The Global Diffusion of a Neoliberal Strategy: Early Adoptions of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility' in Venezuela, the Philippines, and the UK, 1950-1981

Saturday, 4 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
CLM.2.04 (Clement House)
Rami Kaplan, Free University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany
In studying the globalization of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR), scholars have tended to focus on post-1990 developments and on the role of society (e.g., NGOs, governments) in putting pressure on business to contribute to social and environmental betterment. The institutionalization and globalization of CSR, however, began long before 1990 through several export processes from the U.S. unearthed, analyzed, and compared by this article: American MNC operation in the global South (1950-1972) and adoptions by indigenous corporate elites in Venezuela (1964), The Philippines (1970), and the UK (1980) (The 1st, 2nd, and 4th world earliest non-U.S. cases of CSR institutionalized). While the terms of CSR’s adoption and institutionalization in each of the focal cases varied, in all of them these were corporate elites that imported CSR into non-U.S. countries as a socio-political strategy that (1) is realized through a business self-initiated expansionary redefinition of its role in society and a corresponding redeployment of corporate policies (i.e., a particular model of management is collectively adopted); (2) is aimed to improve individual and collective corporate public image (i.e., it functions as a public relations strategy); and (3) when collectively adopted by a national corporate elite, is aimed to modify the national layout of socio-economic governance (i.e., a particular [more privatized] societal mode of governance is promoted).

In the global South (MNCs, Venezuela, The Philippines), populist challenges to the dominance of foreign corporations and of the native corporate rich triggered the adoption of CSR as a mechanism of defense. But the CSR institutions implemented slightly diverged across the Southern cases, correspondingly to the specific nature and magnitude of the challenge faced by business elites in each of the countries. In the U.K., the story was radically different. Elements of the business community borrowed the CSR model from their American counterparts as part a broader agenda, which sought to liberalize and privatize the British economy. Rather than a mechanism of defense, CSR was integrated into the broader offensive launched at the time on the postwar institutions of “embedded liberalism.”      

Commonly in the South and the U.K., CSR originated as a neoliberal project. Neoliberalism is often described in terms of the adoption of market-oriented policies by and between states. Yet, more generally, neoliberalism can be seen as a mode of “governmentality”: a supra organizational logic that constitutes and legitimates a market-centered social order. Unlike in classic liberalism, neoliberal doctrines recognize that market societies must be constantly constituted and legitimized through extra-market interventions. Across all the national CSR cases examined, CSR was designed to function as a form of socio-economic intervention that—comparing to the alternative of state intervention—is more agreeable with the principle of market superiority. This observation calls into question, or for a reconciliation with, prevalent conceptualizations of toady’s CSR in terms—not of a neoliberal institution—but, quite to the contrary, of a Polanyian “countermovement” of sorts, which seeks to reembed capitalism in social standards under the constrains imposed by neoliberal globalization.