Economic Nationalism

Read: Sawyer, Benjamin. “Manufacturing Germans: Singer Manufacturing Company and American Capitalism in the Russian Imagination during World War I.” Enterprise & Society 17, no. 2 (2016): 301-323.

The case presents the story of the accusation made against Kompaniia Zinger, the Russian subsidiary of the American-owned Singer Manufacturing Co., of being engaged in espionage on behalf of the German military during WWI. Even though the accusation was absurd, the Russian government took control over the company in April 1915. During the next few months, Russian military officials accused the company of possessing data that the officials believed “had been or could be used for giving information to the enemy.” They closed down c. 600 Singer’ offices and arrested some of its employees. Although the specially appointed state commission made an investigation and concluded that the company was in no way associated with the enemy powers, the local army and police officials who remained suspicious of the company often hindered Singer’s activities. Many of Singer’s customers who were paying for their machines in installments decided to use the opportunity and ended their financial obligations to the company. The loss of these payments caused significant overall damage to Singer in Russia. The material presented in the paper can help us understand why Singer’s management had such difficulties refuting the (unfair) accusations of its German ties. Also, the story allows us to place twenty-first-century concerns over private data collection into its historical context. Perhaps, such modern multinational companies such as Facebook, Google, and Huawei, as well as the decision-makers in the national governments can learn from the Singer case.

Questions for preparation:

1. How would you describe the relationship between Singer and the Russian government? What could the decision-makers have done to avoid the crisis in 1915 described in the paper? What does the story tell us about governance in Russia?
2. Why did Singer’s management have such difficulties with shaking off the (unfair) accusations of its German ties even after the state commission concluded that they were innocent?
3. What arguments and rhetorical tricks did the attackers on Singer use? Why did their groundless accusations nevertheless turn to be so efficient?
4. Was the company’s response to the closure of its 600 offices closer the right choice? What would you (as the Zinger’s CEO) do, considering circumstances and available resources?
5. What could modern multinational companies dealing with private data learn from Kompania Zinger’s story?