When Corporations Get Religion (Part III)
How have corporations taken on the role traditionally played by religion?
April 6, 2010
It is no longer patriarchal authority that controls family wealth or the state that holds economic power. That monopoly was historically compromised by the development of a third source of authority in societies — the religious centers or ancient cultures.
But no longer is it emonastic or episcopal leadership that holds an estate responsible. Nor is it even a nation-state that charters companies to establish colonies or to supply materials to increase the wealth of the home government, as was once the practice of the European imperial royalty.
The modern transnational or multinational firms are incorporated limited liability holding companies that are formed in one place and enabled to roam the world. They are in fact much sought after by coalitions of economic and political leaders in many lands who want them to locate their plants, factories or outlets in their locales.
These corporations are often said to be uncontrolled — but that is not quite right. They are controlled by the laws of the host countries, although these are sometimes quite weak.
They are controlled by the market and by their competitors, although these countervailing forces are not considered by their critics as sufficient. Indeed, even their supporters seem to recognize this.
Witness the growing body of international law, which generates a host of international treaties and seeks to strengthen regulatory agencies, whom I call the "regencies," such as the UN, World Bank, IMF, European Union, NAFTA or the WTO.
Whatever their faults and imperfections, each of them has negotiated legal agreements and procedures for enforcement and revision of unjust provisions. They are building the instrument of legal control, although the recent recession suggests to many that the legal controls need revision, strengthening and more effective enforcement.
At the same time, these set the terms for corporations that do cross the barriers of national boundaries and forge new networks of interaction and interdependence as well as breed suspicions of foreign control in our post-nationalist era.
They are, along with religiously and ethically based nongovernmental advocacy organizations, among the most efficient breakers of national barriers that exist.
Some, especially the extractive industrial corporations such as mining and lumber, reportedly do much ecological damage and leave the denuded areas devastated. And they sometimes exercise hegemonic influence in smaller and less developed countries.
No doubt, the nature and character of these new actors on the world scene need extensive and systematic investigation, but that will demand a transnational consent on the part of the world’s more powerful corporations — and of both host and home nations. And that will require a transformed ethical consensus equal to the vision of a global civilizational shift.
As I have argued elsewhere, Joseph Stiglitz, in his book “Making Globalization Work,” charts out how many such changes can be made given the present system. Reforms can be made, although he offers little philosophical, religious or ethical vision of why we should follow his suggestions.
If my view of the nature of globalization is valid, it is then a major mistake to see globalization only as essentially capitalism unleashed, as some pro-globalists and most anti-globalists do.
At most that is a confused understanding of one effect in a vast complex of forces as if it were the all-powerful cause. This is not only a truncated view of how societies work — rather, it is based on highly selective economic data.
True, economics and business — like the spheres of politics, law, medicine etc. — have, in part, their own logic. But every such logic is dependent for its flourishing on a complex matrix of created and socially constructed reality that forms the platform for existence.
It thus depends on historically formed institutions that were built out of the interaction of universal realities, historical events and religiously inspired ethical interpretations of their legitimate use.
On the whole, in this matrix it seems that modern corporate capitalism can be a viable economic system if, and only if, it is embedded in a federated system that works with a realistic view of human nature, sees life as necessarily under just laws and fosters human rights.
And it needs to provide access to education, adequate health facilities, stable family systems — and pair this with an openness to plural political parties, non-governmental organizations and, above all, the freedom of religion.
Editor’s Note: Part IV of this feature will be published on The Globalist tomorrow.
It is a major mistake to see globalization only as essentially capitalism unleashed, as some pro-globalists and most anti-globalists do.
Modern corporate capitalism can be a viable economic system only if it is embedded in a federated system that works with a realistic view of human nature.
The modern transnational or multinational firms are incorporated limited liability holding companies that are formed in one place and enabled to roam the world.
Professor of Theology, Princeton University Max L. Stackhouse (July 29, 1935 – January 30, 2016) is Princeton Theological Seminary's Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life. He also chairs the Seminary's Religion and Society program. He is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is president of the Berkshire […]