Berle and Means, and abolished at least until the 1980s the kind of financial manipulation they abhorred. It also undid one form of undue economic concentration, namely the ability of commercial banks to use depositor money to underwrite corporate stocks and bonds. The Wagner Act offered something of an internal corporate system of checks and balances, but only in firms that were unionized; an American version of co-determination was never institutionalized in law. But since the American corporation is governed mainlyby state law, the New Deal did little to change the structure of the firm itself, or the form of its governance. Today, when corporate management is brought to heel at all, it is humbled by mergers or hostile takeovers or brutal pressures of foreign competition, not by mass movements of indignant shareholders, let alone workers. Despite heightened competition, sixty years after Berle and Means, as firms are newly footloose globally and as mergers are more often contrived by managers than outsiders, the basic dilemma identified by Berle and Means persists: The large corporation remains practically accountable to no one. Berle and Means also evoke two debates that have raged in the pages of the economics journals. One has to do with the sources of economic growth. For the most part, standard economics imagines that growth is mainly a macro-economic problem. Berle and Means, and their heirs in the field of industrial organization, thought it mainly involved whether the financial and industrial economy are efficiently organized an entirely different variable. A related debate has to do with the preconditions of technological progress whether it tends to inhere in large, stable firms or small, entrepreneurial ones of which more shortly. Berle and Means are pre-Keynesians of a kind, but they also represent a continuing institutionalist sensibility that wrongly got swept aside when the centrist neo-classicals what Joan Robinson called “bastard Keynesians” captured Keynes and crammed him back within the confines of classical economics. Today, as in the winter of 1932, a new progressive administration prepares to take office amid a new economic crisis; corporations are newly discredited, for their failure to deliver either job security, reliable profits, national loyalty, or “competitiveness.” Yet the very word competitiveness and the new idiom of debate are conducted largely in the paradigm of markets. Many of the neo-liberals around Bill Clinton talk of making government more marketlike and lionize the entrepreneur. Despite the progressivism of “The Modern Corporporation and Private Property,” more than a little of this neo-liberalism is implicit in Berle and Means. So, sixty years after its publication, it is a good moment to revisit this classic, in light of the history of American progressivism, its shifting philosophical moorings and electoral fortunes. As progressives once again attempt to build a mixed economy, clarity is required about the nature of the enterprise, the first principles, its ends and means The Progressive Legacy To properly locate the legacy of Berle and Means, it helps to recall that twentieth-century American progressivism really divides into two great currents, which are nicely personified by Herbert Croly and Louis Brandeis. The former, in The Promise of American Life as inevitable in industrial society, and sought to turn it to social purposes via government intervention pursuing “Jeffersonian ends with Hamiltonian means.” Croly was the first American progressive corporatist. Brandeis wished, through a rather different set of policy interventions such as antitrust, to restore the discipline of competition and reclaim the sweetness of the human marketplace. Berle and Means straddled this divide; theirs was the rhetoric of Brandeis; the ideal remedy was to restore corporations to shareholder control and to reduce their concentrated market power. Yet given the diffusion of ultimate ownership and the inherent atomization of modern shareholders, they were skeptical that any such remedy could work. As practical reformers, they looked forward to more of a Croly-style remedy, in which nominally private corporations would be operated almost as public utilities, with managers as a technocracy and “public policy rather than private cupidity” deciding where the profits went. The same basic debate continues to reverberate to this day among American progressives, and its boundaries are far from clear or coherent. Brandeis and Croly represent “ideal types,” not pure historical lineages. Ralph Nader, in the Brandeis spirit, has viewed the big corporation as generally malign big, dumb, out of control. For all the radical populism of Nader’s anti-corporate rhetoric, his remedies often involve the Brandeis disinfectants of sunlight and competition. John Kenneth Galbraith, in contrast, has viewed corporate bigness as inevitable and perhaps economically functional. With Croly, his remedies have been mainly aimed at taming private bigness, via countervailing government and labor power, not at breaking up concentration or ennobling the consumer. Moreover, like Veblen before him, Galbraith has viewed the separation of ownership from control as potentially virtuous precisely because it left managers prized innovation, free from the pressures of shareholders, who demand quick returns. This is echoed yet again in the recent debate about long termism versus short termism, in which advocates of longer-term corporate planning see insulation from financial markets as a virtue. Yet Galbraith and Nader alike look to Berle and Means as a touchstone, signalling us to be wary of the big corporation generally. By the same token, the Berle-Means message is also ambiguous for the right. In 1993, the National Association of Manufacturers may still be a bulwark of blue-chip Republicanism, but it has long ceased to be a hero of conservative iconography. Rather, the hero of theorists like George Gilder and his allies on the Wall Street Journal editorial page and in the Jack Kemp-Phil Gramm wing of the GOP is the lonely entrepreneur. The clarion call of the supply-side right was to sweep out the cobwebs from the government bureaucracy andthe Fortune 500. Gilder fully shares Nader’s disgust with General Motors. The Wall Street Journal welcomed corporate raiding even as the NAM opposed it. Indeed, if anyone should have embraced Berle and Means as their own Bible, it was the hostile takeover movement of the 1980s. The predicate of the leveraged-buyout crusade, as well as the basis for its moral authority, was precisely the insistence that corporate management was accountable to nobody; that assets were being squandered, managers feathering their own nests, and shareholders getting euchered pure Berle and Means. Of course, their remedy using borrowed money to put cor THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17
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