Musing...

The pumpkin pie is gone, classes are all set to resume, the weather's gotten colder. It must be the end of the term. So naturally, just as the break is winding down, I'm starting to feel sick.

No, I'm not trying to get out of classes.

Not that it wouldn't be a welcome idea, now that I say it. But no. There are only a few weeks left, and surely I can muster through. I also received today the first rejection notice. It's easier to take this time around, having been contacted about a job talk and already having a job. But for those of you rooting for a gig in Chicago, the odds just slipped a little.

Last night though, I watched Michael Moore's "Sicko," and it got me thinking. Generally, I like Moore's politics though his delivery leaves a bit to be desired. That wasn't the case with this one, though, with the exception of one very unfortunate episode. Still, it left me thinking about the nature of business and such here in the U.S. This is a question for any historians, economists, or people who study labor/business/etc from some other field.

Is there a historical precedent for a style of business organization in Western (or industrial) history that forces the organization to factor in public interest (I'm trying to keep this distinct from public demand) over profit?

Historically, we know that the corporation is a fairly recent development, having taken off in the late 1800s as a means of drawing business to particular locations by protecting owners. And, at least here in the U.S., corporations are required, by law, to place the profits of their share holders above all other designs. But that clearly isn't the only way business has to be organized. What I'm wondering is what would a business model look like that were organized around a different set of needs, and I'm not sure whether there's another form out there that I'm missing.

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The "welfare capitalism" that characterized much US industry in the early 20th century--especially in the 1910s and 20s--is one example. But that was a form of enlightened self-interest, in that it was intended to show that corporations could look out for their workers' interests better than the federal government, and therefore to preclude further regulation. There's an interesting discussion of how the failure of welfare capitalism helped produce industrial unions in Lizabeth Cohen's book Making a New Deal. Fordism in Latin America is another example. For that matter, the corporate statism of the postwar US through the 1970s is quite different from the contemporary situation. Charles Wilson's remark that "for years I thought that what's good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa," which he made during the hearings for his confirmation as Secretary of Defense in 1953, captures that attitude.

These aren't so much instances of businesses being forced to factor in public interest as they are of business leaders concluding that their interests coincide with the public interest. But they're interesting nonetheless.

(And as an early modernist, I would quibble with your remarks on the historical origins of the corporation; its predecessor, the joint stock company, had its origins in the early modern Dutch attempt to both spread the risk of investment and raise capital for major overseas ventures by forcibly combining private companies that aimed to trade in southeast Asia and issuing stock in the new united company on the Amsterdam exchange.)

November 24, 2007 at 10:33 PM
Sisyphus said...

Good luck on the job front ... I'm in the same boat (except for the whole being employed bit).

The above comment, with the point about the Dutch and the East India Company, reminds me of a book ... Jack Beatty? ... called the history of the corporation, or some such. (obviously I could look up the exact cite when I got home as this might not be enough for a search.)

Also, I saw the documentary "The Corporation" (which was heavy-handed but I ate it up anyway) and I seem to remember it having some stuff about alternative forms of corporations near the end. And there's definitely a strain of social-democratic capitalism (or something) in all those northern european countries like Sweden etc. to look at for alternatives.

November 25, 2007 at 1:46 AM
adjunct whore said...

i saw sicko this weekend also....i thought it was the farthest left i'd seen of michael moore, the least racist, for example, of his films and devastatingly revealing about the state of the nation. it was also the least funny and aesthetically pleasing of his films, i thought.

strange, you're the fourth academic i know who watched sicko this weekend--something about turkey day and taking stock of societal ills? and yes, good luck on the market, we all share this pain and anticipation.

November 25, 2007 at 9:06 AM
Belle said...

What about the theory of corporativism? It never really took anywhere, but promised to use public interest to drive policy, compromise between capitalism and protecting the workers (this is where it seems to have always been where it broke down).

November 25, 2007 at 11:08 AM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Brian, thanks for starting us off, and apologies for making you quibble. The antecedents are always important, after all. Would it work better for me to say "the modern corporation"? And thank all of you for the references and thoughts.

Where I'm starting, I think, is with the corporation as a marker of the more or less current (I'm trying to dodge the loaded term "modern") economic climate. And my thought is that it would be interesting if there were a different form that would mark a different economic shift? In the ideal world, there would need to be some fundamental shifts in terms of business practice to adjust for things like environmental concerns, decades of conspicuous consumption, etc.

The trick would be how best to convince business of this. Having lived in some shakier parts of the country economically where business is often lured via very costly environmental incentives and tax incentives, I wondered whether some sort of local level development (as seemed to be the case with the "modern corporation's development" I was thinking of) would work.

AW - you can count five; my roommate is also an academic, and it was his idea to watch it, largely because my Netflix picks had been exhausted. Still, strange that it was so commonly viewed.

November 25, 2007 at 11:23 AM
Notorious Ph.D. said...

I saw "The Corporation", too (an ill-fated date, but we won't get into that), and also liked it, despite its lack of subtlety. That's about all I can say on the matter.

As for the other matter: rejection sucks, no matter what. But it certainly sucks less when you've got a steady paycheck to fall back on. Nevertheless, I'll keep my fingers crossed for you. I was recently in Chicago, and boy wouldn't living there be nifty.

November 26, 2007 at 12:59 AM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

Believe it or not, I still haven't seen "The Corporation" (maybe that's what I'll do at Christmas to help offset that holiday). It's interesting how heavy handed documentary often becomes from the left - it's one of the problems I have with Michael Moore in general, for example.

I liked this one quite a bit because he took so much of his personal presence out of it - the only part I didn't like was the grandstanding with his "act of charity" at the end of the film. But that he didn't do the funny ambush style attacks seemed to make this one so much more credible to me even as I agreed with his stances in previous movies.

November 26, 2007 at 11:49 AM