Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why the corporation?

image: Diego Rivera mural of Rouge Plant, Detroit Institute of the Arts

Recently I posted about C. Wright Mills and his analysis of power elites in America (post). A major theme in Mills's book is the new power associated with the American corporation following World War II. Charles Perrow's Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism (2002) offers an historical account of how this system of power came into being. Perrow is a historical sociologist, and he focuses his analysis on the structural features of the organizations he considers; the historical and social factors that favored the emergence of these kinds of organizations; and the role that they now play within the complex social and political system of modern America.

The topic is particularly relevant today, when the Supreme Court is considering whether "corporations have a right to free speech", and therefore a right to further deepen their influence on political directions and policies through their funding of political messages.

Perrow gives close empirical attention to the evolution of the institutions through which the American economy functioned from the mid-nineteenth century into the twentieth century. Textiles and railroads play key roles in this early history. Perrow tells the story of how the American economy came to feature the large corporation as its central business organization -- an outcome that was far from inevitable. He argues that the large corporation is a historically contingent creation; other forms of enterprise activity could have emerged. And he teases out of this account a pretty compelling set of conclusions that are very supportive of Mills's basic line of thought concerning the disproportionate power that is wielded by corporations and their officers. Here's his summary statement:
Our economic organizations -- business and industry -- concentrate wealth and power; socialize employees and customers alike to meet their needs; and pass off to the rest of society the cost of their pollution, crowding, accidents, and encouragement of destructive life styles. In the vaunted "free market" economy of the United States, regulation of business and industry to prevent or mitigate this market failure is relatively ineffective, as compared to that enacted by other industrialized countries. (1-2)
Perrow notes that organizations do not have to be large to be effective and efficient; along with Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin (World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization) and Philip Scranton (Endless Novelty), he argues that "networks of small firms can drive innovation and distribute wealth and power more equitably" (2). So large, hierarchical organizations are not mandated by the technical demands of modern economic life. In fact, innovation, flexibility, and community responsiveness are more likely to be associated with networks of small organizations rather than solitary large organizations, and these types of organizations were abundant in our economic history. "Many conditions were in place to grow a society of well-regulated and moderate-sized firms focused upon regional economic development; at various points in the century many citizens argued for this" (19). But that is not what we got; instead, the large organization and the corporation became the central unit of economic activity.

So why did large organizations and corporations come to have the central and dominating role that they have had in economic and social life since the early twentieth century in the United States? Perrow's answer to this represents a synthesis of the best thinking to date on the role that corporations play. He refers to his approach as a "society of organizations" approach, involving these key elements:
  • History is path-dependent, accidental, only partially developmental
  • structure and environment rather than entrepreneurship explain success / failure
  • technologies are chosen to fit preferred structure / ideology
  • culture shapes and is shaped by organization; the latter is emphasized
  • labor process is shaped in part by workers' resistance and can occasionally be a key factor, but acquiescence in dependency, and tradeoffs in benefits, are more often the common lot of employees
  • bureaucracy (formalization, standardization, centralization, hierarchy) is the best unobtrusive control device that elites ever had (19)
The point about labor process is an important one. Perrow notes that the central challenge of how to discipline and regularize a labor force in textiles or other mass-production industries itself led to the early development of bureaucratic and hierarchical rules within emerging organizations. For example, "uniform work rules for all mills in Philadelphia including Manayunk were established at meetings of the owners in the early 1830s" (55). (Michael Burawoy explores this role of the corporation throughout his work; Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism.)

Perrow also gives quite a bit of attention to the legal and policy environment in the United States as a key variable in the specific pathway that American business took. The enactment of legislation permitting incorporation was an important step, in that it provided significant rights and powers to corporations (36 ff.). And Perrow notices that the development of railroads and their business organizations in the United States took a very different course than counterparts in Europe because of significant differences in political values and culture in the United States (a point that leads Perrow to intersect with Frank Dobbin's analysis in Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age, discussed here.)

What is the upshot? Perrow argues that in the United States the national political economy was led to create a system that gave enormous and very lightly regulated power to large organizations and corporations; that, once established, these organizations were very capable of defending their rights and freedom of action; and that the corporations exercise power at every level in American society. Corporations and large organizations wield micro-power over the tens of millions of Americans who work within them, meso-power over the environmental status of communities and regions and the consumption patterns of individuals, and macro-power over the direction that legislation and policy takes. And this degree of power is now deeply entrenched:
Belatedly, the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century sought to redress the power imbalances and the costly externalities for workers and communities. But the organizational infrastructure of the nation was not to be seriously disturbed or even ideologically challenged, up to the present. A society with small- and modest-sized firms, regional rather than national markets, and with civic welfare provisions that are a right of citizenship rather than a benefit of employment--a society with wealth and power distributed widely--is now out of the question. Large bureaucratic organizations, public and private, will be our fate for the foreseeable future. It might have been otherwise. (228)
And finally, Perrow argues that this system was not economically or technologically inevitable. Networks of smaller firms and organizations could satisfy the needs for efficient production and innovation that a robust and dynamic economy presents. And a substantially less centralized political economy would be favorable to democracy and modern quality of life.

(Perrow's most recent book is also very timely and worth reading (The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters). Here Perrow returns to the subject of catastrophe and its prevention. He outlines the very significant possibilities of catastrophic failure that are inherent in our current industrial and economic organization, and offers some ideas about how we might reduce these vulnerabilities. There is a connection between the two books; the wide scope of the corporation as the basic unit of economic organization directly implies the concentration of dangerous industrial processes that a more decentralized network of smaller producers would have avoided. Try a sample chapter on the Kindle.)