Business Corporations as Political Actors

Companies are being regulated by politics, but they also shape the political arena themselves, whenever they influence politicians and political parties. Moreover, companies fulfill public functions such as providing public goods, regulating their own business activities, or addressing societal problems, like environmental harms. Can such a mixture of private activity and public responsibility be legitimate, in a democratic society? Doesn’t this give corporations too much political power? Are multinationals different in this respect from other companies? These are central questions in the research project “The Business Corporation as a Political Actor’ (2020-2025), funded by the European Research Council (ERC)’s Consolidator Grant scheme. The project is based at Utrecht University, and led by prof. dr. Rutger Claassen. For the contributions of the other team members, please visit the project website.  

In my own work, I have written two analytical pieces, which aim at a coherent picture of the different normative considerations at stake. In [10], together with Michael Bennett, we develop a framework which we call the ‘Corporate Power Trilemma’. It relates the various economic and political values and options in dealing with corporate power to each other. In [6], I present the four main normative theories of the corporation, and discuss their recent applications to questions of corporate power.  

My own normative position within these debates is presented in [5] and [11]. In [5], I use Thomas Hobbes’s theory of representation to argue for the contemporary relevance of the so-called ‘concession theory’, which conceives of corporations’ license to operate as a grant/concession from the state. In [11] I work out this position in full, defensing that corporations have fiduciary duties towards both the state/society at large, and to their shareholders.  

In practice, what kind of mechanism can provide corporate accountability to society? In [3,7], I outline a plan for a Corporate Social Audit, in which large corporations would be assessed on their social performance.    

[1, 2, 4, 8, and 9] are Dutch articles for public debate, about international business [1], businesses as public actors [2], Corona-linked state support for business [4], Dutch political parties’ election plans about corporate performance [8] and corporate political activism [9].  

Publications for ‘Business Corporations as Political Actors’ 

[1] ‘Zakendoen, hier en in het buitenland – een ethische blik’, Webdossier Institutions for Open Societies, 9 mei 2016. WEB

[2] ‘De publieke rol van bedrijven. Macht en verantwoording in een democratische rechtsstaat.’ Ethische Annotatie nr. 4, Ethiek Instituut Universiteit Utrecht, 2017. 21 pp. PDF

[3] ‘Een concurrentiestrijd om het publiek belang’ in Markt & Mededinging, nr. 4-5, 2020, pp. 217-218. DOI

[4] ‘Ondernemersrisico als overheidsrisico’, in www.mejudice.nl, 15 april 2020. WEB

[5] ‘Hobbes Meets the Modern Business Corporation’, in: Polity 53 (1)(2021): 101-131. DOI.  

[6] ‘De legitimiteit van bedrijven in een liberale democratie. Een politiek-theoretische benadering’, Working Paper Serie van de Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid (WRR), nr. 43. 2021. PDF.  

[7] ‘Een ‘social audit’ dwingt tot ondernemen op maatschappelijke waarde’, in Economisch Statistische Berichten, jaargang 106, no. 4795, 2021, pp. 130-133. WEB

[8] ‘Politieke partijen zetten in op reparatie kapitalisme’, met Kees Cools. In: Economisch Statistische Berichten, jaargang 106, no. 4794, 18 februari 2021; pp. 106-109. WEB

[9] ‘Geef China van katoen. Bedrijven als politiek activisten’, in: Groene Amsterdammer, jaargang 145, nr.30, pp. 42-45, 2021. WEB.  

[10] ‘The Corporate Power Trilemma’, with Michael Bennet, in: Journal of Politics (forthcoming). 

[11] ‘Wealth Creation Without Domination. The Fiduciary Duties of Corporations’, in: Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. (forthcoming)