Walburn on Barkan and Ciepley

This week Joshua Barkan and David Ciepley came to discuss corporate sovereignty. Both of these scholars noted how corporations function as an alternative modality of sovereign governance. Barkan explained that corporations act in relation to, different than, and in tension with states. As a geographer, he is especially interested in the territorial aspects of corporate power and how they disrupt our ideas of state sovereignty. This is an especially interesting project because corporations are typically thought to transcend space, but are actually spatially embedded in various jurisdictions in different ways. Usually we think of corporate land grabs as corrupt and the product of backdoor dealings, but Barkan is interested in how law (specifically Anglo-American law) facilitates the usurpation of land by corporations. For example, his paper explores the legality of resource extraction in the American West. When asked about the colonial capacity of corporations, Bakan noted that the modern corporation is founded upon the values of colonization and conquest, because “improvement and development are really a form of power that can act at and across distance.” In this way corporations become international sovereigns both tied to and separate from states. Ciepley is also interested in how we consider corporate sovereignty, but instead of locating this corporate power spatially, he argues that the corporate form is, and has been throughout Anglo-American history, an alternative form of governance. He noted that the corporate form is a distinctive institutional device for harnessing and augmenting state power. Societies, he argued, have historically been organized into a corporate order—from cities, churches, universities, and guilds, to the joint-stock corporations prevalent today. Ciepley argued that the corporate form was so influential that the church, empires, and states have been modeled on the corporation, rather than the inverse. In fact, Ciepely argued that modern American constitutionalism is grounded in the corporate form, and that the American government is, indeed, a corporation itself. The constitution is, in his view, a written charter to found and order the state as a corporation. Counter to the understanding of the United States government being born of a contract between citizens delegating power to a central sovereign body, Ciepley argued that corporate theory offers a more appropriate lens through which to view the Revolution and founding. The colonies, corporate bodies themselves, transferred the technologies of governance familiar to corporations onto the state, and every aspect of the United States constitution, according to this argument, can be understood as part of a corporate charter. When pressed on this issue, Ciepley used the analogy of constructing a building. Though the founders may not have purposely built a corporate charter of governance, they used the “bricks” and other ideological material available to them and pieced together took on a decidedly corporate form of government due to the historic prevalence of the corporation. Both speakers understood corporation as a prevalent, alternative modality of governance, be that territorially or ideologically.

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