The Corporation as God

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Corporate scholarship is dominated by the law and economics movement.1 This provides a useful framework for understanding the economic functions of the modern corporation, but it has precious little to say about the social and cultural meaning of the corporation. Just as nuclear physicists can explain the workings of an atomic bomb but not what it means for the human race, the proponents of law and economics can describe the economics of the corporation but not its broader meaning within our culture. To fully understand the corporation we must pass beyond economics to the fields of anthropology and cultural criticism, viewing the corporation in the same way that we would view other cultural institutions and practices. In other words, we must extend "the cultural study of law" to corporations.2

From the perspective of cultural theory, I argue that the modern corporation is fundamentally a religious and mythological entity. To put it bluntly, the corporation is a secular god and corporate law is a secular religion. This means that we must take seriously (and then deconstruct) Henry Ford's statement that "[t]here is something sacred about a big business,"3 and we must see the hidden truth in Nehru's famous quip that "Dams are the temples of modern India."4 Although the business world is typically thought to be a realm of hard-headed pragmatism and real-world practicality, it rests upon fundamentally religious and mythological notions. At the core of both corporate law and religion is an invisible and hard-to-define entity ("God," or "the corporation") which miraculously becomes "in-corporated" and "made flesh."5 Just as priests and rabbis spend their lives divining God's will, corporate directors and officers dedicate themselves to serving the "best interests of the corporation." We may ridicule the so-called pagan who carves a deity from a chunk of wood and then imbues it with magical powers, yet lawyers do much the same thing when they file papers with the secretary of state to create an invisible and artificial entity whom they serve.6 And no one can deny that the cult of worship surrounding business leaders (such as Donald Trump) has an unmistakably religious undertone. The connection between business and religion calls out for an explanation.

In what follows, I draw a parallel between the corporation and God, and then analyze corporate law as a system of mythology. For reasons that will become clear, I follow the critical theory approach (with roots in Marxism) which sees mythology as an attempt to resolve underlying contradictions in a culture and to legitimate systemic injustices that would otherwise seem objectionable. I argue that corporate law serves these two purposes (mediation and legitimation) by papering over the smoldering class contradictions in American culture and by lending a veneer of legitimacy to the structural inequalities of the marketplace. The corporation is essentially a magical and mysterious entity that smooths over the contradictions in our culture and makes inequities seem natural.

II. THE CORPORATION AS GOD

There is an odd parallel between the modern corporation and the God of monotheism in that both are ephemeral beings that resist definition. The National Catholic Almanac defines God as "almighty, eternal, holy, immortal, immense, immutable, incomprehensible, ineffable, infinite, invisible, just, loving, merciful, most high, most wise, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, patient, perfect, provident, supreme, true."7 In similar language, Justice Marshall once defined the corporation as "an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law,"8 to which we would now add "capable of perpetual existence," "with potentially unlimited size," "capable of residing anywhere." Indeed, corporations are noteworthy for the absence of qualities. The only persistent quality of the modern corporation is limited liability, that is, the absence of a quality that would otherwise apply to an actual person. …