The Divine Right of Capital

Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy

Marjorie Kelly (Author)

Publication date: 12/12/2002

Bestseller over 20,000+ copies sold

The Divine Right of Capital
Wealth inequality, corporate welfare, and industrial pollution are symptoms-the fevers and chills of the economy. The underlying illness, says Business Ethics magazine founder Marjorie Kelly, is shareholder primacy: the corporate drive to make profits for shareholders, no matter who pays the cost.

In The Divine Right of Capital, Kelly argues that focusing on the interests of stockholders to the exclusion of everyone else's interests is a form of discrimination based on property or wealth. She shows how this bias is held by our institutional structures, much as they once held biases against blacks and women.

The Divine Right of Capital exposes six aristocratic principles that corporations are built on, principles that we would never accept in our modern democratic society but which we accept unquestioningly in our economy. Wealth bias is a holdover from our pre-democratic past. It has enabled shareholders to become a kind of economic aristocracy. Kelly shows how to design more equitable alternatives-new property rights, new forms of corporate governance, new ways of looking at corporate performance-that build on both free-market and democratic principles.

We think of shareholder primacy as the natural law of the free market, much as our forebears thought of monarchy as the most natural form of government. But in The Divine Right of Capital, Kelly brilliantly demonstrates that it is no more "natural" than any other human creation. People designed this system and people can change it.

We need a change of mind as profound as that of the American Revolution. We must question the legitimacy of a system that gives the wealthy few-the ten percent of Americans who own ninety percent of all stock-a disproportionate power over the many. In so doing, we can fulfill the democratic principles of our nation not only in the political sphere, but in the economic sphere as well.
  • Updated paperback edition includes a new chapter and a Reader's Guide
  • Explores the real causes of the Enron fiasco and other recent corporate scandals
  • Explodes the myth that the stock market is "democratizing" wealth
  • Gives practical guidance to help employees and communities change corporate governance and unfetter the genius of the free market

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Wealth inequality, corporate welfare, and industrial pollution are symptoms-the fevers and chills of the economy. The underlying illness, says Business Ethics magazine founder Marjorie Kelly, is shareholder primacy: the corporate drive to make profits for shareholders, no matter who pays the cost.

In The Divine Right of Capital, Kelly argues that focusing on the interests of stockholders to the exclusion of everyone else's interests is a form of discrimination based on property or wealth. She shows how this bias is held by our institutional structures, much as they once held biases against blacks and women.

The Divine Right of Capital exposes six aristocratic principles that corporations are built on, principles that we would never accept in our modern democratic society but which we accept unquestioningly in our economy. Wealth bias is a holdover from our pre-democratic past. It has enabled shareholders to become a kind of economic aristocracy. Kelly shows how to design more equitable alternatives-new property rights, new forms of corporate governance, new ways of looking at corporate performance-that build on both free-market and democratic principles.

We think of shareholder primacy as the natural law of the free market, much as our forebears thought of monarchy as the most natural form of government. But in The Divine Right of Capital, Kelly brilliantly demonstrates that it is no more "natural" than any other human creation. People designed this system and people can change it.

We need a change of mind as profound as that of the American Revolution. We must question the legitimacy of a system that gives the wealthy few-the ten percent of Americans who own ninety percent of all stock-a disproportionate power over the many. In so doing, we can fulfill the democratic principles of our nation not only in the political sphere, but in the economic sphere as well.

  • Updated paperback edition includes a new chapter and a Reader's Guide
  • Explores the real causes of the Enron fiasco and other recent corporate scandals
  • Explodes the myth that the stock market is "democratizing" wealth
  • Gives practical guidance to help employees and communities change corporate governance and unfetter the genius of the free market

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Meet the Author

Visit Author Page - Marjorie Kelly

Marjorie Kelly is the co-founder and editor of Business Ethics, a national publication on corporate responsibility launched in 1987 and read by high-level opinion leaders nationwide. For over a decade Business Ethics has been the core publication of the movement to bring greater ethics and social responsibility into business. The publication was honored in 1995 for its path-breaking cover story on The Body Shop, which made headlines worldwide.

For two years, Kelly authored a popular weekly column on business ethics for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Her writing has also appeared in publications such as The Utne Reader, The Progressive Populist, and Hope magazine. Her work has been anthologized in a half-dozen books, including the New Entrepreneurs and The New Paradigm in Business.

Marjorie is a regular speaker and commentator on business ethics, and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, quoted in the New York Times, and interviewed on National Public Radio. She has lectured at the society for Business Ethics Conference, the Association of Internal Auditors, Ohio University, Smith College, and many other organizations.

A business person as well as a journalist, Marjorie is from a strongly entrepreneurial family. Her father founded Graphic Engraving Inc. in Columbia, Missouri and her grandfather founded Anderson Tool and Die in Chicago. For more information, please visit

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Table of Contents

Foreword by William Greider

Part I Economic Aristocracy
1 The Sacred Texts: the principle of worldview
2 Lords of the Earth: the principle of privilege
3 The Corporation as Feudal Estate: the principle of property
4 Only the Propertied Class Votes: the principle of governance
5 Liberty for Me, Not for Thee: the principle of liberty
6 Wealth Reigns: the principle of sovereignty

Part II Economic Democracy
7 Waking Up: the principle of enlightenment
8 Emerging Property Rights: the principle of equality
9 Protecting the Common Welfare: the principle of the public good
10 New Citizens in Corporate Governance: the principle of democracy
11 Corporations Are Not Persons: the principle of justice
12 A Little Rebellion: the principle of (r)evolution
Conclusion: Enron's Legacy: An Opening for Change

Reader's Guide to Action
About the Author

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The Divine Right of Capital


IN AN ERA when stock market wealth has seemed to grow on trees—and trillions have vanished as quickly as falling leaves—it’s an apt time to ask ourselves, Where does wealth come from? More precisely, where does the wealth of public corporations come from? Who creates it?

To judge by the current arrangement in corporate America, one might suppose capital creates wealth—which is strange, because a pile of capital sitting there creates nothing. Yet capital providers—stockholders—lay claim to most wealth that public corporations generate. Corporations are believed to exist to maximize returns to shareholders. This is the law of the land, much as the divine right of kings was once the law of the land. In the dominant paradigm of business, it is not in the least controversial. Though it should be.

What do shareholders contribute, to justify the extraordinary allegiance they receive? They take risk, we’re told. They put their money on the line, so corporations might grow and prosper. Let’s test the truth of this with a little quiz:

Stockholders fund major public corporations—true or false?

False. Or, actually, a tiny bit true—but for the most part, massively false. In fact, most “investment” dollars don’t go to corporations but to other speculators. Equity investments reach a public corporation only when new common stock is sold—which for major corporations is a rare event. Among the Dow Jones industrials, only a handful have sold any new common stock in thirty years. Many have sold none in fifty years.

The stock market works like a used car market, as former accounting professor Ralph Estes observes in Tyranny of the Bottom Line. When you buy a 1997 Ford Escort, the money goes not to Ford but to the previous owner of the car. Ford gets the buyer’s money only when it sells a new car. Similarly, companies get stockholders’ money only when they sell new common stock. According to figures from the Federal Reserve, in recent years about one in one hundred dollars trading on public markets has been reaching corporations. In other words, ninety-nine out of one hundred “invested” dollars are speculative. 1

That’s today. But the past wasn’t much different. One accounting study of the steel industry examined capital expenditures over the entire first half of the twentieth century and found that issues of common stock provided only 5 percent of capital. 2

So what do stockholders contribute, to justify the extraordinary allegiance they receive? Very little. Yet this tiny contribution allows them essentially to install a pipeline and dictate that the corporation’s sole purpose is to funnel wealth into it.

The productive risk in building businesses is borne by entrepreneurs and their initial venture investors, who do contribute real investing dollars, to create real wealth. Those who buy stock at sixth or seventh hand, or one-thousandth hand, also take a risk—but it is a risk speculators take among themselves, trying to outwit one another, like gamblers. It has little to do with corporations, except this: public companies are required to provide new chips for the gaming table, into infinity.

It’s odd. And it’s connected to a second oddity—that we believe stockholders are the corporation. When we say that a corporation did well, we mean that its shareholders did well. The company’s local community might be devastated by plant closings. Employees might be shouldering a crushing workload. Still we will say, “The corporation did well.”

One does not see rising employee income as a measure of corporate success. Indeed, gains to employees are losses to the corporation. And this betrays an unconscious bias: that employees are not really part of the corporation. They have no claim on wealth they create, no say in governance, and no vote for the board of directors. They’re not citizens of corporate society, but subjects.

We think of this as the natural law of the market. It’s more accurately the result of the corporate governance structure, which violates market principles. In real markets, everyone scrambles to get what they can, and they keep what they earn. In the construct of the corporation, one group gets what another earns.

The oddity of it all is veiled by the incantation of a single magical word: ownership. Because we say stockholders own corporations, they are permitted to contribute very little, and take quite a lot.

What an extraordinary word. One is tempted to recall the comment that Lycophron, an ancient Greek philosopher, made during an early Athenian slave uprising against the aristocracy. “The splendour of noble birth is imaginary,” he said, “and its prerogatives are based upon a mere word.” 3

A mere word. And yet the source of untold trouble. Why have the rich gotten richer while employee income has stagnated? Because that’s the way the corporation is designed. Why are companies demanding exemption from property taxes and cutting down three-hundred-year-old forests? Because that’s the way the corporation is designed. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” the saying goes. But the corporation functions more like a lock-and-dam operation, raising the water level in one compartment by lowering it in another.

The problem is not the free market, but the design of the corporation. It’s important to separate these two concepts we have been schooled to equate. In truth, the market is a relatively innocent notion. It’s about buyers and sellers bargaining on equal footing to set prices. It might be said that a free market means an unregulated one, but in today’s scheme it really means a market with one primary form of regulation: that of property rights.

We think of this as inherent in capitalism, but it may not be. It is true that throughout history capitalism has been a system that has largely served the interests of capital. But then, government until the early twentieth century largely served the interests of kings. It wasn’t necessary to throw out government in order to do away with monarchy—instead we changed the basis of sovereignty on which government rested. We might do the same with the corporation, asserting that employees and the community rightfully share economic sovereignty with capital owners.

What we have known until now is capitalism’s aristocratic form. But we can embrace a new democratic vision of capitalism, not as a system for capital, but a system of capital—a system in which all people are allowed to accumulate capital according to their productivity, and in which the natural capital of the environment and community is preserved.

At the same time, we might also preserve much of the wisdom that is inherent in capitalism. If we go rummaging through its entire basket of economic ideas—supply and demand, competition, profit, self-interest, wealth creation, and so forth—we’ll find most concepts are sturdy and healthy, well worth keeping. But we’ll also find one concept that is inconsistent with the others. It is the lever that keeps the lock and dam functioning, and it is these four words: maximizing returns to shareholders.

When we pluck this notion out of our basket and turn it over in our hands—really looking at it, as we so rarely do—we will see it is out of place. In a competitive free market, it decrees that the interests of one group will be systematically favored over others. In a system devoted to unconscious regulation, it says corporations will consciously serve one group alone. In a system rewarding hard work, it says members of that group will be served regardless of their productivity.

Shareholder primacy is a form of entitlement. And entitlement has no place in a market economy. It is a form of privilege. And privilege accruing to property ownership is a remnant of the aristocratic past.

That more people own stock today has not changed the market’s essentially aristocratic bias. Of the total gain in marketable wealth from 1983 to 1998, more than half went to the richest 1 percent. 4 Others of us may have gotten a few crumbs from this feast, but in their pursuit we have too often been led to work against our own interests. Physicians applaud when their portfolios rise in value, yet wonder why insurance companies are ruthlessly holding down medical payments. Employees cheer when their 401(k) plans post gains, yet wonder why layoffs are decimating their firms. Their own portfolios hold the answer.

Still, decrying the system’s ills is not the same as saying the stock market is devoid of value or that it should be eliminated. The stock market does have its worthwhile functions. Stock serves as a kind of currency with which companies can buy other companies. A high share price can also be the basis for a good credit rating, making it easier for firms to borrow at favorable rates. Most vitally, public markets create liquidity, which is what makes genuine investment in companies attractive. Without an aftermarket for share trading, investors could cash out only when a company was sold or liquidated, which would make investing in a company like investing in a house. Money could be tied up for decades.

In making the value of companies liquid, the stock market has the effect of increasing that value. It’s in part a function of auction. Because more bidders are available, a stock fetches a higher price, just as a first-edition Hemingway fetches a higher price on eBay than at a garage sale. But the auction function can get out of control when new wealth flows primarily to those already possessing substantial wealth. Because this wealth cannot fully be spent, it can only be reinvested, leaving more and more money to chase essentially the same body of stocks—causing them to artificially inflate in value. When that inflation becomes too large, the bubble bursts, often dragging the real economy down with it. Thus, while the stock market has its functions, it also has its dysfunctions.

Bubbles are one dysfunction. A second is the artificial overvaluation of financial capital and the devaluation of other forms of wealth. Progressive business theorist Paul Hawken describes it as a “worldwide pattern of decapitalization.” “Capital,” he wrote, “whether it be natural capital in the form of resources, or human capital in the form of low-wage workers, or local capital in the form of functional and healthy local economies, is being extracted and converted to financial capital at an increasingly accelerated rate.” 5

This process has accelerated dramatically in the last half-century, as the value of the stock market has increased over a hundredfold. But in that same period, forests have shrunk, water tables have fallen, wetlands have disappeared, soils have eroded, fisheries have collapsed, rivers have run dry, global temperatures have risen, and countless plant and animal species have disappeared. 6

This same half-century, not incidentally, has been the time when major public corporations have come to dominate the world. It is also a time when the shareholder primacy that drives them has become increasingly out of step with reality—due to a number of massive changes in the nature of major corporations:

1. Increasing size. Today, among the world’s one hundred largest economies, fifty-one are corporations. 7 They have revenues larger than nation-states, yet maintain the guise of being the “private property” of shareholders.

2. The shrinking of ownership functions. While we still call stockholders the owners of major public firms, they do not—for the most part—manage, fund, or accept liability for “their” companies. Ownership function has shrunk to virtually one dimension: extracting wealth.

3. The rise of the knowledge economy. For many companies, knowledge is the new source of competitive advantage. To allow shareholders to claim the corporation’s increasing wealth—when employees play a greater role in creating that wealth—is a misallocation of resources.

4. The increasing damage to our ecosystem. The rules of accounting were written in the fifteenth century, when to the Western mind nature seemed an unlimited reservoir of resources and an unlimited sink for wastes. That is no longer true, but the rules of accounting retain fossilized images of those ancient attitudes.

Major public corporations have evolved into something new in civilization—more massive, more powerful than our democratic forefathers dreamed possible. The major companies of their era, like the East India Company, were arms of the Crown. America was founded by similar, though often smaller, Crown companies. The founding generation in America seemingly felt that in bringing the Crown to heel, they had immunized themselves against corporate predation. This may be the reason that they left us few tools at the federal level for governing corporations: the word corporation itself appears nowhere in the Constitution.

At the state level, the founding generation did establish a system where corporations were chartered for purposes that served the public good—like constructing turnpikes—and were allowed to exist only for finite periods of time. But this system was overturned in the heyday of the Robber Barons, after the Civil War, when corporations became private, cut themselves free from government oversight, assumed eternal life, and began to see shareholder gain as their sole purpose.

Today, as the name itself implies, public corporations are no longer really private. The major corporation, as president Franklin D. Roosevelt observed, “represents private enterprise become a kind of private government which is a power unto itself.” 8


If the stockholding class ruling these governments is a secular aristocracy, it functions like the secular monarchs that we call dictators functioned—attempting to reproduce aspects of privilege enjoyed in a previous era. Secular monarchs largely failed, because they lacked the sustaining myth of the divine right of kings. As fallen dictators from Mussolini to Marcos showed the world, power without myth does not long endure. 9

The secular aristocracy today clings to its sustaining myths, for those myths provide the base of its legitimacy, without which the amassing of wealth begins to seem indefensible. The core myth—that shareholder returns must be maximized—is thus considered unchallengeable. It is a myth with the force of law. We might call it our secular version of the divine right of kings.

In tracing the roots of this myth, in part I, this book undertakes a venture into what French philosopher Michel Foucault would call an archaeology of knowledge: a foundational dig, examining the ancient conceptual structures on which aristocratic bias is built. The book explores six such structures—six principles—each serving to uphold the needs of property owners above all other needs.

1. Worldview: In the worldview of corporate financial statements, the aim is to pay property holders as much as possible, and employees as little as possible.

2. Privilege: Stockholders claim wealth they do little to create, much as nobles claimed privilege they did not earn.

3. Property: Like a feudal estate, a corporation is considered a piece of property—not a human community—so it can be owned and sold by the propertied class.

4. Governance: Corporations function with an aristocratic governance structure, where members of the propertied class alone may vote.

5. Liberty: Corporate capitalism embraces a predemocratic concept of liberty reserved for property holders, which thrives by restricting the liberty of employees and the community.

6. Sovereignty: Corporations assert that they are private and the free market will self-regulate, much as feudal barons asserted a sovereignty independent of the Crown.

Myths take many forms. In essence, they are stories we tell ourselves, like the story that discrimination based on property ownership is permissible, even mandatory, which is examined in chapter 1. It looks at the story built into financial statements, which decree that corporations must give shareholders as much income as possible, while they give employees as little as possible. It’s a story that can be likened to the ancient story of the great chain of being, which pictured the interests of some persons as naturally higher on the chain than others, because they were closer to God.

Chapter 2 turns to the notion of privilege, which in the predemocratic age meant legal rights reserved for the few and denied to the many. Foremost among aristocratic privileges, in the era before the French Revolution, were rights to endless streams of income, detached from productive contribution. We find this same privilege reserved today for stockholders and denied to employees. For while stockholder productivity today is negative, employee productivity is positive and climbing, and has far outstripped employee gains.

Stockholder privilege rests on the notion that corporations are not human communities but pieces of property, which means they can be owned and sold by the propertied class. We see in chapter 3 how this leads to the unconscious assumption that persons who work in corporations are, in a sense, property; the value of their presence is bundled into the value of the corporation when it is sold. This to some extent mirrors the ancient beliefs that wives belonged to their husbands, and vassals belonged to feudal lords.

In the predemocratic mindset, persons without property were not permitted to vote. And so it is with employees today, for stockholders alone govern corporations, as we see in chapter 4. The public corporation is a kind of inverted monarchy, with representatives of the share-owning aristocracy hiring and firing the CEO-king. It is a structure reminiscent of England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which Parliament—which represented the landed class—first asserted power over the monarch.

That all of these myths and structures must be left in place, and not be tampered with by government, is a function of liberty. In chapter 5 we see that today’s conception of the free market reserves liberty for property holders, even as it denies liberty to employees and the community.

In the final chapter of part I—chapter 6—we turn to the notion of sovereignty: the idea that stockholders are the corporation, which mirrors the ancient notion that the king was the state. The prerogative of the sovereign power is to have liberty within its own realm. Because the sovereign power is the source of law, it can do no wrong. It seems natural to us today that economic sovereignty rests with property ownership, because this once was true of all sovereignty, political and economic.


How do we begin to change such an entrenched and ancient system of discrimination? We begin first by seeing it for what it is, and naming it as illegitimate. For doing so allows us to reclaim our economic sovereignty—which means remembering that corporations are creations of the law, that they exist only because we the people allow them to exist, and that we create the parameters of their existence.

We begin also with imagination—with imagining a new frame-work—both institutional and conceptual—on which to ground a more democratic economy: new variations on financial statements, new property rights, strengthened human rights, new forms of citizenship in corporations, and enlarged corporate purpose. The first order of business is a new ideology to undergird these structures, for mechanisms are only effective to the extent that they find legitimacy in the public mind.

Articulating an ideology for economic democracy is the aim of the second part of this book. It draws on varied efforts to reform corporations, but its aim is also to focus those efforts more effectively, by grounding them in the larger project of democracy—the great project of the Enlightenment, the historical project of moving society from monarchy to democracy. Because economic democracy will take different forms from political democracy, this venture draws also on market principles.

If we study the era of the Enlightenment, in which America was founded, we find it did not begin with crafting laws and structures. It began with challenging the principles on which the monarchy stood, and articulating new principles of democracy. In that spirit, I suggest six principles for economic democracy, mirroring the six principles of economic aristocracy:

1. Enlightenment: Because all persons are created equal, the economic rights of employees and the community are equal to those of capital owners.

2. Equality: Under market principles, wealth does not legitimately belong only to stockholders. Corporate wealth belongs to those who create it, and community wealth belongs to all.

3. Public good: As semipublic governments, public corporations are more than pieces of private property or private contracts. They have a responsibility to the public good.

4. Democracy: The corporation is a human community, and like the larger community of which it is a part, it is best governed democratically.

5. Justice: In keeping with equal treatment of persons before the law, wealthy persons may not claim greater rights than others, and corporations may not claim the rights of persons.

6. (r)Evolution: As it is the right of the people to alter or abolish government, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish the corporations that now govern the world.

Intellectual principles like these may seem to be mere abstractions, airy things with little relevance to the real world. But as Michel Foucault observed, ideas are mechanisms of power. “A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains,” he wrote, “but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas.” 10 Ideas are the foundation of the social order. If we are to build a new order, we must build on the base of ideas.

The starting point is a change of mind, a process of enlightenment, which is the topic of chapter 7. It calls for collective agreement on the core problem of our economy: wealth discrimination. We might recall that battles against sexual harassment, unequal pay, and marriage inequality all gained power from recognition of their common source in sexism. In like manner, our separate economic battles—over issues like the environment, wealth inequality, and corporate welfare—can gain momentum from recognition of their common source in wealth discrimination. To help move us toward this awareness, we need new measurements of corporate success, new financial statements targeted not only at stockholders but at other stakeholders as well. Efforts now under way to develop these are explored in this chapter.

If equality is our aim, it takes tangible form in new rights, like the right of employees to share corporate wealth, a concept explored in chapter 8. Support for this view can be found in the theories of Adam Smith, John Locke, and Thomas Paine. This chapter looks at a few models of employee wealth sharing in progressive companies, and suggests how these might be furthered with new public policy initiatives. It also looks at another emerging economic right—the notion that community wealth belongs to all—and how it too can be furthered in public policy.

The legal barriers to such new rights are existing concepts of the corporation as the private property of shareholders, or the notion that shareholder rights derive from private contracts with which government must not interfere. These conceptions had their genesis in America’s own process of feudalization in the nineteenth century, when power was privatized by the Robber Barons. The remedy may be an expanded notion of fiduciary duty, owed not only to stockholders but to other stakeholders as well. Chapter 9 shows that legal barriers to making this change are not as impenetrable as they seem, and small steps have already been taken with state stakeholder statutes.

Suggesting why we must move toward internal democratic corporate governance is the topic of chapter 10. If stakeholder theory commonly asks who is affected by the corporation, the more precise query is who is governed by the corporation. The answer is employees. This chapter makes the case that employees have a unique right to a voice in corporate governance, since the right to self-govern is one of the most fundamental human rights. Ultimately, this right must be recognized in law.

If we desire to make changes like this in the law, doing so will be difficult until we tackle the power of wealth in government, which is the topic of chapter 11, on the principle of justice. The “right” of wealth to govern is one of the most ancient aristocratic principles, intact even at America’s founding, when governance by the rich and well-born still seemed natural. The privileges of wealth have arisen anew in recent decades, as corporations have increasingly claimed constitutional rights as “persons.” A related concern is the mechanism by which much wealth concentration arises in the first place: inheritance.

In the final chapter of the book, chapter 12, we turn to the question of how to rouse public sentiment for reform by stirring up “a little rebellion,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s phrase. We look at the principle of revolution: the fundamental right of the people to alter or abolish the economic governments we call corporations. Corporate charter revocation, though little used today, is a right all states legally possess, and its very existence serves as a valuable reminder that citizens hold ultimate power over corporations. This raising of consciousness is imperative, and there are other ways it can be pursued by employees, business students, social investors, unions, activists, and even CEOs.

Although it is a revolution we aim for, I suggest it will be a bloodless one, fought not at the barricades but in the press, the legislatures, and the courts. It will be (r)evolution—in other words, evolution. This means our ideal path to change should be both innovative and conservative, daring to build anew even as we preserve much of the old.

It may be that the only truly radical change we need is in our minds—in the collective pictures of reality we unconsciously hold. We accept that corporations are pieces of private property owned by shareholders, just as our ancestors believed that nations were private territories owned by kings. We live with these myths like buried shells, old bombs from an ancient war—the war we thought we had won, between monarchy and democracy.

To get at these deeper, unconscious ideas, a useful tool is metaphor. For that reason, this book employs the extended metaphor of aristocracy, which in another sense represents an ancient archetype—a set of archaic attitudes still alive inside our own minds. To begin to see those deep ideas, it helps to change the quality of our attention. To slow down a bit, become curious. See things we never thought to see, though they’ve always been there—right in front of our eyes.

The Divine Right of Capital

The Sacred Texts


In the worldview of corporate financial statements,
the aim is to pay stockholders as much as possible,
and employees as little as possible.

I grew up with bombs in the house. Two, actually. They were part of my father’s collection of antique war implements: a motley assortment of swords, masks, rifles, and these two shells—tall as a two-year-old child, standing upright on the long brick hearth in our basement. It wasn’t until my dad died and my mother moved out—after eight children had grown up wrestling near those bombs—that we discovered one shell was live. It could have gone off any time.

These days I collect tamer antiques than my dad: old magazines, cobalt blue Fiestaware. Mostly I collect antique ideas. I’m fascinated by the way an idea becomes antique, intrigued that a concept once considered ordinary can later seem absurd. I find it useful to keep antique ideas around, as a reminder that how we see things today is not how the world will always see them. And conversely, ideas we think of as dead may turn out—like old bombs—to have an unexpected, lingering power.


In my antique idea collection, a prized artifact is my 1914 Whitaker’s Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage, and Companionage—a fat little volume of royal blue, with a dozen gold crowns stamped on its cover (showing the king’s crown as distinct from a duke’s as distinct from an earl’s, and so forth). It’s a kind of phone book without phone numbers: a way for the British nobility to locate one another—in space (Winston Churchill residence: Admiralty House, Whitehall), and in order of noble precedence (grandson of Seventh Duke of Marlborough). I think of it as a souvenir from a lost world, not unlike a spent shell. Or a pot shard from Pompeii, dated the year of the eruption. For 1914 was the year World War I would break out, and it would leave five ancient imperial dynasties in its rubble.

The imperial descent began in 1908, when the Ottoman dynasty fell to revolutionary Young Turks. Within three years a revolution would topple the Ch’ing Dynasty in China. By the end of the war in 1918, three European dynasties lay in the dust: the hapless Romanovs in Russia, the Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary, and the Hohenzollerns in Germany. At war’s end, as a member of the Reichstag put it, crowns were simply “rolling about the floor.” 1 The British throne would stand, but its imperial possessions would soon break away to independence. Its aristocracy, as historian David Cannadine wrote, would continue its descent into “decline and decay, disintegration, and disarray.” 2

To the nobility in my 1914 Whitaker’s, the coming devastation lay yet behind a veil. They were still “the lords of the earth,” still “conscious of themselves as God’s elect.” 3 And they had Whitaker’s to help them keep score among themselves—showing who had the greater nobility. When Americans think of the aristocracy—if we think of it at all—it is as a vague lump of important personages, in which we differentiate a viscount from an earl no more easily than we might tell a paper birch from a shagbark hickory. But Whitaker’s Roll of the House of Lords was numbered in order of precedence: from 1. The Prince of Wales; 2.–8. Princes and Archbishops; 9.–29. the Dukes; 30.–54. the Marquesses; down through Viscounts, Bishops, and the long list of Barons, ending with 654. Baron Sumner of Ibstone.

The list was more than preening: it was the visible symbol of one’s place in the cosmic diagram, a way of knowing who was above whom, and who below, for that was how they pictured all of life. It was a world based on a primary antique idea: the great chain of being. All life had its place in this chain, which stretched vertically from the lowliest peasants up through the gentry and nobility to the king, who was highest of all (His Royal Highness) because he was just below God.

This picture of reality held pride of place for centuries, wrote Johns Hopkins University philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy in The Great Chain of Being. Like any idea that serves as a base for a society’s worldview, it was less a formally expressed concept than an “unconscious mental habit.” These beliefs, Lovejoy wrote, “which seem so natural and inevitable that they are not scrutinized,” are most decisive of the character of an age. They are so deep as to be inaccessible, so pervasive as to be invisible. 4 For centuries, society accepted the great chain of being, not as an idea but as a description of reality itself.

Today, we prefer the Forbes 400, ranking individuals from one to four hundred by relative worth. We may read in it the character of the corporate age.

Like aristocratic society, corporate society bases membership on property ownership. In Baron Sumner’s era, land was the property that mattered. Today property takes varied forms and is called wealth, or financial assets. So that’s the lens through which the corporation views the world: the lens of financial numbers, where it sees the numbers that belong to stockholders as the end point of the whole game. The financial statements are a lens focused on wealth holders, and that lens distorts what it sees—as did the lens of the great chain of being. Whitaker’s lords did not see others as gentlemen like themselves. They saw commoners destined to be ruled. As CEO of Scott Paper, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap did not see employees as members of the corporate society. He saw expenses to be cut.

Corporations believe their world of numbers is rational. They fail to see the irrational bias in the way the numbers are drawn—much as the lords failed to see (or chose not to see) the bias in the great chain of being. A primary bias built into financial statements is the notion that stockholders are to be paid as much as possible, whereas employees are to be paid as little as possible. Income for one group is declared good, and income for another group is declared bad.


This decree is held in place by the structure of the financial statements, which we might think of as the conceptual foundation of the corporate worldview. These statements reveal, to a remarkable degree, the unconscious mental habits of the corporation. They merit a closer look.

The stripped-down structure of the income statement is this:

Profit = Revenue - Costs

We might begin by making a few things visible that are invisible here. In simple terms, there are two kinds of costs: labor costs and materials. People and objects. There are also two kinds of people: employee people and capital people. Instead of designating gains to one as costs and gains to the other as income—which contains an invisible bias—we might designate them both as income. So we may restate the equation:

Capital income = Revenue - (Employee income + Cost of materials)

There’s also something invisible on the capital side: retained earnings—profits not given out as dividends but retained for the corporation’s use. Thus we have:

Capital income + Retained earnings =
Revenue - (Employee income + Cost of materials)

Common algebra teaches us that we can draw an equation in different ways while retaining its essential meaning. We might, for example, draw it this way:

Employee income + Retained earnings =
Revenue - (Capital income + Cost of materials)

Using this income statement, a corporation would define its purpose—its bottom line—as maximizing returns to employees. It would do so in part by driving capital income down as low as possible. That’s the nature of the equation, to reduce costs, and to increase profit. Note that in this equation, capital income is relatively secure: it’s a cost of doing business that must be paid. But it’s also fixed, so if the corporation does well, capital doesn’t share the gain. Employee income has been put at risk: if there aren’t profits, employees don’t get paid. But if the company does well, employees do well.

It might make more sense to draw income statements this way. If employees were given incentives to cut costs and increase revenues—knowing they’d pocket the gains—the company might become enlivened. Capital providers are in no position to increase revenues or cut costs, so giving them incentives to do so makes little sense. It’s also simply more logical to lump capital providers with materials providers. Both are suppliers, people outside the daily workings of the company, providing resources for its use.

We might observe here the unconscious power of the equation, for by its structure it defines insiders and outsiders. Whoever gets lumped with materials becomes a commodity—an object conceptually outside the corporation, to be purchased at the lowest possible price, to be used to enrich the bottom line of the insiders. In our redrawn income statement, capital becomes the outsider. Employees become the insiders.

An equation is simply an equation. We can draw it any way we like. But the way we draw it says a great deal about our worldview—and it unconsciously locks us into that view. Drawing it as we do today represents a choice: to view capital providers as those who are the corporation—and to view labor as a commodity.

The balance sheet reveals a similar capital-centric bias. Its structure is this:

Assets = Liabilities + Equity

The balance sheet is a funny beast in that it must balance. The two sides must be exactly equal. But in a way it makes sense: every asset a company has is either owned outright (thus is represented by equity) or has debt against it (and is represented by liabilities). Thus liabilities and equity added together equal assets.

Stockholders are represented on the balance sheet by equity, which is supposedly a reflection of what they own (in truth they own far more—the value of the corporation as a whole). But employees don’t appear on the balance sheet at all. They simply don’t exist—much as commoners did not exist in the Roll of the House of Lords. When a corporation looks around and records everything it has of value (its assets), it doesn’t see employees. It’s commonly said, “Our employees are our greatest assets,” but this isn’t true in accounting terms. If it were true, layoffs would be portrayed as a wholesale destruction of assets, rather than as an elimination of pesky expenses.

In accounting terms, employees have no value. Money has value, objects have value, ideas (intellectual property) have value, even some airy thing called goodwill has value. Employees, by contrast, have a negative value: They appear on the income statement as an expense—and expenses are aimed always at a singular goal: to be reduced.

If it’s the balance sheet that renders employees invisible, it’s the income statement that turns them into an enemy of the corporation. The reason is simple: every dollar paid out to employees is a dollar that doesn’t go to profits for stockholders. And common law (judge-made law) says public companies must maximize returns to shareholders. Every time an employee asks for overtime pay, or a raise, or benefits, he or she is acting as an enemy of the company’s fundamental mandate.


It doesn’t have to be this way. For a moment, let’s reimagine the income statement in a different design:

Capital income + Employee income =
Revenue - Cost of materials

Instead of viewing either labor or capital as a commodity, we’ve made them both the bottom line. They’re both insiders now—both considered full-fledged members of the corporate society, with a claim on profits. Now we have something that resembles a competitive internal market. We also have a natural partnership between stockholders and employees. Profit flows naturally to both—and the two parties must find a way to distribute it, presumably negotiating for it. The new design means employee income is put at risk. It also means employee gains are limitless. And it means employees are likely to start asking tough, market-based questions: Who contributed to the company’s success recently? When was the last time stockholders put any real capital in? How much have they already made off their contribution?

Employees are not asking these questions today. The financial statements do not encourage them to do so. Nor does corporate governance allow them a voice in income allocation, because they are defined as outsiders.

This business of insiders and outsiders is key. As cultural historian Edward Said notes, the fundamental tool of an imperialist order is turning the natives into outsiders in their own land. “For the native,” he wrote in Culture and Imperialism, “the history of colonial servitude is inaugurated by loss of the locality to the outsider.” And because of that outsider’s presence, “the land is recoverable at first only through the imagination.” 5

Stories are at the heart of how we view the world, Said wrote, for “the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming,” is what defines culture. The great chain of being was the narrative of the old world, and implicit in it was the notion that all must accept their place, no matter how low. The financial statements are the narrative of the corporation, and implicit in them is the notion that employee income must be kept in its place, that is, as low as possible. The concept of divine right once kept other social narratives from forming. Our own version of divine right—the mandate to maximize profits for shareholders—blocks other corporate narratives from forming.

Financial statements are nothing more than a mental construct, a picture of reality that makes companies add and subtract in certain ways. But they exact a toll in flesh and blood. And that toll is rising. In the last decade and a half, the proportion of employees making poverty-level wages has climbed substantially, and in the mid-1990s it stood at an alarming 30 percent. 6 That’s almost one in three working people, making wages that can’t adequately feed and clothe their families.

The problem isn’t limited to low-wage employees. For most Americans, wages have been falling for decades. Between the late 1970s and mid-1990s, income declined for a depressing three out of five Americans. 7 Ideas do have consequences.


Those consequences affect the community and the environment as well. That’s a result of a second major bias built into the financial statements: The corporation aims to internalize all possible gains from the community, and to externalize all possible costs onto the community. Costs placed on the corporation show up on the income statement, and diminish the bottom line. That’s bad. But costs placed on the community are invisible: the financial lens doesn’t see them, so they are of no consequence in the corporate worldview.

Let’s say Texaco drills in Ecuador—which it did for two decades. If Texaco had to pay to clean up the environmental mess, that would be bad. Environmental remediation is expensive. Thus the logic of the income statement dictated that contaminated “produced water” wastes (water brought up in the process of drilling) were dumped untreated into the Amazon’s rivers and streams—in the astonishing amount of four million gallons each day. The same logic dictated that toxic drilling muds were buried untreated—though this virtually assured the destruction of groundwater aquifers. 8 Aquifers, rivers, and streams are not assets of Texaco. They do not appear on the balance sheet, so their destruction need not be written off. That destruction is invisible in the corporate lens.

That lens also fails to see the consequences for human and animal life: cattle dead with their stomachs rotted out, crops destroyed, streams devoid of fish, children with anemia because sources of protein have been destroyed. “All during the dry season,” a clinic doctor in the region told The Village Voice in 1991, “[children] come in here with pus streaming from their eyes and rashes covering their bodies from bathing in the water.” 9

Damage to the fabric of life happens offscreen, as it were. This allows the corporate worldview to maintain the myth that social issues are soft (not businesslike, not important), while financial issues alone are hard. If something shows up on the financial statements, it matters. If it doesn’t show up, it doesn’t matter. Translated into human terms, this means that what affects stockholders is important; what affects everyone else is not important.

Saying this is the corporate worldview is not the same as saying everyone in business personally thinks this way. Individual managers might be very caring, and indeed many are. But the lens of the financial statements forces them to see, and to behave, in certain ways, regardless of their personal beliefs. The lens forces them to put aside their humanity and see in business terms—disregarding social costs if there are financial (that is, shareholder) gains at stake. It leads them to believe that it’s natural and correct to discriminate in favor of shareholders, and against employees and the community.

What is lost is at first recoverable only in the imagination, as Said noted. If we’ve never questioned the ideas implicit in the financial statements—never imagined we could (horrors!) add and subtract in different ways—it’s because we don’t think of these concepts as ideas. We think of them as reality.

The great chain of being, in its day, seemed like reality. It was a picture of reality that seemed so natural and inevitable that it was not scrutinized. Its bias was so pervasive as to be invisible—as the bias toward stockholders remains today. We see it not only in the corporation, but in treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which puts financial concerns at the core and puts labor and environmental concerns into side accords. We see it in a business press that has trumpeted an era of great prosperity, while one in three workers made a poverty-level wage.

Our mental habits take many bizarre (indeed, dangerous) forms, once we think to notice them: that company assets matter, while community assets do not. That the people who work at the company every day are outsiders, while those who never set foot in the place are insiders. Most of all, that this is the only way corporations can see the world. That the corporation’s current worldview is rational, natural, inevitable.

One hopes these notions turn out, some day, to be our own antique ideas. Today they retain their invisible, almost mythological power. We live with them like bombs on the hearth.

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“I have read this work with great pleasure—yes, even joy. It's sharp and right on the dot. It has a wonderful style and great passion.” —Rolf Osterberg, former chairman, Swedish Newspapers Association, and author, Corporate Renaissance: Business as an Adventure in Human Development
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“As the global decision makers search for answers, they should read Marjorie Kelly's book The Divine Right of Capital. The book is an intelligently written, challenging romp through history, philosophy, and economics.“
—Patricia Panchak, editor-in-chief, Industry Week
“This is the back story in the Enron fiasco, the one the mainstream media won't touch. Sure, we care about shareholders who lost their life savings. But what about the rest of us, our communities, and the planet? Kelly takes a reader through heavy conceptual territory with a deft, irreverent touch.”
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