Before Corporate Monoculture

Before Corporate Monoculture

Alfred Thomas

In this review of Henry Turner’s The Corporate Commonwealth, Thomas considers how Turner historicizes the term “corporatization” to explore its wide-ranging definitions and functions in early-modern England.

The Corporate Commonwealth: Pluralism and Political Fictions in England, 1516-1651
Henry Turner
Chicago UP, 2016

In today’s America the word “corporation” has a distinctly derogatory feel to it. Academics frequently deplore the “corporatization” of the American universities such as the increasing top-down mode of governance and the for-profit motive of upper administrations. In his ambitious and densely argued book The Corporate Commonwealth, Professor Henry Turner seeks to historicize the term and thus unshackle it from its modern negative connotations by exploring its complex and wide-ranging function in early-modern England. 

Turner argues that the joint-stock, limited-liability, for-profit type of corporation familiar to us today was a relative latecomer to western Europe, appearing in its modern form in England only in the 1550s. It took its place among many other long-standing corporate groups such as the church, the kingdom, parliament, towns and cities, guilds and religious confraternities, universities, hospitals, and parish churches. All these corporations enjoyed certain rights, privileges and freedoms rooted in medieval tradition. As Professor Turner points out, the most common word for “corporation” in early modern legal parlance was universitas—the root of our modern word “university”—literally a “turning into one” that both foreshadows the e pluribus unum motto of eighteenth-century American politics (from 1782 until it was replaced in 1956 “In God we Trust”) but also looks back to classical and medieval ideas of political community.

Turner begins his exploration of the early modern “corporate commonwealth” by arguing that “the crisis of twenty-first-century political life is not that we suffer from an excess of corporations but that we have too few, especially corporations of an authentically public type. We suffer, in short, from a corporate monoculture of the for-profit, commercial form, and we have forgotten how diverse and how significant corporations could be as a mode of organizing our collective purposes and our systems of value.” Turner’s project is to trace the origins of corporate culture before it became narrowed into this exclusively profit-driven modern capitalist configuration. One of the most interesting examples of an early modern corporation was Shakespeare’s theatre company (originally named the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and later the King’s Men) which was one of the most successful joint-stock companies of the period, lasting nearly fifty years and generating handsome profits for the playwright and his fellows that other actors could hardly imagine. Although Shakespeare’s company was named for aristocratic and royal patrons like the Lord Chamberlain and, later, King James I, the actual financial running of the company and its profits were shared by the actors and playwrights themselves. This corporate enterprise allowed Shakespeare to become quite a wealthy landowner with properties in his native Stratford-upon-Avon and in London by the time that he retired from the stage. But, as Turner points out, many other types of corporations flourished alongside this theatrical model, so that corporate institutions and corporate ideas were significant to everyday life in early modern England.

Crucial to Turner’s project is the desire to demonstrate the limits of a theory of the state and sovereignty and to argue in favor of a political theory rooted in a historical understanding of the diversity of corporate associational life. In so doing he draws upon ideas first advanced by the so-called “English pluralist school” exemplified by Frederick William Maitland (1850-1906), Ernest Barker (1874-1960), and Harold Laski (1893-1950). Turner traces the articulations of these corporate ideas and concepts in a series of seminal English writings from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1561) via A Discourse of the Commonweal of this Realm of England (ca. 1549) and De Republica Anglorum (1565) by the Elizabethan jurist and statesman Sir Thomas Smith; Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593) by the Anglican apologist Richard Hooker, and Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations , Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589); Thomas Dekker’s play The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599) and Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet (1603) as well as the Roman tragedies Titus Andronicus (1594), Julius Caesar (1599), and Coriolanus (1608). Whereas Dekker produces a romanticizing, comic image of the city guild by aligning it with the commercial and formal logic of theater, Shakespeare goes in the opposite direction by leaving the space of conflict unresolved and follows it through to a tragic conclusion: in place of constitutional order, there is only murder, mutilation, invasion, assassination, exile, and civil war.

The penultimate chapter of the book takes us into the seventeenth century and the empirical methods of the New Science exemplified by Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620), which gradually displaces the mystical notion of the corporate body rooted in Aristotelian theory with arguments that views the corporate body in mechanical terms, thus anticipating the argument of Hobbes, where we see the complete subordination of independent corporate bodies to the power of the state. In the coda of the book, Turner seeks to produce a definition of the “political” that moves away from the current emphasis on theories of sovereignty and breathes new life into the importance of the corporation as both a historical and a theoretical concept. On a final and distinctly utopian note, Turner posits the notion of the universitas—a utopian figure for the modern university as an “open unity” that can and must resist the totalizing effects of the modern capitalist corporation.

In its interdisciplinary examination of these important literary, philosophical, theological, and political texts of the English Renaissance, Professor Turner’s book deserves to be read not only by scholars and students of early modern English literature but by anyone concerned to understand the origins of the modern nation state and particularly the corporate world that threatens to eclipse the state altogether. Whereas the modern state is increasingly seen as a necessary lever on the excesses of corporate expansion and greed, in the early modern period, the relation seemed to be the other way round: it was the corporations that exerted an important check on the growing centralizing power of the nation state. This centralizing movement developed at an alarming rate during the reign of Henry VIII and culminated in the royal takeover of the English church. Sir Thomas More’s foundational text Utopia can certainly be read as anticipating the conflict of interest between the centralized and surveillance-ridden society described by Raphael Hythloday and the more civic- and corporate-minded approach of More himself, whose allegiance to the Roman Catholic church coexisted alongside his corporate identification with the London Inns of Court. In opposing the royal encroachment on the rights and privileges of the medieval Church (and ultimately dying for those rights), we might even say that More became a martyr of a corporate medieval culture that was increasingly under assault from the forces of the modern nation state.