The company-state and sovereignty

The company-state and sovereignty

A previous blog discussed some important aspects of a recently published book, Outsourcing Empire by Phillips & Sharman, in particular that it problematises previous understandings of the state over the period from approximately the sixteenth century through to the early twentieth century. This brings into view the work of Elias regarding the state in relation to the civilising process, reworked in Whites Writing Whiteness research as the racialising process, and which itself needs to respond to this interesting set of analytical ideas. Good ideas also always have progenitors, and Outsourcing Empire takes off from an important contribution made earlier by Philip Stern in The Company-State, published in 2011. The detailed research-base of Stern’s book is focused on a long-term archive-based investigation of the British East India Company, while its theoretical structure is concerned with what taking the chartered companies seriously as institutions in their own right leads to, in terms of comprehending and analysing what the state and governance were/are like.

Chartered-companies were assigned sovereign powers in the geographical spheres of their interest, amalgamating the primacy of commercial ventures with diplomatic negotiation with ‘local’ powers with a military arm to enforce their interests when deemed important. The written charters ­– under which the large number of European-based chartered companies were founded from approximately the sixteenth century on – conveyed upon them, not ‘state-like’ aspects, but statehood itself in the terms that this was understood at the time. This is that there was pluralism rather than monopoly, with sovereignty and governance being a conglomerate of diverse and overlapping organisations with political powers. There was not so much a clear hierarchy with ‘the state’ at the top, as there was an interlocking matrix of lesser and greater sovereign powers located in different places and circumstances but with connections back to the particular European base.

Put simply, the state as we presently perceive it did not exist until fairly recently. The company-states, including Stern’s focus of the British East India Company specifically, had clear sovereign powers from the start and enhanced these through their combination of commercialism, trading, negotiation and militarisation. As a consequence, thinking about statehood in Europe as a steady march towards the monopolisation and central control of accumulation, distribution and legitimate force, and thus ‘the state’ as we presently know it, as in the work of Weber and in a more nuanced way that of Elias, should be seen as prescriptions (Weber) or ‘real (but over-homogenised) types’ (Elias) rather than descriptions.

Stern puts it like this:

“Approaching the Company as a form of state and sovereign, which claimed final jurisdiction and responsibility over people and places, suggests that the history of state formation and of political thought, only relatively recently extended to include the ideas and institutions of empire, might be extended even further, beyond the national form of those states and empires to apply to a range of corporate communities” (p. 14)

This is interesting enough, while Stern takes it further in pointing out that the company-state, and the related ideas of the corporation and the association, challenges assumptions about the nation-state as the ultimate political and social entity. Not only does it challenge the idea of the state as territorially founded and having a monopoly on legitimate violence, but also the idea that sovereignty is a system of autonomous and independent territorially-boundaried states at a national level. The lessons to be learned from this are consequential:

“In focusing on the Company as a form of early modern government, The Company-State proposes to move it – along with companies, corporations, and a variety of non-national political communities more generally – from the margins to the centre of its own political and intellectual history. It resists the tendency to envisage the early Company as either merely a commercial body or, when exhibiting political behaviours, in conditional, metaphorical, and ultimately in perfect terms: state-like, semi-sovereign, quasi– governmental. Instead this book takes the early Company as the body politic on its own terms, neither tethered to supposedly broader national histories nor as an imitation, extension, or reflection of the national state, which was itself still in formation through this period. It therefore offers neither a model of state and empire formation that is the projection of the will of a pre-formed, imperial centre outward nor of discussion of the ways in which the British state and national identity emerge through the imperial experience, but rather explores the vision of an early modern “empire“ that was constituted by a variety of competing and overlapping political and constitutional forms in both alliance and tension with the national state and its claims to coherence and central power, and a modern state and empire that was in many ways formed by the process of incorporating, co-opting, and undermining the legitimacy of those institutions” p. 6

There are a number of ways in which Stern’s work on re-thinking states and sovereignty through encompassing the company-states opens up new avenues of thought in relation to Whites Writing Whiteness research.

For example, it offers a new view of the sometimes fragmenting and sometimes centralising dynamics of the European presence alongside that of African polities and sovereign powers in southern Africa throughout the whole period of colonisation from the seventeenth century on. While for much of this time no company-state was in evidence, nonetheless there were contending sovereign powers and a lack of clear hierarchy, which implies that this way of thinking about the state in ‘conglomerate’ terms has wider reverberations beyond company-states.

‘The company-state’ was actually not homogenous, but encompassed very different approaches to company rule; and although having a comparative purpose Outsourcing Empire does not explore the similarities and differences with regard to southern Africa in any great depth. And so it relatedly suggests that a comparison of the earlier period of the Dutch East India Company in the Cape, and the later period of the British South Africa Company in the Northern Cape and in what is now Zimbabwe and Zambia, would bear analytical fruit.

And it also implies that earlier WWW work on the racialising process needs to encompass the idea of sovereignty in processual terms and ‘conglomerate’ circumstances, with categorisation and regulation being part of both racialising and state-formation. That is, the racialising process is at one and the same time both about racial hierarchies and about extending to the powers and authority of a white-controlled minority national state.

Philip Stern. 2011. The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty & the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Last updated: 26 June 2020


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