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!

269 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: January 1, 2021

  1. An interesting variant on the SF megacorp is that presented in Frederik Pohl’s “The Space Merchants”. The ultimate source of power in these vertically integrated monopolies is not military or economic force but marketing: mass psychology honed to a science far superior to the clumsy propaganda of totalitarian states, and capable of completely undermining any notion of populism as a prime mover. States still exist but are reduced to pro-forma vassals of the megacorps, who determine the outcome of elections and provide smaller states with the majority of their tax revenue. The state exists only to enforce contracts and punish* would-be dissidents.
    (*_hideously_; as in “brain burning”).

  2. -“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.”

    Intuitively it seems like the only way to end with a megacorp-dominant state is to start with massive chartered corporations, then have their home country annihilated or badly damaged by some unrelated issue. Nuclear war, asteroid impact, civil war/invasion which devastates the home country sufficiently that they can’t exert control over their colonial possessions/results in the side which loses fleeing to a corporate colonial possession and establishing a new government there etc.
    But what I want to ask is whether that’s actually plausible as it seems to my intuition, would their lack of legitimacy still bring them down or bring them to shed their corporate trappings?
    How are they likely to act if they do maintain independent control of an area, based on historical merchant consortiums which took control of places, and do those likely actions have anything to do with the common portrayal of megacorps?

    1. The thing is, your asteroid impact would also take out most of the shareholders and top executives of the megacorp. The whole point of the corporation, after all, is to extract wealth from the colonized territory and deliver it back to the home country.

      The megacorp might collapse or fragment when deprived of external support and leadership. If it didn’t, it would find itself with a totally new set of incentives: it no longer needs to care about share price, revenue goals, or the board of directors, but it does need to find a way to deal with problems like foreign powers and local uprisings without state backup. The result would likely be the corp morphing into something pretty much indistinguishable from a regular state.

  3. Its interesting coming back to this seeing how Andor actually does have its megacorp act exactly in the way you describe. Sure it’s profit focused and capitalistic, but it’s only able to work the way it does by playing ball with the Empire. It fully takes its orders from the Empire, and could never (nor would it ever try to) usurp the power and position of the Empire.

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