restricted access Before Corporate Monoculture
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Before Corporate Monoculture
The Corporate Commonwealth:Pluralism and Political Fictions in England, 1516-1651

Henry S. Turner

University of Chicago Press
344 Pages; Print, $45.00

inline graphic In today's America the word "corporation" has a distinctly derogatory feel to it. Academics frequently deplore the "corporatization" of the American universities such as the increasing top-down mode of governance and the for-profit motive of upper administrations. In his ambitious and densely argued book The Corporate Commonwealth, Professor Henry Turner seeks to historicize the term and thus unshackle it from its modern negative connotations by exploring its complex and wide-ranging function in early-modern England.

Turner argues that the joint-stock, limited-liability, for-profit type of corporation familiar to us today was a relative latecomer to western Europe, appearing in its modern form in England only in the 1550s. It took its place among many other longstanding corporate groups such as the church, the kingdom, parliament, towns and cities, guilds and religious confraternities, universities, hospitals, and parish churches. All these corporations enjoyed certain rights, privileges and freedoms rooted in medieval tradition. As Professor Turner points out, the most common word for "corporation" in early modern legal parlance was universitas—the root of our modern word "university"—literally a "turning into one" that both foreshadows the e pluribus unum motto of eighteenth-century American politics (from 1782 until it was replaced in 1956 "In God we Trust") but also looks back to classical and medieval ideas of political community.

Turner begins his exploration of the early modern "corporate commonwealth" by arguing that "the crisis of twenty-first-century political life is not that we suffer from an excess of corporations but that we have too few, especially corporations of an authentically public type. We suffer, in short, from a corporate monoculture of the for-profit, commercial form, and we have forgotten how diverse and how significant corporations could be as a mode of organizing our collective purposes and our systems of value." Turner's project is to trace the origins of corporate culture before it became narrowed into this exclusively profit-driven modern capitalist configuration. One of the most interesting examples of an early modern corporation was Shakespeare's theatre company (originally named the Lord Chamberlain's Men and later the King's Men) which was one of the most successful joint-stock companies of the period, lasting nearly fifty years and generating handsome profits for the playwright and his fellows that other actors could hardly imagine. Although Shakespeare's company was named for aristocratic and royal patrons like the Lord Chamberlain and, later, King James I, the actual financial running of the company and its profits were shared by the actors and playwrights themselves. This corporate enterprise allowed Shakespeare to become quite a wealthy landowner with properties in his native Stratford-upon-Avon and in London by the time that he retired from the stage. But, as Turner points out, many other types of corporations flourished alongside this theatrical model, so that corporate institutions and corporate ideas were significant to everyday life in early modern England.

Crucial to Turner's project is the desire to demonstrate the limits of a theory of the state and sovereignty and to argue in favor of a political theory rooted in a historical understanding of the diversity of corporate associational life. In so doing he draws upon ideas first advanced by the so-called "English pluralist school" exemplified by Frederick William Maitland (1850-1906), Ernest Barker (1874-1960), and Harold Laski (1893-1950). Turner traces the articulations of these corporate ideas and concepts in a series of seminal English writings from Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1561) via A Discourse of the Commonweal of this Realm of England (ca. 1549) and De Republica Anglorum (1565) by the Elizabethan jurist and statesman Sir Thomas Smith; Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593) by the Anglican apologist Richard Hooker, and Richard Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589); Thomas Dekker's play...