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The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea (Modern Library Chronicles) Hardcover – March 4, 2003

4.0 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Considering the astounding impact companies have had on every corner of civilization, it's amazing that the development of the institution has been largely unexamined. Economist editors Micklethwait and Wooldridge present a compact and timely book that deftly sketches the history of the company. They trace its progress from Assyrian partnership agreements through the 16th- and 17th-century European "charter companies" that opened trade with distant parts of the world, to today's multinationals. The authors' breadth of knowledge is impressive. They infuse their engaging prose with a wide range of cultural, historical and literary references, with quotes from poets to presidents. Micklethwait and Wooldrige point out that the enormous power wielded by the company is nothing new. Companies were behind the slave trade, opium and imperialism, and the British East India Company ruled the subcontinent with its standing army of native troops, outmanning the British army two to one. By comparison, the modern company is a bastion of restraint and morality. In a short, final chapter on the company's future, the authors argue against the fear, in antiglobalization circles, that "a handful of giant companies are engaged in a `silent takeover' of the world." Indeed, trends point toward large organizations breaking into smaller units. Moreover, the authors argue that for all the change companies have engendered over time, their force has been for an aggregate good.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Two Economist staffers explain how the joint-stock company became today's corporate giant.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Chronicles (Book 12)
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; Hardcover edition (March 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679642498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679642497
  • Product Dimensions: 4.9 x 0.8 x 7.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #664,391 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By not me VINE VOICE on August 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This short, breezy history of the business corporation begins with the Dutch East India Company and ends with Enron. As befits a book by two Economist writers, "The Company" reads like an Economist special supplement: the analysis spans the globe; factoids are mixed with sweeping generalizations; interpretations masquerade as straightforward statements of fact; and dry subjects are enlivened with humor, literary touches, and insights from deep thinkers (like Coase and Chandler). "The Company" is a very good read.

Unfortunately, it doesn't treat any subject in depth. The endnotes show that the authors worked exclusively from secondary sources. It's hard to know whether the authors are as sure of their material as their cocky tone suggests: the section on well-known recent developments (mergers, corporate "unbundling," Silicon Valley, globalization, etc., etc.) is filled with debatable judgments, confidently asserted. This inevitably raises doubts about the book's treatment of distant, unfamiliar historical episodes.

One thing "The Company" does prove is that a limited-liability joint-stock company (i.e., a corporation) is a handy vehicle for amassing capital from multiple dispersed investors. Something like it would have to exist in any capital-intensive, non-socialist economy. But "The Company" also shows that the particulars of corporate form are conditioned by history, law, and culture; corporations vary radically from country to country and era to era. The Microsoft of 1995 had little in common with the I.G. Farben of 1925 but for the fact that both were limited-liability joint-stock companies.
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Format: Hardcover
The authors, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, have squeezed 5,000 years of business history into The Company (A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea), the newest addition to the important series, Modern Library Chronicles. I approached this particular edition was some trepidation as the subject matter seemed a little dry (there is, after all, a chapter called "The Triumph of Managerial Capitalism".) The book is more interesting than expected and is written with some humour as well as a certain amount of patience for the less business informed reader. The strong caveat, though, is that the authors do stress the triumph of the company in creating everything that is good in the world, making their case less often then I suspect they wanted to. They are honest about the bad, such as the Belgian Congo and Enron, but try to make clear that positives exist with enormous negatives. Trying to find a positive in the holocaust of the Congo is not, in fact, possible but the authors cheerfully give it a shot. Despite their obvious boosterism, this is an interesting book and a worthwhile introduction to one side of an argument.
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Format: Hardcover
Although I would recommend this text to generalist readers seeking a (remarkably) concise introduction to history of the business corporation, I came away somewhat disappointed. There is little doubt Micklethwait and Wooldridge are correct in their claim that the corporation is now the key economic institution in Western nations. Yet, it did not have to turn out that way. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge usefully remind us, two centuries ago, leading business and economic thinkers (including the great Adam Smith) derided the joint stock company. What explains the relatively rapid development in the mid-19th century of a recognizably modern corporation and, in turn, that entity's emergence as the dominant form of economic organization?
Micklethwait and Wooldridge offer a fairly conventional answer to that question, based largely on new technologies -- especially the railroad -- requiring vast amounts of capital, the advantages such large firms derived from economies of scale, the emergence of limited liability that made it practicable to raise large sums from numerous passive investors, and the rise of professional management. Readers familiar with the work of business historian Alfred Chandler will find relatively little new in this part of the story, although Micklethwait and Woolridge's treatment has the advantage for generalist readers of being considerably more accessible than is most of Chandler's work. Instead of offering any novel historical analysis, Micklethwait and Wooldridge's principal potential contribution (albeit one they failed adequately to realize) is the normative thesis to be derived from the historical account.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There are few creatures more vilified in today's world than corporations. For some, companies are the instruments of evil, they exist to profit at the expense of ordinary people, and their chief executives are defamed for their greed and ambition. All the same, most people live off the checks they receive from those evil beasts; and, being the CEO of a large company offers comparable prestige with other esteemed professions.
Wrestling with these competing images of corporations is part of what "The Company" aims at. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of The Economist, embark on an ambitious project to show that the corporation lies at the heart and center of organized societies-more so than the state, the commune, the political party, the church, and others.
Having put modesty aside, the authors deliver on their promise with great skill, both literary and scholarly. All pervasive in their narrative is a deep sense of historical perspective-of contrasting the companies of today with those of the past. This need of putting the present in context is extremely valuable in canvassing the role that corporations (and particularly multinationals) play in the world today.
Several themes emerge in this historical journey. The first is the evolution of the company itself through a continuous political debate about its role and place in society. A second charts the different attitudes that societies have had towards companies; in particular the authors focus on the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan.
At the heart of this book is the dialectic between society and company; the Virginia Company, for example, effectively introduced democracy in America in 1619. This helps explains why Americans have been more receptive to companies that have other countries.
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