Critics lament that corporate social responsibility has failed to significantly change business practices and that it became ‘de-radicalized’ once embraced by corporate business management. Using historical analysis, this article reevaluates this de-radicalization thesis, questioning whether corporate social responsibility ever was as inherently radical as the thesis assumes. The article demonstrates that early corporate social responsibility was already invested with a strategy of pragmatism, an investment that traces back to a group of late 19th and early 20th century American Christian reformists, also known as the social gospel movement. They promised that industrialism would unify Christian ethics and capitalist production, thereby reconciling the conflict between profitseeking and social solidarity. The discourse they advanced already contained what would later become key corporate social responsibility components, including (1) the notion of ethical businessmen, (2) the corporation as a morally conscious being and (3) collaboration as the pathway to ‘industrial peace’. Theoretically, the analysis finds inspiration in Luc Boltanski’s and Eve Chiapello’s thesis on modern capitalism’s capacity to assimilate the critiques it faces, supplemented by Michel Foucault’s fine-grained analyses of the transformation and ‘tactical polyvalence’ of discourse. The two positions complement each other in their assumptions regarding the dialectical relationship between capitalism/critique (Boltanski and Chiapello) and power/resistance (Foucault). Tracing the origins of corporate social responsibility’s pragmatism further back in time than the conventional starting point in the 1950s casts new light on the de-radicalization thesis. In particular, corporate social responsibility emphasizes personal ethics as the key to industrial peace, a social gospel legacy that has steered corporate social responsibility away from demands that fundamentally challenge corporate capitalism.
Bibliographical notePublished online: 30. September 2019
- Christian ethics
- New spirit of capitalism
- Social gospel