Pulp Fiction ?

A fairy tale of trade and conspiracy in the Northlands

Source of the pulp

This is a fairy tale of the Northlands, but as Scheherazade might say, there is much that can be learnt from these never-ending stories of interesting deeds and powerful metaphor.

There was once a group of traders who plied their business in northern countries, working in the forest industries – mainly they were Canucks, Yankees, Vikings and Finns and one of their commodities was wood pulp, used in the making of paper and board. And, it was said by the trading sheriffs, who policed the grand Northland enterprise of free trading, that these merchants came together to end their rivalry and competition and agree upon their trading terms. In that way, it was said, they sought to increase the amount of gold and coins that they received in exchange for their supply of pulp from other traders who fashioned the pulp into paper, packaging material and other goods which were highly valued in those lands. But, further it was claimed, the truce of these pulp suppliers was furtive, a matter of private treaty, since they wished to conceal the extent of their own profit, lest it provoked resentment among the other traders and ordinary folk. Their agreement was therefore carried out by cunning stratagem, using coded messages and signals, barely visible or understood by others outside their private circle.

It seemed then that the pulp traders thrived and enjoyed the comfort and security of their regular profit. Such was their sunny outlook that other traders wondered at their ease and calm, and the sheriffs cast a suspicion gaze in their direction. The sheriffs visited the halls and cabins of the pulp merchants. They examined their price lists and found among them all a congruence that they deemed unnatural. And the sheriffs recalled the words of the Caledonian Sage, who had written: ‘rarely do the traders meet but they fall into a conspiracy against the common good and align their strategies to some selfish advantage’. So the sheriffs said to the pulp merchants: ‘Surely you act in concert, and by design, to your own advantage. Your lists echo each other, and are evidence of collusion against the common weal across the Northern Lands.’

The pulp traders adopted a demeanour of dismay, and protested that this was a false accusation. They summoned the doctors of numbers in support of their innocence. The doctors opined that pulp is pulp, the same everywhere, one pulp worth no more and no less than any other pulp. The traders carried their pulp the same distances and stored it in similar cabins, all through practical necessity. The subject of their trade was the same, their efforts were indistinguishable, so wherefore and why the need for different prices ? Canuck, Yankee, Viking or Finn – they all traded in a similar way and naturally held a mirror to each other.

This led to a bitter argument between the sheriffs and the doctors, so the traders appealed to the judges of the Northern Lands. One of the judges said to the sheriffs: ‘If you believe this was by design, show how it came about, in closeted discussion in the halls and cabins of the traders, and prove the meeting of their wills.’ But the sheriffs responded: ‘We cannot do that, but we know that they employ cunning, pretend the independence of their lists, but they study each others’ lists at a distance, and cloak their conspiracy in intelligent adaptation. We insist that we establish our claim from the lists and nothing more. All else is a travesty of justice and credulous benefit of the doubt. Allow our presumption to prevail.’

Then the judges came together and considered the arguments. And they proclaimed: ‘the doctors’ opinions may be right, or may be wrong. We cannot judge such matters. But the doctors are correct in their logic – there may be different reasons, causes, and motives. Such is the way of the world. And to judge such material matters is not the science of numbers, but the science of proof. We must beware of presumptive and easy argument. The cost and pain of censure is high and the sheriffs must discharge a burden of evidence to justify their condemnation. If more than one tale may be told, that which convinces more through what is shown should provide the account for recorded history.’

And then the sheriffs left in chagrin, to consider how best to extract that most convincing tale of conspiracy. And so they came to employ their own cunning, to tempt the betrayal from within, and call upon the Judas voice to reveal false enterprise.


Aficionados of detail may find a much fuller (real life ?) version of this story in the European Court Reports, under Cases C89/95 etc, Ahlstrom Oy and others v Commission (1993) ECR 1-1307. Aficionados of legal analysis will find a particular account of the episode in Christopher Harding and Jennifer Edwards, Cartel Criminality: The Mythology and Pathology of Business Collusion (Ashgate, 2015), at pp 63-66.