The End of Corporate Social Responsibility: Crisis & Critique


Peter Fleming & Marc T. Jones

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    For Mandy and Mary

    About the Authors

    Peter Fleming is Professor of Work and Organization at Queen Mary College, University of London. His research focuses on the political economy of corporations and the relations of power that underlie them. One line of investigation explores the way in which conflict and resistance constitute the formal corporate form currently dominating Western economies. Another area of interest is the cultural politics of work organizations, and the modes of ideological control that operate to enlist the participation of labour, including corporate social responsibility. His books include Authenticity and the Cultural Politics of Work (2009, Oxford University Press), Charting Corporate Corruption (2009, Edward Elgar), Contesting the Corporation (2007, Cambridge University Press) and Dead Man Working (2012, Zero Books).

    Marc T. Jones has a PhD in Strategic Management from the University of California. He curently holds positions at the Maastricht School of Management (where he is Professor of Strategy), the University of Sydney and the Ashridge Business School in England. He has taught and conducted research on six continents, publishing over 50 articles and co-authoring three books on subjects ranging from corporate social responsibility and business ethics to business strategy, cultural studies, international political economy and business education. His current research interests focus on investigating the institutional requirements for sustainable business ecosystems and exploring the impacts of long-term ‘gigatrends’ on economy and society.


    If one searches for a Google image of corporate social responsibility or sustainability hundreds of pictures appear. But the most frequent, and for us most disturbing, pictorial representation is that of a pair of giant hands holding a globe, planet earth. Sometimes the hands are white, sometimes brown, feminine or masculine. The visible part of the globe might be the United States, but we found more often it was India or Africa. The intended meaning of the image is clear, as we discovered when presenting it to students in university business ethics and political economy classes. The answers were predictable but telling. Some said it represented humankind finally handling earth in a tender manner or that our future well-being was ‘in our hands’. It was strange how many identified with the entity holding the globe rather than with the globe itself. Other interpretations pointed to the softness of the hands, as if they were holding a fragile egg or a newborn kitten. The protector motif was primary, as if the planet was on the brink of some savage attack from an alien invader. The position of the hands was deemed significant: palms open, welcoming and passive, a well-known gesture of peace. All underlined the singularity of the earth and human palms – it denoted one humanity and one earth, a global togetherness and a standing tall to the dangers that are out there. The colours of blue (water), white clouds (the dove) and the dark background (the alien) were also rendered from the many images. The pictorial conveyance of corporate social responsibility (or CSR) was an admixture of fear, hope and a low-down sense that ultimately someone will save us. But who?

    It is then that 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 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. It is almost as if a meddling humanity has won (even if 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 last 200 years. Yes, a chilling image – something reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's Great Dictator when the tyrant sadistically enjoys his play with the inflated replica of planet earth. Lying on a plush and spacious oak desk, Chaplin hits (with various parts of his anatomy) the hapless sphere into the air, toying with it like a cruel child. Earth gently flies across the room only to be met with another wry knock, fired off with unmistakable satisfaction.

    Despite the striking similarity between Charlie Chaplin's rendering and those designed by in-house and external advertising agencies, it is clear that the intention behind these images is very different. Chaplin's portrayal of the great dictator seeks to reveal the humorous yet fatal hubris associated with the belief that humankind might ‘own’ the world. The advertising agencies, however, do not exhibit the same natural proclivity to comic irony. In a stunningly uncritical manner they present an image of the earth, the human and the corporation existing side by side, in complete harmony.

    That corporations wish to produce this beguiling symbiosis is far from surprising. As long as the corporation comes across as a player with good intentions (though routinely failing to live up to them) it evades fatal criticism from the public. But why academics would like to be complicit in this mendacity is harder to fathom. As we will argue in the course of this book, the soft-toned façade of social well-being observed in CSR discourse belies a more disconcerting institutional logic. The reader may tell that this book will be critical of CSR and its correlates of sustainability, the ‘triple bottom line’ and business ethics. We are so not because we are against ethics in business. Paraphrasing Gandhi's wonderful rebuff when asked what he thought about Western civilization, we would say that business ethics might be a good idea. This would require taking seriously the question of ethics, which is much harder than it often seems. CSR is a discursive system that would like us to see it as a step towards correcting the woes of a world system on the brink of social, economic and financial disaster. We plan to demonstrate that it is part and parcel of a structure that perpetuates the atrophy it sought to cure. The reasons for this assertion are varied, sometimes simple and at other times complex. But the position stems from a number of presuppositions that we will defend, elaborate and refine during the course of the book.

    First, the institutional matrix of multinational capitalism prioritizes economic rationality primarily. That is its ‘nature’. Second, much of the basic axiomatic aspirations of CSR (industrial democracy, sustainability and the so-called ‘triple bottom line’) are at serious odds with the general tendencies of global capitalism. Third, this disconnect, contradiction and tension are not an aberration (good ethics meeting some ‘bad apples'), but symptomatic of the anti-social operating code of the world economic system, especially in its neo-liberal manifestation. Fourth, this preponderant institutional logic invariably subordinates CSR to its own ends, thus relegating it to an empty gesture – like the open palms holding the globe – that garners some legitimacy, bides time with critics and even provides a number of avenues for extending market rationality deeper into society (e.g. carbon emissions trading). Fifth, CSR therefore represents a specific development in neo-liberal ideology that is more of a step backwards from progressive socio-political change rather than a way forward. And finally, this conclusion demands critical scholarship and political interventions outside the obstruction that is now CSR (theory and practice) if our grandchildren are not to inherit a dead world writ large with so many lost opportunities.

    At the time of writing, Wikileaks – founded by Julian Assange – has been frontpage news for a number of weeks. The leaked governmental memos and reports are noteworthy for their brutal realism regarding the nature of contemporary international geo-politics. When it comes to the things that really matter to the power elite, we find very little in the confidential reports about climate change, reforming the exploitative practices of large companies and governments around the world or anything remotely connected with business ethics. Instead, we gain a glimpse of the cold reality of the global political hegemony – especially its rampant irrationalism and flagrant dismissal of democracy. What really matters is the protection of key resource providers, military arms factories, strategic communication lines – all of those concrete institutional supports of an untenable world economic system, one that is in serious decline and crisis. Take this example that conveys the reality of late capitalism: a confidential cable indicates that the petroleum firm, Shell, has allegedly infiltrated local governmental authorities in Nigeria, the scene of one its most controversial moments (in the 1990s the petroleum firm was accused of supporting local thugs who murdered and tortured people protesting about the company's exploitation of the country's natural resources). As a major newspaper reported:

    The oil giant Shell claimed it had inserted staff into all the main ministries of the Nigerian government, giving it access to politicians' every move in the oil-rich Niger Delta, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable. The company's top executive in Nigeria told US diplomats that Shell had seconded employees to every relevant department and so knew ‘everything that was being done in those ministries’. She boasted that the Nigerian government had ‘forgotten’ about the extent of Shell's infiltration and was unaware of how much the company knew about its deliberations. (Guardian, 2010d: 1)

    All of this from a company apparently committed to sustainable development, dialogue with local stakeholders, bio-diversity and indigenous social justice? The leaked cable tells us that, in reality, it is the ruthless ‘cold world’ (Fox, 2009) of economic influence and control that is the guiding principle of large multinational firms. And this is the backdrop upon which we should view the espoused CSR policies and discourse of the business world more generally. In this sense, CSR practice is often not about addressing or correcting the negative side of enterprise. On the contrary, we feel that it is intimately linked to the continuing systemic aggression of the corporation, as we hope to demonstrate in this book.

    But why be so critical of the corporation, given the wealth and well-being it enables? Would we not still be in the ‘dark ages’ without it? Would not society fall apart, go hungry and suffer disease and servitude? This is what the ideology of big business would have us believe, something we feel inverts the truth of the matter. Is it not because of capitalism that we continue to languish in these dark times, that society is falling apart, and more people are hungry now than ever? Indeed, it is the paradoxical anti-social essence of this social logic that we find so troubling, especially when we step back and scrutinize it as a global entity. For it makes economic sense to overfish the seas of tuna to the brink of extinction (and when the end of the supply looks inevitable, continue to overfish and simply stockpile frozen supplies so that a higher price can be sought after extinction). It makes economic sense to purchase public infrastructural assets (such as transport) and ‘sweat’ them so that commuters have no choice but to pay for overpriced tickets for substandard services. It makes economic sense to lobby governments to free up protected nature reserves for oil prospecting. It makes economic sense to locate factories in countries that condone hyper-exploitation and child labour. It makes economic sense to keep defective automobiles on the road since a cost/benefit analysis clearly reveals that it is cheaper to pay court settlements to bereaved loved ones. Of course, from a broader social point of view (what the recent Occupy movement calls ‘the 99 per cent’) this ‘economic sense’ is often entirely irrational and self-destructive, often even from its own economic vantage point – the ultimate contradiction of capitalism. But it is an irrationality that is largely ruling the globe to enrich a fraction of humanity at the expense of most, even as the polar ice caps melt and species become extinct before our very eyes. Because conventional CSR theory and practice gives this intrinsically anti-social formation an air of ethicality (or potential ethicality), we have become very suspicious of it. It is this conventional or mainstream current of CSR that we find problematic since it often renders ethics into a strategic management issue. As indicated in the introduction and contributing articles in a recent special issue of the Journal of Management Studies on CSR (McWilliams et al., 2006), the overarching question is: does it enhance profitability or not?

    Having said this, we might also say that much of the literature on CSR in academic scholarship has its heart in the right place. It sees the terrible social effects of the global economic system and is rightly concerned. However, we feel that much of it, even if insightful and relevant, does get bogged down in the liberal precept that capitalism and social ethics might finally be reconciled. Given the recent track record of the corporation over the last 15 years – from Enron and the current finance crisis to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and outlandish executive bonuses to the Wikileaks revelations mentioned above – it is amazing that scholars can still have faith in the idea that capitalism can save anything. We would wager that not even the intelligent (but opportunistic) CEOs in these world-spanning firms believe this. So, our book sets out to challenge these liberal assumptions and make some suggestions about how the discussion might develop in a productive manner. In doing so, it offers a more thorough and critical understanding of the interchange between the social expectations placed upon business, the ensuing CSR response in the corporation, and the underlying structural dynamics of late capitalism within the international sociopolitical economy.

    It is easy and sometimes rather facile to be negative about the way business can take up the parlance of ethics as it stridently kicks the globe à la Chaplin's tyrant. Pointing out the hypocrisy, double standards and contradictions of any discourse can often foster a smug self-righteousness that exempts one from the travesty being presented. This is the ugly side of socio-political critique. We are aware of this and are at pains to avoid such an attitude (we are all implicated to some extent). Moreover, in this book we make an effort to move the discussion forward beyond merely criticizing corporate hegemony (which includes an abiding and increasingly punitive state apparatus). First, our analysis of the political economy of CSR positions it within current permutations in late capitalist or post-industrial societies. This is important for recognizing that we need to go further than simply dismiss CSR as a piece of harmless propaganda. Matters are more serious since it is also a concrete corporate practice interconnected with marketization, corporate coercion and commodification. In other words, it has material effects. As such, it requires relatively sophisticated theoretical means to unpack it. We are not boasting to have succeeded in this task, but we do build upon the important critical work of others to make inroads into this problem. Second, as the forthcoming discussions develop towards our overarching theory about what CSR is and how it works (explicated in the final chapter), we also put forward some suggestions on how we might make some positive interventions about how business and society might be improved. Neither of the authors are moralists – we see ourselves as the object of criticism, much as the theories and ideas we challenge in this book. We put forward our ideas not in the hubristic manner of saving the globe from Chaplin's sadistic toying, but instead make some modest theoretical offerings, criticisms and suggestions about advancing the field and practice of CSR and business ethics. In this sense, we are emphasizing the affirmative dimension of criticism, as something positive and constructive.

    The book is structured as follows. The introduction gives an overview of our argument, especially pertaining to the end of CSR. We suggest that much CSR discourse is about perpetuating the myth that business firms might still pursue their narrow profit-seeking objectives and be socially responsible. We demonstrate how this ‘win-win’ scenario is more than just optimistic: it is a fundamental feature of neo-liberal ideology. It is the deafening silence in CSR discourse and practice regarding the systemic features of global capitalism that we then discuss in Chapter 1. Much of the CSR research and corporate discourse of ethics is blind to some fundamentally destructive processes inherent in the global capitalist system. The reason for this blindness is understandable, since mentioning the glaringly obvious would seriously undermine the cultural legitimacy of ‘business as usual’. In Chapters 2 and 3 we engage with some of the key concepts in CSR to further our argument that it is part of the problem rather than the solution. Chapter 2 discusses the recent popularity of corporate citizenship as a way of guaranteeing citizen and human rights in the wake of a receding social welfare state. The chapter argues that in light of the continuing domination of a socially unfriendly neo-liberal discourse that underlies much corporate activity (and the unwillingness to jeopardize profits and short-term returns), the idea that the transnational firm might go out of its way to become a bastion for democratic rights seems far fetched. In Chapter 3 we deal with another pivotal area in CSR, the stakeholder theory of the firm. This approach argues that the organization ought to view its business activities strategically in the context of a network of stakeholders. Best practice dictates dialogue, compromise and conversation with stakeholders to enhance value across the board. Again, our argument stems from the empirical evidence that indicates the indomitable logic of economic gain in the corporate sphere. The assumption that a powerful petroleum firm prospecting in Africa might also be a warm, communitarian forum for mutual exchange is somewhat fantastical.

    Chapter 4 discusses an important driver of CSR that is hardly mentioned in research – employees and their changing values and expectations. Workers as much as anyone else are more cynical, anti-business and disappointed following the postEnron era of unregulated markets, the Occupy movement and the prevalent financial crisis. The contemporary firm is attentive to the problem of enticing and motivating the emergent Generation Y. sector of employees who might otherwise find capitalism and the world of business antithetical to their own values. Increasingly, business ethics and CSR consulting firms are selling the programmes to companies as a way to ameliorate classic human resource problems in the face of changing employee demographics, especially in light of a pervasive anti-corporate cynicism in the popular imagination. CSR becomes not only an external branding exercise to appease the consumer, but a way of tapping into and addressing the otherwise counter-corporate concerns of workers, smoothing over any dissonance that could arise from participating in enterprises that harm the community (petroleum, arms, alcohol and tobacco companies are good examples here).

    Chapter 5 develops a framework to situate CSR practice within a broader political economy of capitalism in crisis and change. To do this, we survey the various political economies of CSR presented in the literature, and place our approach within a research field that views it as a kind of ideological smokescreen. Rather than changing business practice, it provides a cloak of ethicality so that conditions remain unchanged. It is clear that in many cases CSR represents a pre-emptive or reactionary public relations exercise for consumers, the state, workers and so forth. However, our approach in this chapter suggests that the typical dismissal of CSR as mere propaganda (to soften the image of an otherwise uncaring profit-seeking enterprise) needs to be contextualized within the changing nature of capitalism more broadly. Once we do this, we then can demonstrate how CSR is becoming a predatory corporate practice, in which firms prospect and appropriate aspects of the non-corporate (and even anti-corporate) world in order to enhance their own interests.

    In our concluding chapter, we present an overview of the argument and then begin to posit some solutions. With the end of CSR comes a new beginning, one in which the debate around the overwhelming force of global business is conducted on a platform that is not predefined by an unwavering interest in its maintenance. And following the insight of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, we ought not to view our aspiration for a future free of corporate domination as some kind of unpredictable runaway train. No, it is the world of unbridled neo-liberalism that is truly extreme, speeding away uncontrollably (with us in it) towards oblivion. The critic's intervention, therefore, is more akin to pulling the emergency brake.

    This book is the result of long discussions between the authors over the last five years. Sometimes the debate has been heated, but always enlightening and inspired by the mutual feeling that contemporary business and society are extremely problematic, and that the discourse that had the most to say about this – CSR – was riddled with some major misunderstandings regarding the nature and logic of capitalism, often involving hypocritical gestures and even ideological attachments to the very structures it sought to redress. The discussions have also been honed and enhanced from the support of great colleagues and friends who have commented on the text and helped us clarify our arguments. Peter would like to express his gratitude to his colleagues at Queen Mary College, University of London, who have been immensely supportive in this and other projects, especially Gerard Hanlon, Stefano Harney, Matteo Mandarini and Arianna Bove. They have all pressed issues, enriched the concepts and given much food for thought. Conversations with Ger in Chicago and Lisbon, and with Stefano in Rome, were particularly important for some of the propositions we develop here. And the wonderful discussion with Dirk Matten (in Montreal) is memorable for its generosity and intellectual inspiration. Parts of the book were prepared while Peter was a Visiting Professor at Lund University, Sweden. He would like to thank Mats Alvesson, Dan Kärreman, Stephan Schaefer and other colleagues at Lund University for their hospitality, critical engagement and support. Carl Cederström at Cardiff University (but previously of Lund University) read many parts of the text too, and gave some extremely helpful advice that we are grateful for. And Carl, Sally Tally and ‘Professor Esther’ were such generous hosts during Peter's visit to Lund, which undoubtedly hastened completion of the book. Also, ‘Café Ari-man’ in Lund is a haven for reading and writing (among other things), from which this book benefited very much.

    Marc would like to thank the Ashridge Business School for giving him the opportunity to spend five stimulating years working with senior executives from all over the globe. This experience yielded many valuable insights on the reality of CSR from the perspective of corporate ‘insiders’. He would also like to acknowledge the support of the Maastricht School of Management, which enabled him to spend considerable time in developing countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where CSR takes on a somewhat different glean – in terms of both theory and practice – compared with its ‘home’ regions in North America and Europe. Elements of Marc's earlier work with Matthew Haigh of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, University of London, have been formative to some of the arguments advanced in this text. Finally, the city of Barcelona merits mention due to the January refuge from the British winter it furnished Marc throughout his five years at Ashridge. It was during the January 2009 sojourn that the authors' long-standing conversations on CSR were finally formalized into a book proposal. Several chapters were also written in Barcelona over the summer of 2010.

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