Gwendolyn Gordon, Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke with our class on March 23, 2018. She explained In her introduction at the beginning of the seminar that her work is meant to explore the ways in which we imagine the law in the context of the Maori people of New Zealand and their reaction to the arrival of the corporation. The relationship established between the Maori and the corporation took into consideration the latter’s land uses, all the way down to the type of fertilizer they used. In other words, this relationship incorporated the cultural/traditional interests of the Maori people. Gordon’s paper asks about the meaning of these legal strictures in terms of how we understand the corporation—the boundaries of responsibility and irresponsibility. In addition, the relationship established between the corporation and the Maori was envisioned as stretching out from the past and into the future. Broadly speaking, this illustrates the manner in which ideas of the corporation are impacted or restricted by cultural considerations.
One of the questions asked, based on these introductory points, concerned the potential comparisons between the nature of the corporation established in the deal with the Maori and community-based corporate structures based on relational exchanges. The question was alluding back to our class with Barak Richman about his book Stateless Commerce. Gordon responded that there is indeed a strong resemblance between the ways in which the companies she describes in her paper operate and the ways in which family-run companies operate. She explained that the Indigenous corporations she studied tend to play on family-run corporation tropes, for example, unity of purpose and understandings of lengths of time. In entering a relationship with the corporation, the idea for the Maori was that “we were a thing before the corporation was here, and we will be a thing after the corporation is gone.” Through this idea, they “craftily” established a relationship with the corporation whereby they could use the corporation as a tool.
One of the primary recurring themes of the class discussion surrounded ideas of the State as compared to ideas of the corporation. One relevant question was whether there are conceptual differences between states and corporations and whether these conceptions are merely imaginary constructions. In this regard, it was asked whether we can use Gordon’s anthropological approach (based on cultural theory) to learn about the relationship between the corporation and the State. Gordon began her response by pointing out that an anthropological approach helps to poke holes in ideas of the State as a unified entity acting “as one.” Gordon said that she tries to do something similar with her considerations and analyses of the corporation in the context of Maori society. However, at the same time, past theories in anthropology have limited the ways in which we think about the corporation and the State. It used to be that anthropology understood the corporation as a monolithic, all-powerful entity that only served to restrict the power of other entities/peoples. Gordon explained that she has been wary of this line of reasoning because it risks erasing ideas of the corporation as having some sort of effects arising from its interactions with various people, as opposed to simply with the abstract entity of the State.
One important theme of the questions posed, especially in the last part of the class, that I felt remained insufficiently discussed (due in part to time constraints) was that of human rights—issues surrounding the corporation’s engagement with and impacts on human rights—particularly in the Maori context. I think that such issues link directly back to a question posed at the beginning of class concerning the colonial origins of the corporation in general and in Maori society in particular: Is there a historical reflection to be made here that involves a reimagining of how the colonial origins of the corporation come into play in people’s relationships with the corporation, and, if so, does this reimagining erase or change traditional/usual understandings of the “nature” of the corporation? In other words, regarding the Maori context, does their particular history as a people sort of overcome the usual corporate foundations through the type of relationship they established? In response to this question, Gordon explained that the Maori people first met with the corporation with the understanding that they would enter into a business relationship of exchange/deal-making (i.e. trading). Gordon believes that, in a way, the Maori were trying “to make the best of something that they felt they could not change.” This initial interaction between the Maori and the corporation eventually did result in a deal between the parties. Yet, Gordon also pointed out that this does not eliminate the critique that the corporation somehow intrudes on native populations’ culture and cultural understandings of corporate relationships. The Maori actually raised this critique in their negotiations of the relationship they would have with the corporation both at the moment of those negotiations, as well as years into the future.
In my view, however, this explanation does not fully address the human rights concerns implicated in the class’s questions. Particularly important to me—and the topic of my response paper last week—are the major transformations of the corporation over time. The nature of the corporation today is fundamentally different than it was in the past, including at the moment that the Maori established its relationship with the corporation. There are many more human rights concerns and much more serious human rights concerns implicated by the nature of the corporation and its actions today than there were in the past. This is especially true of very large transnational corporations, as we have seen in past classes. However, I do not see an anthropological/cultural theory approach to conceptions of the corporation as conducive to understanding and treating the human rights concerns they raise. It seems to me that, in order to deal with these human rights concerns, we would actually need to envision the corporation as an abstract entity that has the capacity to act as a “legal person,” similar to the way in which we imagine the state (the “legal fiction” of the state).