'The Anarchy'

William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury Publishing, 576 pages, $35. Nowadays, almost every MBA program includes classes on business ethics. William Dalrymple's superb account of Britain's East India Company shows why: "The Anarchy" is a case study in what can go wrong — very, very wrong — when corporate leaders lack a sense of decency. Founded in 1599 to run British trade in Asia, the East India Company evolved from being a profitable corporation with a security force to being a mighty army with a trading division. By 1765, it had even taken the ruler of the once-vast Mughal Empire under its protection — rather as if Huawei were to invade Europe and hire Boris Johnson. Dalrymple, the author of nine books on India and the Islamic world, devotes only a few pages to editorializing about contemporary corporations, offering instead a vivid and richly detailed story about how, and why, the company turned into an empire. These questions have become historical battlefields, with traditionalists insisting that the indigenous Mughal Empire's decay forced the company to take up arms to restore order, while others respond that the company created the chaos that it exploited. Dalrymple, however, is delightfully evenhanded. "If history shows anything it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, the corporation will use all the resources in its power to resist," he writes. The greatest virtue of this disturbingly enjoyable book is perhaps less the questions it answers than the new ones it provokes about where corporations fit into the world.