Khalid on Barkan and Ciepley, “Corporate Sovereignty”

Joshua Barkan and David Ciepley visited the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law on Friday, November 3, 2017 to discuss the topic of corporate sovereignty. Barkan discussed his ideas regarding corporate sovereignty through the framework of his paper Property and Sovereignty: Political Territoriality and the Corporate Control of Land. Ciepley addressed his position on corporate sovereignty alongside a discussion of his paper Three Corporate Ages and the Dynamics of Western History.

Serendipitously, it seemed that the foci of Barkan’s and Ciepley’s papers could not have gone together more perfectly, as both authors delved into the increasingly powerful role that corporations play within an international framework, intersecting with state actors as well as quickly evolving conceptions of sovereignty, spatiality, and territoriality. Surprisingly then, after a brief introduction of the central concepts being explored by Barkan and Ciepley. the conversation that followed was wide-ranging and expanisve.

Joshua Barkan began the session with a description of the overarching concerns of his research. Barkan mentioned that the origin of his work lies in long-term concerns about how corporations function as uniquely created institutions, “their relationship to sovereign power, and how they function as an alternative modality of sovereign power.” Moreover, his central focus lies in how corporations and states coexist while alternately territorializing space. As a geographer, Barkan’s interests in the territorial aspects of corporate power resonate with his background. At the same time, his work exploring how corporations transgress physical and political boundaries also intersects with international law and how corporations challenge traditional conceptions of international legal boundaries.

In addressing the topic of his paper, Property and Sovereignty: Political Territoriality and the Corporate Control of Land, more directly, Barkan also went on to discuss his interest in how the law enables corporate land grabs, challenging the notion that corruption as opposed to law is the primary mechanism behind such corporate actions. Looking forward, among the many themes Barkan is interested in exploring are other potential narratives concerning corporate acquisition of land.

David Ciepley introduced the primary concepts behind his paper with his position that the corporate form is the distinctive device for augmenting and collecting power within global power dynamics. Directly addressing some of the concepts in his paper, Three Corporate Ages and the Dynamics of Western History, Ciepley detailed various iterations and manifestations of the corporate form throughout history ranging from monasteries to towns and guilds across Europe.  Ciepley also discussed how the notion of constitutionalism developed over time, and posited that the United States government is best seen as a development on the chartering of corporations, even indicating early American colonies could have been seen as corporate forms under British control.

Additionally, Ciepley noted that many, if not all distinctively American contributions to the corporate form are mirrored as technologies developed for the governing of corporations, applied to the state. Later, Ciepley also went on to discuss a range of other topics including the utilization of the corporate form as it related to colonization, use of the corporate form by the British empire to tap into private capital across the world, and Ciepley’s contention that the core of international organization is assisted and utilized by corporations to facilitate the movement of capital.

The lively discussion Joshua Barkan and David Ciepley fostered through the discussion of their papers and the ideas within have provided a strong contribution for the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law as it continues to explore continually evolving conceptions of corporate sovereignty, territoriality, and corporate power.

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