News and Interviews

The Lucky Seven, with Harry Glasbeek

Harry Glasbeek

 

Both at home and abroad, debates rage about whether corporations should have rights as "persons" and whether free market capitalism in its current incarnations helps more than it hurts. 

Harry Glasbeek's Class Privilege: How Law Shelters Shareholders and Coddles Capitalism (Between the Lines Books) rips the mask off the corporate entity and questions the value of the capitalist class. It's a smart, accessible, unapologetic examination of the imbalance between the average citizen and the corporate entity, and what social, economic, and political ripple effects come from our ignoring that imbalance. 

We're excited to speak with Harry today as part of our Lucky Seven interview series. He tells us about how he first became interested in the injustice and harm created by some corporate operators, asks some hard questions about why corporations are rarely held to account for anti-social and unethical behaviour, and tells us why shareholders will be the focus of his next writing project.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Harry Glasbeek:

Class Privilege: How Law Shelters Shareholders and Coddles Capitalism is the latest step on a journey of inquiry I began when I first questioned why it was that the slaughter in workplaces did not lead to charges of assault, manslaughter, or murder. I concluded that a major reason was the interposition of a legal piece of technology, the corporation, between most employers and their workers. The legal design of the corporation makes it very difficult to subject it to the principles and processes of criminal law. The literature justifying law’s differential treatment of wrongdoing when committed by corporations is dominated by laissez-faire economists and liberal pluralist social scientists. In late 2002, I published Wealth by Stealth as a critique of these attempts to legitimate corporations and to maintain their efficacy as capitalism’s favourite tool by means of which it pursues its accumulation agenda. The book documented how this involves the infliction of many grievous harms and that corporate actors, assisted by law, injure, slash and burn with relative impunity. Basically, the book showed how corporations are permitted to do the bad things they do. The next question to be confronted was why corporations do bad things so often. Why are they so single-mindedly, so bloody-mindedly, bent on engaging in anti-social behaviours? This led me to develop the central theme for this new book.     

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

HG:

As seen, I started off with a firm view of what I wanted to explore.

If there is one thing all the legal commentators can agree on it is that the corporation is just a legal device, an entity endowed with legal capacities  to allow it to be deployed for commercial, financial and productive purposes. It has no body or a soul of its own. It is an alien thing implanted in our legal culture, a shapeless, easily manipulable blob, eerily like ectoplasm. It has no feelings of its own. It does whatever it does because it is made to do so by those who control it and who seek to benefit from its efforts. As, for the purposes of law, the blob is treated as a person, law is willing to make the corporation itself responsible for the harms it causes but, obviously, being ectoplasmic, this does not cause any anguish in the corporation. It will not be educated to behave better just because it is held responsible. Someone else must feel that pressure. Law, therefore, identifies those who direct the daily operations of corporations as individuals who might be held responsible for their decisions and acts which embroil the blob in wrongdoing. Logically, this ought to cause them to keep corporations on the straight and narrow. But, it does not work that way as the many laments about the failure to punish the senior executives responsible for the recent outrages committed by banks make clear. Punishment is the exception. A new tack is needed. Why, this book asks, should not shareholders who benefit handsomely from unethical, anti-social and illegal conduct not be held to account? The research questions I tackle in this book are (i), is it morally and legally proper to hold those who control and profit from specific conduct responsible for any harms that conduct causes?(ii), is it, in fact, possible to find enough corporations in which identifiable benefitting shareholders control corporate conduct? (iii), is it socially useful to hold such controlling shareholders responsible, an inquiry that leads to an assessment of the utility of shareholding and trading to overall welfare? The book provides an account of how the idea that those who control and benefit from activities should be held responsible for the materialization of the risks they had created is generally accepted in law. Empirical work then had to be done to show (a) how easy it is to identify controlling shareholders and (b) how law, in sheltering shareholders, shelters indolent gamblers who contribute little to social welfare.

OB:

Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish? 

HG:

It is difficult to say how long it took me to formulate the questions I needed to answer. As I began to ponder the issue how I should follow-up the work I had done for Wealth by Stealth, I wrote a small series of journal articles that addressed some of the sub-issues of the project I had roughly outlined in my mind. This provided me with a GPS as I began the writing of the book. Two years passed from the day I set off on this culminating exercise before I delivered a ms to Between the Lines. 

OB:

What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

HG:

Very little. I am retired and mostly work from home. Being retired, means that I can sit at my desk when I please and have none of the distractions I had when still in harness as an academic. I can raid the fridge and put on CDs as I please. Reading and writing is a pleasure. The search engines available and an occasional visit to a library are the only writing aids I need. My major complaint is that I am a very poor typist.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

HG:

As indicated, I try to work out the conceptual problems by breaking down the whole into manageable bits after I have a general notion of the whole. The hope is that when I start on the larger project, I will have a clear idea as to what it is I want to say. The problems that did arise during the writing of this book were mainly concerned with the order of presentation of material and ideas I had already worked-out. My practice is to try out each of a number of possible arrangements by walking about and rehearsing how I would present it to a class and how the students would be likely to respond. Here I rely on over 30 years of class-room experience.. My notion is that if listeners to an oral presentation can follow the line of argument and see the central point being made, I will have found an order that ought to work for readers as well.   

OB:

What defines a great book, in your  opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

HG:

To me, a great book is one in which the author takes one aspect of life and presents it in its essence. I like writings that strip away assumptions and presumptions and lay bare their subject to be understood and addressed. The writers must be dedicated not only to clarify but also to demand a better world, they must be advocates . My favourite writers have to be passionate. Fortunately, there are large numbers of books that meet my desires: Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (and his Lanny Budd series), Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, anything by Jean Paul Sartre, James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class

OB:

What are you working on now?

HG:

Having argued that corporations are motivated to behave as they do by dominant shareholders, I am now setting out why the corporation’s real controllers, shareholders, behave as they do. I think of shareholders as ordinary people until they take on the guise of red-blooded capitalists. I want to ask the question what it is about capitalism that makes people so anti-communitarian, so self-indulgent, so cavalier about the well-being of others and their physical and cultural environments. The working title of the work is Capitalism: A Crime Story.

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Harry Glasbeek is Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. He has also taught at the universities of Melbourne and Monash in Australia, and the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of ten books including Wealth by Stealth: Corporate Crime, Corporate Law, and the Perversion of Democracy.

Related reading

Class Privilege: How Law Shelters Shareholders and Coddles Capitalism

Capitalism’s agenda is the endless pursuit of private accumulation of socially produced wealth. In our system, the corporation—created by law—is meant to hide this agenda, to distract us so that flesh and blood capitalists can do what they like. But when the workings of the corporation are examined, they reveal a betrayal of the very values and norms that, for their legitimacy’s sake, capitalists in our parts of the world purport to share.

Harry Glasbeek highlights one of capitalism’s weak spots–the perverting economic, political, and ethical roles played by the prime instrument of private wealth accumulation: the legal corporation. Once the corporate mask is ripped off, those who hide behind it become visible. Stripped of their protective garb, the capitalist class will be just as naked as the rest of us are when we face their corporations.