This book explains the direct link between the structure of the corporation and its limitless capacity for ecological destruction. It argues that we need to find the most effective means of ending the corporation’s death grip over us. The corporation is a problem, not merely because it devours natural resources, pollutes and accelerates the carbon economy. As this book argues, the constitutional structure of the corporation eradicates the possibility that we can put the protection of the planet before profit. A fight to get rid of the corporations that have brought us to this point may seem an impossible task at the moment, but it is necessary for our survival. It is hardly radical to suggest that if something is killing us, we should over-power it and make it stop. We need to kill the corporation before it kills us.
This introduction argues that the central role played by the corporation is of crucial importance to the dynamics of the climate crisis and the ecocide that the planet faces. The corporation is a major threat to us, yet it is a threat that we are not taking seriously enough. The evidence set out in this chapter indicates that we have a problem that cannot simplistically be dismissed as the fault of a few “rogue” or “bad apple” corporations. In each of the examples discussed here – fossil fuels, tobacco, asbestos, synthetic chemicals and the car industry – all of the corporate executives who were in charge of making deadly products knew exactly what they were doing. They were fully aware of the consequences, but did it anyway. This introduction therefore poses a key question that sets up the rest of the book: if all of the industrial processes that are threatening the end of the species are financed, manufactured and distributed under the control of profit-making corporations, and they have chosen time and time again to sweep the problem under the carpet, then why are corporations not seen as central to the planet’s problems?
Chapter 1 explores the key twists and turns in the history of the corporation and foregrounds core ideas that have shaped its development. The chapter begins by outlining how the corporate person is established as a kind of superhuman subject that exists as an entity distinct from the members who invest in it. The peculiar concept of “corporate personhood” was shaped throughout history with one primary purpose in mind: to provide commercial incentives to those investors. Chapter 1 shows how the corporate person was freed to do this as it gained status as a contracting party and a legal subject in commercial law. The corporation is described in this chapter as a “structure of irresponsibility”; it is an institution that is designed to dehumanise social relationships, and guarantee indifference to human suffering and environmental degradation. It is by uncovering the theory and practice that shaped the evolution of the corporation that we begin to understand why the form that the contemporary corporation takes is probably as close as we could get to a model organisation that is capable of destroying the world.
Chapter 2 argues that the motor force of the corporation is driven by the necessity for capital to reproduce itself. And as part of this ongoing reproduction of capital, corporations are involved in a continual struggle to overcome nature’s limits. It shows that the capitalist corporation was absolutely central to the long project of European colonisation; the corporation became the primary vehicle used by investors and by colonising governments to devour nature and human labour. The extraction of natural resources, particularly from colonised lands, was done on a scale and at a rate that would not have been possible without the colonial corporation. If the architecture of the corporation made it ideal for colonial adventure, its current forms are designed for neo-colonialism. This adaptation of the modern corporation has expanded its capacity to devour nature, as if there were no limits to the exploitation of nature itself
Chapter 3 argues that regulation in capitalist societies has a dual function. On one hand, it demands the promotion of a “political economy of speed” that prioritises economic growth, and on the other hand, it demands control of activities that are harmful to the environment. It is this contradiction that makes some people pessimistic about our reliance on states to protect, and indeed frames the commentary to the original 1973 formulation of the crime of ecocide. To have a law of ecocide on the statute books would only be significant if it was accompanied by the control or banning of the full range of commercial activities that are currently licenced. But even then, a series of prosecutions against senior individuals, or indeed against a corporation itself, is not going to precipitate the shift in the structure of the economic system that we need. The effective regulation of ecocide requires that we control the start-point of production and distribution of things – not just change the pace of the political economy of speed.
The conclusion summarises the key theme running through the book: the direct link between the structure of the corporation and its limitless capacity for destruction. It asserts that, if the argument developed in this book is even partly right, this means breaking open the organisation that gives material force to the social relations of capital: the corporation. We need to find the most effective means of ending the corporation’s death grip over us. The corporation is not a problem merely because it captures natural resources, pollutes and accelerates the carbon economy. As this book has argued, the corporation eradicates the possibility that we can put the protection of the planet before profit. A fight to get rid of the corporations that have brought us to this point may seem like an impossible task at the moment, but it is necessary for our survival. And it is hardly radical to suggest that if something is killing us, we should over-power it and make it stop. We need to kill the corporation before it kills us.