Corporations, or at least groups of people running a "company," go back to Roman days and ancient India as well. In the Middle Ages, churches were incorporated along with the City of London, with the idea being that such a status confirmed a kind of immortality on the institution. The Joint Stock Companies Act of 1856 in the United Kingdom was a turning point in corporate history, establishing that individuals could generate limited liability by setting up corporations.
Two early examples of chartered corporations are the Dutch East India Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. East India shares traded on the Amsterdam stock exchange and shareholders received limited liability by royal charter. The South Sea Company was another such corporation, accruing such wealth that it was able to take over the public debt of the UK government. Eventually, the South Sea Corporation caused a stock trading bubble, the first of its kind, engendering much bitterness against corporations generally. It would not be the last time.
Driven by the laissez faire theories of Adam Smith, corporations eventually made the transition from royal to private markets. In 1843, William Gladstone led the way to the Joint Stock Companies Act of 1844, which, when coupled with the later Joint Stock Companies Act of 1856 allowed anyone to incorporate and assume the privilege of limited liability.
In the former colonies court decisions recognized corporations as independent entities, though most of the prevailing legislation took place at a state level. The trend has continued throughout the 20th century, with corporations becoming increasingly powerful private entities not just in America, but around the world.
Today, there is a movement toward privatization, whereby state corporations come under the control of private ones. Corporations are generally being deregulated as well, and thus becoming more powerful. Post-World War II, there began to be a movement to allow corporations to purchase shares in other corporations and this has given rise to the multinational model, especially in America and Japan and then Korea.
Today it is safe to say that corporations dominate the capitalist landscape. Almost unaccountable to government, yet wielding powerful influence, corporations provide an ideal shield behind which elites hide. Without personal liability, people are free to indulge themselves in fairly abusive behaviors, secure in the anonymity that the corporate structure provides. Corporations are ideal vehicles for mercantilism, the strategy that Anglo-American elites especially use to control governments and pass laws for purposes of private gain.
Corporations are artificial entities, constructed by law; they are Trojan Horses for power elite societal, economic and political abuses. Masquerading as laissez faire constructs they are nothing of the sort. Absent various court decisions, industrial efforts would revolve around transparent partnerships as they have in the past. People would know who was involved in what industrial gambit and responsibility would be apportioned accordingly. The rise of corporations – the corporate state – has all sorts of ramifications, none of them especially good for freedom.
It is probably safe to say, in fact, that the world has entered the era of corporatism, where unaccountable entities reporting to invisible elites continually accrue clout while escaping responsibility for even the most terrible environmental and societal abuses. Corporations have little or nothing to do with the free market and everything to do with control of society by a handful of elite controllers who use corporations to disguise their one-world agenda. The rise of the corporation continues to reflect the demise of freedom, not just in America but around the world.