The Moral Life of Corporations   /   Summer 2009   /    Essays

Images, Inc.

Visual Domains of the Corporation

Alan Trachtenberg

Our robber barons (Bernhard Gillam, 1882). Via Wikimedia Commons.

The concentration of control does not come from the mechanization of industry. It comes from the state, which began about a hundred years ago to grant to anyone who paid a nominal fee what had hitherto been a very special privilege. That was the privilege of incorporation with limited liability and perpetual succession.—Walter Lippman11xWalter Lippman, An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society (Boston: Little, Brown, 1943) 13.

When the modern corporation burst onto the American scene after the Civil War, one interested though bemused witness—a member of the Massachusetts railroad commission—called it “a new power, for which our language contains no name.”22xCharles Francis Adams, Jr., A Chapter of Erie (Boston: Field, Osgood, 1869) 150: “We know what aristocracy, autocracy, democracy are; but we have no word to express government by moneyed corporations.” Adams’s elegant, sardonic narrative has a place of honor in the history of investigative writing about financial corruption and ruthless corporate power in the first era of the large American corporation. Nor was an image ready at hand to depict what it looked like. The railroad corporations were already transforming the land into a national system of railroad lines. Employing cheap Chinese labor (the “illegal aliens” of back then), government hand-outs, and unscrupulous business practices, a new gang of rapacious entrepreneurs, “Robber Barons” as they came to be known, piled up incredible wealth and political clout; they displayed their power and their apparent impunity with conspicuous disdain for moral or legal judgment.33x“Robber baron” harks back to well-born highwaymen (Raubritter) who terrorized travelers in thirteenthcentury Germany. See Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861– 1901 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934).

What to call this new power and how to describe what it looked like became pressing questions. Was the new power—the limited liability corporation—a material body you could actually see, touch, and describe as an image? Did it possess an inner life you could trust to be always what it seemed to be? Should it be described only by its effects—so many miles of track laid, so many acres of public domain colonized as private rights of way? In the minds of troubled observers, there was no familiar word for it nor image to do it justice.

Whatever you called them or however they seemed to look, the gargantuan railroad corporations enjoyed a privileged existence. Their capital drawn from public trading on the stock market, their investors shielded by limited liability laws, they behaved like brash, freewheeling individuals with wills of their own. By the end of the century, the courts had ruled that in many regards that is exactly what they were, juridical persons, fictitious beings but nonetheless real enough when it came to doing business. As for morality, not exactly a major public concern during these “gilded” years of American history, echoes of the Protestant ethos still advocated fairness, honesty, and straight-dealing—values the large corporations in their arrogance mocked as irrelevant to the business of business. By the end of the nineteenth century, embattled farmers and workers had had enough, and along with small businessmen and their allies in the independent press, they pinned new words on the by now entrenched corporate power: malefactors, predators, behemoths of greed and corruption. The genie of new wealth had become an ogre. An image appeared as if spontaneously: top-hatted, cigar-puffing Mr. Moneybags, clutching overstuffed sacks of coins against his bloated belly, a smug look on his face. Here was the latest guise of the old Satan.

Since early in the twentieth century, corporations have strived to replace this image of elemental demonic greed with more benign images, though in one variant or the other Mr. Moneybags still lurks nearby (for example, CEOs in handcuffs), never entirely expunged, always threatening to reemerge. But self-styled corporate images very quickly won the upper hand, in newspaper and magazine advertising, on billboards, on radio and television, subliminally in cinema, and in the packaging of goods; clad in images, commodities became imaged messages that sold the corporate name and the idea of corporate goodness along with the packaged product. A history of the images of the large corporation—images pro and con—would make for an astonishing document on the on-going controversy and combat over the moral character and effects of “big business,” one of the popular euphemisms for the power of moneyed corporations. Such a history would also shed light on a neglected implication of Nicholas Murray Butler’s provocative remark in 1911—“the limited liability corporation is the greatest single discovery of modern times”—that is, it would shed light on the corporate recruitment of visual culture as the mark of its presence and the sign of its dominance.44xNicholas Murray Butler, “Why Should We Change our Form of Government?,” Commercial Club of St. Louis (27 November 1911). Published in Why Should We Change Our Form of Government?: Studies in Practical Politics (New York: Scribner, 1912).

By its image-making the large corporation proves itself a major agent of cultural change, along with its more obvious social, economic, and political effects. As an agent of culture, the corporation has been a double-edged force; just as images speak and keep silent at once, corporate images both reveal and conceal, their concealments being their most illuminating revelations. The “greatest single discovery” may well be the corporation’s cycle of creative destruction, tearing down while building up, which is the inner dynamic of corporate life.

Do corporate images—the self-images companies wish to portray—show what corporations actually look like, their defining visage? The self-defensive motive of these self-images is most often hidden, their goal of purging any trace of Moneybags tucked carefully out of sight. This is what “slick” means: that the rhetoric of the image be inconspicuous, its implicit argument against a negative view of corporate morality not openly acknowledged. A first step in reading corporate self-images should be, then, to bring the absent negative back into view.

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