David Ciepley will spend the year writing a book on the two-hundred-year effort of Americans to keep their corporate economy compatible with constitutional democracy. His central contention is that corporations are not purely private associations, but rather, are little governments created by the state in its own image, then placed in private hands. Corporations are “replicants” of the state, designed to augment the collective power of private parties, originally to advance public ends. The book begins with England chartering merchant guilds to build its first, corporate empire. In North America, colonists ruled by these guilds pushed them in an egalitarian direction, creating corporate republics and, ultimately, a constitutional democracy. In the Indies, the guild was developed in an authoritarian direction, producing the business corporation. The remainder of the book describes the failing effort of Americans to hold these two together. The cautious early American experiment in chartering business corporations for narrow public purposes spun out of control as corporations were reclassified from “bodies politic” serving the public, to private concerns serving their stockholders alone.
The book is part of a long-term project to develop a new analytical, historical, and normative framework for understanding our corporate civilization, in light of the failure of our canonical social theorists—e.g. Smith, Marx, and Weber—to provide us with analytical concepts and historical narratives adequate to our corporate world, in which productive property is overwhelmingly owned by abstract legal entities rather than natural persons.
Ciepley is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He was previously associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. He holds his PhD from the University of Chicago. In 2019-20, he is a Berggruen fellow at CASBS.