The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility

By Steve May; George Cheney et al. | Go to book overview

4

Facing Corporate Power

JEM BENDELL MARK BENDELL

The turn of the millennium saw the return of great street protests in Western cities. Seattle, Prague, Genoa: no longer were these just city names but also battle cries, signifying the mass mobilization of people concerned with the problems facing humanity. While these protests grabbed the attention of the corporate media, they were not unique, as people mobilized across the world in various ways to challenge the dominant political economics of the time (Kingsnorth, 2003). Whether protesters were focusing on the actions of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, or issues of “third world” debt, climate change, and free trade, the power of large corporations was never far from the debate (Starr, 2000). Social activists were facing and defacing corporate power in increasing numbers. This was not lost on those who observed the emergent social movements, then dubbed “antiglobalization” or “anticapitalist” by different commentators. Pictures of chanting youths framed by clouds of tear gas were used in glossy trade magazines and corporate brochures, alongside arguments that the readers should avoid becoming a target themselves by embracing corporate social responsibility, which even warranted its own acronym—CSR. From barricades to boardrooms, people were increasingly talking about the role of the corporation in society.

These protests came at the end of a decade when voluntary associations of people in what is often called “civil society” had increasingly turned their attention to the activities of corporations. In this chapter, we explore that corporate turn within civil society, in ways that may help future research into the interface between private and public interests in society. We do this by defining and exploring differing perspectives on corporate power held by different groups in civil society and the differing tactics these perspectives inform. We discuss some of the insights from a decade of novel engagements between business and civil society, and whether the differing perspectives on corporate power are mutually exclusive or whether there is possibility of convergence. We highlight how civil groups are now turning their attention to the financial markets and offer some initial ideas on the implications of this for our understanding of corporate power and the future of business–society relations.

Management literature on business–society relations has not often considered these broader issues of corporate power and implications of shifting societal relations for democratic governance. Analyses of the increasing importance of contemporary corporations' relations with nonprofit organizations, charities, or campaign groups have tended to focus on the instrumental challenge of how participants might manage them better, to corporate advantage (Hartman & Stafford, 1997; Neal & Davies, 1998; Peters, 1999; Winter & Steger, 1998) or mutual advantage (Long & Arnold, 1995; Murphy & Bendell, 1997; Stern & Hicks, 2000;

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