The Political Power of the Business Corporation, Stephen Wilks. Edward Elgar. March 2013.
In The Political Power of the Business Corporation, the author argues that making corporations accountable is one of the most fundamental problems facing 21st century society along with terrorism, nuclear war and epidemics. It provides both an up-to-date analysis of how big business corporations exercise significant power over the issues of governing that we currently face and demonstrates the historical route to this state of affairs. You may not agree with all the arguments, analysis and conclusions, writes Dr Carole Talbot, but is worthy of attention to enable wider discussion and understanding of the new corporate state in which we live.
Since the global financial crisis, debate has mushroomed around what the options are for governments to maintain reasonably steady states. Beyond deficit and debt management many are asking what can be done to prevent a re-occurrence and to strengthen our systems to make them more resilient in the face of global capitalism.
The book pursues four themes in trying to uncover the scale of corporate influence and the processes through which this is achieved:
- A concern about the need for better tools to understand business corporations as political actors;
- The identification of the corporation as a governing institution and the circumstances which facilitate this;
- A focus on managerial control within the corporation looking at managerial elites, rewards and the corrosiveness of the managerial ideology; and
- How to improve the accountability of corporations when they exercise power over issues we commonly understand to be the role and remit of our elected governments.
In terms of theoretical perspective, the author borrows from various theoretical traditions: including pluralism, partnership; structural, comparative and international perspectives together with a political influence framework comprising three elements: resources, motivation and opportunity. Through the application of this pragmatic framework Wilks identifies patterns of corporate influence. The political power of large corporations is exerted on an everyday basis as part of our political systems. This power may be self-interested but also shares goals which are the concern of good government such as stability, freedom and sustainability. Wilks emphasises, structural dependency factors and partnership co-operation which enhance the potential for influence. He cites the power that corporations may have in policy decisions through partnership and warns about the unequal accountability between government and corporations.
The book covers much ground attempting an analysis which is focused on the UK, but situates what Wilks calls the new corporate state into the global business corporation system which further undermines the possibilities for action from national governments. A basic tenet of Wilks’ argument is that lobbying, the assumed central way in which we might identify influence on government by large corporations, is all but unnecessary in the new corporate state.
The corporation’s influence is wide, concludes Willks, but we do not have the frameworks to assess that influence. He argues in response that we should regard the large corporation as a governing institution which ‘affects democratic process, political choice and implementation of public policy’ (p251).
Those with an interest in Public Management will find chapter 6 useful as the focus turns from detailing the development of the new corporate state and its politics to the way in which privatisation boosted corporate power through the development of opportunities for corporations to work in partnership with government in the delivery of public services. The author concludes by posing a question: that in a situation in which corporations’ involvement in governance is not legitimised by democratic process, should we accept their role in ‘government’?
Wilks argues that how we now go about making corporations accountable is one of the most fundamental problems facing 21st century society along with terrorism, nuclear war and epidemics. The final pages reveal some options for increasing corporate accountability. None of these are straightforward but neither should they be discounted.
The book is not light reading, but worthy of attention to enable wider discussion and understanding of the new corporate state in which we live.