The Book Publishers Association of Alberta awarded Regime of Obstruction: How Corporate Power Blocks Energy Democracy the Scholarly & Academic Book of the Year award at the Alberta Book Publishing Awards in September 2022.

Edited by William K. Carroll

Athabasca University Press
The book is available for purchase, free PDF download and free online reading.

The following excerpt was adapted from introduction to Regime of Obstruction: How Corporate Power Blocks Energy Democracy:

Regime of Obstruction book cover image
Regime of Obstruction: How Corporate Power Blocks Energy Democracy, purchase the book here or read a free online copy.

Regime of Obstruction features research findings from the first three years (2015–18) of the Corporate Mapping Project (CMP), a seven-year partnership that I co-direct with Shannon Daub, Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office. The CMP is jointly led by the University of Victoria, the CCPA’s BC and Saskatchewan offices and the Parkland Institute. It brings together a large team of researchers and advocates from a number of universities and civil society groups who share a commitment to advancing reliable knowledge that supports citizen action and transparent public policy toward a just transition away from fossil capitalism.

As researchers with the CMP, contributors to this volume see corporate power as a key factor in the chasm between climate science and climate action. The CMP is a case study of the forces that shape Canada’s climate policy, one that partners social scientists with progressive policy researchers, journalists, and social movements (including environmentalism, labour, and Indigenous leadership). Our approach is centred on a family of techniques that map the organization of power, socially, economically, politically, and culturally. These include analyses of the social networks through which power and influence flow; the commodity chains along which carbon extraction, transport, processing, and consumption occur; and the discursive structures that frame issues and narratives in the struggle to persuade publics, governments, and communities as to the desirability or inevitability of fossil capitalism as a way of life. But the project’s scope extends to counter-power, as popular resistance to the regime of obstruction reveals how corporate power operates while also pointing toward alternatives. Our efforts have involved:

  • exposing and problematizing corporate power in its various modalities, to various publics
  • providing evidence-based ammunition to allies in social justice, Indigenous, and ecological movements, to bolster their counter-power
  • offering policy analyses that propose feasible alternatives for a just transition from fossil capitalism—evoked in such projects as climate justice and energy democracy.

Modalities of Corporate Power

Contemporary corporate power is at once economic and hegemonic, manifesting itself not merely as an economic force grounded in accumulation but also as a political and cultural force.   In its economic aspect, corporate power goes hand in the hand with the larger process of capital accumulation, from the labour entailed in extraction, manufacturing, and transport through to marketing and finance. The economic surplus that labour generates in production forms the basis for profit, interest, and rent and for the ultra-high salaries of CEOs. Capital’s competitive dynamic means that each firm, including large corporations, must grow or eventually die, as other enterprises overtake it. Thus, most of the surplus that capital appropriates from labour is reinvested, giving capitalists power not only within current economic practices but also over the future. As capital accumulates, giant corporations and massive pools of capital concentrate power in the capitalist class’s top tier—those who own and/or control large corporations. The economic power of corporate capital is reflected in the economic dependence of workers, communities, and states on corporate investments to generate jobs and government revenue.

Economic power includes the operational power of management, flowing through a chain of command in which the scope of decision making is narrowed as we move from top management to shop floor. Operational power is also wielded along commodity chains, from resource extraction through processes of transport, processing, manufacturing, and distribution. Strategic power, the power to set business strategies for the company, involves control of the corporation itself, often by acquiring the largest bloc of shares. This power is lodged in the board of directors but rooted in the nondemocratic character of corporate capital. Corporate directors are annually “elected” but by shareholders only. The majority of those with a stake in the enterprise—workers, communities, consumers—are thus disenfranchised. Moreover, elections are typically based not on one vote per person but on one vote per corporate share owned, thereby enabling large shareholders to wield strategic control, as Jouke Huijzer and I show in chapter 4. Finally, allocative power stems from the control of credit, the money-capital on which large corporations depend. This power, which accrues to financial institutions of all sorts (banks, life insurers, asset managers, hedge funds), is crucial in expanding or retooling operations, launching takeover bids, or coping with cash squeezes during crises.

We also consider the hegemonic face of corporate power, as it extends into the political and cultural fields of state and civil society. Hegemonic power refers to how the ‘consent’ of those subject to power is secured, organized, and maintained — from the visceral level of everyday life up to the top tiers of state institutions. Here we see business leaders and activists who promote the virtues of corporate capitalism, along with a host of well-placed and highly skilled professionals who legitimate and facilitate the system through their involvement in areas such as public relations and media, policy formation, lobbying, higher education, accounting, and corporate law. Such experts can also be found on the directorates of leading corporations, where they function in an advisory capacity and often help to integrate the corporate elite by serving on multiple boards. Indeed, as I show in chapter 5, a dense network of interlocking directorates among Canada’s leading fossil-capital companies pulls together capitalists and ‘organic intellectuals’ as an elite within the wider Canadian corporate community.

Complementing this integrated elite community is the reach of corporate power into the public sphere, effectively seeking to dominate the institutions, agendas, policies, discourses, and values that add up to an entire way of life. Corporate reach into civil society includes, for example, leadership exercised by corporate elites as they govern business councils, industry groups, policy-planning organizations, and institutions of higher education and research – and funding of these; public relations and corporate social responsibility initiatives; the framing of news and other media content to privilege business interests; and the corporate organization of communications media, whose goal of profit maximization trumps the public interest. Corporate power also reaches into the state via such relations and practices as intensive and sustained lobbying; regulatory capture; and revolving doors, through which business leaders become political leaders and vice versa.

A final aspect of corporate reach aligns corporations with the repressive arm of the state, as co-managers of dissent and surveillance. Coercive power is typically deployed when dissent becomes well organized and potentially effective. But this form of power is also central to the colonial project at all times—it is and has always been central to the forced dispossession of Indigenous people from their lands and culture to enable extractive industries and infrastructure.

Regime of Obstruction takes up these modalities of corporate power in relation to the fossil fuel industry – but we also turn our attention to issues of resistance and transformation, which are never far below the surface of our investigations. Indeed, the Corporate Mapping Project undertakes the work of exposing corporate power to support the struggle for a world beyond fossil capital.

Permission is granted by Athabasca University Press to to use an excerpt on their website from the Introduction by William K. Carroll in the volume Regime of Obstruction: How Corporate Power Blocks Energy Democracy, edited by William K. Carroll, published in 2021 by Athabasca University Press.

The Corporate Mapping Project’s research is supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Author: Bill Carroll