the megacorp. They certainly qualify as a monopoly. Multiple markets? Well, they owned both interplanetary travel and … weather satellites. Anything to do with space, I suppose we may infer. But in my view, they don’t qualify as vertically integrated, having failed to seize control of the Spice upon which they depended. And there is no sign that they controlled any armed forces of their own. (Aside: does anyone besides me perceive an origin paradox here? Interplanetary space travel requires Spice, which requires … interplanetary travel to Arrakis.) Whereas CHOAM, now that was a megacorp! The armies of the Padishah Emperor himself marched beneath its banner!

    Anyway, what I really want to know is, did you choose the title of your blog so that it would fit the acronym A COUP?

    Like

    1. “(Aside: does anyone besides me perceive an origin paradox here? Interplanetary space travel requires Spice, which requires … interplanetary travel to Arrakis.)”

      They had other forms of faster-than-light travel, which were rendered obsolete by the method the Guild uses. The Spice is partly a metaphor for petroleum, which likewise rendered older forms of travel obsolete.

      Like

      1. I always understood it as being that spice didn’t make interstellar FTL travel possible, it merely made it safe enough that sane people would use it. You can go FTL without it, as long as you don’t mind 10% chance of death per light year.

        Like

    2. Dune’s Spacing Guild was certainly no megacorp, in that it had no political power. It was stated somewhere in the books that the Guild had “had a chance to grasp for power” and refused to take it. They could have become an actual political organization, lived their hour of glory and eventually died. They preferred the easy path, carried on for thousands of years and finally fading into insignificance.

      Nor is CHOAM a megacorp. It doesn’t influence politics, instead it is the way the prizes are portioned out *after* political games have run their course. Herbert did his homework as far as world building is concerned.

      Also, my understanding was that the Sardaukar didn’t march under CHOAM’s banner at Arrakeen. It was just used as a signaling device, raising it was a political statement. Presumably, it was taken down before the battle started, and anyway good luck flying a flag in a sandstorm.

      Like

      1. I cannot see how the Guild could avoid political power. If it has a monopoly on interstellar travel, no one can win an interstellar war without its support. If the Guild supports neither side, there could not even be an interstellar war. It should have mastery of the known universe whether it wants to or not, and an existential need to control Arrakis. Whether anyone wants to call it a “megacorporation” should be utterly beside the point.

        Like

        1. They’re one big bunch of clairvoyants, all they’d have to do was to keep shying away from futures that might lead to political power…

          Like

          1. “And always, he fought the temptation to choose a clear, safe course, warning ‘That path leads ever down into stagnation.’”

            Like

        2. They support both sides in every war (for a large fee from both sides).

          They could take sides, certainly. If they allied with the Emperor against the Landsraad (planetary rulers), the Emperor could kick the Landraad’s teeth in. But they’ve decided not to do that.

          Like

        3. “If it has a monopoly on interstellar travel, no one can win an interstellar war without its support.”

          That’s the point. The monopoly doesn’t just happen, it is enforced by the state, ie in Dune’s world the Imperium. What the Guild can do is to rebel against the Padishah and try to *become* the Imperium itself. That pits the Spacing Guild’s fish people against the Sardaukar and probably a sizeable portion of the Landsraad’s forces too. Wisely, the Guild doesn’t go down that path.

          “If the Guild supports neither side, there could not even be an interstellar war.”

          Not true. The Guild’s monopoly is state-enforced. Space travel is perfectly possible without the Guild and without spice – that’s how people came to Dune and discovered spice in the first place.

          Like

          1. If the state can enforce a monopoly on interstellar travel, there can be no effective rebellion against the interstellar state. Except perhaps by whoever controls the source of the spice. And a state which could enforce a monopoly on travel could prevent any single individual from controlling that. The state in Dune does no such thing. The state allows a single Duke or Baron to control it.

            Like

          2. It’s not state-enforced, AFAIK, it’s just that you can’t *safely* use a foldspace drive without a Navigator’s precog. So if the Guild won’t carry your ships, then you have an ugly choice – either use the older, slower pre-Guild FTL drive and let the enemy run circles around you, or take the risk of jumping your ship into a star every time you travel.

            It’s not *impossible* to have an interstellar war under these conditions, but you’d need a pretty hefty military advantage to overcome the disadvantage in logistics.

            Like

  24. OK, I lied, there’s one more thing I want to know. I see that you included Lazenby among the references to your paper on the 1st Punic War; I think he is the author we in the general public are most likely to have read. My summary of Lazenby would be “take Polybius seriously and maybe even literally”, and “the Romans won a war of attrition which Carthage did not have the resources to match” (though he did not take the crucial step to explain this disparity of resources). Is it your view that he was mistaken on one or both of these points?

    Like

    1. I believe Lazenby is correct on taking Polybius seriously and maybe even literally. I think he is incorrect in his harsh assessment of Carthaginian strategy.

      But I also think, as histories of the war goes, he’s still probably the best available, at least until Dexter Hoyos does a single-book focused treatment of the First Punic War (I know he has a bit of that in a lot of his books, but Lazenby is far more focused).

      Like

  25. Isn’t a further question also about the extent to which (at least early) imperialism was actually carried out by states at all? In a lot of the early cases the states seems to do little more than serve as providers of legitimacy, and sometimes funding (but then, even, often as semi-private investors or partners with private investors) Cortéz famously conquered an empire *against* the expressed wishes of the closest thing to a representative of state power that was around, Even as late as the 19th century Cecil Rhodes was essentially signing treaties and fighting wars on his own, (though as is often the case, calling in the government once things went badly)

    Like

  26. “What if, instead of a corporate-dominated Earth (or even a corp-dominated Near-Future USA), you set a story in a near-future developing country which finds itself under the heel of a megacorporation that is essentially an arm of a foreign government, much like the EIC and VOC?”

    The Expanse does this to some extent – Earth-based corporations are depicted as running (and oppressing) large parts of the outer solar system, while not being able to seriously challenge (and sometimes depending on the military power of) Earth itself.

    Like

  27. To plug The Expanse yet again, the fourth book (Cibola Burn) has precisely this kind of colonial megacorp, where local conflict is between a corporation chartered by the UN (with its private security forces) and non-UN-citizen colonists. The corporation’s power comes from being on the one hand the instrument of state power, and on the other hand working in an area peripheral enough to avoid strict state oversight.

    Like

  28. Has the Catholic Church ever come close historically to possibly being considered a megacorporation? In particular I have Alexander VI in mind, and a time when there literally were ‘papal armies’.

    Like

    1. Alexander VI and other renaissance and later popes were rulers of an actual state comprising much of central Italy. It was as a prince Alexander et al raised armies.

      Liked by 1 person

  29. > the IRS’s operating budget is $11.3bn, generating a staggering 300-fold return on investment

    I don’t think that’s a realistic way to look at it. The IRS can be run on a (comparative) shoestring because it has the whole law-enforcement edifice to lean on. And most of the time it doesn’t need to lean on them because its demands are seen as legitimate, since people understand that taxes fund all sorts of spending on things they tend to want. Take those away and collecting taxes becomes a whole lot more expensive.

    This feels a bit like comparing Walmart’s gross revenue with its cashier salaries.

    Like

    1. That is actually exactly my point. The state – with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force and often vast systems of coercion – can simply extract revenue, rather than having to go through the painstaking task of generating it. Even adding the DOJ’s $30bn budget in its entirely, relatively little of which goes to revenue extraction, and the federal government still posts what would be an absurd rate of return.

      Like

      1. I think part of the issue might be that megacorps as you defined them tends to be precisely things that exists in the liminal space between state authority (IE: where state authority is fairly weak or at least limited, as semi-independent arms of the government) but isnt that partially becuase if the state authority was entirely absent the megacorp would just “naturally” evolve into a standard-model state?

        IE: For the corporate model to make sense there needs to both be enough of a power vaccuum for the megacorp to operate nad there needs to be a strong state at some point behind them. If there is no power-gap corporate power will not establish the kind of semi-state power you are talking about, and with a power vaccuum but no “home government” they will just naturally move to become the government?

        Like

      2. On the other hand, being the state is horrendously expensive and also often quite ruinous to the corporation that s doing it. For example, East India Company was not really able to produce profit after becoming the Raj. Its individual office-holders and associated merchants profited handsomely, but the actual shareholders didn’t do that well. Essentially, by becoming the British Government in India, the Company fell victim to the corruption that was endemic in Britain. Similarly, building hospitals, infrastructure or mail services in Latin America was probably a loss leader for United Fruit.

        So, the question is: if your actual business is doing well otherwise, why would you want to take over the government?

        Like

  30. Just as a point, fans of Taiwanese sports cheer for teams owned and name by/for various corporations and which don’t have a fixed and identifiable “home”, rather than teams that are ostensibly identified with a geographic location (though which can change locations at will, according to the interests of their owners).

    Like

  31. I have been coming across references to this blog in various corners of the Internet; so far all favorable except one guy at Alternate History who was devoted to the Fremen Mirage -the actual mirage, not the blog post- and who was driven to a fury by your debunking of it.

    Like

  32. Would you happen to know the etymology of the word ‘publican’, and in particular how it went from ‘tax collector’ (as you’ve discussed) and came to mean ‘innkeeper’?

    Like

  33. Hey Bret, I’m curious on your view of the removal of ‘historic’ statues when they become politically insensitive i.e. confederate civil war monuments.
    Because currently removal of statues isn’t just the removal of civil war statues, in New York a statue commissioned by emancipated slaves of Abraham Lincoln was removed because it promoted a “white saviour narrative”.

    Personally I’m worried this is the beginning of large scale state enforced historical revisionism but I’m curious as to what your take is.

    Like

    1. I think it was Boston, not New York. I can’t speak for Bret, obviously, but removal of statues by lawful political processes doesn’t bother me. (I’m opposed to mob violence, even when it’s only directed at property.) If the living in a particular region don’t like a statue, they should be able to take it down. A few of my lefty friends were upset when the statue of Georg Lukacs in Budapest was taken down, but I had the same answer then. (I’m not sure if anyone under 60 has read Lukacs, but he was very popular among academic lefties in the 70s, and most of my friends date are of that age.)

      Like

  34. I just wish people saying the Democrats are center-right would be explicit about what the left-right midpoint is supposed to be.

    As for being further left than European parties, I dunno, but I’d nominate abortion, immigrant assimilation, and even racism as candidates. How are the major European left parties on caring about Roma rights?

    Like

    1. That said, if we just consider economic equality, yeah the Democrats as a whole aren’t strenuously left, even in states they seem to control, though leftists who care about practicality will be in the party. “Easy” issues would be free college, free childcare, more affordable health care – ACA was a big step but needs a lot to be desired – and not having exploding homeless camps. Easy as in not challenging capitalism, just providing more services. Being more openly pro union would be another one, I remember in 2008 Edwards was the only candidate who talked about unions without being asked.

      Like

      1. Also, on the questions of public healthcare, center right parties in Europe are often to the left of the democrats. Even Thatcher kept the National Health Service, so Bernie Sanders and the rests Medicare for all was obviously to right wing for her. When a Swedish center right coalition in the 90s reformed the Swedish health care system into something less socialist and more right wing, they ended up with something like medicare for all (which was indeed less socialist than the system before).

        Like

        1. It’s not just healthcare either, but the entire raft of welfare state policies (unemployment insurance, education, childcare, etc.) and in most of those even the centre-right european parties tends to end up somewhere around the Bernie Sanders.

          Like

      2. That said, if we just consider economic equality, yeah the Democrats as a whole aren’t strenuously left, even in states they seem to control, though leftists who care about practicality will be in the party. “Easy” issues would be free college, free childcare, more affordable health care – ACA was a big step but needs a lot to be desired – and not having exploding homeless camps. Easy as in not challenging capitalism, just providing more services. Being more openly pro union would be another one, I remember in 2008 Edwards was the only candidate who talked about unions without being asked.

        That’s because the rich tend to be more socially-liberal (more in favour of gay marriage, transgenderism, abortion access, globalism, immigration, etc.) than the working class. Rather than saying that the Democrats are right-wing, I think it would make more sense to say that the Democrats have realised that fraternité was hindering the march towards liberté, and made a decision to prioritise the latter over the former.

        Like

  35. In 2008 multiple banks forced governments to bail them out. It seems to me that the megacorporations, at least of the financial world, showed that they had the power to dictate terms to the civil authorities.

    Like

    1. OTOH, Lehman, WaMu and Bear Stearns went bust, Wachovia ceased to exist as an entity, the shareholders of AIG and Fannie Mae were wiped out, etc. It seems more like the product of negotiation between powerful players and the government than the typical sci-fi scenario, where the corporation IS the government.

      Like

  36. “The global standard would be that defending and expanding social democracy (i.e. welfare states, universal healthcare, robust public services and infrastructure, state support for functions like childcare, etc) is a nominally center-left position, ”

    The global standard, or the European standard?

    Like

  37. ” single left-wing accomplishment of the Democratic party over the past ten years other than the ACA, which is to the right of the health care policies of basically every single European party.”

    Nationally, the Democrats *haven’t had power* at any point in the past 10 years. They haven’t had the ability to reliably pass policy since Ted Kennedy died, never mind since losing the Senate in 2010.

    Statewide, I don’t follow politics in detail like I used to, but raising the minimum wage and banning conversion therapy come to mind, as well as trying to override single-family zoning.

    ACA needed all 60 Senate votes to pass, so it was hostage to the most conservative Democrat, himself hostage to the voters of, say, Nebraska. If the Senate ran on majority rules there would probably have been a public option. ACA is clearly a big leftward shift, and in principle it’s similar to the universal health care systems of Switzerland, Germany, France, the Netherlands… could use some tweaking of parameters, though.

    Like

  38. “But that does not mean the Democratic Party has followed after them”

    Seems clear to me the party has sauntered moderately leftward (vs. the rightward gallop of the GOP). Debate has gone from “should we have UHC?” to “what form of UHC should we have?” 2016 saw debate over much the minimum wage should be raised ($12 or 15?) with Hillary proposing inflation-linking it — which is rather more radical than any simple number. Gay marriage might have mostly been the courts, but banning conversion therapy is an act of Democratic legislatures.

    The party is of course not as far left as the leftmost fringe. Duh.

    BTW, several Democratic US states did legalize gay marriage by statute, in advance of many European countries.

    Like

    1. Seems clear to me the party has sauntered moderately leftward (vs. the rightward gallop of the GOP). Debate has gone from “should we have UHC?” to “what form of UHC should we have?” 2016 saw debate over much the minimum wage should be raised ($12 or 15?) with Hillary proposing inflation-linking it — which is rather more radical than any simple number.

      I’ll believe it when I see those things become actual law. I remember the Republicans prattling on about repealing Obamacare, then just floundering the moment they could actually do anything about it. Politicians love telling the base they’ll make all their wildest dreams come true, hate being held to account for any actual consequences to their actions.

      Like

      1. Obamacare is a form of UHC, if a flawed one. It already passed.

        Democrats raised minimum wage by 40% when they took Congress in 2007, and it has been raised in many Democrat states and cities recently, well above the Federal level. Democratic cities and states have been working to make life easier for illegal immigrants.

        Modern Democrats are actively pro-union. https://www.alternet.org/2020/09/the-conventional-wisdom-is-wrong-todays-democrats-are-more-united-in-support-of-organized-labor-than-the-new-deal-dems/

        California laws taking effect:
        “Cal/OSHA now has the ability to shut down a workplace if it exposes workers to an “imminent hazard” related to COVID-19. Workers in smaller companies have access to job-protected family leave. Workers have more time to file a labor complaint to the state. Companies by March will have to provide information to the state about how much they are paying their workers.”

        “Another law going into effect Jan. 1 will provide job-protected unpaid family leave of up to 12 weeks to workers in companies with five or more employees.”

        (compared to generous paid leave in many European countries, that’s weak — but it’s a shift for the US.)

        “The law also now allows workers to take the leave to care for seriously ill siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, adult children and parents-in-law, according to the Legal Aid at Work. Previously, workers could only take the leave to care for their minor children, parents and spouses.”

        Massachusetts:

        “Starting next year, all employees in Massachusetts will have access to paid family and medical leave that will allow up to 12 weeks of family leave and up to 20 weeks of medical leave, with the guarantee that they would be restored to their same or equivalent positions, with the same status, pay, and employment benefits.”

        And of course minimum wage increases have been all over the country. Actual laws.

        Like

        1. Folks, let’s try as much as we can here to keep to the pre-modern history and pop-culture that is the topic of the blog. There are 101 places to debate politics, we need not add place 102.

          Like

      2. Folks, let’s try as much as we can here to keep to the pre-modern history and pop-culture that is the topic of the blog. There are 101 places to debate politics, we need not add place 102.

        Like

    2. It seems to me that the Republicans are right where they always were, whereas the Democrats want to defund the police, abolish ICE, etc. And I don’t recall Bill Clinton being so rabid in defense of transgender rights as today’s Democrats; in fact he opposed gay marriage, as did Obama when he was first elected. It’s clearly the Democrats who have moved left, whereas I can’t think of a single issue on which the Republicans are further right than they were in say 2000. On trade, to the extent that free trade has historically been a conservative position–Bill Clinton turned to the Republicans to approve NAFTA–the Republicans have moved left.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This whole subdiscussion started when a commenter claimed that the American Democratic Party stood to the left of most European leftist parties, which I still think they don’t, especially on economic and welfare policies.

        Defunding the police, however, is far to the left of any mainstream European leftist party. On the other hand, a lot of European parties, even center right parties, consider it perfectly normal for regular police to walk around unarmed, (to police the regularly unarmed population), so there is that.

        Like

          1. Its a bit complicated, a lot of european police is actually notionally more heavily armed (german police routinely carry SMGs as a legacy of the 1970s terrorism wave, for instance, and most latin countries have heavily armed gendarmeries)

            So it depends a bit on which kind of police, which country and in what situation.

            Like

          2. OK, I am Swedish, so obviously according to Wikipedia our police is always armed. But generally you do not think about it, and when I have seen patrolling police, I have generally not even noticed that they are armed (once , during a terrorism alert, I saw heavily armed police, and that stood out as very unusual to me). But Wikipedia also show the statistics of how seldom the arms are used.

            Like

          3. German police don’t “routinely” carry SMGs on the street (source: I live in Munich), though they’re more likely to have them in places like airports. The general rule seems to be that police officers in European countries (with the few noted exceptions) are routinely armed with pistols, just like American police.

            It is certainly true, on the other hand, that American police kill people at a population-adjusted rate that’s roughly 10-50 times higher than European countries (or places like Japan and Taiwan), despite having on average somewhat fewer police officers per capita.

            Like

          4. Part of that is because police officers are killed at a higher rate in the US than in European countries. For example, in the UK, it appears that there were three law enforcement officers killed by criminals in 2012, which was the worst year in the past two decades. There have been some years where no law enforcement officer was killed by a criminal in the UK.

            https://policememorial.org.uk/rollofhonour.php#

            Meanwhile, that year in the United States, forty nine police officers were killed by criminals in 2012, which was slightly above average but not by much.

            Like

          5. Most are likely armed, but the amount of use of firearms can be dramatically lower. I recall a policeman who was probably in his forties that we had come visit in middle school, and when he was inevitable asked whether he had ever shot anyone, he replied that he had pulled his gun once, but never fired it. Any firearms discharge is likely to show up in the media. I would imagine that this is very common in Europe.

            Like

  39. The corporate form implies the existence of a more powerful actor (i.e. a host state). Corporations are sets of legal obligations between employees, directors, shareholders, customers, etc. These oblilgations become meaningless if there is no higher power to enforce them. For example, if a megacorporation had control of the highest court in its jurisidiction, to whom could a shareholder appeal if she didn’t get her dividend?

    In other words, a megacorporation without a host state would be indistinguishable from a state with a planned economy.

    Like

    1. Ah the good old horseshoe theory. They’ve gone so far towards capitalism that they’ve come back the other way as a communist.

      Like

      1. Free enterprise, also known as capitalism, precludes the sorts of special favors directed toward specific companies that that set up requires. Crony capitalism is moving away from capitalism toward — well, fascism.

        Like

        1. “Free enterprise” is not the same thing as capitalism. Capitalism demands institutions and procedures (legal corporations, banks, stock markets etc) that make investments of Impersonal capital the basis of economy. There have been markets and enterprise long before capitalism appeared in the late medieval/ early modern period.

          Like

          1. Marx, Weber and I would think most historians. There is a reason it is called “capitalism” and not something else.

            Like

          2. And why did its enemy name it capitalism? Why not chose something bad and evilsounding instead? There is a reason, and the reason is of course capital. Crony capitalism is capitalism, even if it does away with market mechanisms, since it is still an economic system based on capital.

            Read what I posted above about capitalism being a system that appeared in the late Middle Ages/ early modern period in Western Europe, and that has some very distinctive features such as corporations as legal persons, shareholding separate from the shareholders private economy, the investment and allocation of capital. Can you name one historian The Who doesn’t agree to that definition of capitalism?

            Like

          3. There are substantial, fundamental differences in the economic system of the paleolithic (where trade was surely conducted with outsiders, without intervention beyond community enforcement of the deal) and the economic system of European (and later global) states in the aftermath of the Great Divergence, with the emergence of jointly owned stock corporations, reinvestment for the purposes of increasing productivity, etc, wherein capital becomes incredibly liquid and capable of compounding at an incredibly rapid pace even at average rates. The kind of wealth available to the capitalists of the modern day is the feature from which they get their name (capital, goods that can be used to increase productivity), and a fundamental economic underpinning of the current system.

            Prior to the early modern era (when capitalism began to emerge), estimated GDP per capita growth is on the level of .1% per annum for better eras and places (though not the absolute best places – those might have managed a whole 0.15%). Over the next few centuries, this rate slowly accelerated, until industrialization began, at which point Britain (the birthplace of what we today think of as capitalism).

            The fact that GDP per capita growth was so low suggests there was very little reinvestment in productivity beyond maintenance. If the average citizen can spend $10 today to earn $10.01 next year, then reinvest that, etc, you are not looking at an economy that is getting a whole lot out of it. You can become wealthy in these economies, but it is largely a zero sum game, either played with members of your own society (likely resulting in a decline ala Sparta), or with members of external societies (by conquering them and stealing their things, as in the case of Rome).

            This is another unique aspect of capitalism as distinct from “free market trade,” and indeed the primary, if not only reason, it is so successful right now. After all, the flagging economy of the USSR was a primary feature of its eventual failure (and, I’d suggest, probably a necessary one, given the CCP’s continued success in an increasingly prosperous single party state) – yet, its economy was growing at a “meager” 0.7% GDP per capita per year from 1973-1990, several times greater than early modern Netherlands, which stood at an estimated 0.2% and was at the time the fastest growing economy in Europe. If you were to take the late USSR’s (infamously dismal!) GDP growth, transplant it to a country with the mean GDP per capita of 1500 ($566), keeping it level for the next several hundred years, it would take until around the 1970s for the USA to finally catch up.

            If you remove from capitalism this critical feature of sustained total growth in proportion to population (and, as a corollary, the larger wealth of modern capitalist states), it is hard to argue that it is a better system of wealth apportionment than any other, and probably substantively worse than most. At least traditions like feudalism basically set the wealth of the poor at a fairly constant % – if you were to put the same constrictions on growth into place in America, the net wealth of the poorest 90% of society would have declined by around ~30% over the past 3 decades. (The net income of the poorest 80% would have instead declined by ~11%.) Needless to say, the average peasant was not losing 30% of his land every generation because there would very quickly not be any peasants left.

            Like

          4. Arguing from a society with what you admit is a critical feature to determine what wealth distribution capitalism would create in a society without that feature is not a strong argument.

            Like

          5. What argument, exactly, am I making? I am very particularly not making a moral argument about whether the system called capitalism is good or bad, but instead engaging with your frankly bizarre claim that capitalism == free enterprise.

            If we accept that capitalism has as a critical feature continuous productivity increases, then there is no capitalism sans continuous productivity increases, so it is meaningless to discuss the matter of what it might look like. I only bring it up to point out how vastly different it behaves compared to every preceding economic system, since it enables you to have incredible levels of upward accumulation of wealth without your society rapidly collapsing.

            If we do not accept that capitalism has as a critical feature continuous productivity increases, then we have to go back a few steps, to talk about whether a paleolithic arrow-knapper who trades his arrowheads to a person in another tribe who gives him berries in return, with this deal being enforced by members of both tribes who will punish fraud or theft on either party’s part, is in fact a “capitalist.”

            I would like to clarify which argument you would like to have.

            Like

          6. Good posts, Communard Scum. And Mary; like communard I was not arguing for the goodness or badness of capitalism, but trying to keep language and definitions clear.

            Like

          7. ” it is hard to argue that it is a better system of wealth apportionment than any other, and probably substantively worse than most. ”

            vs.

            “I am very particularly not making a moral argument about whether the system called capitalism is good or bad, ”

            Pick one.

            Also,

            “If we accept that capitalism has as a critical feature continuous productivity increases, then there is no capitalism sans continuous productivity increases, so it is meaningless to discuss the matter of what it might look like”

            then why did you discuss it?

            Like

          8. You know, I took a lot of time and effort to make the post to which you have responded with a grand total of maybe fifty words of dismissal, without even explaining whether or not you actually think that the Proudhonists successfully bamboozled the academia into considering the modern industrial economic system to be meaningfully and fundamentally different from paleolithic trade. Have a nice day!

            Like

          9. @ CommunardScum
            There are substantial, fundamental differences in the economic system of the paleolithic (where trade was surely conducted with outsiders, without intervention beyond community enforcement of the deal) and the economic system of European (and later global) states in the aftermath of the Great Divergence …

            “the paleolithic”?

            Either you really do mean “Paleolithic”, which is the period from roughly 3 million to about 12,000 years ago — in which case about 11,000 years of more recent history are missing from your account — or you mean, I guess, some kind of vaguely defined “pre-Modern” period (ending anywhere between the 16th and 19th Centuries, depending on whose definition of “the Great Divergence” you use). In which case, your sharp distinction between “trade … without intervention beyond community enforcement” and “the economic system of European states” is historically nonsensical. Not because the the economies of 19th Century European states were identical to the economy of, say, Europe in 8000 BC, but because there was so much actual development that went on between those times. For example, we know that early Mesopotamian states were indirectly — or sometimes directly — involved in international trade circa 2000 BC, even to the point of mounting military expeditions to assert control over trade routes. More recently, the Islamic Caliphate in the 8th and 9th Centuries AD saw the development of legal mechanisms for various sort of proto-capitalist activity, including profit-sharing partnerships and other investment schemes — which some historians argue directly influenced the proto-capitalist institutions of medieval Italian city-states such as Venice and Genoa. (See, for example, Jairus Banaji, “Islam, the Mediterranean, and the Rise of Capitalism”.)

            Even if we discount your confusing misuse of the term “paleolithic”, the trade and economy of, say, the 9th Century Islamic world (and the other world systems it traded with, like India, the East Indies, Central Asia, and China) was radically different from “a paleolithic arrow-knapper who trades his arrowheads to a person in another tribe who gives him berries in return”, and it makes no sense to conflate the two. (Even if we agree it makes little sense to call the 9th Century Islamic economy “capitalist”, either — though there is some merit in calling aspects of it “proto-capitalist”.)

            Like

          10. I meant the paleolithic, as we have evidence of trade in the paleolithic, and if capitalism just means “the free market,” then there was “capitalism” in the paleolithic, which I think is an inane position but may very well be Mary’s for all I know. I do, naturally, recognize that these are rather different systems, and quite different from their various in-betweens; I am using their sheer distance to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to pretend that a free market is all capitalism is.

            Like

          11. Much of the increase in productivity over the past 300 years has come from technological innovation, not capital accumulation. One can imagine a technologically and economically stagnant country in which the means of production are owned privately. I’d still call it capitalist.

            Likewise, one can imagine technological growth and rising incomes in a non-capitalist country. If you don’t count mercantilism as a separate system, then the country at the technological frontier has been capitalist since the Industrial Revolution (first Britain, then the USA). There’s no reason it must be that way, though.

            Like

          12. @Eric Monkman: was your comment to me? I read comments through the inbox of my mail, so it is sometimes difficult to know. At any rate it was labeled as a comment to me.

            I agree that a system or country may be economically stagnant and still be capitalist. But “privately owned” is to vague description of what makes a system capitalist. Even if ownership is basically private in a capitalist system, the distinction between the economic activity of a corporation (“companies are persons to”) and of the private economy of the shareholders is a very important pillar of capitalism.

            Like

          13. @Micael Gustavsson: I cannot reply to the latest comments any more (we are too deeply nested). My comment was apropos Communard Scum’s claim that capitalism requires increasing productivity.

            While the corporate form is a pillar of the modern capitalist system, the conduct of broad business activities through corporations didn’t come about until the mid-1800s in Britain, and later in other countries. Before then, capitalism was conducted by sole proprietors, partnerships and a few chartered corporations.

            The London Stock Exchange in the 1800s was dominated by banks, transportation and insurance companies. Manufacturing companies tended to be financed differently (Boulton & Watt was a partnership, for instance).

            Like

          14. Like ey81 below you are right. But the point (about which we agree) that being a market economy doesn’t necessarily make a system capitalist.

            Like

          15. I agree that capitalism means more than free enterprise, which has existed at least since money was invented, but it’s a mistake to identify it with the corporate form. Other than for banks (and not all of them) and some state-sponsored trading enterprises, the corporate form was not in general use in 18th or early 19th century England and America, yet most people would consider those countries capitalist. Any system with functioning financial markets, where notes and bills can be bought and sold, and loans can be obtained, qualifies as capitalist. Other than the aforesaid banks, most the business enterprises of the 18th and early 19th century were conducted as proprietorships or partnerships, in either case without limited liability. (You may recall that Lloyd’s of London conducted business in that form until late in the twentieth century.)

            Like

          16. Yes, you are right, I was to categorical. But we agree that being a market economy doesn’t make a system necessarily capitalist.

            Like

      2. Not all governments that take on major economic roles are ideologically communist, though. For example, by controlling the oil industry, the Saudi government plays a huge role in the economy. It would be difficult to mistake King Salman for for a commisar.

        Like

  40. I feel you are overstating your case:
    There is nothing inherently implausible about a corporation that controls 10 or 20 percent of the worlds revenue.
    Actually, I think there is a significant chance that a company like alphabet or amazon, or some billionaire will eventually get there (unless governments intervene).

    On a related note: I’m quite surprised that no one has mentioned Jakob Fugger yet. Just image what History would have looked like if that guy had lived for another 40 years, or had had competent successors.

    Like

    1. The U.S. is about 15% of the world economy. So a corporation collecting 15% of the worlds revenue would be like collecting all retail sales in the U.S. plus all the rent, utilities, medical services, etc.

      Like

      1. Well, the general Idea is a corporation that controls a significant part of the revenue in >80% of economic sectors in >80% of the worlds countries.

        Like

  41. Dan Davies noted that comparisons of the size of states and corporations rarely put like against like. The revenue of a corporation is not analogous to the tax take of a state, nor the assets of a corp like the assets of a state. A state can command as much of the income and wealth of its area as its legitimacy and administrative capacity allows – as much as 50% in extremis (such as major war). This gives even a small state (Davies example was Wales) much more clout than even a very large corporation.

    Like

      1. True, but the EIC was taken under the control of the British state shortly after it became an Indian power (Plassey 1757, Regulating Act 1773, India Act 1784).

        Like

  42. As Bret Devereaux points out in the original post, corporations can be controlled by states. Indeed, all corporations are to an extent a creation of state power (they require legal underpinnings). The original post notes the phenomenon in which a megacorporation takes on the characteristics of a state within a state.

    Like

  43. A distinction that I think should be made is that the cyberpunk-style Megacorp doesn’t the full power and resources of a modern state – instead, it’s what’s left after the state has withered away for whatever reason.

    Also, an obvious example that could perhaps have been mentioned is United Fruit, which more or less ran countries.

    Like

    1. Nah. It had to go beg to Uncle Sam and convince him that his national-security interests lay in fomenting the Guatemalan coup. It couldn’t even threaten politicians with its power over them, it had to actually bribe or persuade them.

      Like

  44. While the historical megacorporations were vulnerable to the states that chartered them, I notice that the states the megacorps preyed on could not effectively resist. The various kingdoms and principalities and domains in India were unable to throw out the East India Company, despite having their own organisation and resources. The various Indonesian states likewise fell to the VOC.

    The British state was able to nerf the EIC, but their victims were not. Applied to modern cyberpunk and other science fiction, is there a minimum state size, so to speak, required to resist a megacorps?

    Or would it suffice to have one powerful state that charters megacorps? Gibson doesn’t go into detail in the Neuromancer trilogy, but it is implied that Japan is still united. If the zaibatsu are based in, and backed by, the Japanese state, does it really make that much different to the rest of the world that the Japanese government could shut down the megacorps if they wanted to?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s