The influence of corporations on our lives, the planet and all species is immense. Since the sole obligation for corporations is making profits for their shareholders, economic growth is obviously critical to their survival – yet this is provoking climate change and biodiversity loss at an ever-accelerating rate. Therefore we need to question the corporation as an entity and as an operator.
A brief history:
Corporations began in the UK several centuries ago as not-for-profit entities such as churches, schools or hospitals. Businesses were then cooperatives and partnerships with no legal identity of their own and all participants were responsible for decisions and actions. However, this changed when the partners in the East India Company, formed by Royal Charter in 1600 to have a monopoly on trade in ‘The Indies’, decided to sell their stock to the company and receive a ‘share’ instead. This meant that they were no longer responsible for the actions of the company, which then began to trade this stock for profit, and the profits were distributed among the shareholders. The company thus quietly became a for-profit entity separate from all the people involved in it. All this was done by the stockholders without consultation with, or consent from, any authority.
Following this development, a number of new corporations with trading monopolies in different regions were formed by trade associations. They include the Hudson’s Bay Company and the South Sea Company.
In 1844 the joint Stock Companies Act in the UK granted corporations similar rights to those of human persons. Thus they became – and continue to be - legal persons enjoying a number of human rights. Then in 1855 an act was passed that granted limited liability to corporations, so that shareholders were only responsible for the amount they had paid for their shares. Hence the use of the word ‘limited’ or ltd.
For more detail about what Corporations are; where they have come from; and how they became so powerful see Who’s in Charge?