There is a certain irony to political freedom. It resists the arbitrary tyranny of monarchs and the injustice of control by bloodline to create a free, unfettered society. However in the freedom that is built on the foundations of this struggle for democracy lies also the freedom to fight for power. In unfettered freedom, the spoils go to the victor: and new monarchies are born, albeit hidden.
In the free economies of the modern world, corporations have become monarchies, as crown princes reign in boardrooms and CEOs command empires as a matter of birthright. As the market assumes greater control of our choices and freedoms and thus becomes a determinant, therefore, of our political rights, authority itself seems to be undergoing a fundamental transformation.
In liberal democracies, we have come to value private actors as legitimate providers of public goods. Infrastructure, social security, the media, culture, welfare and even military security, the last vanguard of state authority, have begun to be contracted out to the market. This means that the duality in the discourse of the state and market is changing, as authority is being transferred wholesale to corporations.
More importantly for our politics, perhaps, is the fact that in giving authority to corporations, it is being handed to modern-day dynasties.
Empires of Wealth
Some of these modern monarchies have existed for centuries. Companies such as Kongo Guni and Hoshi inJapanhave been controlled by one family for over 40 generations. Companies that grew out of more traditional occupations predating the Industrial Revolution, such as wine-making and glass-blowing inItalyandFrance, have also been family businesses for centuries, their own power untouched by political revolutions against royal dynasties. Around the world, inns, banks and fashion houses have all been passed on from one generation to the next.
These modern monarchies include among their ranks some of the biggest corporations and their bloodlines today, controlling a princely slice of the global economic pie. Forbes listed Walmart as the world’s largest corporation in 2011. The company alone accounts for US$421.9 billion (£262.5 billion) in revenue from its global operations every year. Founded by Sam Walton in 1962, its Board of Directors is now chaired by the entrepreneur’s eldest son, Robson Walton.
It is in the history of theUnited States of Americathat some of these dynasties stand out as the stuff of legends. The legacy of John D. Rockefeller is a case in point. The second and third companies on the Forbes list of the Global 500 – Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil – are both descendents of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
The Rockefeller family and its fortunes went on to influence not only the economy by owning a large part of American GDP, but politics too: the Rockefellers have even produced a vice president of the United States under President Gerald Ford who himself came from the illustrious Ford lineage. To this day, the dynasty controls the enormous Rockefeller wealth. From Henry Ford to William Clay Ford, the Ford Company has also been a family business for generations.
Corporate empires also abound in emerging markets, such asIndiaandChina. Mukesh Ambani, heir to the Ambani dynasty and Reliance Industries Limited is the second wealthiest individual in Asia and chairman ofIndia’s second largest public corporation by revenue.India’s Tata Group, led by Ratan Tata, has been passed down generation of Tatas since 1868. The firm contributes nearly 3% ofIndia’s GDP.
The South Korean conglomerate Samsung is another powerful empire controlled by a dynasty, and was recently in the news for the ongoing conflict between the current chairman and his siblings. Throughout history, wars of succession have characterized the lives and politics of monarchies, and corporate monarchies are no different in conflicts being waged for their own thrones.
Paraphernalia of Corporate Monarchy
In a modern culture of celebrity, contemporary monarchies have commanded the limelight too; their lustre draws attention and they know how to use it well. The Trumps became global household names following the success of the television reality show The Apprentice, perhaps the world’s best-known job interview. Paris Hilton’s first claim to fame was her fortune: she is an heiress, a 21st century princess whose life is a matter of public interest.
Dynastic control of wealth and production is nothing new: the rule, rather than the exception, of history. What makes it interesting for this epoch is the clash between waves of democracy, with their clarion calls for freedom, on the one hand and the merging, growing, flourishing business empires on the other. Where the state is limited and the market provides most goods, political control is now reverting to the hands of monarchs, albeit ones with degrees from Harvard and notionally under the scrutiny of a democratic polity.
These dynasties are not sovereign and do not legally command a coercive apparatus; it is in this that they represent freedom even as they function through bloodline. Even so, their structural clout is worrying: they flaunt it to shape whole nations’ economic agendas and, by implication, their political discourse. Corporations can fund parties in democratic elections, employ influential lobbies and control the mass media, thereby becoming an important part of the state and its constitutional paradigm.
Traditional monarchs of the pre-Westphalian disposition had explicit political powers. Modern monarchs may not have titles or formal powers of sanction, but they share many powers once the preserve of kings and queens. The more freedom we give the market, the more space we make for the rich to become richer; and in so doing, we revert to that pre-democratic history where some lords and rulers became authorities by virtue of their wealth and influence.
While this may be entirely consistent with the logic of the free market, we would do well to consider the ways in which this power changes our politics. The free market is a wonderful thing, no doubt – but is it also an ideological tool of very powerful corporate monarchies, in the same way the idea of divine right was for the monarchies of yore?