The public sphere in America has difficulty grasping the impact major corporations have on politics and daily life because public discourse does not take into account important details, according to a guest lecturer Monday.
Woodruff Smith, professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, talked about the Atlantic economy in the late 17th century and the early 18th century in a lecture, which was hosted by The Institute for Historical Studies and held in Garrison Hall. The Atlantic economy is a term that refers to the trade routes and companies that dominated the era and controlled many areas of politics and economics.
According to Smith, it’s hard to separate discussions about economics from politics because they operate in the same context. He said the groups arguing over these issues often come to a consensus and accept it as truth, regardless of the fact that many aspects of the dialogue have gone unaddressed.
“The problem with the public sphere is that it can create its own reality, and the reality manifests in the political systems and in the actions of the politicians and the actions of whom the politicians listen to,” Smith said.
This issue of consciousness, Smith said, was present in the peak of the Atlantic economy, as well as in the 21st century. History graduate student Benjamin Breen said the Atlantic economy is relevant to the current economic situation many developed countries are in because they have such a large reach.
“There wasn’t much national authority [in the Atlantic economy]; it was more just mercantile networks,” Breen said. “I think you can actually learn a lot about what the 21st century is going to look like by learning about this.”
According to Breen, the growing strength of corporations brings the danger of monopolies and could continue to erode the barrier between corporate and governmental power.
“For instance, the guy in Silicon Valley who wants to break off the area into its own little state sounds like a joke right now, but, in 20 years, I could actually imagine that,” Breen said. “If you look at tax revenue, those people have sway. I think people need to draw their own conclusions. We’ve already been through this.”
Seth Garfield, history professor and director of The Institute of Historical Studies, said the events held by the history department aim to build on the ideas of audience members as well as presenters.
“I work on Latin America, but I might learn something about the general Atlantic economy through an event like this, even though it’s not my expertise,” Garfield said. “This type of event is very useful for those purposes.”