Book Review

THE CORPORATION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational.
By Nick Robins, Pluto Press, 2006,
224 pages ISBN: 0745325238 Paperback. £15.99
I often gauge how much I have enjoyed a book by the amount of highlighting and marginal notes I make in pencil. This book, like many on my shelves, will horrify those who prize pristine, unmarked first editions.

On the 31st December 1600 a precursor of the modern translational corporation came into existence. Its pioneering techniques in the field of trade and commerce, and downright murder and corruption, preceded by centuries the noxious business practices that we associate with today’s all-powerful corporations, many of whom have a higher turn over than small countries.
This book presents as a meticulous account of perhaps the most powerful corporation that ever lived, tracing how it came into existence, how it operated, its inner structure, the role of its own armies in its rise to supremacy, its part in the Bengal Famine when 10 million died as a result of the Company’s market manipulation, its militaristic role in the Opium Wars, its part in the Indian Mutiny and the Boston Tea Party and how, for the last twenty years of its existence, it ruled India as an agent of the British Empire. When it comes to downright exploitation, corruption, slaughter and sheer negligence and indifference to the suffering of others, perhaps no company that ever existed comes near the East India Company in its ruthless pursuit of profit, whilst refashioning the world commercial order in the interests of privilege and power for hundreds of years to come.

In its time the company had many critics, most notably Edmund Burke, “the real champion of India’s identity”, Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Burke fought long and hard to impeach the Company’s Governor General Warren Hastings for the devastation wrought on India in its endless search for profit.

Commencing his opening speech at Westminster Hall in February 1788, Burke said:

“I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose laws, rights and liberties, he has subverted, whose properties he has destroyed, whose country he has laid waste and desolate…I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured and oppressed, in both sexes, in very age, rank, situation and conditions of life.” (p. 135)

Despite Burke’s opening four day tirade against Hastings - one of the longest opening speeches in history - during which women were carried out fainting, at which the Speaker was “rendered speechless” and at which spectators were willing to pay £50 for a seat, despite an ensuing trial that lasted from February 1778 to April 1795, Hastings was acquitted.

Considering the Company’s operations for the New York Daily Tribune in the summer of 1853, Marx noted five characteristics:

“…a permanent financial deficit, a regular over-supply of wars, and no supply at all of public works, an abominable system of taxation, and a no less abominable system, of justice and law..” (p.159)

Satirising the Company’s administrative system, he commented how there existed “no government by which so much is written and so little done.”(p.159).

Marx furthermore viewed the company as a tool of British capitalism plc in India, observing how “the aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy wanted to plunder it and the millocracy to undersell it” (ibid).

Commenting on the Second Opium War, in Marx’s view attributable to the Company’s operations in the East and its insistence that it had the right to swamp China with drugs in the name of profit, regardless of the addiction-induced misery its trade created or how the Chinese authorities felt, he wrote:

“While openly preaching free trade in poison, it secretly defends the monopoly of its manufacture. Whenever we look closely into the nature of British free trade, monopoly is pretty generally found to, lie at the bottom of its’freedom’”.

In eight carefully researched chapters, Robins traces the Company’s operations from its inception as a trader in spices to its role in running the Indian sub-continent on behalf of the British crown, withholding, one imagines, very little regardless how gruesome, and there indeed are some stomach-churning passages.

In the final chapter, his analysis masterly done, Robins, contemplating the state of corporate play today, reflects how the Company’s legacy reveals the importance of taking on the mega-corporations who presently rampage across the planet unhindered, and this, for socialists, is the book’s one failing.

Robins’ remedy for curbing corporate power is simple:

“First of all, its market power and political influence must be limited…Next, stringent rules are needed to ensure that management and investors do not use the corporation as a tool for their short-term interests…And, finally, clear and forcible systems of justice have to be in place to hold the corporation to account for damage to society and the environment.” (p.181)

Thus, a brilliant attack on unchecked power in the pursuit of profit is marred by the simple request that the capitalist class behaves and shows a little more respect when carrying out its obscene business, and that the executive arm of capitalism – government – hurries to the rescue of society and the natural environment. Smiley-faced capitalism is, for Robins, the only remedy. Warren Hastings laughs in his grave.

All said, if you’re into the study of corporate power gone mad, read this

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