Saturday, August 21, 2010

Troubled capitalism: The corporate entity

Iain M. Banks sticks his ideas into his fiction as digressions. They're often quite interesting digressions.

Transition is one of his books with several digressions. It's a powerful book, but it's not an easy book (my fave reviews: 1, 2, 3). It reads like a mixture of his literary fiction (written as Iain Banks) and his science fiction (written as Iain M Banks).

Since Transition came out in 2009, after the great crash of 2008, and since Banks is a critic of capitalism, it's not surprising that one of his digressions concerns the problems of a world with American style capitalism [1] ....
... this was a Greedist world, a world where the untrammelled pursuit of material wealth and the virtues of money itself were extolled, venerated and even worshipped...
... There are as many types of capitalism as there are types of socialism – or any other ism for that matter – but one of the major differences – a major difference founded on what appears to be a minor detail – between whole bundles of ostensibly fully capitalist societies centres (indeed, depends) on whether commerce is governed by private firms and partnerships, or by limited companies.
... the invention and acceptance of the limited company means people can take big risks with money not their own and then – if it all goes wrong – lets them just walk away from the resulting debts, because the company is somehow regarded as being like a person in its own right, so that its debts die with it (not the sort of fairy story a partnership is allowed to get away with).
It’s a piece of nonsense, really, and I used to wonder that legislatures anywhere bought into this blatant fantasy and agreed to give it legal house room. But that was just me being naive, before I realised that there was a reason why it always dawned on all those ambitious, powerful gents in all those various legislatures that this ludicrous hooey might actually be quite a good idea.
Anyway, limited company worlds often progress faster than other types, but always less smoothly and reliably, and sometimes disastrously. I’ve looked into it and frankly it just isn’t worth it, but you can’t tell that to anyone caught up within the seductive madness of the dream; they have the faith, and are forever relieved by the invisible hand...
I'm sympathetic to the general idea that there's something broken with the publicly traded company. I haven't, however, taken that to mean that there's also something broken with the very idea of the corporation personified.

I'll have to give it some thought.

See also:

[1] I started typing from the book, then it occurred to me to Google some key phrases. That's how I discovered that there is a Russian web site that contains transcriptions of at least this book - and probably others. It is, of course, completely illegal. The site is entirely in Russian, but Google found the book within it, including this digression.

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