Chapter Fourteen: The 21st Century - Narrative

XI. Business

During the 20th century, governments had frequently 'gone into business', either through socialist 'ownership of the commanding heights of the economy', or through the overt support and attempted control of national champions, or just because politicians love power and interfering. But by the turn of the century, public ownership had been largely discredited on simple economic grounds – it doesn't work – and privatization had returned many state-run business activities to the private sector, which they should never have left in the first place.

Almost without exception, the technological advances of the 21st century were driven by private business endeavour, although of course national governments and the global bodies that increasingly took over regulation and supervision of business were ever-present.

This was not just because people had stopped believing in the economic efficacy of government, but in many cases simply because most governments did not have the financial resources to compete against the multinationals, and even when they did (as in the case of the USA and Japan) were hamstrung by fractious legislatures. Russia and China provided exceptions for a while, but by 2030 even these countries had given up the unequal fight. The last major investment activity at nation state level was the establishment of Moon and Mars bases by the USA and China respectively in 2020-2025. Even inter-stellar exploration, beginning in 2050, was a privately-financed venture.

With standard-setting on a global basis (already a de facto reality in 2010, and legitimized in 2017 when the International Standards Organization became an agency of the WTO) the focus of governmental involvement with corporations became competition law: reining in, or even just understanding the immense power of corporations was one of the major preoccupations of early 21st century governance. For example, financial power-house Goldman Sachs made profits in 2014 of US$9bn on net revenues of US$30bn, and had assets under management of more than US$700bn. By 2020, having absorbed a number of competitor organizations, banks and other types of financial institution, these figures had risen substantially. The firm's profits in 2020 were US$20bn, and net revenues were nearly US$200bn, with assets under management over US$3 trillion. In 2015, Goldman Sachs's revenue stream was larger than that of all but 12 countries; and many other companies were even larger, particularly in the energy, electronics and consumer manufacturing sectors. The angst of increasingly cash-strapped nation states faced with immensely rich corporations was only increased after the abandonment of corporation tax under the Harbin Accord of 2023.

It's not right, though, to see the triumph of private enterprise over the State as in any sense a victory of Mammon over the individual. Although the private (or publicly-listed) corporation has remained the dominant form of economic organization during the 21st century, and has become largely independent of nation states, it has had to accommodate itself to the mushroom growth of global Codes of Conduct, Treaties and Accords, and a truly bewildering variety of global supervisory bodies.

Early 21st century cases in which business people were held to account by national prosecutors for the supposed sins of their corporations became more frequent in the decade from 2010 to 2020. Countries transposed regional and global law and regulation into national judicial codes – a process pioneered by the European Union but which became the norm for all countries as time went by, giving local prosecutors the power to detain and question executives in respect of offences which might have been committed by the local subsidiary of a major corporation. However such cases seldom resulted in penal consequences; on the contrary, nation states almost fell over each other in their efforts to attract investment from corporations.

A lot of not-so-innocent fun was had by national-level prosecutors in this way, but businesses were able to retaliate by avoiding countries such as France which were much given to tormenting business-people, and eventually, as with corporation tax, the nation states had to give up their nice game. The founding of the World Commercial Court (WCC) in 2020 established a clear divide between 'business' behaviour and 'private' behaviour, giving supervision of the former to international bodies while leaving supervision of the latter to nation states. From then on, any business which elected or was deemed to have international status was to be held to account in the WCC, which has branches in most countries. Errant businesspeople remained subject to the panoply of international business regulation, but were accused, tried and if necessary imprisoned in their country of domicile.