‘Sharing,’ ‘Corporate Social Responsibility,’ & ‘Free Markets’ Themselves Require Social Democracy
This is a first installment of several about the phenomenon, or fantasy, of Corporate Social Responsibility. It contextualizes the entire series for readers, which will follow in upcoming posts.
Here we all are, a part of the sharing protocols of the world’s economy as it teeters on the verge of freefall crashes that could result from diverse dynamics, copious causes, or multiple directions. In fact, our personal or collective political-economic-survival-modules might hurtle over the edge and into a death dive from the merest nudge, according to some analysts, let alone from a ‘perfect storm’ of manifold interlocking effects.
In this context of, to say the least, tense anticipation and occasional intense dread about the future, voices en masse pose the question that ‘Vladimir Bolshevik’ asked citizens everywhere to ponder way back in 1917, to wit, “What is to be done?” Every Spindoctor installment has in fact insisted on offering suggestions respond to such an inquiry, though a much-too-substantial portion of the narratives that contain or imply this interrogatory in the wider mediated world either give no inclination to think in terms of solutions or provide only the most superficial, even naïve, directives and admonitions about how to manage the present pass.
In that regard, one might consider the marketing muscle, management theory, and public-relations punch that, at their best, have advanced as a response to Lenin something akin to the following summation. “The world is complicated, so fixing anything can’t happen overnight or easily; nevertheless, by facilitating and otherwise supporting and operationalizing Corporate Social Responsibility, both individuals and such collective agents as bureaucracies and political parties and other groups can have a powerful positive affect on the issues and difficulties characteristic of everything on Earth at the moment.”
Today’s exercise in a deeply-delved reportage will contemplate this notion. It will follow the organizational course of all the Spindoctor essays that have emanated from this Contributoria phase of things, as with so much in this ‘brave new world’ of sustainability and crowd-funded disruption, a quicksilver blink of the proverbial eye.
This initial section, as has been the case since a friendly critic recommended such a shift, more or less begins with a brief capsulization of the hypothesis that, in rejoinder to management’s take above, this installment purports to prove. “As with every fix that capital advances in its own behalf, the trope of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ is at best a plausibly useful way of thinking that, in its current guise, represents most optimistically a woefully insufficient formulation and perhaps more likely a consciously-selected diversionary tactic for those who would do anything at all to delay, if not derail, the absolutely reasonable, and even indisputable, calls and actions for fundamental reforms—possibly revolutionary reforms—of contemporary ways of doing business.”
There now; that didn’t hurt too badly, did it? Such a mouthful of words, one can only hope, is clear enough in what it expresses, neither shelling out way too much nor sprinkling about not nearly enough, to set the stage for what follows, which in some ways questions whether capitalist norms are best, or at least whether they are indispensable, in any scheme of ‘doing business’ at the present stage of human development.
Defining Terms & Refining Approaches
In manifesting what comes next, a moment of definition and classification may be essential. Such an approach, in the warrens of Guardian Media, is in turn different from other Spindoctor pieces here, all of which have concerned either events that were tangible enough to require little definition, or socioeconomic or political-economic trends or developments that were also pretty clearly evident in and of themselves. On the ground, so to speak, plenty of other thinkers are also cogitating this sort of CSR explication, so much so that a very basic search–<“corporate social responsibility” definition OR meaning OR analysis OR explication OR delineation>–yields well over thirteen million links to look at.
From this rich field of source material, one might bring forth a fairly simple statement of CSR parameters. To wit, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility exists when something like a Fortune 500 firm performs so as simultaneously and consciously to maximize community health and well-being as well as profit, and to carry on in this manner without notable exceptions.’
Moving along a slightly different pathway, one way to proceed in matters of this sort, always a joy in English, is to look at the roots of the key term in the string, responsibility, and to ponder its sources. Not surprisingly, these come down to Latin elements, which specifically refer to the making of vows and the provision of dialogic or discursive guarantees.
The evolution of the word itself flows through the verb, “respond,” and the noun, “response,” which are both at least seven hundred years old and the adjective, “responsible,” which became common enough at most a few hundred years later. Essentially, then, the core of Corporate Social Responsibility has flowed from mutual conversation toward duty.
One of the web’s chief online etymological authorities gives an investigator a helpful start. “Responsibility” stemmed from “responsible,” which meant basically “’answerable’ (to another, for something), from obsolete French responsible (13c., Modern French responsable, as if from Latin *responsabilis), from Latin respons-, past participle stem of respondere ‘to respond’ (see respond). Meaning ‘accountable for one’s actions’ is attested from 1640s; that of ‘reliable, trustworthy’ is from 1690s. Retains the sense of ‘obligation’ in the Latin root word.“
Wikipedia’s service, the Wiktionary, also serves up useful material about the noun itself here in question, which in turn dates from the mid-to-late eighteenth century. Of particular note are the more-or-less corporate implications of the word in military terminology, where both the authority to carry out tasks and inherent attributes that relate to property and money are present.
Such linguistic thinking, on the one hand, can be dry, a bit formulaic, and can raise the mere behavior of using one’s vocal cords to pronounce certain sounds to a level of moral and practical consequence. On the other hand, however, such a process of pondering these language points can lead to fruitful ideation, if one remains open and creative about the practice as such.
In this case, for example, one can constructively notice the way that responsibility originates in answering back. The implication of dialog, of a two-way or multisided conversation among engaged agents, is a powerful starting point. At an absolute minimum, no responsibility would be valid or viable that was one-sided only, that emanated exclusively from one party’s views or agendas. This conceptualization has deep and widespread applicability in the arenas, contemporaneous as well as historical, in which such matters have arisen.
The proof of this assertion will soon be obvious. It boils down in some senses to the practical advice that students and other populations that the Spindoctor has studied have retorted to those who insisted that top-down reformulation and recontextualization would ‘help’ those who were struggling with whatever intensification of distress was under the microscope, so to say, in a given instance. As a recent syllabus repeated the notion, “Nothing about us, without us, can be for us.”
Practical & Operational Expressions of CSR
At this juncture, though, in addition to this admonition, we might want to weigh more practically and generally how actors in the here and now conceive of Corporate Social Responsibility, not simply as a meaningful phrase, but as a social, political, and economic progression. Several search strategies can assist this effort, much like these two: <“corporate social responsibility” exemplary OR specific OR particular OR individual cases OR firms OR companies OR corporations assessment OR benchmark OR scorecard OR evaluation OR measurement>; and <“corporate social responsibility” example OR examples OR “case study” OR “case studies” OR instance OR instances>, both of which provided well over ten million resulting connections.
Opinions vary about how to proceed to define CSR more specifically, but an observer might find some agreement—explicit or implicit—that the conception must include, at an absolute minimum, several core components. One would be that wage-earners in the company’s employ have their human rights, which absolutely must include their labor rights, respected without exception. Another would be that the company’s environmental impacts—its waste, its energy usage, its effluent streams, and more—would be fully sustainable. Yet another would be that its lobbying or other such activities would support the capacitation of workers elsewhere and the promulgation of environmental policies elsewhere in similar ways as the truly responsible corporation practiced in its homeland. A final piece of this assessment of CSR’s existence would be that such a firm, in its relationships with suppliers, sub-contractors, and other necessary or opportune joint venturers, would also deploy and insist on such standards.
One might add a good deal more. Issues of empire, of civil rights, of support for democracy, and further factors that a decent world entails—in which decent companies play their roles—might be useful or at least interesting to explore. Certainly, in any case, something like the core description above provides a launching pad for an explication of CSR in the here and now.
In thinking about whether CSR along these lines is extant in any context whatsoever, an investigator would at a minimum discern two overall camps that present polarized perspectives on the sense and consequence of this now-almost-ubiquitous formulation. One point-of-view would contend something like the best-case summation at the start of this report, more or less like this:
- As a necessary adaptation in the evolution of the free market, large numbers of companies of different sizes in different industries have adopted various policies in relation to multiple issues—air quality, water quality, climate change, food additives and supplements, genetically modified organisms, workplace safety, labor rights to organize, payments to and standards for subcontractors, arms sales, waste clean up, renewable energy prioritization, and innumerable additional matters—that put a social good or benefit above profit or other ‘bottom-line’ orientation;
- A decidedly opposing perception also appears quite frequently in the ‘marketplace of ideas:’ While apologists for capitalism want always to emphasize how ‘markets’ ‘efficiently’ incorporate necessary reforms—improved environmental quality, superior occupational safety standards, human rights improvements, the permitted presence of an active and worker-controlled labor movement, increased application of energy efficiency and appropriate technology, eliminating ethnic and gender chauvinism, reducing police predation, reduced predation against weaker nations, ending militarism and conquest, and so forth and so on and on and on—in reality such views are at most fantasies and more often cover-ups for institutional arrangements in which both business organizations and government agencies with which ‘executives’ share a revolving door always put profit uppermost, generally advance profit as the only business value, frequently engage in profiteering and other predatory behaviors, and occasionally indulge in corrupt practices or outright plunder, and then, finally, lie about, cover up, or ignore such customary behaviors.
A search such as this, <“corporate social responsibility” disagreement OR polarity OR polarization OR contradiction OR contrary OR contrariety OR dissent OR dispute>, elicits a bit more than six hundred fifty thousand citations of possible use in seeing this bifurcation of viewpoint more exactly. One might continue in this vein for many pages. However, perhaps readers and researchers could agree that an either-or differentiation does in fact describe this arena of the present-day, even as some analysts will balance their narratives with aspects of both points of view.
Thus, in essence, a two-part musical movement, as it were, delineates the meaning and subtext of Corporate Social Responsibility. On the one hand, defenders advance it as anything from useful reform to magical panacea. On the other hand, critics decry it as some combination of error and duplicity and malfeasance.
Coming Down to Cases: Getting Real About CSR
Having come to this conjunction, we are now ready to see how reality matches these dialectically juxtaposed perspectives. In the current unit’s iteration of things, this discourse will continue with a three-part rubric about the sorts of conditions that might, theoretically or conceivably, fulfill the much-vaunted promise of the CSR ‘movement.’ An appraisal of how responsibly companies and sectors are performing will accompany this introductory explication’s development.
If Corporate Social Responsibility is valid and viable as a construct or expression of the real world, then one of three things ought to be true: one, at least a single company of significant size and heft must exhibit a ‘socially responsible’ footprint across the board, as it were; two, some industrial or other operational nexus of capital generally and as a whole must demonstrate ‘social responsibility’ throughout its area of expertise and focus and output and so forth; or, three, some theoretical and conceptual thinkers or populizers or policy makers must offer a combination of credible ideas and tangible suggested actions that could realistically, in a current capitalist societal context, result in CSR’s imprimatur coming to pass in such bona fide ways as numbers one and two embody.
In the first place then, one may begin to wade through some of the tens of millions of search results to try to find a CSR pearl or two or three or more. Having done this for many years, a Spindoctor summary would be, quite simply, “It’s hopeless!” In any event, twenty pages deep in any of the various strings that have harvested such a copious crop of erstwhile responsible corporate wannabes, one cannot find a single real contender of “any significant size and heft.”
How paltry, some combination of hilariously or frighteningly so, this assertion of any general CSR foothold really appears becomes clear when one considers the actual articles that result from sifting through such evidence. The chronicler who shouts out that he has a solid example can only offer pipsqueaks, whose efforts are at best limited and self-regulated; any journalist who scrutinizes large industrial, financial, or otherwise commercial operations invariably finds multiple deficiencies in even the most elementary aspects of actual Corporate Social Responsibility.
Business Daily News, for instance, wants to advance twenty cases as providing some measure of proof that such qualities are more than fantasy. All of the listed firms are start-ups or otherwise tiny establishments at the outlying edges of corporate capital.
Moreover, their basis for inclusion as outposts of responsibility in the corporate sphere is uniformly self-diagnosed and rarely ventures beyond the merest whiff of ‘good citizenship.’ In other words, they give some money to charities of their own choosing or follow guidelines that they or others of their ilk have promulgated.
This is the sole visible typology of the outlier endeavors. Even if one bent backwards to find such capitalization of ‘significant size and heft,’ its instantiation simply would not fit the advertised bill of goods.
A much realer perspective is possible, of course. A present-day law review article examines four highly-capitalized, oligopolistic corporations—Coca Cola, Walmart, Apple Computers, and Canon—and paints a much bleaker portrait of the CSR landscape that these organizations depict, mentioning in passing Dukes v. Walmart as an indicator of how far one of the selected coterie has to travel to ‘measure up’ to even the most meager standards of decency and equity.
The authors in that journal might have noted much more on the debit side of the CSR ledger in relation to this little group. Coke’s seamy collaboration with murderous agents in its Colombian operations, Apple’s accession to despicable labor practices in various Asian venues, and Wal-Mart’s combination of essentially parasitic and predatory behavior in relation to the communities in which it operates, for starters, debunk the notion about these companies, and other investigatory work would churn up innumerable contradictions to these four erstwhile exemplars’ fulfillment of anything even vaguely kindred to CSR practices.authors in that journal might have noted much more on the debit side of the CSR ledger in relation to this little group. Coke’s seamy collaboration with murderous agents in its Colombian operations, Apple’s accession to despicable labor practices in various Asian venues, and Wal-Mart’s combination of essentially parasitic and predatory behavior in relation to the communities in which it operates, for starters, debunk the notion about these companies, and other investigatory work would churn up innumerable contradictions to these four erstwhile exemplars’ fulfillment of anything even vaguely kindred to CSR practices.
Reasoning counterfactually, to be able to proffer the affirmation of Corporate Social Responsibility in a completely convincing fashion, one would need to be able to state the following ‘facts’ as applicable to Coca Cola, or other firm of appropriate “size and heft,” for instance. ‘Everywhere that Coke has a corporate imprint, it pays a living wage and otherwise honors and supports its workers; it produces products that are close to 100% health-promoting and that do not deplete or pollute precious environmental resources; it does not target vulnerable populations with its advertising or use toxic or addictive ingredients.’
Whatever one feels about a particular brand—no one is suggesting that picking on Coke is helpful or fair—such a characterization as the prior paragraph contains is simply impossible to prove, and, in the alternative, it is quite simple to disprove. The company-by-company search for a valid CSR candidate, in other words, looks like a long shot indeed.
A young scholar from Australia has recently examined Starbucks communications policies in a somewhat similar fashion. “However, one can argue that there is a lack of salient self-beneficial economic motives throughout the report and the website in general, which could cause stakeholders to be somewhat skeptical. It can be interpreted that the motives behind the CSR activities are presented as being too philanthropic, which can cause the stakeholders to suspect ulterior hidden motives. This potential issue could be addressed by providing information illustrating how the different initiatives benefit Starbucks by creating value (i.e. profit or shareholder value).“
Put more matter-of-factly, this public-relations thinker is suggesting, if it looks and smells like bullshit, then proprietors had better apply perfume or otherwise adjust the bouquet if they want people actually to believe these types of representations. The web materials are replete with analyses like this, which acknowledge the weakness or self-serving and self-deceiving aspects of CSR operations in such a fashion as to suggest amelioration or fixes that do not actually create responsibility along social lines so much as proffer moves that can make the alleged ‘responsible’ corporate behavior appear more authentic and palatable to onlookers, and perhaps especially to prospective critics, not to mention shareholders or other investors.
One could, arguably with great ease, take the list of whatever corporate ventures are the set of firms of “significant size and heft” that all presently want desperately to merit the label of a CSR outfit and one-at-a-time demonstrate that not even a solitary corporation of this sort fits the CSR bill of fare. In miniature, this subsection and what follows does just that. With more time, or a specific challenge, all comers would, in the view of this report, ultimately fail to meet even minimal requirements of anything capable of sustaining the label, Corporate Social Responsibility.
Along similar lines, in the limelight of the ‘sharing’ and caring of supposedly up-to-the-minute instantiation of super, ultra-CSR efforts, Uber at once reveals the erstwhile epitome of ‘sharing success’ and, as is visible below, offers a cautionary tale in how exploitative and inequitable such arrangements actually are in day-to-day reality. In one of the few credible, if not ‘rags-to-riches’ at least Ford-to-Ferrari, success tales in the ‘new economy,’ Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp—not ‘trust-funded’ fellows, these, seemingly—managed to turn a modest investment of venture capital millions into untold billions of ‘shareholder value’ that has as a result ‘transformed current relationships in positive and far-reaching fashion.’
Or so the story goes. In an explanation that shows greater ‘critical distance,’ Internet Is Not the Answer author Andrew Keen makes the argument like this.
“Kalanick’s $18 billion venture is certainly a badass company, with customers accusing its drivers of every imaginable crime from kidnapping to sexual harassment. Since its creation, the unregulated Uber has not only been in a constant legal fight with (urban areas) and federal regulators, but has been picketed by its own nonunionized drivers demanding collective bargaining rights and health care benefits. …
With 7.5 million Americans working in part-time jobs in July 2014…(this) ‘revolutionizing’ of the world’s workforce is, in truth, a reflection of the new poorly paid class of peer-to-peer project workers, dubbed the ‘precariat’ by the labor economist Guy Standing. ‘With piecemeal gigs easier to obtain than long-term employment,’ warns the New York Times’ Natasha Singer, this highly insecure labor model, the dark underbelly of DIY capitalism, is becoming an increasingly important part of the new networked economy.”
Nor does this monograph single out Uber as ‘exceptional’ in this regard. The entire Silicon Valley miracle machine comes in for equally skeptical, if not scathing, treatment. “Class War” is its operational heart, its spiritual core. Destruction is its economic foundation, though the attendant mayhem and carnage is always ‘creative’ and ‘efficient’ from the POV of wealthy venture funds that seek a cashout from their routine functioning and success.
“If poor people and unions are the problem for Silicon Valley’s tech elite, then technology, and the Internet in particular, is always the answer. …(T)his delusional ‘thinking’ … has infected San Francisco, transforming one of the world’s most diverse cities…into a laboratory for an outsourced, networked economy that wants to feed people Soylent and employ them to wait in lines.
…(T)here is no role for unions, no place for anything protecting the rights of the laborer, no collective sense of identity, no dignity to work. …It’s a two-tier system of overlords and the unemployed and the underemployed and the occasionally employed. An economy in which menial tasks are handled by an outsourced underclass who will do anything for an hourly rate on labor networks… . commodifying life itself so that everything—from buying a rose to waiting in line—can be bought and sold.”
Another documentary item delineates very well the pros and cons of this ‘disruptive’ development and how it relates to both the whole realm of ‘sharing’ and corporate responsibility. In the end, everything bourgeois that succeeds becomes a vehicle for monopoly, for taking over everything and pulverizing any operation that competes into ruin.
This sort of new-age entrepreneurial “vision is much more than a better taxi service or nifty town cars for the masses… .(It contains) the potential for a smoothly functioning instant-gratification economy, powered by the smartphone as the remote control for life. ‘If we can get you a car in five minutes, we can get you anything in five minutes,… .’ But the desire to enter and dominate the ‘everything economy’ echoes the ambitions of much bigger and more established companies such as Google, Amazon, eBay, and Walmart.”
A recent assessment in Naked Capitalism, meanwhile, illustrates political economic underpinnings of the inequality that is inescapable in such a context as in part a result of ‘rent-seeking’ in relation to already extant embodiments of value. This clearly applies to such phenomena as Uber and Lyft and other sharing archetypes, which in turn tout their more equitable and responsible corporate imprints and footprints and so forth. Unfortunately, among the multiple drawbacks of social relations and political economy that incarnate a rentier’s attitude are two especially onerous difficulties.
The first concerns the centrality of the agendas and protocols and property and pocketbooks of those who already own most of the planet. That is the implication of renting, taking what those who hold the title have, and simultaneously breaking it up into tinier and tinier pieces and charging people for any sort of access to those pieces. The ‘sharing’ that takes place is the right to gain access, for a fee in which one’s bargaining power is minimal or less, to some piece of the pie that already exists in our midst.
The second shortcoming flows ineluctably from the monopolists’ sated feeding on everything that they permit to contain value. What the world needs in this regard—affordable housing, adequate food, income-producing options for the majority who have nothing to rent but their sweat and their backs and their brains, environmental restoration, cultural rejuvenation, educational flourishing, and almost infinitely more—decidedly does not have ‘permission to contain value,’ although, arguably, such largesse ought to be part of what a democratic society stands for and offers to citizens.
The essence of living in a world where rent is the basis of capital and hence production, therefore, ends up characterizing exactly the opposite of social responsibility. Because such a fact is, to say the least, highly troubling, those who own all and want to be able to charge for doing anything in relation to what is under their control, see fit to beat their breasts with the promises of CSR, even though they not only never intend to deliver on those vows but also cannot possibly make good on such oaths without fundamentally altering the social relations of production and distribution.
In a more and more fully ‘capitalized’ global marketplace, such parsing of goods, an ‘outsourcing of everything’ in essence, is one response by wealthy stakeholders who want more than anything else to garner the percentage that guarantees that they’ll never have to work for a living or lose the ‘equity’ that they almost always inherited in the first place. But this ‘response’ is no more inherently responsible than the occasional aberration in Victorian times, as when John Stuart Mill argued that his eureka discovery of the ability to maximize utility promised a real expression of social justice and social equity, a nineteenth century articulation of CSR about which we’ll hear more in the fullness of time.
Another CSR leviathan, in any case, Amazon, has recently encountered a few bumps and lumps in its celebration of its dearly-beloved patina of responsibility in the markets that it dominates, in the event establishing almost a monopolist’s stranglehold on a particular realm of ‘rentals,’ which is to say the resale of used goods of all sorts, in the context of management tools that promise efficient and reliable exchanges for almost anything at all. A veritable shitstorm erupted from New York Times reportage that, accompanying its leviathan’s reach, it crushed its workers in every conceivable way, milking from them its small percentage but giant volume of profit in such a fashion as to break their bodies and depress their psyches and leave many as so much alienated, depressed wreckage in the process.
That Amazon has intended to posture as a truly responsible corporate entity is incontrovertible. Whereas the average Fortune 500 company, when one searches for its name plus “corporate social responsibility” OR csr, elicits plus or minus half a million hits, the following string brought forth thirteen-and-a-half million results: <amazon “corporate social responsibility” OR csr>.
Jeff Bezos’ clever acquisition and disruptive transformation of the Washington Post is in a general or overall way instructive in this regard as well. It returns readers to revelations that the Australian undergraduate just above made plain. These matters, more often than not—and perhaps almost universally—are about appearances much more so than they concern reality, ongoing practice, or actual performance. Mediation will always represent a critical component of making an appearance seem a manifestation of a preferred representation rather than a verifiable aspect of reality itself.
Thus, when WaPo seeks to expand internationally, to integrate more and more local publications into its operating nexus, and purports to position itself so as to flourish, even predominate, in regard to networking freelance writers as a labor pool and source of value, citizens and scribes both better beware. The promise of ‘sharing’ and ‘efficiency’ are quite likely to be another case of self-serving propaganda propagation, on the one hand, and soul-sucking drudgery for small change in return, on the other hand; at absolute best.
Just as with more venerable archetypes of bourgeois legerdemain, in the previous section, so too here then, the proposition is easy to demonstrate that not a single ‘major player’ in this ambit is capable of evincing more than a public-relations front of Corporate Social Responsibility. Should anyone want to challenge this idea, the only thing that needs to happen is a willingness of the naysayer to go to Nevada and put up enough of a wager to make the effort worthwhile. CSR as a purported attribute of the so-called “unicorn” successes among ‘Siliconic’ disruptors is, charitably, an absurd assertion.
The Spindoctor’s personal experience, on multiple fronts, further evidences the points here. In one instance, a must to ponder, he worked for the Corporate Social Responsibility website,Justmeans, as a blogger. In sixteen weeks there, he created well over half a million words, at the rate of four roughly ten-thousand research-based articles every seven days.
The ‘pay’ was plus-or-minus two hundred dollars a month. The plaudits were thick to start. But his ‘beat,’ energy, included multiple reports on matters nuclear as an inherent abrogation of CSR in any shape or form, including various stories—and at least one or two ‘scoops’—about Depleted Uranium.
Despite the fact that his contractual agreement was that he could write what he wanted, since the ‘pay’ was, stating the point generously, paltry, he soon enough received a ‘cease and desist’ order about anything that mentioned DU. Apparently, the business plan—to cash out with a purchase of the site by AOL—was looking problematic with his articles on view; so much, then, for CSR.
A bit later along the temporal arc, he produced for an already-established division of America Online, the Patch brand. He warned his soon-to-be assignment editor that any lengthy relationship with an AOL ‘brand’ was approximately as likely as a snowball’s longevity in the fieriest depths of hell, which received chortles and vows of eternal support.
Within five weeks, the Spindoctor’s head was in a sack, and checks from AOL no longer issued, especially at twice the standard rate that Jimbo negotiated measly recompense for the work that he did. Apparently, his predilection for looking askance at Walmart’s wondrous marvels and his desire to report about daily criminal incidents as social matters instead of as blameworthy moral lapses alienated the overlords on high in Manhattan—again, so much for even a pretense of a responsible corporate entity that wanted to serve its communities with diverse, accurate, and useful information.
Such personal encounters with the more or less total fraud of CSR do not give him ‘an ax to grind.’ He loved producing the materials that he did, on which he still owns a copyright, even though the remuneration for his work was either laughable or grotesque, depending on whether one’s bent at the moment of observation is comic or tragic. However, these very real and deeply felt cases of peonage and exploitation and dismissal do give him a perch from which to view other cases, all too similar, that reveal the reality beneath the veneer of Corporate Social Responsibility.
Without noticeable exception, therefore, the expressions of CSR that deal with individual cases as such are inseparable from the public relations and propaganda and outright buncombe that present these happenings to the public and thereby hope to increase shareholder equity and profits as a result of such characterizations. These SOP methods work hand in glove with the propagation of Corporate Social Responsibility as a pretend entity that means little more than “We want you to like, or at least accept, us enough to buy lots of our stuff or services, so we hope to convince you that we’ve got soul and ethics and really care about consumers and workers and communities and competitors and critics and such as much as, or even more than, we care about maximizing our profits.”
In terms of large outfits, therefore, enterprises of “size and heft,” so to speak, CSR is at best a façade and quite likely simply a falsehood. Whether the company in question is an old-line or new-school operation makes no difference. Profit still rules the roost, or other ‘bottom-line’ considerations necessitate that Corporate Social Responsibility is no more than an advertising slogan, of no greater substance than a cleverly-crafted PR campaign.
Certainly near the heart of this assessment lie a series of observations and appraisals of what we might term ‘monopoly finance capital.’ Through loans, control of equity, and generally holding the reins of political oversight, banks, venture capitalists, and clever ‘investors’ of various stripes—who in aggregate control if not out and out own almost every dollar in the stream of commerce—act as arbiters, gatekeepers, and boards of directors of everything that the ‘Western’ sphere proffers to the world and most everything that emanates from elsewhere as well.
The tentacles of big-money’s ‘Octopus,’ as Frank Norris titled the matter, run the show, own the tent, pocket the gate, and call the tune: top to bottom. No enterprise escapes this net.
Anyone who believes he can enter a brief that invalidates this point of view is welcome to speak up. I’m a wagering man. Let’s go to Nevada and talk about the details of a big bet: nothing even resembling a large corporation fulfills the requirements or delineates the rubric of a socially responsible entity.
In the second place then, one could expand the scope of this mainly clinical examination, as it were, to include entire industrial or other arenas. While an even lengthier effort at documentation than that which this report provides might go into as much detail here as has appeared in relation to individual firms just above, or even more digging might transpire, this is not necessary at this juncture.
An example, or a few, will do. Churches; Internet; steel; insurance; banking; retail: the possible organizational categories are numerous, but far from innumerable. The very idea that a sector of ‘production and society’ such as churches, in general, were exemplary of CSR would bring a smile to the lips of those who think subjunctively, to put the matter in grammatical terms. More mundanely, holding such a belief is, at a minimum, counterfactual.
One might merely assert, based on long experience monitoring such matters, that of all the sectors of society’s socioeconomic sphere that intersect with corporations, exactly one has a minimally plausible basis to survive a summary judgment motion, so to speak, against it in this CSR suit. That would be the non-profit or philanthropic region of modern bourgeois life.
After all, the conceptualization that great wealth ‘naturally’ wants to give back is as easy to ‘prove’ as the names of great foundations: Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Kellogg, MacArthur; for those who prefer their generous plutocrats’ exhibiting more currency, Gates or Soros are some of the recent comers. The idea, in other words, almost demonstrates itself.
Unfortunately, a thorough investigation of this topic would discern more complexity and contradiction than the standard story would contain. One might readily, after significant time and effort, come to the conclusion that this sector also does not live up to its ‘bill of goods.’
However, a more elegant substantiation of this evaluation is possible. In any event, as noted, one would be hard-pressed to find a more presentable candidate for an industry-wide or operational area’s quintessence of CSR than philanthropy, at least on the surface, could proffer.
The brief against the vaunted non-profit, foundation, or non-governmental organization space as somehow more pure or sacrosanct than money or its corporate forms generally appear is easy enough to develop. In particular, one should note that the very form of these efforts to ‘do good’ retains its ties with the monumental aggregations of capital that almost universally elicit less favorable reviews in regard to goodness.
Additionally, two particular points powerfully undermine, even fatally undercut, any hope to pretend that these embodiments of enterprise escape taints that destroy responsibility in the form that we’ve been discussing. The first concerns in-depth research that refutes such stances. One might examine the results of a Google outreach like this: < philanthropy OR charity philanthropic OR foundations OR “nongovernmental organizations” OR ngo OR “non profits” “social justice” OR “human welfare” OR csr OR “corporate social responsibility” OR benefit OR advance bullshit OR hypocritical OR hypocrisy OR false OR nonsense OR propaganda> and discover among more than two and a half million citations a significant portion that make the case that shows up in these pages.
In the event, in addition, multiple well-known analyses develop just such an argument as the Spindoctor is making. Most recently, perhaps—as in within the past month or so—a Danish historian has promulgated a line of reasoning that contends that far from relieving large economic entities from the burdens of their overlordship, so to say, philanthropy and charity and non-profit efforts have in fact not only increased inequality but also have demonstrated their perfect congruence with systematic schisms and disparities and, in essence, continued overlordship of just their monopolistic, bourgeois sorts.
Mikkel Thorup labels this new tendency philanthrocapitalism, which his work examines as one of several “expressions of philanthropy as ideology: … corporate philanthropy, in which businesses engage in social work, and philanthropic associations reengineer themselves to mimic corporations; billionaire philanthropy, in which conspicuous consumption is now being supplemented with conspicuous philanthropy; and celebrity philanthropy, in which one of the hallmarks of being a celebrity today consists in the commitment to turn that fame towards a good purpose.”
His work “explore(s) how(just such) philanthropy may serve to justify extreme inequality.” Can anyone say, “Bye-Bye CSR?”
He goes on to develop the following contextualization. “One can interpret philanthrocapitalism as the latest expression of the modern era’s anti-revolutionary, pro-capitalist claims that a rebellion against capitalism will only end in misery and that there is actually no opposition between the market and the common good. In the 1990s the dominant versions of this antirevolutionary stance were encapsulated in Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of liberal-democratic capitalism as the last good idea and the hype of a high-tech, net-based ‘crisis free’ economy. Both claims quickly lost persuasive force. The IT-bubble crashed in early 2000 and the movements critical of globalization seriously questioned whether the ‘G8 World Order’ was the only world possible. It seems therefore fair to interpret the enormous attention to and hope in philanthrocapitalism as an attempt to close the legitimization deficit of contemporary ‘creative capitalism’ where some get more and more but many more get so much less; a development not halted but accelerated by the financial crisis and its aftermath of austerity.”
Again, such elucidation destroys even the possibility that, as a rule, philanthropic or foundation or non-profit endeavors manifest Corporate Social Responsibility in their routine operations. And once more, this is just one of multiple, authoritative critiques of this type.
The second fatal flaw in philanthropy’s case results from a general overview of the sphere and how it divides into different camps, more or less in terms of a polarization between ‘markets’ and ‘regulation,’ between ‘free enterprise’ and governance. This distinction between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ outfits, between ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ non-profits, even as these terms are suspect and may in fact be almost meaningless, nonetheless guarantees that within the sector itself, plus or minus half of the operators look upon plus or minus half of the other operators as nefarious or unethical or at least less than optimal, a fact that practically removes all doubt that some participants fail in their ‘social responsibilities’ in one way or another.
In any case, even letting this division between opposing camps lie fallow, to coin a phrase, one more overarching example of errancy is possible to express. Another Danish duo dissects the most decidedly corporate arm of the philanthropic universe in this matter. Their overview deconstructs, in a persuasive way indeed, the notion that CSR authenticity is anything other than propagandistic turns of phrases.
“Over the past two decades, a growing number of large multinational corporations have come to view philanthropy as an important part of their business operations. This has stimulated research on the many different strategies that are pursued by these corporations in their attempts to become more philanthropic while remaining economically responsible. In this situation, some researchers have argued, corporations run the risk of being caught out as hypocrites. Through an analysis of the corporate social responsibility reports of the biggest multinational corporations, this article shows how the risk of hypocrisy is managed communicatively through the use of euphemisms. The article argues that the use of euphemisms makes it possible to communicate both economically and philanthropically without manifest contradictions. Euphemisms, however, are also risky in their own right.”
This brings at least a pair of issues to the fore. In the first place, the clear suggestion is that some substantial amount of corporate flack in its own behalf about its ‘philanthropy’ is bullshit. More pertinent still, perhaps, it implies that the same corporations that we’ve already proven deficient as CSR exemplars have captured, or at least co-opted a substantial part of the philanthropic field.
One might insist on probing other realms, of course. Additional productive endeavors that could have a surface appearance of likely CSR validation include media undertakings and sports-and-entertainment enterprises. In the former case, the huge degree of detestation that characterizes present-day monopoly-media’s public opinion rankings would make such a view doubtful, or impossible. In the latter instance, the widespread whiff of corruption in regard to stadium shenanigans and the ‘professional’ disregard for player health, from concussions or otherwise, would likewise scuttle any credible representation of CSR validity.
Without any longing to flee or otherwise ‘cut things short,’ as it were, one can sense a stopping point here. The area, or perhaps two or three that most likely could materialize a Corporate Social Responsibility presence does not come close.
Again, as in a one-by-one firm search for a CSR paragon, one cannot here discern a paradigm that permits an onlooker to corroborate any field that is worthy of an imprimatur of Corporate Social Responsibility. Does that mean that such an eventuality can never come to pass? One purpose of today’s reportage is to approximate under what conditions such occurrences might actually happen.
For our purposes in this OVERTURE, in any event, we have provided an architecture for denying the plausibility of CSR in any real-world, real-time domain that is contemporary or historical, whatever the future may hold. The Spindoctor challenge in this regard remains uniform: “Would you like to bet?!” Inquiring minds, as ever, would like to know.
In the third place then, one would hunt for a school of thought or for theorists and practitioners in business and government who could credibly develop and defend the thesis that Corporate Social Responsibility was something that could become Standard Operating Procedure in such a way as to relieve the crises and conundrums that have been universal, and that have arguably intensified and grown less tractable, under corporate capitalism through the centuries. Indubitably, all types of institutional and individual interlocutors would argue forcefully that they could make such a case.
For example, the search, < csr OR “corporate social responsibility” possibility OR plausibility OR hope support OR backing OR validation OR validity OR proof scholarship OR analysis OR research >, delivers leads that number over thirteen million, many of which would offer staunch support for a CSR perspective. Outside of a dispensation of eternal life, or something similar, disproving them all would prove an impossibility. Logistics alone would depose such a herculean effort.
However, in analyzing the inadequacy of several common ideas about how to deliver CSR, this essay establishes a boundary of rebuttal that allows it to move on with the remainder of this exposition. A not infrequent criticism of these promoters of the possible existence of Corporate Social Responsibility is that they derive payment from, or otherwise maintain useful and important relationships with, the very beneficiaries of the conclusions that they reach. Such conflict-of-interest at the least biases, and quite likely invalidates, their perspectives as anything other than more PR hype.
Peter Fleming and Marc Jones offer what many would consider a devastating deconstruction of CSR pretensions in their recent monograph, The End of Corporate Social Responsibility: Crisis and Critique. They point out the blindness, the hypocrisy, the duplicity, and more that sums up Corporate Social Responsibility as fatuous, even evil.
They begin by relating their experience of sharing CSR images from Google, which often show depictions of Earth, held in strong, caring hands. Their classes, often consisting primarily of business majors, when asked to interpret these pictures, pretty uniformly note the hoped-for corporate interpretation of such photoshopped ‘graphical-user-interfaces:’ decency, caution, protection, gentility, and so on and so forth.
At that point, “we share with our students an alternative interpretation, one that makes them smile and sometimes frown. It is clear, to us at least, that there is something obviously (and humorously) ridiculous about the image. First the idea of giant hands around the world is creepy. They clasp the earth like some alien god that is omnipresent, evincing an image of total control. The hands are apparently human, but we never see a face or a body, and one could imagine an abrupt change of mind as the giant nonchalantly squeezes the globe until it bursts like an overripe tomato. The hands also protrude from a dark jacket that strongly resembles a business suit. They hold the globe close (especially when poor India or Africa is visible), conveying a Promethean dominion over the planet. … almost as if a meddling humanity has won (even though we know it never does when it has a face-off with Gaia). Only in its failure does it desire to call the shots and make right the havoc and destruction it has wreaked over the past two hundred years.”
They compare such imagery to the scene in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator when the fascist potentate bats around an inflated Earth with wrathful glee and disdain for social or environmental consequences. Such a grasp of the nub of at least aspects of CSR is widespread enough so as, minimally, to insist that no ‘summary judgment’ motion to validate a CSR filing would ever survive an impartial judge’s ruling.
Most centrally of all, though, in evoking the belief that Corporate Social Responsibility exists in any meaningful form other than self-promotion, proponents of such views must willingly, better yet enthusiastically, convoke collaborative and collective conversation on all the subjects that comprise CSR. In turn, not just some but all community voices and perspectives not only merit, but also command, a seat at the ‘round-table’ of social reasoning and debate.
Unfortunately, to put the matter gently, articulation has been primarily one-way, coming from on high. Those of us who are ‘low on the totem poll,’ so to put the case, await our opportunity to participate. Certainly, since all of us who read this are adults, we all recognize that any attempt to resolve conflict and crisis must be inclusive, or the supposed resolution will lack adequate legitimacy, meaning that ‘friction’ will continue and intensify.
This key juncture—where dialog meets society and not merely its upper class—is, quite likely, the real heart of Corporate Social Responsibility. Either we bring to pass a true social intercourse, or protests and discomfiture will be the least of our worries.
Having demonstrated the fallacy of the most likely assumptions about what could promulgate a CSR agenda, a generalization about other ideation in this vein is possible. To wit, anything that does not fundamentally reformulate, or remove the right to follow, the profit motive can ever be likely to effectuate Corporate Social Responsibility.
In fact, those rare but real instances of smaller corporate emanations that do at least come close to deserving the denomination of socially responsible are universally those that in fact reduce the otherwise voracious appetite for maximizing shareholder cash-out, now, not tomorrow, but right now. Thus, profiteering—which basically means and completely implies acting to gain additional profits—can under no circumstance allow the evolution of any sort of regime that we could agree to label an instance of Corporate Social Responsibility.
Readers may or may not accept such a sweeping statement, but a gentle request is apropos in the event of skepticism. Such a student of life should continue to peruse what follows apace, watching as the historical, empirical, circumstantial, and rational case for the summation above comes to the fore. Then, the sooner the better, we should talk about it!
The AFTERWORD returns to this issue. Perhaps a complete consideration of the various elements of this report’s arguments will convince one who currently has doubts. If not, we can always agree to disagree. And, as noted constantly, further research, debate, and engagement, in any event, are always possible.
Additional, & Summative, Points Prior to Making an Initial Exit
Having illustrated, if nothing else, that a potent brief exists against the idea that even a simple ‘proof of concept’ of CSR is defensible, one might say still a bit more than this prior to moving on toward matters prefatory in nature. The first point to make is that a more robust ‘proof of performance’ in regard to Corporate Social Responsibility must be further still from realization.
Furthermore, though much more appears about historical matters below, a mere mention seems useful that CSR sorts of beliefs, which show up as briefs in favor of reforming capitalism, are nothing new. Robert Owen, in one fashion, and Jeremy Bentham, in a related way, demonstrate this inherently CSR creed as a nascent exhibition by those among the bourgeoisie who found themselves inclined to notice barbaric treatment and callous exploitation of workers and nature.
In the event, just a few summary observations can send us on our way, awaiting a fuller presentation soon enough. A first overall point is that profit always, in the end, took over operations; only propaganda was ‘pure.’ A second is that the bedrock premise of this kind of ‘critique’ was that the rich had to reform themselves, not that any participation was necessary, or even welcome, by workers themselves, who were after all much too likely to be rabble. Third, many of the specific reforms that Owen in particular advanced became part of a unified platform, which all believers in social justice or social democracy accepted and promoted, of which the most well-understood sample might be the Eight-Hour-Day. One might continue; such amplification awaits, in any case.
Also pertinent to both restatement and a widening of discourse is to amplify the argument, mentioned above, about engagement, dialog, and participation. Most any analysis of Owenite ‘failures,’ its ‘unfortunate’ tendency toward dissolution or corruption, would elevate the lack of participatory democracy as a key basis for systemic breakdown.
One could name names here. Jürgen Habermas comes to mind; Slavoj Zizek; Benjamin Barber; Paulo Freire; plus countless others. The interested student would not suffer for lack of material, a small sampling of which is also upcoming.
In any event, a reader who comes this far has seen quite a bit already. First, the additions and initial deductions here are apt to note. Second, the text has revealed multiple reconfigurations of the prime argumentation, so to speak. Third, various ways of thinking about, and wrestling with, the engagement with, evaluation of, and actions regarding Corporate Social Responsibility have put in appearances so far. The upshot, too, of course, is clear: CSR pretentions may be merely some mix of a shell game and a dog-and-pony-show, or they could be something more sinister and insidious; whatever the case may be, no workable demonstration of substantial CSR is extant; furthermore, and finally, the construction of the social tango about these questions is at best flawed and insufferably one-sided.
Ending Our Beginning
If nothing else, the briefing that takes place here permits a sturdy response to the frequent complaint that characterizes the current pass, in essence that the truly lovely potential of CSR has gone down in flames or up in smoke because of bad people, bad management, or some combination of the two. On the contrary, any sort of careful evidence-based review would retort, the very heart of the matter or belly of capital’s beast makes even the best laid plans, the most beneficent of intentions, a chance to pave a path to hell.
Therefore, a reader might evince the capacity both to circumscribe and circumnavigate the realm of the denizen of Corporate Social Responsibility. In essence, the context of CSR presumes or substantiates the dominance of capital, an assumption or assertion of hegemony that everyone who is not a denizen of capital’s total imprimatur would do well to question closely and treat skeptically. This should do as a start, in any event.
A query related to defining and explicating CSR ought also to appear obvious. “Why are such ways of thinking and analysis so common now, and over the past period of time?” The next section addresses this query indirectly, by uncovering the deeper historical roots of capital’s ongoing tendency to devolve into disruption and mayhem.”
… to be continued…