New Money Review podcast

New Money Review podcast

The legal fiction that drove colonialism

July 31, 2023

We often look at colonial empires as territories gained and occupied by nation states. But across four centuries, colonialism has above all been the business of companies, says my interviewee in the latest New Money Review podcast.

Philip Stern is the author of a new book called ‘Empire, Incorporated’, in which he explores the role of the company in British colonial history.

In it, he argues that corporations conceived, promoted, financed, and governed overseas expansion, making claims over territory and peoples while ensuring that British and colonial society were also invested, quite literally, in their ventures.

Colonial companies were also relentlessly controversial, frequently in debt and prone to failure, says Stern.

Like empire itself, says Stern, the joint-stock company was an elusive contradiction: it was both public and private; person and society; subordinate and autonomous; centralised and diffuse; immortal and precarious; national and cosmopolitan—it was a legal fiction with very real power.

In the podcast, we cover:

  • How private enterprise fuelled the growth of the British empire
  • Why the joint stock corporation underpinned colonial expansion
  • The political and legal advantages of the corporation
  • Why the 16th century saw an explosion in adventuring and speculation
  • Why many US states were formed as chartered corporations
  • How the East India Company became the first ‘company-state’
  • Why the 1880s/1890s ‘scramble for Africa’ followed corporate models
  • Tech giants and new virtual empires
  • Natural resources, private military companies and today’s geopolitics