The World's First Multinational; Corporate Greed, the Ruination of Traditional Ways of Life, Share-Price Bubbles, Western Imperialism: All These Modern Complaints Were Made against the British East India Company in the 18th Century. Nick Robins Draws the Lessons

By Robins, Nick | New Statesman (1996), December 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

The World's First Multinational; Corporate Greed, the Ruination of Traditional Ways of Life, Share-Price Bubbles, Western Imperialism: All These Modern Complaints Were Made against the British East India Company in the 18th Century. Nick Robins Draws the Lessons


Robins, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


In The Discovery of India, the final and perhaps most profound part of his "prison trilogy", written in 1944 from Ahmednagar Fort, Jawaharlal Nehru described the effect of the East India Company on the country he would shortly rule. "The corruption, venality, nepotism, violence and greed of money of these early generations of British rule in India," he wrote, "is something which passes comprehension." It was, he added, "significant that one of the Hindustani words which has become part of the English language is 'loot'".

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For most of the succeeding 60 years, the East India Company sank from view. No plaque marked the site where its headquarters had stood in the City of London for more than two centuries. It was regarded as something that could be consigned to the history books, its deeds to be squabbled over by academics and imperial romantics. But the onset of globalisation has revived interest in a company that could be seen as a pioneering force for world trade. Exhibitions at the British Library and the V & A, plus a string of popular histories, have sought to revive the reputation of the "Honourable East India Company". Its founders are now hailed as swashbuckling adventurers, its operations praised for pioneering the birth of modern consumerism and its glamorous executives profiled as multicultural "white moguls".

Yet the East India Company, romantic as it may seem, has more profound and disturbing lessons to teach us. Abuse of market power; corporate greed; judicial impunity; the "irrational exuberance" of the financial markets; and the destruction of traditional economies (in what could not, at one time, be called the poor or developing world): none of these is new. The most common complaints against late 20th- and early 21st-century capitalism were all foreshadowed in the story of the East India Company more than two centuries ago.

In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith used the East India Company as a case study to show how monopoly capitalism undermines both liberty and justice, and how the management of shareholder-controlled corporations invariably ends in "negligence, profusion and malversation". Yet nothing of Smith's scepticism of corporations, his criticism of their pursuit of monopoly and of their faulty system of governance, enters the speeches of today's free-market advocates.

Smith's vision of free trade entailed firm controls on corporate power. And, as did his own times, subsequent history shows how right he was. If it is to contribute to economic progress, the corporation's market power has to be limited to allow real choice, and to prevent suppliers being squeezed and consumers gouged. Its political power also needs to be constrained, if it is not to rig the rules of regulation so that it enjoys unjustified public subsidy or protection. Internal and external checks and balances must curb the tendency of executives to become corporate emperors. And clear and enforceable systems of justice are necessary to hold the corporation to account for any damage to society and the environment. These are tough conditions, and have rarely been met, either in the age of the East India Company or in today's era of globalisation.

Today, we can see the East India Company as the first "imperial corporation", the very design of which drove it to market domination, speculative excess and the evasion of justice. Like the modern multinational, it was eager to avoid the mere interplay of supply and demand. It jealously guarded its chartered monopoly of imports from Asia. But it also wanted to control the sources of supply by breaking the power of local rulers in India and eliminating competition so that it could force down its purchase prices.

By controlling both ends of the chain, the company could buy cheap and sell dear. This meant organising coups against local rulers and placing puppets on the throne. By the middle of the 18th century, the company was deliberately breaching the terms of its commercial concessions in Bengal by trading in prohibited domestic goods and selling its duty-free passes to local merchants. …

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