We Don't Need You Anymore: Corporate Social Responsibilities, Executive Class Interests, and Solving Mizruchi and Hirschman's Paradox

Publication year2012
CitationVol. 35 No. 04


We Don't Need You Anymore: Corporate Social Responsibilities, Executive Class Interests, and Solving Mizruchi and Hirschman's Paradox

Richard Marens(fn*)

I. Introduction

One can almost envision Mark S. Mizruchi and Daniel Hirschman shaking their heads in puzzlement when they presented a paper at the 2009 Berle Center Symposium and described the business community as having become "incapable of coordinated action to advance its interests,"(fn1) since it has no specific proposals regarding important contemporary political issues, such as the cost of health insurance and closing the deficit.(fn2) Mizruchi and Hirschman expressed confusion as to why business leaders, after achieving great political successes in the 1970s and 1980s in collectively responding to a multitude of mounting pressures, became, two decades later, "incapable of generating any form of collective effort to address not only the larger problems of society, but also to even address issues of concern to the corporations themselves."(fn3) They added:What these examples represent, then, is a paradox. In the period of managerial ascendance in which their power was largely unquestioned and untouched, the leaders of the American business community exhibited a pragmatic, moderate perspective that allowed them to support a relatively active state and to accept the legitimacy, if not the demands, of labor unions. In the post-managerial period, in which corporate CEOs no longer enjoy their earlier level of autonomy, we have a fragmented, ineffectual business community, one that is seemingly incapable of addressing any of the important issues of the day.(fn4)

Ironically, the authors' own narrative history of the public role of top management provides clues for generating an explanation quite capable of resolving this paradox. A short version of this explanation would go as follows: During the half century or so that stretched from the ending of the wave of strikes that followed World War I to the oil crisis of the 1970s, an era characterized by extraordinary corporate stability,(fn5) corporate leaders could afford to be pragmatic and moderate. Precisely because they possessed what Mizruchi and Hirschman label "largely unquestioned power,"(fn6) corporate leaders faced little risk of this moderation backfiring by exposing weakness, and there were potential political, managerial, and economic benefits to accrue from embracing moderation. As the seventies progressed, however, they were challenged by the forces the two authors themselves list: labor unions, Naderist reformers, new competitors, and impatient shareholders.(fn7) The corporate elite responded collectively with a harder, more defensive line.(fn8)

The authors' mistake, however, is in implicitly assuming that, having overcome these threats to their personal autonomy, American corporate leaders went their own ways, essentially unable or unwilling to collectively meet the new challenges that have since arisen. The reality is that corporate leaders have continued to respond in a collective manner in pursuing both their personal and class interests, but these earlier victories have both transformed the nature of these interests and altered the boundaries of the group that shares these interests. Mizruchi and Hirschman's paradox has disappeared now that their claim "the basis of this cohesive corporate community was in the corporation, per se, not as Zeitlin argued, in an owning class"(fn9) has simply become obsolete.

In short, corporate leaders overcame the many difficulties they faced in the 1970s by essentially abandoning any serious division between ownership and control, at least with respect to the relations between corporate executives and investors on one side and their employees and the general taxpaying citizenry on the other. Challenged from both the left and the right, corporate leaders either survived by assuming the interests of investors or were replaced by those who would. As Useem has pointed out, by the end of the 1980s, the view from the executive suite shifted from that of organizations' leaders to in-house raiders, perpetually looking for ways to cut costs to enhance "shareholder value," the euphemism for the trading price of the company's stock. (fn10) These leaders were not only surviving but also typically thriving by adopting investor interests.

This is not to say that conflict between executives and outside investors disappeared. It did not, any more than conflict between mafia dons, feudal lords, or nobles and rulers disappeared. But executives, the independently wealthy, and financial industry insiders who manage other people's money all found common ground in defining sources of wealth and the means in which to extract it, even if they inevitably squabbled as to the size of individual slices of this wealth and, as is often the case, with insiders seeking to find ways to take advantage of outsiders. Notorious examples include Enron, Global Crossing, and Worldcom.(fn11) Corporate executives continued to pursue their shared class and professional interests, much as they had always done, but the exact nature of these interests had changed.

Perhaps Mizruchi and Hirschman missed this explanation because it is uncommon for the class interests of an elite group to shift in this manner, although the authors should probably have seen it, given their own passing insight that executive concerns for the quality of a national educational system diminishes if companies can recruit around the globe.(fn12) Historically, it is far more common for an elite stratum to maintain a set of interests even as its membership is altered or even replaced through upheaval such as war or coup d'etat. Normally, power centers may shift geographically, political or economic governance may end up more or less centralized, or ground rents may become taxes. But few of these changes, even if personally cataclysmic for some of the actors, actually shift the fundamental interests of the elites in maintaining the dynamics of the social order.(fn13)

Occasionally, however, elite interests and goals do change. Among the most significant examples of this rare phenomenon was the commercialization of English agriculture in the early modern period. During that era, the owners of estates increasingly abandoned the nearly universal interest of landed oligarchs in keeping or even attracting largely self-sufficient peasant tenants through one or another mixture of coercion and enticement. Due to economic and demographic change, some of which, such as the growing demand for wool, were global in scope, English landlords increasingly adopted policies of "improvement" to earn revenue, often by enclosing fields and renting to commercially oriented farmers and herders, and in the process repudiating many customary peasant rights, even physically driving people off their land.(fn14) Similar policies would eventually distinguish English settler colonies such as those in North America from the colonial practices of those of their neighbors. What resulted was a very different set of class relations in the English countryside despite much continuity of actual elite membership, a continuity that largely survived the civil wars of the seventeenth century. Consider this contemporary observation of enclosing from Thomas More, as informed and articulate a witness of these events as one could hope for:[T]here noble men, and gentlemen . . . not contenting themselves with the yearly revenues and profits, that were wont to grow to their forefathers and predecessors of their lands, nor being content that they live in rest and pleasure nothing profiting, . . . leave no ground for tillage. They enclose all into pastures, they throw down houses, they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing, . . . the husbandmen be thrust out of their own, or else either by coveyne and fraud, or by violent oppression they be put besides it, or by wrongs and injuries they be so wearied, that they be compelled to sell all . . . . (fn15)

This example is not meant to idealize or sentimentalize the exploitation of peasants by a multitude of aristocracies down the centuries throughout the world. The point here is that given dramatic shifts in political-economic circumstances, elite interests can change while elite membership holds fairly steady, the reverse of typical historical change. The former dependence of lords on the peasantry put a floor on how poorly the latter could be treated, and respecting their customary rights was, at least under some circumstances, more stable and less costly than relying on pure coercion, especially when peasants had the means to resist with violence. Once these traditional relationships were no longer as profitable as the alternatives, they could, and often were, cast aside (although the process was not necessarily easy) regardless of the consequences for those so cast.(fn16)

Analogizing farm enclosures with the contemporary abandonment of corporate responsibilities on the part of business leaders is neither farfetched nor strained. Although American labor-management relations were hardly idyllic during the first third of the twentieth century, corporate leaders required a degree of cooperation from their employees, and after experiencing the shock of depression and the economic benefits of world war, many of these same leaders could see the value in accepting a...

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