University of Colorado at Boulder

Colloquia Event

Friday February 08, 2013. 03:30 pm. GUGG 205

Corporate Sovereignty: A Genealogy

Joshua Barkan

University of Georgia, Department of Geography

Abstract: A cursory glance at recent headlines indicates the centrality of corporations to the global economy, and major problems concerning their regulation. This talk addresses these questions by considering corporate power as a mode of political sovereignty. Whereas corporations are most often considered economic entities whose power threatens state sovereignty, I argue that corporate power and sovereign power are ontologically linked. This is because both the corporation and modern political sovereignty are founded in and bound together through a principle of legally-sanctioned immunity from law, which Giorgio Agamben has termed the “ban.” Theorists have shown the ban to be central to state sovereignty. I demonstrate that it is also fundamental to corporate power through a genealogical examination of the ways that immunity has shaped the legal definitions of corporations – from the chartered privileges of imperial trading companies to the rights of contemporary multinationals. Far from undermining sovereign power, corporations function as an alternative mode of liberal-capitalist sovereignty, and the democratic deficit of corporate globalization is not the result of regulatory failure as much as the globalization of corporate immunities.
This has important implications for reframing contemporary struggles around corporate power. To curb corporate abuses, advocates have suggested reforms such as increased government regulation, shareholder activism, corporate social responsibility and citizenship, and making corporations, like states, accountable to public international law. These reforms conceptualize law as above the corporate economy and a limit on corporate power. Focusing on the ways that law mutually constitutes sovereignty and the corporation, and explaining how corporate capitalism emerges as a mode of liberal capitalist government, I demonstrate how these reforms unwittingly reinvest the sovereign powers they seek to subvert.

Geography colloquium series was made possible by the generous support from The Beirne Carter Foundation.