Conceiving Companies: Joint-Stock Politics in Victorian England

Conceiving Companies: Joint-Stock Politics in Victorian England

Conceiving Companies: Joint-Stock Politics in Victorian England

Conceiving Companies: Joint-Stock Politics in Victorian England

Synopsis

Questions concerning the relationships and boundaries between 'private' business and 'public' government are of great and perennial concern to economists, economic and business historians, political scientists and historians. Conceiving Companies discusses the birth and development of joint-stock companies in 19th century England, an area of great importance to the history of this subject. Alborn takes a new approach to the rise of large scale companies in Victorian England, including the Bank of England and East India Company and Victorian railways, locating their origins in political and social practice. He offers a new perspective on an issue of great significance, not only for historians, but for political scientists and economists.

Excerpt

Since the early twentieth century, the joint-stock company and the state have stood together as exemplars of modern bureaucratic institutions. For at least as long, that co-existence has been uncomfortable, as companies and states have wound their way through an inconclusive cycle of proposals to regulate, deregulate, nationalize, privatize, or otherwise adjust the boundaries between the “private” sphere of big business and the “public” sphere of democratic government. Historians who have studied the tense past of companies and the state have done relatively little to clarify this drawn-out boundary-drawing process. Theirs is either a heroic story of corporate growth, set against a backdrop of regulations and other outside impediments to maximum economic efficiency; or a story about the birth of the regulatory state, valiantly preserving democracy from the worst ravages of large corporations. Even when such accounts pause to consider the close similarities in structure and function between the company and the modern administrative state, these are most often used to illustrate the ultimate primacy of either the private or public sector in establishing a viable model for modernity. Hence one prize-winning account of American business regulation concludes that the best federal agencies have been those with a healthy respect for the laws dictating corporate efficiency (McCraw 1984); while another essay on Progressive-era business regulation concludes that “[t]he antisocial forces that regulation seeks to counter must always be resisted, even if they will always be present” (Keller 1981:94).

By privileging either the economic laws of company performance or the political laws of regulation, these approaches lose sight of the crucial point that companies themselves have historically had to keep political practice firmly in view for their economic activity to succeed. Companies have never been merely profit-maximizing machines subject to recurrent breakdowns owing to the human error of inept state intervention, nor have they been merely selfish agglomerates of capital in need of supervision by accountable state authorities. Rather, they have always existed to an important extent as political institutions themselves, with some degree of accountability to a “public” composed of shareholders, customers, and workers, and sharing the

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