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Issue 240
January/February 2007
There is no wealth but life

Reviews

In My Own Words: THE CORPORATION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
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Cover: Windswept live oak and rising full moon Photograph: Diane Miller/Monsoon Image

 

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In My Own Words: THE CORPORATION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

The global legacy of the East India Company.

IT ALL STARTED with a walk. Back in 2000, I had started a new career in the City of London, working in the arena of socially responsible investment. Having an Indian wife and a background in international trade, I decided one lunch-break to walk to the site of the East India Company’s headquarters. I was in for a surprise. When I reached the corner of Leadenhall and Lime Street where East India House had stood for over 200 years, there was nothing – no sign, no plaque, nothing to mark the fact that this was the location where the world’s most powerful corporation had once been based. In a country that is drenched in the culture of heritage, this absence puzzled me: why had this historic company been so completely erased from the face of London?

For the past five years I’ve been working to provide an answer to this question, and more importantly, to re-examine the meaning of the company’s legacy for the global economy of the 21st century. As I delved into this corporation from the age of Enlightenment, it became clear that the company was not just a thing of the past, but an institution whose practices were profoundly familiar. I was struck by how it had pioneered the shareholder model of corporate ownership and built the foundations for modern business administration. With a single-minded pursuit of

personal and corporate gain, the company and its executives eventually achieved market dominance in Asia, ruling over large swathes of India for a profit and breaking open China’s economy. But the company also shocked its age with the scale of its executive malpractice, stock-market excess and human rights abuse. For me, the parallels with today’s corporate leviathans soon became overpowering, with the East India Company outstripping Wal-Mart in terms of market power, Enron for corruption and Union Carbide for human devastation.

As I dug deeper, what I found most illuminating was how the company’s malpractice stimulated a familiar range of social responses – from

satirical poems and plays, through hard-hitting political analysis and

parliamentary enquiries, and on to government intervention and outright rebellion. From the right to the left of the political spectrum, those who lived with the company saw the

corporation as a fundamentally problematic institution. Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Karl Marx were all united in their critique – for quite different reasons – of this “imperious company”. For Smith, the corporation was one of the great enemies of the open market, while for Burke it posed a revolutionary threat to the established order in Britain and India. “Every rupee of profit made by an Englishman”, Burke told Parliament, “is lost forever to India.” And for Marx, writing seventy years later as the company was on its last legs, it was the standard-bearer of Britain’s ‘moneyocracy’, a more terrible creation than “any of the divine monsters startling us in the Temple of Salsette” near Mumbai.

What made the company’s story so inspiring for me is the way that its bid for unbounded economic power was repeatedly met by individuals such as these who struggled to make it accountable. As a result, the company provides eternal lessons on how (and how not) to confront corporate excess through protest, litigation, regulation and, ultimately, corporate re-design.

The current Asian renaissance led by China and India means that an honest understanding of the company’s legacy is imperative. In India, it remains the symbol for multinational business, highlighted in a recent TV advertisement for Rajnigandha Pan Masala. Set in London, the advert shows an Indian tycoon stopping his car in front of the East India Company’s headquarters and telling his secretary that he wants to buy the firm: “They ruled us for 200 years, and now it’s our turn to rule.” For Britain, the task is to correct the recent upsurge of imperial romanticism which portrays the company almost exclusively in terms of exotic consumption. Twentieth-century decolonisation was never accompanied by a full audit of the real impacts of imperial conquest. The result is that we continue to confer prestige on soldiers, merchants and others whose conduct even contemporaries reviled. A prime example is Robert Clive, whose statue still has pride of place outside the Foreign Office in Whitehall in spite the almost universal criticism of his conduct in Bengal. 2007 will be the 250th anniversary of Clive’s victory at Plassey, as well as the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. What better moment to place Clive’s statue in a museum where it belongs and replace it with a monument to someone whose conduct really expresses the best of British relations with the rest of the world?

The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational is published by Pluto Press in the UK and USA, and by Orient Longman in India.

Nick Robins works on socially responsible investment and is an Associate Editor of Resurgence.

IN MY OWN WORDS • NICK ROBINS

THE CORPORATION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

The global legacy of the East India Company.

IT ALL STARTED with a walk. Back in 2000, I had started a new career in the City of London, working in the arena of socially responsible investment. Having an Indian wife and a background in international trade, I decided one lunch-break to walk to the site of the East India Company’s headquarters. I was in for a surprise. When I reached the corner of Leadenhall and Lime Street where East India House had stood for over 200 years, there was nothing – no sign, no plaque, nothing to mark the fact that this was the location where the world’s most powerful corporation had once been based. In a country that is drenched in the culture of heritage, this absence puzzled me: why had this historic company been so completely erased from the face of London?

For the past five years I’ve been working to provide an answer to this question, and more importantly, to re-examine the meaning of the company’s legacy for the global economy of the 21st century. As I delved into this corporation from the age of Enlightenment, it became clear that the company was not just a thing of the past, but an institution whose practices were profoundly familiar. I was struck by how it had pioneered the shareholder model of corporate ownership and built the foundations for modern business administration. With a single-minded pursuit of

personal and corporate gain, the company and its executives eventually achieved market dominance in Asia, ruling over large swathes of India for a profit and breaking open China’s economy. But the company also shocked its age with the scale of its executive malpractice, stock-market excess and human rights abuse. For me, the parallels with today’s corporate leviathans soon became overpowering, with the East India Company outstripping Wal-Mart in terms of market power, Enron for corruption and Union Carbide for human devastation.

As I dug deeper, what I found most illuminating was how the company’s malpractice stimulated a familiar range of social responses – from

satirical poems and plays, through hard-hitting political analysis and

parliamentary enquiries, and on to government intervention and outright rebellion. From the right to the left of the political spectrum, those who lived with the company saw the

corporation as a fundamentally problematic institution. Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Karl Marx were all united in their critique – for quite different reasons – of this “imperious company”. For Smith, the corporation was one of the great enemies of the open market, while for Burke it posed a revolutionary threat to the established order in Britain and India. “Every rupee of profit made by an Englishman”, Burke told Parliament, “is lost forever to India.” And for Marx, writing seventy years later as the company was on its last legs, it was the standard-bearer of Britain’s ‘moneyocracy’, a more terrible creation than “any of the divine monsters startling us in the Temple of Salsette” near Mumbai.

What made the company’s story so inspiring for me is the way that its bid for unbounded economic power was repeatedly met by individuals such as these who struggled to make it accountable. As a result, the company provides eternal lessons on how (and how not) to confront corporate excess through protest, litigation, regulation and, ultimately, corporate re-design.

The current Asian renaissance led by China and India means that an honest understanding of the company’s legacy is imperative. In India, it remains the symbol for multinational business, highlighted in a recent TV advertisement for Rajnigandha Pan Masala. Set in London, the advert shows an Indian tycoon stopping his car in front of the East India Company’s headquarters and telling his secretary that he wants to buy the firm: “They ruled us for 200 years, and now it’s our turn to rule.” For Britain, the task is to correct the recent upsurge of imperial romanticism which portrays the company almost exclusively in terms of exotic consumption. Twentieth-century decolonisation was never accompanied by a full audit of the real impacts of imperial conquest. The result is that we continue to confer prestige on soldiers, merchants and others whose conduct even contemporaries reviled. A prime example is Robert Clive, whose statue still has pride of place outside the Foreign Office in Whitehall in spite the almost universal criticism of his conduct in Bengal. 2007 will be the 250th anniversary of Clive’s victory at Plassey, as well as the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. What better moment to place Clive’s statue in a museum where it belongs and replace it with a monument to someone whose conduct really expresses the best of British relations with the rest of the world?

The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational is published by Pluto Press in the UK and USA, and by Orient Longman in India.

Nick Robins works on socially responsible investment and is an Associate Editor of Resurgence.

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