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Statues are falling but their colonial legacy is killing the planet

Tuesday, 22 Sep 2020

By David Whyte

The same model of the corporation that was central to colonialism and slavery hundreds of years ago is still thriving, writes David Whyte. And now its threatening all life on Earth.

The Black Lives Matter protests this summer widened our historical lense in a number of ways. Perhaps least recognised is that those protests dragging the names of some of Britain’s profit-making colonial corporations out from from under the stones and plinths on which the statues of figures like Edward Coulston and Cecil Rhodes stood. Rarely mentioned in public discussion of our colonial past until June, the dubious role of Rhodes’ British South Africa Company and Coulston’s Royal Africa Company, which established the foundations of the British slave trade were being debated, amongst other places, in the pages of the Daily Mail. Those brands join the well known East India Company as part of Britain’s colonial folklore (think movie series Pirates of the Carrribean and BBC’s Taboo). But though Coulston’s statue may lie at the bottom of Bristol dock, the prototype model of the corporation that made him a fortune is alive and kicking. The problem is, it is kicking us to death.

The colonial model of the ‘joint-stock’ company is the prototype on which the modern day corporation is based. Today the same basic model is threatening our ability to sustain the ecology and life of the planet. Most of the world’s key commodities are owned and controlled by corporations. Almost all of the plastic that is choking our oceans is produced by corporations. Most of the industrial processes causing atmostpheric pollution are controlled by corporations. Our food, our transport, our energy… It is estimated that since 1965, 20 corporations have collectively produced 35% of all fossil fuel emissions; since 1988, just 100 have collectively produced 71% of all fossil fuel emissions. If we do not change things radically, the corporate person – the artificial invention that has it roots in the slave trade – will continue in perpetuity as everything around us dies.

Indeed, many of the companies that profited from colonialism and slavery in the early days are thriving. All of the major banks in the UK can trace their direct lineage to the slave business. Barclays, Lloyds, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of England all have slave trading companies in their family tree. University College London’s extensive database of slave traders reveals both the names of individuals and the corporate names they traded under. The profits made by slave trading was simply passed through the corporate structure..

Profit-making corporations were much more significant to the British colonial project than is normally recognised. Almost every corner of the British Empire was appropriated by such companies. One of the first was the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, chartered in 1553 to open up a new trade route to China and Indonesia. The East India Company, chartered in 1600, was granted exclusive rights to trade and to establish trading posts in the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia and played the critical role in establishing the forms of trading, administration and power-broking that formed the foundation of the British Empire. Other colonial corporations, such as the London Company, and the Plymouth Company were established to open up monopoly trading routes to the Americas. The State of Virginia was founded by the Virginia Company in 1607 and the State of Massachusetts by the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1628. Those companies were granted charters by the Crown that gave them the right to transport settlers and their supplies into the colonies, and permission to bear arms.

Coulston’s notorious Royal African Company regularly engaged in armed combat as it secured trading posts on the west coast of Africa. By the 1680s the company was trading 5,000 people as slaves every year. And by the time it was wound up, it had traded almost quarter of millon slaves; more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other single institution.

The role of profit-making corporations in the slave trade certainly deserves more than a footnote in history. Indeed, it is unlikely that the colonial project could have developed with the same violence and intensity without the colonial corporation. Just like the slave trade, the ongoing capture of new territories and the securing of trade routes was a competitive business that required a national mobilisation of capital. Corporations enable investors to combine their resources, speeding up the time needed to develop or extract resources, enabling them to locate production across greater distances. It is this quality of organised capital that Karl Marx famously called “the annihilation of space by time” and geographers today refer to as “time-space compression.”

The basic idea is that limitations of geography and travelling distances are gradually overcome as capital is pooled and concentrated. It is this concentration of capital that intensifies the search for technological advances. In the course of the colonial project, corporations demonstrated their remarkable capacity to overcome the sizeable barriers of logistics and geography that stood in their way. All of the major European powers used joint stock corportions to compete for colonial riches. French West India Company was a major slave trader, the Dutch East India Company went toe to toe with Britain’s colonial claims. Perussia, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and even Denmark and Sweden all founded their own colonial companies. The basic model of those companies was the same in every European state: through the granting of monopolies, and limiting investors exposure to losses, they provided major incentives for the growing industrial class to channel their private wealth into the rush for colonial power. Joint stock corporations therefore gave colonising states the capacity to harness private wealth with the aim of colonising faster and further afield. Colonial corporations harnessed the power of private capital to overcome the geographical barriers that stood in their way.

At the same as corporations increased states’ capacity for the annihilation of space and time, they also increased the capacity for the annihilation of nature. Capital was invested in trade, but also in plantations, the stripping of forests, mining for gold and other minerals, industrial fishing and agriculture, and laterly oil extraction. Today, the annihilation of space by time by corporate investment in all of those industries is now driving climate change. Due to the transnational nature of today’s economy, over 75% of the water footprint of the UK lies overseas and approximately 40% the UK’s greenhouse gases are emitted abroad.

Today’s global economy that creates some jaw-dropping opportunites to profit. In the fishing industry, cod and prawns caught by Scottish fishermen are shipped to China for packing to exploit cheaper labour costs, before being sent back for sale in British supermarkets. Marine ecologist Henrik Österblom has proposed way of thinking about the role of transnational corporations which helps us understand this lunacy. In the study of ecology, some species can be described as “keystone” because they “have a profound and disproportionate effect on communities and ecosystems” and they unexpectedly “determine the structure and function” of those ecosystems. In the fishing industry, keystone species include Alaskan pollock which dominated the white fish market, skipjack and yellowfin tuna which dominate the tuna market and Peruvian anchovy which dominates the small fish used to produce fishmeal and fish oil. Österblom argues that the precisely the same thing can be said about a relatively small number of “keystone corporations” that dominate the markets in those fish: they also fundamentally restructure the ecology of their product.

In Canada and in Europe, the environmental problems caused by salmon farming are well documented, not least the virtual eradication of wild salmon through the use of chemical and through disease in places it is farmed. The shrimp industry now accounts for the destruction of a 40% of the world’s mangrove forests. In many parts of the world, tuna fishing has become unsustainable. Those problems have all come about because each of those industries has been transformed by a corporate model in which capital investment can be deployed quickly, at a scale capable of revolutionising those industries. In each of those industries, a handful of corporations are determining their structure and function.

This is not to say that such processes would not have occurred without those keystone corps. But there is no doubt they have immeasurably speeded up the process, in some cases to the point of no return. The corporation encompasses a kind of hyper-efficient anhilation of nature as it compresses both space and time.

In 1721, English inventor James Puckle set up a joint-stock company to attract investment in a new weapon that used the first machine gun technology. He designed it to enable the operator to shoot two types of bullets for use in two types of wars. Round bullets could be shot at European Christians, and square bullets at Muslim Turks. The square bullets were designed to cause more devastating injuries. The barrel of the gun was engraved with the motto: “Defending King George, your country and lawes is defending yourselves and the protestant cause”. It was the perfect gun for a racist, colonial state.

In the end, Puckle’s invention was rejected by the fledgling British government for military use, not for lack of enthusiasm for its capacity to enhance racial profiling, but more simply because the mechanism did not work properly. The lack of any prospect of a contract to make the guns meant that the company collapsed. Every penny of investment in the company had been spent on the development of Puckle’s gun. It was a typical event in an age of failed schemes. As author Oliver Burlough has documented, in the 1690s the shares of more than 150 English companies whose were being dealt in the coffee shops around London’s ‘Exchange Alley.’ Many of those schemes were colonial, and many – like the infamous South Sea Company – were set up to profit directly from the slave trade.

The case of Puckle’s gun underlines the point of the shareholder model of the corporation. In the process of buying stock in a corporation, an important social relationship is established. Investors may have some ethical or principled reason for doing so. The investors in Puckle’s gun may have thought inflicting a more painful death pain on Muslims was consistent with their own religious beliefs. Or they may have thought it repugnant. In the case of the latter, of course it might have been a disincentive to invest.

But not necessarily. The harsh truth of the corporate model of investment is that shareholders never need consider the consequences of their investment should they choose not to. And even if they choose to, they have little say in how the corporation is run in a day to day basis. They will not decide how many people are enslaved, what people they employ are paid, or what the corporation chooses to charge its customers.

Investors commit their own wealth because they expect a good return. In the process, they do not need to have anything do with the way their money is spent. They can chose, as shareholders, to attend an annual general meeting to vote on some strategic issues, and sometimes, on the composition of the board of directors. They may even push for divestment from unethical activities and for better reporting. But if they chose not to, they don’t have to have anything at all to do with the affairs of the corporation, what it does and where it does it. They do not need to think of themselves as suppliers of racist guns or slave traders or oil profiteers or responsible for the eradication of wild salmon. They merely need to think of themselves as investors. And in this respect, they can be anonymous, absent, silent investors, largely unaccountable for what their corporation does.

When a corporation is created as a separate entity, the process creates a degree of separation between the investors and any the social damage that might be caused. The same goes for executives. In this way, the corporation enables relationships between real humans and the things they make money from, to be reconstituted as relationships with the ‘corporation.’ This is the remarkable twist that the corporation gives to the way we organise the most basic of things. When a corporation does something that is socially damaging, it is the corporation that will be held accountable and responsible, rather than the powerful people that stand behind the corporation.

This is precisely why lawyers talk about the ‘corporate person.’ In the early colonial period, the legal status granted to corporations quickly came to resemble the status of real, human persons. For the purposes of law, it is the corporation that enters into contracts and emplys people; it is the corporation that takes decisions, makes future projections about its value and so on. Virtually everything that the ‘corporation’ does, is done in its name. Writing in 1678, Scottish Lord Advocate, George “Bloody” MacKenzie, established the principle that the corporate person could even be held guilty of a crime: “Even these Crymes which are ordinarly committed by privat men, such as Murder, Oppression, etc. are in Law sometimes charged upon the corporations.”

The non-sentient corporate person has become a proxy for the real people standing behind it. This has major advantages when the corporation is accused of crimes and misdemeanors. As City University legal scholar Grieje Baars points out, it is the corporation’s separate personhood that allows senior executives to say “it wasn’t me who did it, it was the corporation!”

Bloody MacKenzie’s words have come to be prophetic. When it comes to the crimes and misdemeanors of corporations, if anyone is hauled before a court of law, it is much more likely to be a corporate person, rather than a real person. When the record fine of $20.8b was issued for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it was BP that footed the bill. In the aftermath of ‘dieselgate’, it was Volkswagen that was fined. It is the corporate person that takes the rap in almost every single environmental crime, no matter how large. And generally, they survive to offend again. In both cases, it took a realtively short time for each of those companies to make up their losses. Indeed, if the former Chief Executive of Volkswagon, Martin Winterkorn and four of his colleagues currently on trial do go to jail, it will be for fraud and not for environmental offences. In today’s corporate world, it is almost impossible for any real person to be punished for major envoironmental offences.

And even when it is convicted, the corporate person has a number of carefully engineered get-outs. Corporations operating in environmentally sensitive areas often ensure they are owned by a chain complex corporate structures which will allow strategic liquidation if needed. Corporate persons are very often granted exceptional pridvileges to do things that would never be applied to real human persons. In BP’s case, an astounding $10b – almost half – of the Deepwater Horizon fine was recovered from tax write-downs.

In their classic account of the chemical industry Toxic Capitalism, sociologists Frank Pearce and Steve Tombs argued that we should not see corpirations as immoral, or, at the other extreme, as potentially good moral citizens. Corporations, in so far as they are expected to make calculations without any moral bias, are amoral.

This is not an insignificant observation. All of the industrial processes that are threatening the end of the species are financed, manufactured and distributed under the control of amoral corporate persons. This is not merely a question of the fossil fuel industry, but every other industrial process that affects the earth’s eco-system: the production of persistent chemicals, plastics, transport, the military industry, food production, timber and mining. All of those industries have, since the latter poart of the 20th century, become oligopolies. In other words, the industries that effectively control the future of ecosystem anre in turn controlled by a shrinking number of hugely powerful corporate players.

One of the first warning signs about climate change came to the world’s attention when scientists began to understand the effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals used in a range of products including aerosols and fridges, air conditioning and in all-purpose packaging and furniture products like Styrofoam. In 1974, two significant scientific studies demonstrated that a build-up of CFCs was responsible for depleting the ozone layer, essential for absorbing the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and cooling down the earth. Indeed, the studies concluded that the effects were most probably irreversible. It is unlikely that chemical companies manufacturing CFCs knew, or could have known, the irreversible effects of their product before 1974. In 1980, as soon as it became obvious that a global ban was on its way, DuPont withdrew all research funding for its safe alternative. It was not until 1986, after British scientists had discovered a gaping hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, that DuPont re-committed to finding an alternative, and later the company was to support a phase out of CFCs by 2000. We remember the name of the British scientist who first exposed the problem. It was James Lovelock. We will never know the name of the corporate executives that delayed the development of alternatives and lobbied against the global ban.

The manipulation of the science of ozone depletion reveals a pattern of corporate denial and deliberate cover-up that is a story that has been repreated in the cases of all of the most dangerous persistent chemicals that are destroying the planet’s eco-systems (see Box 1). The knowledge that could have protected us from those toxins has been distorted, devalued and very deliberately buried. And countless bodies have been buried along with this knowledge. History is much more likely to recognise the names of the scientists that tried to warn us, than the executives who used the corporate veil to keep on killing us.

We now know that Exxon executives were presented with evidence by the company’s own scientists in 1977 which estimated that “a doubling of the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius.” They then embarked on an intensive program of research that sampled CO2 emissions and conducted rigorous climate modelling. In 1981, the research program concluded “[a]n expanded R&D program does not appear to offer significantly increased benefits” and was quietly ditched. From the early 1990s onwards corporate funding by Exxon and by the Koch Family Foundations, switched tack and began to finance groups that attacked climate change science and any constructive policy solutions. This research sowed enough polarization and doubt around climate change science to ensure that political recognition of the problem of climate change was significantly downplayed.

When the Paris Agreement was being drawn up, it was estimated that in order to reach its targets, Big Oil would lose more than 30% of known oil reserves and 50% of known gas reserves. The oil companies would also need to abandon all exploration and drilling in the Arctic. Yet they did something rather predictable. At the same time as collectively supporting the Agreement, they were doubling down on a strategy to weaken and distort its targets.

In fact, the slave owners of the 18 and 19th centuries arrived at precisely the same point in their history. When it was clear that the abolitionists in the British parliament would win the case, the planters and merchants of the West Indies began to lobby for their own ‘amelioration plans’ that would slow the process and allow them to retain profits. According to historian Angelina Osbourne, the powerful slave traders’ association, the West Indies Committee, adopted the language of its progressive opponents “in an attempt to represent itself as sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved workers.” History repeats itself indeed.

The stakes are far too high to trust the job of protecting the planet in the hands of investors and corporate managers. Yet in many ways, the issue of who we can and can’t trust is not really the point. The corporation was, from its early history, always a means to ensure the fast and uninhibited reproduction of profit, with little regard for the human and environmental costs.

It is the profit-making corporation that forms the embilical link between slavery and the ecocide. The African holocaust wipped out millions of people from the face of the planet, and changed the ecological balance that had enabled African peoples to live sustainably for milenia. We will not survive as a species if we continue to allow same basic organisational form that set the blueprint for the slave trade to occupy a central role in our economy and in our society. This is why it does not seem too outlandish to propose that perhaps we will need to think about killing the corporation before it kills us.

What Did Corporate Executives Know?

• Leaded petrol. The deadly effects of adding lead compounds to petrol was discovered by scientists in the 1920s. Despite this knowledge, a trio of major corporations: General Motors, DuPont (both of CFC fame) and Standard Oil of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil) ensured that almost all research produced findings which concluded that lead additives were not harmful. They then aggressively marketed and promoted the addition of tetraethyllead until it was banned in the 1990s.

• Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is a plastic that has been known to mimic oestrogen and cause hormonal damage to humans since the 1930s. The American Chemistry Council consistently sought to cast doubt over scientific studies. The result was that BPA production continued to grow and is still widely used in food and drink packaging.

• Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). Monsanto was the principle manufacturer of PCB, a chemical used as a coolant and lubricator in electrical equipment when irrefutable evidence of its health impacts came to the attention of the company in 1969. Research showed that those chemicals cause cancer and a wide range of serious health effects, and that they were killing birds and other species. Monsanto’s response was to commission a number of research papers based on falsified and distorted results. Those studies were successful in delaying the banning of PCB for a decade.

• Polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In 1973, an internal Ethyl Corporation memo noted lab results showing a positive carcinogenic effect produced by exposure to vinyl chloride, the chemical used to produce the polymer, polyvinyl chloride (PVC). And yet, well into the 1990s, US chemical companies continued to conspire and manipulate the results of scientific studies on PVC production to avoid liability for worker exposure, refusing to warn local communities that chemical spills of vinyl chloride could be deadly.

• Organophosphates. It is estimated that 3 million people are poisoned and 300,000 are killed every year by this substance. Yet the industry has doubled its efforts under the Trump administration to prevent new regulation to limit the use of organophosphates by urging selective use of data in Federal government reviews. Major manufacture Dow AgroSciences, in particular, has funded a major lobbying effort to block government reviews of the evidence. Sales by major manufacturers, including DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience AG, BASF SE, Cheminova AS, Yara International, and of course, Dow AgroSciences, continue to rise.

• Glyphosate. A recent court action on behalf of 11,000 victims of Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer revealed that the corporation spent 10s of millions of dollars on deceptive PR campaigns, ghost-written scientific studies and placed news stories. Documents from the trial showed that in the 1980s US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies showed that mice dosed with glyphosate developed rare kidney tumours. After strong lobbying by Monsanto, the EPA ignored its own evidence and declared to the public that glyphosate poses no cancer risk.

* this article was originally published in the Independent, 16/09/2020

Ecocide: kill the corporation before it kills us by David Whyte. 

September 2020

£9.99 | paperback | 978-1-5261-4698-4

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