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Lobbying in Company: Economic Interests and Political Decision Making in the History of Dutch Brazil, 1621–1656. Joris van den Tol. The Atlantic World 38. Leiden: Brill, 2021. xvi + 322 pp. €138.

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Lobbying in Company: Economic Interests and Political Decision Making in the History of Dutch Brazil, 1621–1656. Joris van den Tol. The Atlantic World 38. Leiden: Brill, 2021. xvi + 322 pp. €138.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 January 2023

Gerrit De Vylder*
KU Leuven
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Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by the Renaissance Society of America

Joris van den Tol's book is a very interesting, well-written, and well-documented analysis of lobbying in Dutch Brazil, from 1621 to 1656. The author demonstrates how a polycentric network allowed for lobbying individuals to defend their interests, contributing to a public debate and influencing decision-making. He concludes that “people made a difference” (260), certainly when it came to formal institutions such as regulations. The Dutch trading empire in the Atlantic Ocean was “not exclusively a project of great designers, political elites, or enlightened thinkers.” “Instead,” Van den Tol argues, “it was the product of individuals” (261).

Van den Tol does not compare this with the present situation. Of course, whether comparisons or lessons should be drawn from a certain historical case study is a matter of discussion. Some would argue that such an interesting case study is a missed chance to reflect on today's situation. Law professor Joel Bakan observes that today's CEOs believe that they promote the public good when they lobby politicians on behalf of their companies. Yet Bakan also points at the missing countervailing lobbies to represent the interests of average citizens. Likewise, political historian Anand Giridharadas argues that members of the global elite, though sometimes engaged in philanthropy, use their wealth and influence to preserve systems that concentrate wealth at the top at the expense of societal progress. As a result, lobbying is no longer possible and necessary because this elite pretends to act for the common good.

Certainly, Van den Tol demonstrates that also in seventeenth-century Dutch Brazil most people (like Black slaves) did not have access to the lobbying network. Yet it is remarkable that the Portuguese, Jews, and even Indigenous people had access to it. The Dutch West India Company was clearly different from a modern corporation, which is required by law only to maximize returns to shareholders. It was not “a devilish instrument,” as Noam Chomsky describes the modern corporation, but rather a state-promoted chartered company of Dutch merchants as well as foreign investors, which was granted a charter for a trade monopoly. Within these limits it was a trading network allowing different players, reflecting a selective but relatively broad section of the civil population, in both the colonies and the Republic.

Neither was Dutch Brazil a performance- and growth-oriented society of self-exploitation, like philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes contemporary neoliberalism. According to Han, this self-exploitation is the result of ubiquitous surveillance and the quest for personal gratification, both of which reduce humans to self-imposed slavery in the service of both Big Capital and Big Government, which act as one and the same technocracy.

Using Kollman's theory of lobbying, Van den Tol describes how interest groups could use direct as well as outside lobbying strategies. Ordinary people used petitions to reach political mandates, and personal relations and societal capital were vital tools to influence decision-making. Lobbying was a relatively cooperative form of interaction between people and decision-makers, and was chosen over the more confrontational option of going to court. Van den Tol concludes that, as a result, institutions were largely the product of lobbying by knowledgeable individuals, either on an individual level or forming a lobbying alliance.

Comparisons can also be geographic. It would be interesting to compare Dutch Brazil with lobbying in an Asian context. The Dutch East India Company had to deal with highly developed societies in India and East Asia. As a result, lobbying had to include local Indigenous administrations or the Mughal Empire. Trading along the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts took place in an arguably Asia-centric world where Asian producers still had a considerable advantage compared to their European counterparts. To what extent was Dutch Brazil part of this Asia-centric world, and how did this affect lobbying efforts? Today, again, we are moving toward a more Asia-centric world where lobbying, especially in so-called neo-Confucian systems which confuse Confucianism with capitalism, is only between Big Government and Big Capital.

Van den Tol provides us with an interesting case study with many implications for today's lobbying or the lack of it. It allows us to conclude that lobbying in the seventeenth century, at least in some cases, was more polycentric than lobbying in today's neoliberal technocracy.