Corporation Nation

Posted: 24 July 2001

Author: Charles Derber
St Martins Press, New York, US$24.95 (hardback)

The sub-title of this lively book, "How corportaions are taking over the world and what we can do about it", spells out its message, and gives a clue as to its intended audience. It is, one suspects, addressed as much to Professor Derber's students at Boston College and to young people elsewhere in America, as to the broader readership. He says the reaction of most of his students on being exposed to a critique of corporate power, is one of astonishment.

"Many say they cannot imagine Disney or Microsoft being too powerful. These corporations are, after all, the source of the lifestyle pleasures and magical technology that makes their lives fun and their studies easier."

In that respect, this book is a wake up call. An attempt to show just how huge and hugely influential the world's 44,000 transnational companies have become, controlling more than a third of the world's gross national product in 1995, compared to 17 per cent in 1960. The top 200 corporations form a global oligopoly, with a combined income of over $7 trillion; greater than the combined economy of 182 countries or the income of 4.5 billion people.

And of these, about 30 American giant global companies sit at the centre of the American economy, representing the pivotal power in the new world of corporate ascendancy "unmatched in their ambition, technological dynamism, and global reach." Together they embody not only the new ideas of freedom and global co-operation, but key elements of the new corporate order: "vast size, dominant market share, and a new ethic of minimal loyalty to employees, communities and the environment."

That theme is tellingly illustrated. And the new concept of corporate social responsibility is sharply analysed and found wanting. No amount of social responsibility, he argues, can make up for market laws. "Even the companies most fully dedicated to responsibility today - whether Levi Strauss, Reebok, or the Body Shop - continue, quietly, to pursue low-road strategies such as going abroad to contract the world's cheapest and most disposable labour force."

The answer, he argues, is to go for more fundamental reform: to build a new structure which links badly needed changes in corporate governance with changes in the larger economic and social order. He suggests the creation of public charters to help codify the social aims of industry, new forms of representation on company boards, broader global regulation, and the encouragement of a new "positive populism" which would involve labour, community institutions and environmental activists.

As usual in books of this sort, Professor Derber ends with a list of suggestions which readers can put into action. And, as always, they seem to be asking more than most readers will be willing to do. Nevertheless, this book is a wonderful stimulus to fresh thinking - not only for an American audience.

Reviewer: John Rowley

Reviewer Info: John Rowley is Editor-in-Chief of Planet 21