In 1600 Britain gave birth to the first ever corporation. It was called the East India Company and it dealt in commodities such as cotton, silk, tea and opium. Often using armed forces, it obtained these from various parts of Asia and it sold them on to the West for a tidy profit. It was a story which became all too familiar as the century wore on.
Over the next 250 years the EIC became a monopoly over trade in India. In 1857 this status was officially confirmed when it was taken over by Queen Victoria, becoming part of the new British Raj which held full control over the country. In this form it pursued the same aims of exploiting Asian goods, only now it was done in the name of the crown as well.
Flash forward to the present day and we are faced with a tale which the well to do would like to forget. To anyone with a sense of social justice, the idea of a corporation (and then later an empire), oppressing a certain race while getting rich from their resources seems barbaric. Most prefer the image of a post-colonial world. The idea that everyone is equal in a modern democratic economy; the idea that hard work will always equal prosperity.
But despite wishful thinking the processes which characterised the work of companies such as the EIC remain fundamentally unchanged. We do not have to look far – take India 65 years after its independence. True, its economy has grown rapidly, making it a key player in the global market in its own right. However, this wealth remains in the hands of the very few and low wages coupled with foreign investment mean that, for the vast amount of the population, India is still exploited in the same way it always has been. Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers are trying to survive on less than $2 a day producing cotton for export. Another, more modern example of this process in action is the outsourcing of work to India by major businesses, such as telecoms companies. In both cases, managing directors are not choosing Indians because they do a super good job. They’re choosing them because they’ve been forced to work for next to nothing through centuries of oppression.
It’s by no means the only place in the world where this continues to exist, but India serves as an illuminating example. We must ask ourselves what the difference is between our global capitalist economy and the British Empire of old. Yes, India is now an independent state, but who controls the lives of the millions of its workers who are paid pittance to produce goods for the West? The Indian Government‘s pretensions of independent nationalism are heavily contradicted by the fact that it is increasingly selling off its resources to foreign investors. With this in mind, what exactly is the difference between the work of the East India Company and the work of, say, IBM? In both instances it is ultimately the company which owns the workforce and decides their fate.
When you look at it from this angle, it seems almost laughable that the British Government pays $480 million per year to help with the overwhelming poverty which still exists in India. Perhaps a better way to tackle it would be to shut down the British and American owned companies who continue to exploit some of the worlds poorest people in the name of profit.