LEADING ARTICLE: Big business behaves itself

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The Independent Online
ITT, the firm that became a byword for the do-everything, do-it- everywhere company, is breaking up. Under the legendarily ruthless Harold Geneen, ITT branched out from telephone services into almost everything else. Governments across the globe came to fear both its commercial and its political power.

Today's investors, by way of contrast, believe in specialisation, and few multinational conglomerates remain from the Seventies. Mr Rand Araskog, ITT's clinical Swedish-American chief executive since 1979, has several times reduced the scope of ITT's operations. Now he has finally ordered organisational hara-kiri. There will be three specialist companies with only the hospitality and entertainment group keeping the ITT name.

More interesting than the fate of Mr Araskog's firms, though, is what this signifies about the political power of big business today. Mr Geneen's blunt attempts in the Sixties and Seventies to manipulate Washington governments, to finance the CIA's operations to overthrow Salvador Allende's administration in Chile, and the $8.7m he spent on illegal operations around the globe, made him notorious.

Some multinationals and even national conglomerates still wield enormous political power. Rupert Murdoch's News International perhaps has more influence over governments and people than the crude machinations of Mr Geneen ever brought ITT. Through the conglomerate Fininvest, Silvio Berlusconi has been able to achieve both influence and real power in Italy. But they are not typical. More common is the collective power that Japan's great multinational corporations have in Tokyo, or that big European firms exercise on the European Commission. In general, the power of business has become subtler, more insidious and less dependent on the shameless buying of influence that marked the Geneen era.

In part this is because big business has fewer enemies today. The ideological left that opposed big firms on principle is all but gone. Even the radical consumer movements in Ralph Nader's tradition have lost political clout and no longer act as unrelenting scourges of business power. Business rarely needs to confront its enemies with the dirty tricks that ITT once used. Big businesses today are generally among the more law-abiding groups in society. Culture has changed, too. The old ITT retained its American culture everywhere in the world. Today's multinationals discreetly learn their hosts' cultures. The political impact of big business is more diffuse precisely because it now has more public acceptance.

The end of ITT reminds us that a new contract has emerged between business and elected government. Yet for all the fashionable Nineties talk of "corporate citizenship" and "business ethics" there will always be a tension between a democracy of individuals and the plutocracy of business. Today's methods of resolving these conflicts are generally less clandestine than in Geneen's day, but much business lobbying and influence remains invisible. Harold Geneen and dinosaur conglomerates may be gone, but we should watch Mr Araskog's gazelles and their kin carefully.