Being omnipresent

The myth of the Flying Dutchman might not be very appealing for modern businessman and – women – even
when they like sailing. But there is a story behind this old legend which reminds Henri Geerts of the modern
legend of Goldman Sachs. This American Bank and Trade company can open our eyes for the first and one of
the biggest monopolist capitalist trade companies the world ever saw. Being omnipresent like the VOC until
the nineteenth century and Goldman Sachs nowadays. Goldman Sachs is a network – and even the new to
be elected Chairman of the European Central Bank, the Italian Draghi worked for this company.
national (VOC-) history? The VOC has a quite long and a quite complex
Somewhere near the Cape in South Africa the original roots of the legend
history. It was indeed a time where the Dutch dared to embrace the
of the ‘Flying Dutchman’ can be found.
whole world, where they experienced a century of excellent art and sci-
They are about the captain of this ghost ship that was doomed
ence and where they gave a new meaning to (religious) tolerance. Com-
to perpetually battle the stormy seas around the Cape.
pare this with the policy of the right-wing PVV at the moment. And of
A Dutch captain Fokke of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was sus-
course – as the story of the Flying Dutchman tells us - as a surcharge you’ll
pected of having made a deal with the devil, thus explaining how quickly
have to sell your soul to Lucifer?
he could sail from Amsterdam to Java, and making him a model for the
This legend reminds us of the fact there is in history always something
fictitious Captain Van der Decken. That captain was thought to curse the
else at stake. It is about selling your soul to the devil – which means: to
winds and damn himself to eternally roam the seas rather than admit
lose your moral standards. In a broader context this can be seen in the
more general image of the Dutch since the start of the VOC. And it has
Some marketing ploy for this Asset-magazine and being proud on our
to do with morality. Well, in all honesty, there are very few references to
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“Dutch” in the English vernacular that are not negative. Look what we
empowerment). The Dutch didn’t want a ‘black’ ethical image of their
have. And of course – the English were the competitors of very successful
past… For example when the KLM adopted this name so as to express
Dutch merchants…
the awe at conquering the skies (instead of the seas). In the rest of the
Dutch uncle: someone annoying who gives unrequested advice
Dutch courage: the “courage” one gets from drinking too much gin
Dutch act: suicide
Dutch comfort: cold comfort (things could always be worse)
Dutch defense: a sham defense
Dutch generosity: stinginess
Dutch headache: hangover
Dutch gold: an alloy of copper and zinc that tarnishes easily
Dutch widow: a prostitute
Dutch party: one where everyone pays their own expense or the
world there is something ethically out of order – and don’t forget, it is due
to economic behaviour, let’s say: powerplay.
There can be seen the first comparison with Goldman Sachs. One of the
biggest disconnects on Wall Street today is between the way Goldman
Sachs sees itself (They ‘re the smartest) and the way everyone else sees
Goldman (they ‘re the smartest, greediest, and most dangerous). The
Dutch of the 17th century were according to the German sociologist
Max Weber the founding fathers of modern Capitalism; Goldman Sachs
could be considered their beloved grandsons who inherit most of their
host doesn’t play host
Double Dutch: speaking in a way so as to not be able to be understood
(to be) In Dutch: in trouble, out of favor, in suspicion
There are some historical views that propose the decline of the power
of the VOC starting at the end of the 17th century was due to ‘less merchants, more politicians’ in the boardrooms. Like “This reflects the basic
In contrast became the term Flying Dutchman in Dutch (Vlieghende
change in the VOC’s circumstances that had occurred: it now operated in
Hollander) an amelioration (“geuzennaam”: a Dutch term for a negative
new markets for goods with an elastic demand, in which it had to com-
or derogatory name appropriated and reclaimed as a positive label of
pete on an equal footing with other suppliers. This made for low profit
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Maybe here we can find another kind of parallel: to work
for this kind of companies, you must be willing to offer everything
margins. Unfortunately, the business information systems of the time
makes the rules in the banking system, even if no one can ever prove
made this difficult to discern for the managers of the company, which
how, not just because of its political connections but also because of its
may partly explain the mistakes they made from hindsight. This lack of
immense size and power. Just compare this with the role of the VOC in
information might have been counteracted (as in earlier times in the
Asian trade in the 17th century… The power is not from the very sophis-
VOC’s history) by the business acumen of the directors. Unfortunately
ticated canons on the warships – the power comes now from the desks
by this time these were almost exclusively recruited from the political
where the financial rules are written.
regent class, which had long since lost its close relationship with merchant circles.”
But don’t forget – the company was from the start also a political enter-
We might think anew about the most profitable enterprises and what
gives them a drive. And there can be said a lot about a history of the VOC
No doubt we can find in this magazine more historical references to the
– much can be learned. At the end of this article I would like to make the
Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC
comparison again between VOC and Goldman Sachs.
in old-spelling Dutch) chartered by the States-General of the Netherlands
to expand trade and assure close relations between the government and
Literature gives us between several other reasons a viewpoint on the
its colonial enterprises in Asia. The company was granted by the state a
decline of the VOC.
monopoly on Dutch trade East of the Cape of Good Hope and West of
First: The “venality” of the VOC’s personnel (in the sense of corruption and
the Straits of Magellan. It was the first multinational corporation in the
non-performance of duties), though a problem for all East-India Compa-
world and the first company to issue stock.
nies at the time, seems to have plagued the VOC on a larger scale than its
competitors. To be sure, the company was not a “good employer”. Salaries
It remained an important trading concern for almost two centuries, pay-
were low, and “private-account trading” was officially not allowed. Not
ing an 18 percent annual dividend for almost 200 years, until it became
surprisingly, it proliferated in the 18th century to the detriment of the
bankrupt and was formally dissolved in 1800,[1] its possessions and the
company’s performance. From about the 1790s onward, the phrase per-
debt being taken over by the government of the Batavian Republic. The
ished by corruption (also abbreviated VOC in Dutch) came to summarize
VOC’s territories became the Dutch East Indies and were expanded over
the company’s future.
the course of the nineteenth century to include the whole of the Indo-
Second : A problem that the VOC shared with other companies was the
nesian archipelago, which would form Indonesia in the 20th century. The
high mortality and morbidity among its employees. This decimated the
Dutch East India Company impacted on European life, changing its food
company’s ranks and enervated many of the survivors.
(adding spice). It also stimulated the development of scholarly interest in
In this respect the figures for Goldman Sachs are completely different.
the languages, cultures and religions of the territories it acquired within
There is an enormous amount of money for the employee’s of this firm
the Dutch academy, to a degree almost unrivaled elsewhere in Europe. It
($ 16.7 billion was paid out in 2010, which mounts up into an average
enhanced the status of Holland within Europe, despite the nation’s mod-
of $ 700,000 per person). The difference with past times of the VOC is
est size. Reason enough to see the strong relations between trade and
that people working for Goldman Sachs will not fraud their Firm, in the
government in the Netherlands. Capitalism was for the Netherlands a one
contrary: they work very very hard (for example, having a tan in summer
way road to Colonialism.
makes you quite suspicious among your collegues…). Maybe here we
And we shouldn’t be to naïve as the modern legend of Goldman Sachs
can find another kind of parallel: to work for this kind of companies, you
shows us. In the aftermath of the last economic crisis we see the enor-
must be willing to offer everything. And it has to be asked: is it enough for
mous impact of this Bank and Trading company on politics – not only in
companies however big to give way to the obsession of making money
terms of lobbyism in Washington, but also in the sheer fact that two of
first and foremost. Or do these great institutions have to stand for some-
the firm’s past four leaders have served as Treasury secretaries; addition-
thing more?
ally, there are sources who tell that at a G-7 meeting 24 to 28 out of 32
finance officials in attendance were ex-Goldman men. That’s a modern
way of being onmipresent…
In reflections on the last economic crisis someone put it like
this:”Goldman’s skill set is walking between the raindrops over and over
again and getting away with it”. This sentence reflects a fear that Goldman
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The Centre for Science and Values (CSV) explores
the limits of science: where science meets moral
issues, religious belief and social responsibility. It
challenges people to discuss cultural and religious values, personal inspiration and fundamental presuppositions by organizing conferences,
building networks and publishing articles. For
the actual programme see