From Corporations to Nation-States

Today we assume that modern nation-states are the successors to early-modern kingdoms and royal colonies. In a spatial sense, I still agree with this: the Republic of France occupies the same territory as the prior Kingdom of France; India occupies space formerly ruled by the British Crown Colony, and so forth.

However, something less obvious slips into our historical imagination, together with this apparent geographic succession from kingdoms to nation-states. We also assume that nation-states are institutional descendants of kingdoms. A lot of modern political terminology derives from monarchist terminology, such as ‘sovereignty’ and ‘the state’ (etat). But those two terms also indicate the massive shift in the way we understand politics and political regimes today. The monarch was the sovereign, so the king’s capacity to make decisions and implement policy was the condition of sovereignty; it often boiled down to arbitrary rule-by-fiat. Today it means the political independence of a country and, as Schmitt (1934) argues, the ability to declare ‘the exception’ (think Guantanamo Prison). ‘The State’ used to mean the person of the monarch in a very literal way. Often it meant the actual body of the king, so ‘the empty throne’ was a serious political crisis because ‘the state’ did not technically exist when there was no recognized successor. Today, ‘the state’ is a very abstract concept that generally includes the political leaders, the bureaucratic administration, and all the institutional assumptions and habits that go with government.

My best example of this abstractness is the process of applying for a building permit. Do you apply to ‘the state’ for permission to build? Well, I applied to 1) the building department; 2) the county health department; 3) the planing department; 4) the department of education (kids in the project would impact local school enrollment); 5) the public works division of streets; 6) the public works division of accessibility compliance; and 7) the Mayor’s office on Housing. These agencies often fight with each other, and don’t talk to each other. So yes, construction is HIGHLY regulated in American cities, but it would be a dangerous oversimplification to lump all these agencies together and treat them as one conceptual object called ‘the state.’

So my argument, thus far, is that modern nation-states function in a way that is profoundly different from early-modern kingdoms. (The term ‘early modern kindgom’ here means monarchies from about 1500 to 1800 in Europe, South Asia, and East Asia.) The obvious parallel is that nation-states, like kingdoms, govern over people and territory. But nation-states govern in such a different way that we might want to re-think the institutional genealogy of the nation-state. Are they really descended from kingdoms, or only from kingdoms? Maybe they have another parentage…

…which brings me to the way that we study political history. Historians normally work with documents. They are fully aware that texts might not reflect reality at a given moment in the past, just as an idealistic political text written today probably does not reflect reality today. But it is very hard to reconstruct conditions in the past, to recapture ‘the mood’ of a time with anything more direct than documents written at that time. A pretty standard historical interpretation of U.S. history is that Franklin, Adams, Jefferson & Co. drew ideas from John Locke, and that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are pragmatic applications of Lockean ideas, with some colonial-era political experience mixed in.

The huge, unstated mystery is: Why didn’t the brand-new U.S. government of 1789 resemble the existing British government at the time? During the wave of decolonization after World War II, Frantz Fanon observed that newly-independent states and ruling elites bore a disturbing resemblance to their colonial predecessors. Edward Said and Gyatri Spivak echoed both Fanon’s observation and Fanon’s worry—or as Pete Townsend bitterly wrote in “Won’t get fooled again:” Meet the new boss! Same as the old boss! But the institutional structure of the new U.S. did not resemble its monarchic precursor. Some historians now argue that the founders used the Iroquois Confederacy as a model for the ideal of a 13-state confederation. I accept that—and it is a remarkable example of Non-Westerners-doing-it-first—but still, the functional organization of the U.S. was strangely new. As just one example: the first agencies the US set up in 1790 were the Post Office, the Patent and Trademarks Office, and the Census. The Constitution looks a lot like colonial charters, and for a political document, it is very focused on trade: see Articles 4 and 6. Where did this come from? This question was percolating in the back of my mind from about 1985.

I found an unexpected explanation in a very unexpected place.

Several years ago I was talking about Industrial-Era colonialism with Martha Saavedra, who is a specialist in Portugese colonialism in Africa. We discussed many things; and at one point I remarked,
“You know, the strangest thing I found through this research is that, in the first Anglo-Afghan War, the Afghans were not fighting the country of Britain. They were fighting the soldiers of the East India Company. The Afghans were fighting a corporation in 1838.”

To which Martha replied,
“Yes, nation-states were relative latecomers to colonialism.”

Her reply hit me like a thunderclap.

A whole series of ideas and bits of information came together very suddenly. To make sense out of the urban planning of Kabul, I had studied a lot of Critical Theory, including Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt School, and Michel Foucault. Two of Foucault’s ideas provided a new conceptual framework. First: Foucault argued that we should study the genealogy of things, not merely history. His concern is that in modern history, precedence often implies causation. Here was a case in point: there were kingdoms before there were nation-states, so by implication, nation-states must be descended from kingdoms. Second: Foucault argued that, when possible, we should look at what people did rather than the ideas that they wrote about. Put together, Foucault was arguing that we should study the genealogy of practices to understand present practices and institutions.

In practice, the British East India Company was a government at the beginning of the 19th century.

Furthermore, the practices of the BEIC resembled those of modern nation-states much more than the practices of kingdoms resemble those of nation-states. The BEIC governed territory and populations. It was concerned with production, and therefore with the productivity and overall health of its subject populations. And I mean populations in the plural—even when it only governed over Bengal, the BEIC was managing a shocking diversity of people. The BEIC had an elaborate administrative apparatus because it was essentially a developmental regime. Senior staff in the BEIC had some pretty ugly prejudices towards South Asians, but I don’t think modern nation-states can take the moral high ground even though they are ostensibly ‘self-ruled’ rather than colonial.

Another shard of weird memory suddenly locked into place as well. Back in the Late Jurassic—okay, about 1982—I saw a film clip of Buckminster Fuller rapping about all sorts of stuff, as he was wont to do in his ADD-genius way. One comment he made was that the U.S. was a corporate republic, and he showed the striking resemblance of the U.S. flag to the BEIC flag of the mid 1700s. I didn’t think of flags as sound evidence of institutional connections, but it was a strange enough comment that it stuck with me. I am more partial to Eddie Izzard’s “Do you have a flag?” monologue as a portrayal of the absurd justifications for colonial domination. If you have not seen it yet, try the Lego version on YouTube.

But maybe there was something to this connection. Thinking along the lines of a genealogy of practices, it occurred to me that the Yankees and Southerners at the Continental Congress had a lot of experience in governing as leaders in the charter colonies. And those colonies—especially Virginia—were founded as Companies in very much the same terms as the East India Company. The Atlantic colonies had to govern people and territory, and manage resources so that they could turn a profit. The Virginia House of Burgesses started out as the governing board of a corporation, and then became the operational model for the Continental Congress. The Constitution was not just descended from colonial charters—it was descended from the company charters that were the organizing basis of each colony.

It is not much of a stretch to think of the New Englanders applying trade practices as a model of government. They viewed themselves as merchants, and were often viewed as barely more than pirates. Amendments 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 in the Bill of Rights protected the interests of free citizens, but also the interests of smugglers.

Which brings me to an even stranger argument: the Tudor/Stewart monarchs actually developed three institutional innovations which later informed the creation of nation-states. One was the Trading Company, of which the East India Company was the outstanding example. The second was the Settler Company, of which Virginia was the outstanding example. The third was the privateer, of which Captain Cook was the outstanding example. But the distinction between privateers and pirates was subtle; look at the case of Captain Kidd if you are curious. As Markus Rediker and Cordingly both argue, the practices of pirates emerged directly from the practices of privateers. Either the captain would ‘go pirate’ or his crew would mutiny—and continue to do what they did as privateers, but with two important differences. First, they governed themselves, and elected the captain. Second, they shared the loot more equitably. Pirates in the 1710s and 1720s did indeed have a code: each ship was governed by Articles, which every crewmember had to agree to and sign. These Articles were very obviously modeled on the Letters of Marque issued by monarchs to privateer captains, but rather than a top-down dictatorship, the Articles were an contract of mutual government, in which the pirates agreed to turn over life-and-death executive power to the captain only during times of combat. Sound familiar? I have not yet investigated whether Rousseau and the Boston traders studied the practices of pirates, but the parallels are uncanny.


So now, to recap: when I look at the genealogy of actual governing practices, I find that the modern, bureaucratic nation-state is descended from unexpected forms of government. Yes, many ideas and some practices are derived from kingdoms; but the way that nation-states govern is more similar to the way that chartered (and rogue) companies governed people, territory, and resources in the 18th century.

Which throws a massive wrench into the way we distinguish ‘private’ interests from ‘public’ ones in the twenty-first century. What is the difference between privatized services and public services? In light of the argument above, I am not making a partisan argument against privatization—at least not here—but rather, I am questioning whether we properly understand the difference between private and public from an institutional/organizational point of view. If the United States is descended from corporate practices, then maybe we need to re-think the whole idea of ‘too much corporate influence on government.’ In political discourse we normally think of corporations in moral terms as good (for the economy) or bad (purchasers of influence). Both sides of the public-services/privatization debate use this moralist framework. As George Lakoff argues, that is how we think politically. We don’t think with Enlightenment-era ‘rationalist’ minds about whether Blackwater (now Xe Services) and its corporate peers should be gathering intelligence, operating armed drones, and acting as extrajudicial mercenaries in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts unknown. There is an important moral argument to be made there; but we need to be a little more careful what we are arguing about. The conceptual chunks in that argument are ‘private’ corporations versus ‘public’ government agencies. Yes, one might be more cost-efficient in delivering services and the other might be more publicly and morally accountable to the people (which people?–another question). But the oil-and-water distinction between government agencies and corporation rests on assumptions that we need to re-think.

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