Multinational Corporations and Post-national Thinking in the 1970s

In 1975, Lee L. Morgan, the President and Chief Operating Officer of Caterpillar Tractor, remarked that “In the 1970s there has been a virtual explosion in the publication of material on the multinational corporation.” Indeed, as big businesses increasingly transcended national boundaries in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of intellectuals and writers, such Raymond Vernon, Richard Barnet and Ronald Muller, began to raise alarm bells over what they saw as a troubling amount of power that these corporations possessed. However, for other observers of contemporary business, the multinational corporation was a positive development. Representing sometimes vastly different political and ideological sensibilities, this diverse group of economists, consultants and business school professors (most of whom identified as “futurists”) concluded that multinational corporations, if properly managed, could be accountable to multiple stakeholders and operate as pivotal institutions in a world where nation-states seemed to be less important than they had been. Indeed, speaking at the same event as Morgan in the middle of the decade, the Chamber of Commerce’s lead economist, Carl Madden, remarked that in a world marked by “virulent nationalism,” multinational corporations had the potential to “promote peace and understanding.” A year later, the Stanford Research Institute researcher Willis Harman would write that in the future, “new forms of world corporations” would play a role that would be “at least as important as national governments and international agencies” in securing global stability and prosperity. Such ideas moved beyond the era’s calls for corporate social responsibility. Instead, these various thinkers saw multinational corporations as harbingers of a new, emerging enlightened age. Over the course of the decade, these different futurists continued to refine and promote their understandings of the multinational corporation.