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. A summary of this piece is published as a blogpost [11]. 

In [14], I present the main normative theories of the corporation, and discuss their recent applications to questions of corporate power.  A  longer, Dutch-language version of this is [6]. 

My own normative position within these debates is presented in [5] and [2]. 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 [2] 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 [13] Bennett and I reflect on the ‘purpose’-debate, arguing that decisions about corporate purpose require ‘proper politicization’.

In practice, what kind of mechanism can provide corporate accountability to society? In [3, 7, 20], I outline a plan for a Corporate Social Audit, in which large corporations would be assessed on their social performance. In a blog [21], Marija Bartl and I make an inventory of alternative ownership forms for businesses (such as steward-owned companies and cooperatives).     

Articles in Dutch 

There are also various articles in Dutch articles for public debate. These are about international business [1], businesses as public actors [2], Corona-linked state support for business [4], Dutch political parties’ election plans about corporate performance in 2021 elections[8] and in the 2023 elections [23], corporate political activism [9], stakeholder capitalism [18], and the new Dutch corporate governance code [19].

 In 2022, I co-edited the annual handbook of the Dutch society of economists, on the theme of ‘corporate governance and the public interest’ [15]. The introduction catalogues the movement towards more publicly oriented corporate governance [16]. In my own contribution [17] I argue that purpose-driven business faces a governance trilemma. In [22] I provide a succinct summary of the debate about ‘economy democracy’. In [24], Jeroen Veldman, Dirk Schoenmaker and I argue in favor of more stakeholder representation in corporate governance. Jeroen Veldman and I also argue that achieving sustainable business practices requires more than regulation and pricing in [25].

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/PDF.

[4] ‘Ondernemersrisico als overheidsrisico’,, 15 april 2020.  WEB/PDF.

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

[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/PDF.

[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/PDF.

[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 84(4)(2022): 2094-2106. DOI

[11] ‘Our corporate overlords’, co-authored with Michael Bennett, The Journal of Politics Blogpost, 1 march 2022. WEB

[12] ‘Wealth Creation Without Domination. The Fiduciary Duties of Corporations’, in: Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy. 26(7) (2023). DOI

[13] ‘Taming the Corporate Leviathan. How to Properly Politicise Corporate Purpose?’ co-authored with Michael Bennett, in: Michael Bennett, Huub Brouwer, Rutger Claassen (eds), Wealth and Power. Philosophical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2022), pp. 145-165. DOI 

[14] ‘Political Theories of the Business Corporation’, in: Philosophy Compass. 18(1), e12892. DOI

[15] Corporate governance en het maatschappelijk belang, edited with Dirk Schoenmaker. Pre-adviezen van de Koninklijke Vereniging voor de Staatshuishoudkunde, Amsterdam, 2022. ISBN/EAN: 978-90-826-3797-7. DOI 

[16] ‘Van aandeelhoudersondernemen naar maatschappelijk ondernemen’, met Dirk Schoenmaker, in: Rutger Claassen & Dirk Schoenmaker (red.), Corporate governance en het maatschappelijk belang. Pre-adviezen van de Koninklijke Vereniging voor de Staatshuishoudkunde, Amsterdam, 2022, pp. 8-13. WEB 

[17] ‘Het corporate-governancetrilemma voor de politieke onderneming’, in: Rutger Claassen & Dirk Schoenmaker (red.), Corporate governance en het maatschappelijk belang. Pre-adviezen van de Koninklijke Vereniging voor de Staatshuishoudkunde, Amsterdam, 2022, pp. 44-50. WEB 

[18] ‘De lange, bochtige weg naar het stakeholderkapitalisme’, Mijntje Lückerath, Hans van Ees, Muel Kaptein (red.), Jaarboek Corporate Governance 2022.  

[19] ‘Nieuwe corporate governance code kan beter’, met Peter Blom en Karen Maas. Mejudice, 6 mei 2022. WEB 

[20] ‘The Corporate Social Assessment. A Radical Approach’, with Michael Bennett, in:.Review of Social Economy, 2024. DOI 

[21] ‘Industrial Policy for a Sustainable European Economy: Toward Ownership that Works for People’, with Marija Bartl, in:.Transformative Private Law Blog, 3 november 2023. WEB 

[22] ‘Economische democratie’, in:.Idee, nr. 222, oktober 2023, pp/ 54-57. WEB 

[23] ‘Politieke partijen zetten in op ‘brede welvaart’’, met Kees Cools, in:Economische Statistische Berichten, 108(4827), pp.536-539, 2023. WEB 

[24] ‘Politieke partijen zetten in op ‘brede welvaart’’, met Kees Cools, in:Economische Statistische Berichten, 108(4827), pp.536-539, 2023. WEB 

[25] ‘Goed bedrijvenbeleid: Er is meer nodig dan normeren en beprijzen’, met Jeroen Veldman. Mejudice, 10 jan 2024. WEB