Companies are being regulated by politics, but they also shape the political arena themselves, whenever they influence politicians and political parties. Moreover, companies fulfill public functions such as providing public goods, regulating their own business activities, or addressing societal problems, like environmental harms. Can such a mixture of private activity and public responsibility be legitimate, in a democratic society? Doesn’t this give corporations too much political power? Are multinationals different in this respect from other companies? These are central questions in the ERC-research project “The Business Corporation as a Political Actor’, which will run from 2020 to 2025. The project is based at Utrecht University, and led by prof. dr. Rutger Claassen.
The project is based on the hypothesis that a new social contract is necessary to legitimate the public role of contemporary corporations. This requires transplanting notions traditionally used for legitimizing states – like respecting human rights, democratic procedures, and standards of social justice – to corporations. Is such a thing possible; or do publicly acting corporations necessarily undermine the social contract? To answer this question, the project researches the possibilities to apply existing political theories of legitimacy to corporations. This theoretical reflection is combined with practical case studies on different types of regulation of corporate activity: corporate governance, tax policies, competition law, etc. The project is based in political philosophy, and connects philosophy to other disciplines, such as law, economics, political science and history.