cover image For Profit: A History of Corporations

For Profit: A History of Corporations

William Magnuson. Basic, $32 (384p) ISBN 978-1-5416-0156-7

Corporations present a Jekyll and Hyde face, boosting business efficiency and acumen while exploiting workers and suborning government, according to this probing study. Texas A&M corporate law professor Magnuson (Blockchain Democracy) surveys landmark corporations past and present, including Roman societates publicanorum, which collected taxes and provisioned the legions while also selling slaves; the British East India Company, which grew a global trading infrastructure with its innovative joint stock structure, but turned itself into a despotic state in India; the Ford Motor Company, which brought cars and consumerism to the masses, but imposed torturous work regimens on assembly-line employees; ExxonMobil, the multinational that keeps oil flowing, but also does business with dictators and impedes decarbonization; and Facebook, which connects users while invading privacy and empowering Russian election meddling. Magnuson’s lucid, elegantly written account illuminates sharp tensions between management, labor, and shareholders and between public responsibility and private profit seeking. He paints colorful, sometimes inspiring narratives of corporations’ achievements, such as the Union Pacific Railway’s spanning of the American continent with epic feats of engineering and organization (before it became a corrupt monopoly), while highlighting the need to rein in their excesses and kick them out of politics altogether. Far from an anti-corporate polemic, this is an evenhanded, richly nuanced examination of the modern economy’s central institution. (Nov.)