4 Neat Tricks Corporations Used to Take Over the World, a step-by-step guide
by Claire Provost & Matt Kennard  /  24 May 2023

“As European empires crumbled in the 20th century, power structures that had dominated the world were up for renegotiation. Yet instead of a triumph of democracy, what emerged was a silent coup against its very core – namely, the unstoppable rise of global corporate power and new infrastructure to protect it from rebellious peoples. After spending years investigating this power grab for our new book Silent Coup, four systems stood out to us as having enabled multinational corporations to expand their control and to insulate themselves from democracy worldwide.

1. Corporate justice
The investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system enables multinational corporations and foreign investors to challenge entire countries at obscure but powerful international tribunals. What for? Anything they can claim threatens their “rights” under international investment and trade treaties. So far they’ve used this system to challenge environmental regulations, taxes they don’t want to pay and a wide range of other state actions (or inactions) from raising minimum wages to failing to quell protests or other activities that can interfere with their profit-making. The amounts of money at stake in these cases can be vast – many millions and even billions of dollars that states have to pay from public budgets. But beyond enabling money-making, this system has also helped corporations to steal decision-making power from the people (usually without our knowledge). In El Salvador, we learned how an Australian-Canadian mining company’s case threatened the poor country with a giant bill but was also delaying further action to protect the environment and already-stressed water resources. Unusually, the government was openly resisting this case, which was well-known on the ground and denounced as an attack on Salvadoran sovereignty. In South Africa, we learned how the government quietly settled another case challenging Black economic empowerment policies, giving a group of European investors exemptions to them. Rich countries including Germany were also increasingly being sued through this system. Today there are hundreds of other ISDS cases that are currently pending against states around the world – but they’re typically heard in faraway places and shrouded in secrecy that the mainstream media rarely penetrates.

The International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) sits at the centre of this system and has overseen the majority of known cases so far. It is a little-known branch of the World Bank that is officially supposed to support the bank’s global development and poverty-reduction goals by encouraging international investment into developing countries. But its track record – and its own history – tell another, anti-democratic story. At ICSID’s headquarters in Washington DC, we found copies of historical documents that showed how some developing countries tried to resist its establishment – arguing, like El Salvador is now, that it would threaten their sovereignty. The bank deployed strategies including deceptively framing this system as a “modest proposal” that would be based on consent, and not circulating notes from consultations, in order to push it through despite these concerns. This system emerged in the mid-20th century as a growing number of European colonies were agitating for independence. Before the World Bank took up the idea, it was pitched among business elites. At a 1957 conference in San Francisco, the Deutsche Bank’s Herman Abs proposed what was described by Time magazine as a new “capitalist Magna Carta” to protect private interests against rebellious peoples, independence movements and new governments that could try to nationalise or redistribute resources. He wasn’t the only European involved. The British Lord Shawcross was behind similar proposals, that were merged with Abs’s. After stalemates at the OECD and UN, Americans and the World Bank took up the idea amidst the Cold War and desires to quash any alternatives to capitalism.

It took decades for this system to be enshrined in thousands of international investment and trade treaties crisscrossing the globe. At first, these were primarily signed between rich countries and poorer ones, giving corporations and investors from the former advance consent to sue the latter. The 1990s brought new mega-treaties including the North American Free Trade Act (Nafta) and the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) that expanded this system to enable threats against rich countries too. Law firms and financiers also seem to have fuelled an increase in cases. Corporate claimants are advised by law firms that such cases can, for example, be used as “leverage” in other negotiations with governments. Third-party financiers will pay for their claims to be mounted, taking cuts if they’re won. These cases are typically judged by tribunals of three “arbitrators” who have included former corporate and government officials as well as former treaty negotiators. Issues like human rights and the environment are not their expertise or concern. Some countries have started to try to extricate themselves from this system and the treaties that enshrine it – though they often include what are called “sunset clauses” that mean their provisions stay in force for years even after they’re cancelled. South Africa decided to do this after the case we investigated. Critical to their decision was an internal study that failed to find clear evidence that giving investors access to this system indeed increased rates of investment, as proponents of it claim.

2. Corporate welfare
The international aid and development system similarly emerged in the mid-20th century amidst decolonisation and independence movements. It has enabled corporations to break into new regions around the world, and then to expand their presence there. It has helped them get through tough times and respond to resistance from local communities. It has provided new resources and revenue streams – and new routes to influence and control the economies of the majority of the world’s countries. Like the ISDS system, it has also increasingly gone global and is now active in parts of Europe too. Supporters and critics of international aid often talk about it in similar terms: as if it were a direct transfer of cash from rich to poor countries. The reality is more complex. Donor countries like the UK spend large amounts of money through private contractors based in rich countries that profit from this business. Companies don’t just sell things to be used in aid projects – they also manage whole projects. At events for this industry in Liverpool and Brussels, we saw up close this little-known side of aid: where humanitarian crises are opportunities for windfall profits, and enduring underdevelopment means a reliable revenue stream for years to come.  What are called development finance institutions, meanwhile, invest directly in private companies that operate in developing countries, or want to. They include the UK’s CDC which was first set up in 1946 to invest in the colonies and bring Britain economic benefits. It did not wind up when the empire did, however. It was instead joined by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) which was set up in 1956. Beneficiaries of these institutions’ investments have included luxury property developers catering to elites, as well as mega-chains like Lidl accused of violating workers’ rights. In Tanzania, we went to a diamond mine supported by the IFC – where the diamond in one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite brooches had been found.

In recent years, the IFC’s size, reach, and influence have exploded. Its share of total World Bank spending rose from 13% to 35% between 2000 and 2013 (when it made more than $18.3bn in financing commitments). A controversial Bank programme called “structural adjustment” appeared to have paved the way for this growth – conditioning loans to poor country governments in the 1980s and 1990s on agreements to deregulate and privatise their key industries. Rather than supporting local development, this programme seemed to derail it. While this programme has supposedly been reformed, to better involve poor country governments, and focus more explicitly on poverty reduction, they didn’t in the end look too different. The IFC had been envisioned in the 1950s by its founders and initial advocates from elite US political and business communities as a soft-power antidote to the spread of communism. But it did not close up shop when the Soviet Union did. Instead, its investments increased globally – including in several former-Soviet countries. A new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) meanwhile emerged to focus on these countries and help them develop new capitalist economies. (It has since expanded beyond former-Soviet countries too, and has also backed companies in Greece, Croatia, the Czech Republic and other European countries). Since the 2008 global financial crisis, the visibility and power of giant corporations in aid and development efforts seemed to reach new levels. CEOs were sitting on UN panels discussing priorities for international development agendas. An initiative launched at the 2012 G8 summit at Camp David called the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition brought big agribusiness corporations to the table along with aid donors and developing country governments across Africa – which committed to numerous policy changes to support these corporations’ expansions. A proliferation of corporate-NGO tie-ups has meanwhile meant that organisations you might otherwise expect to hold companies to account for their impacts on local communities and the environment are also their ‘partners’ in development.

3. Corporate utopias
Around the world, the territories of nation-states have been carved up into various “zones” that privilege corporate interests and insulate them against democracy. They include Special Economic Zones (SEZ) where normal rules and regulations don’t apply – from tax rates to labour laws. Increasingly large gated communities, where elites withdraw from cities and democratic processes to improve them. Wholly private cities where there is no traditional mayor but a corporate representative in charge instead. Tax havens where finance is king and there is little space for dissent. In Myanmar, we met some of the small-scale farmers who have lost their land and livelihoods to the expansion of an SEZ that was supposed to support their country’s development. In Cambodia, we met some of the factory workers in SEZs in that country struggling with poor wages, working conditions and hostility to unions. In India, we saw another form of corporate carve-out: an entirely private city called Lavasa, the country’s first built and entirely run by a corporation, with a CEO rather than a traditional mayor in charge. Such carve-outs reflect inequality but also enable some people to withdraw from public debates including about the environment; in Vietnam, we found gated communities advertising green oases with cleaner air. Development institutions have also helped to spread such carve-outs. The World Bank for instance has produced dozens of reports studying and promoting SEZs. Along with investing in private businesses, its IFC branch and other bank teams gave developing country governments “advice” on how to make themselves more attractive to private investors, including what laws they should change.

Carving out such zones for foreign investors seemed to be a regular item on the menu. Meanwhile, in 2015, an Asian Development Bank research paper read: “It is said that females possess the nimble fingers and patience with routine tasks required by the labour-intensive processes generally occurring in the zones and that they are also less likely than males to strike or disrupt production in other ways.” The World Bank’s IFC was also investing in companies registered on the island of Mauritius which had transformed itself into an offshore financial centre – joining a global web of secretive jurisdictions where multinational corporations and elites can stash their cash and limit their taxes and contribution to the infrastructure of public life. While the Bank’s leadership acknowledged development challenges resulting from this system and warned of increasing inequality among Mauritians, the IFC had investments in numerous businesses registered there, but operating elsewhere. On the island, we had Kafkaesque experiences when trying to get information about them. One office worker wouldn’t even confirm the address of his building. These carve-outs proliferated in the same period in the mid-20th century as formal colonial regimes were winding down.

A free zone in Shannon, Ireland, set up in 1959, is often described by SEZ proponents as the first of its kind (though others give that dubious honour to Puerto Rico). In exchange for setting up shop there, foreign investors were given benefits like special tax holidays, tariff reductions, and grants for research. Over time, however, the distinction between being inside and outside the zone faded – as lower tax rates were rolled out nationwide, for example. This was often the point of SEZs: to test new business-friendly policies in a certain place before pushing them on entire countries and populations. They had also similarly boomed after the end of the Cold War, and again after the 2008 global financial crisis. The International Labour Organization estimated that more than 66 million people – about the population of the UK – most of them poor, young women, worked in more than 3,500 zones of these zones across the globe. The idea of incentivising investors to set up shop in specific areas, with rules that suit them, had also spread beyond zones established by national governments – cities and regions were also following a similar model, competing with each other for investment. It was slicing and dicing rich countries and cities too – including London, where the Royal Docks Enterprise Zone was being set up with Chinese investment.

4. Corporate armies
Corporations have a long history of violence, as a young American economist Eugene Staley noted in a 1935 study, War and the Private Investor. One of the companies he studied was United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita), which had “created and deposed governments” and “ruled vast plantations with a free hand”. To prevent further conflicts between unruly populations and such companies (as resisting their expansion was ‘futile’) he proposed a new world government with institutions that sounded similar to the World Bank’s ICSID and IFC that we’d investigated. While such bodies have come into being, violence has continued. Chiquita, in fact, admitted paying paramilitaries many times in the 1990s-2000s, and it was implicated again in attacks against those opposing its plantation expansions in Colombia. There were similar stories in Honduras, including those involving an IFC investee. From Israel-Palestine to southern Europe and back to the UK we meanwhile followed the expansion of private control over border security, immigrant detention and asylum systems. Along with profit-making and cost-cutting, we found reduced transparency and accountability. Nothing has been off-limits, it seems, not even nuclear security and the threat of nuclear war. Like other systems and trends we’d investigated, modern private military and security companies also seemed to have boomed in the decades of ‘decolonisation’, as independence and anti-colonial movements rose and Europe’s formal empires fell. From the 1960s, numerous new private contractors were founded by British special forces veterans. Such companies boomed again at the end of the Cold War, as millions of people left state militaries and looked for new jobs. And then again with US-led wars in the Middle East and rising levels of income inequality.

The history of the Beretta family gun company – which was much older than most states – also offered us an interesting window into how who controls the guns in our world has changed. Beretta emerged in the 16th century, at a time when Italian city-states had become reliant on private military forces – which Machiavelli had called “whores of war” and urged leaders to eschew in favour of their own armies. As state militaries grew, they became major clients for Beretta. Though today the majority of its business is again with private customers. Most firearms worldwide are in non-state hands (legally or illegally), with new guns often developed for military use, and then adapted to the private market. Private security outnumber police in many countries; while some are contracted by public authorities, many clients are other companies. The increased prevalence (or reemergence) of private security reflects income inequalities and leads to different experiences of safety and violence that can undermine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ commitment that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. The history of who holds the guns shows that states haven’t always ruled supreme and that their monopoly on the use of force appears fragile or already fractured.”

The Prophet of Corporate Globalisation
by Matt Kennard & Claire Provost  /  22.06.2023

“In the 1930s, a little-known economist proposed a new global system to expand the power of capitalism by restricting the rights of ordinary people – and inspired the corporate overthrow of democracy.

In historical archives, we came across many people who had helped create international systems and strategies to enhance the scale and power of corporate empires. They included the German banker Hermann Abs, who travelled around the world to rally support for his idea for a new global ‘Capitalist Magna Carta’ and justice system to enforce it; Irish entrepreneur Brendan O’Regan who lobbied his national government to allow his town to establish a Free Zone that would inspire China; and World Bank presidents who pushed for the creation of a new branch to invest international development money, supposed to help end global poverty, in private companies.

While the big companies that would benefit included well-known names — from Lidl, ‘Europe’s Wal-Mart’, to the banana giant Chiquita — few of these systems’ pioneers had household names, though they were key to helping us understand this story. This felt especially true for Eugene Staley, an American economist who in the 1950s would join the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) think tank that was a co-organiser, with TIME magazine, of the San Francisco conference at which Abs presented his proposal to a room including CEOs and politicians Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon. Born in 1906, in the tiny town of Friend, Nebraska, in his twenties Staley had traveled east to Chicago to study at what would become America’s premier 20th century headquarters for elite academic advocacy of ‘free-market’ economics. He enrolled at the University of Chicago just a few years ahead of Milton Friedman, one of its best-known graduates. Unlike Friedman — who became a famous advisor to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — Staley’s was a name now largely lost to history. He caught our attention because, as a precocious 29-year-old assistant professor at the University of Chicago, he’d written a sweeping study called War and the Private Investor. It read remarkably like a planning document for much of what we’d seen around the world. It boldly recommended nothing less than a World Government to prevent ‘innumerable conflicts between native populations and foreign employers or landowners’ that he saw as inevitable as ‘the “backward” peoples grow stronger’.

In 1935, Staley had both predicted and called for the construction of new supranational systems and strategies to protect and advance corporations’ interests worldwide. Among them: a new World Commercial Court and World Investment Bank. It was futile to resist the ‘world-wide sweep of capitalist development’, Staley had argued, warning that a lot of blood could be spilled as people around the world rebelled against it. To prevent this, he proposed peace without democracy — with a ‘long-range plan for world statesmanship’ to wrench power from states and give it to new supranational institutions. He criticised politicians of his day in Europe and the US for focusing on their own citizens, industries, and economic plans (be them in socialist, communist, fascist or ‘new deal’ styles). His idea was not to give more power to the people, or ensure that governments become more responsive to their citizens. Rather, he proposed new world institutions that must be ‘separate from the political ambitions and expediencies, the emotionality, and the fluctuating policies’ of states. A World Commercial Court, Staley had written, could give private, international investors ‘direct access’ to a new justice system to protect their interests and resolve disputes without violence. A World Investment Bank would channel money to their companies and help them to expand. He knew that these were radical ideas. ‘Are these suggestions shocking?’ he asked rhetorically. It could take decades to create this new World Government, he conceded — but, he argued: ‘work can be started today’. Staley’s adopted city of Chicago was at that time, like much of the US, reeling from widespread unemployment and poverty. The Great Depression threw the legitimacy of Wall Street and banks into question for millions who lost their homes, jobs, and savings. Corporations and financial elites faced growing challenges from workers’ movements in rich countries, while in colonial empires campaigns for independence grew. His study foresaw a turning point in world history.

As the oppressed ‘wake to political consciousness’, he wrote, they will try to use ‘the power of the state’ to change their situations. This included via ‘labour codes drawn in the interest of workers’ and the ‘break-up of large landed estates’ in favour of those ‘who actually till the soil. Will the rights of private investors be enforced, he asked, ‘against the wishes’ of these people? If they aren’t, he predicted a new era of violent conflicts around the world, even large-scale international wars. After all, corporations by that point had already amassed experience ‘fomenting revolutions, using private armies’. Staley recounted corporate histories of aggression, including those of ‘sovereign companies’ that led the expansion of European empires, governed whole territories and had their own police forces. Other investors had operated in ‘special concessions’, he said, with ‘government-like authority’, imposing their will as law. In Africa, companies were acquiring large tracts of the best land, telling local farmers: ‘starve or abandon their accustomed way of life and go to work for the companies’. He asked: ‘Consider the fleets and the economic resources of some of the large fruit companies and the oil companies. Is it better to have them take over their own protection?’ He saw only two options: restrict international investments (though he said this was ‘utterly futile’, as well as ‘poor policy) — or create a ‘world governmental authority’ to end and prevent conflicts: from riots and strikes to armed rebellions and wars. We had never heard of Staley before but were struck by how he had predicted (and recommended) much of what we had been investigating. Along with proposals mirroring the international legal and development systems we’d dug into, his book had also spoken about corporate control over territory, and the use of force. Rather than challenging these trends, he seemed to propose institutionalising them.

Long-range Plans
Long before the ‘Washington Consensus’, before the creation of institutions like the World Bank, and even before the Second World War, elites gathered to lay ambitious international plans to protect their private empires and their profits from the threats posed by movements for independence and democracy around the world. Take for example the International Chamber of Commerce, which said it worked for ‘the integration of business and economic concerns into policy-making’. It offered companies ‘unrivalled access’ to governments, and had developed what it called ‘privileged links’ with bodies like the World Trade Organization, enabling ‘the voice of business’ to be heard there. It was founded more than a century ago, in 1919. In the 1920s, a ‘supranational federation of capitalists’ met in Vienna and Geneva to scheme how to protect themselves from nationalist, socialist and anti-imperialist campaigns after the First World War and amid the Great Depression. Those involved included famous Austrian economists including Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich Hayek (who, after the Second World War, would go on to found the Mont Pelerin Society to spearhead academic advocacy of neoliberalism). Quinn Slobodian, a historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, studied this period for his 2018 book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Far from wanting to ‘liberate’ private capital and destroy regulations and states — as capitalism’s standard-bearers are often believed to — Slobodian described how the people involved in these discussions sought to rewrite rules on a global scale to support their interests, and ‘encase’ or insulate them from ‘mass demands for social justice. In the 1950s, the infamously secretive Bilderberg Conferences began and joined the infrastructure of such elite international networking spaces. Half a century later, British Lord Denis Healey, a veteran member of this club, told The Guardian that what it wanted was to see international wars end — but it was ‘not wholly unfair’ to say they ‘were striving for a one-world government’ to achieve this.

It sounded like a version of Staley’s older proposal, for a new era of world peace without democracy. Much better known than Staley’s 1930s proposals for a new World Government was the so-called Powell Memo. This was a memo sent in 1971 by Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer who was on the boards of eleven corporations, to his friend, Eugene Sydnor, Jr., at the US Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful pro-business lobbying group in the country. It had been confidential, but it was leaked to journalists after Powell was nominated by then President Nixon to be a US Supreme Court judge. It became known as a key document marking the rise of ‘neoliberalism’ in the US and the expansion of corporations into what seemed like every aspect of public and political life. The ‘business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late’, Powell had warned. ‘Perfectly respectable elements of society’, including college students, journalists and some politicians, were treating corporations with near contempt, without ‘sympathy for the businessman or his viewpoint’. Corporations, he argued, should respond with counter-attacks and by collaborating together to defend ‘the system’. Specific recommendations included advertising to ‘support the system,’ rather than individual companies or products. ‘Strength lies in organisation.’ Like Staley, and other people and institutions we came across in our investigations, Powell was clearly thinking long-term. To counteract threats to big business, and build a world more amenable to it, he called for ‘careful long-range planning and implementation […] over an indefinite period of years.’

The lawyer’s 1971 memo was influential and US business lobbies seemed to take his advice and built new institutions to shift public attitudes. Numerous new, conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute were set up. Soon, the Chamber of Commerce was spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to influence public and political debates — and Ronald Reagan in the US, and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, made neoliberalism state policy. Though not everyone agreed with his analysis that ‘the system’ was at risk. In the same year Powell sent his memo, US economist Raymond Vernon — later credited for providing intellectual weight for mass privatisation campaigns, and dubbed ‘the father of globalisation’ — published a book called Sovereignty at Bay. The expansion of global corporations had already proceeded to such a degree, he argued, that ‘concepts such as sovereignty and national economic strength appear curiously drained of meaning. Also in the 1970s, the World Economic Forum joined the list of elite capitalist networking spaces, as did the CEO-led World Business Council for Sustainable Development from the 1990s. Other regional and international groups formed with names like the European Roundtable of Industrialists and the Transatlantic Business Dialogue. While details of what goes on in these places were hard to come by, their establishment and impacts had not gone unnoticed by researchers and activists. ‘Elected by and accountable to no one, secretive and highly organized, these shadow sovereigns are destroying the very notion of the common good and making a mockery of democracy,’ said Susan George at the Transnational Institute research group in Amsterdam, describing how multinational corporations were operating ‘behind the scenes’ and looking to manage ‘world-wide public policy’. The key questions of our time, as British writer Hilary Wainwright put it, were ‘not just about corporate greed, irresponsible lending, or outsourcing, but also the model of the downsized state, of allowing only corporations to plan’.

As we’d seen, from this history but also in our investigations around the world, these plans often had very long time-scales — much longer than the terms of elected representatives. The seeds of the strategies we saw in person were planted long ago. Staley was right that multinational businesses would only continue to grow. By 1970, there were 7,000 corporations operating across borders. By 2011, there were more than 100,000 multinational enterprises with almost 900,000 foreign affiliates. No country has jurisdiction over all of their activities. Their resources have boomed — the revenues of the world’s largest companies exceed the GDPs of most states — as has their political power through new world institutions, as Staley suggested. The World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), for example — which enables multinational corporations and foreign investors to sue states directly — fulfils a similar role to Staley’s proposed World Commercial Court. Its International Finance Corporation echoes his World Investment Bank. But the global advance of multinational companies had largely failed to deliver on promises of prosperity — and peace — for all. It was also clear that new supranational systems and strategies to secure and support private investments had not, in fact, succeeded in quashing people’s demands for democracy and social justice. While Staley had said a new world government would stem violent conflicts, some corporations had, in fact, continued to use physical force to get their way. Others seemed to have made violence, or the threat of it, their core business. This was what we’d decided to investigate next — corporate control over the use of force, globally.”

This is an edited extract of Silent Coup: How Corporations Overthrew Democracy by Claire Provost and Matt Kennard (Bloomsbury Academic 2023).



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