What Are Corporations Good For? Markets, Social Responsibility, and the State

AHA Session 162
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Angus Robinson Burgin, Johns Hopkins University
Angus Robinson Burgin, Johns Hopkins University

Session Abstract

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has recently been described by scholars as a market-based alternative to governmental regulation and aid. A powerful concept found in business school curricula, the public relations of major multinational companies, and the initiatives of large nongovernmental organizations, CSR typically consists of a set of voluntary commitments meant to address problems like global climate change or community development. But behind the ideas and practices of modern-day CSR lies the long history of conflicts over the corporate power and obligations.

This panel makes the case that a robust historical understanding of the corporate form and regimes of corporate rights and responsibilities can contribute to recent scholarship from sociologists and critical theorists about CSR as a market-based heuristic for legitimating contemporary global capitalism.

The goal of this session is twofold. The first is to examine the recent historical process by which the social responsibilities of business institutions became privatized, voluntary, and market-based. The second is related. We seek to understand the deep context of the corporation’s status as both a public and private institution, from the early modern period to the present. Along the way, each of us will show how the corporation has come to conceal its provenance as a “concession” of the state. David Chan Smith, by way of examining corporate legitimacy in the early modern period, shows how corporations became governmental tools for the creation of economic markets. David Chappell, meanwhile, uncovers the radical importance of Bank of the United States v. Deveaux (1809) for the development of legal corporate personhood. He shows how early American jurists sought to overthrow common law notions of the corporation as a “branch” of the state. Kyle Williams brings the story up to the twentieth century by considering postwar conflicts over the guiding role of shareholder profit-seeking in corporate governance. Finally, Maria Hengeveld reveals “market-fundamentalism” as the founding principal for how the United Nations, NGOs, and multinational corporations have developed the doctrine of Corporate Social Responsibility since the 1990s.

This session contributes to an emerging interdisciplinary and critical inquiry into the corporation among scholars in law, history, sociology, development studies, political theory, and business. We take our cue from the recent call of Naomi Lamoreaux, William Novak, and Kenneth Lipartito, among others, to turn our attention to the political, economic, social, and legal role of corporations in the development of capitalism. By taking into consideration the long history of the relationship between corporate institutions, the state, and markets, this session brings into sharp relief the ways in which the modern ideology of CSR is one narrow and normative answer to old questions about the rights and responsibilities of corporations.

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