University of Cambridge > > Legal Histories beyond the State > The Grand Dichotomies: Sovereignty, the Public/ Private Divide, and Company States

The Grand Dichotomies: Sovereignty, the Public/ Private Divide, and Company States

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Sovereignty and the modern international system are jointly shaped and constituted by two grand dichotomies: the first separates international from domestic politics, the second distinguishes public from private realms. While the first dichotomy has appropriately received much attention, the second has been neglected in IR. We respond by demonstrating how the historical emergence and evolution of the public/private divide has reconstituted the international system through an examination of hybrid actors like the Dutch and English East India Companies. These “company states” exercised quintessentially sovereign prerogatives like war-making and diplomacy, while also pioneering the institutional forms of modern private corporations. Their rise reflected a facilitative early modern ideational context, new geopolitical opportunities and pressures for extra-European expansion, and rulers’ limited direct capacities to project power over transcontinental distances. This combination of a possibilities, opportunities, and constraints prompted rulers to privilege company states as their preferred vanguards of colonial expansion. The company states’ fall primarily reflected declining legitimacy associated with sharpening conceptions of the public/private divide. This fatal loss of legitimacy occurred despite the company states’ often spectacular military and financial success. We conclude by examining how contemporary actors like Private Military Companies challenge the public/private dichotomy, and caution against a teleological reading of the modern international system which sees a strict separation between sovereign powers and private profit-seeking as an irreversible historical end-point.

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