Having studied, written on and engaged in public discussion about transnational corporations (TNCs), I have reached the conclusion that we are not collectively equipped to think about the kind of power that they represent, the silent way they exercise their specific form of sovereignty and the numerous mechanisms that allow them to circumvent the law wherever they operate.
To illustrate this, I will focus on just one corporation –Total – as a textbook case, and show what it is capable of globally, rather than piecing together several examples that could be accused of being selectively chosen just to satisfy our research needs.
Total is a corporate group headquartered in France, with operations in 130 countries, 100,000 employees and ‘collaborators’, and a daily production of the equivalent of 2.8 million barrels of oil. In 2018, Total reported net profits of $13.6 billion.
This energy giant, the world’s fifth-largest oil company and which has been around for almost a century, merits attention in view of the fact that it has been the subject of very little analysis, despite its shocking track record in human rights, the environment, public health and business ethics.
For instance, communities in Myanmar say they were forced to work on the construction of a gas pipeline. Dictatorships in Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville have received the corporation’s support for decades. It has openly used Bermuda as a tax haven to avoid paying taxes in France. And that is not to mention its polluting oil-exploration activities in northern Canada or themarkets that it obtained following bombardments in Libya, to name just a few examples.
We begin by defining TNCs, disproving the image of Total as ‘a French oil company’, as is commonly believed. Each of these terms – ‘a’, ‘French’, ‘oil’ and ‘company’ – is misleading.
First, by definition, transnational groups are not ‘a’ or ‘one’ company and do not formally constitute one legal entity, but hundreds of them – including its various subsidiaries, trusts, holdings, foundations, specialised firms and private banks.
These structures are legally autonomous, bound only by the laws of the jurisdiction in which they were created, but are in fact part of the networks that form transnational groups.