When American capitalists pretend to care we know they are afraid, argues John Clarke
On August 19th, the Business Roundtable, an association representing the CEOs of the largest US corporations, offered up their vision of capitalism with a big heart and a social conscience. Since 1978, this body has periodically issued ‘Principles of Corporate Governance.’ For quite some time, these statements have put forward the notion of ‘shareholder primacy’ which, of course, means an overt declaration that making profits and boosting shareholder dividends is the central purpose of a capitalist institution. Their recent statement of purpose, however, broke with this approach and declared, hands on heart, that the 181 signatories would ‘commit to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.’
I am not going to waste any great amount of time trying to prove that this is all a cynical ploy that should be rejected with contempt. I’m sure this can be taken as a given. However, as shabby and duplicitous as this little performance may be, it is still a major and enormously interesting initiative and the context it comes out of and the motives that underlie it are well worth considering.
For such a radical departure from a cold-blooded past, the new approach is presented as a mere update that ‘affirms the essential role corporations can play in improving our society.’ This latter day Ebenezer Scrooge simply tells Bob Cratchit that, in line with an updated corporate responsibility policy, he may expect a topped up coal scuttle in the reasonably near future. The Business Roundtable participants, of course, want to show off their compassionate vision of ‘a free market economy that serves all Americans’ without admitting to past wrongdoing or taking too candid a look at the harsh reality that their domination of society has brought into existence. Were they to acknowledge this, even in a limited way, then their warm and fuzzy assurances would come up against the massive and fundamental changes that would be required for a society ‘that serves all Americans’ to be achieved.
The statement commits to ‘delivering value to our customers’ yet US pharmaceutical companies alone gouge those who buy their products out of billions of dollars every year. It talks piously of ‘investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits.’ Yet real wages for most US workers have been stagnant for decades and one in nine must endure poverty even if they work full time. There is even an undertaking that the CEOs will be ‘supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.’ This has to be considered in light of the reckless dumping of toxic waste on poor and racialised communities by major US companies.
Obviously, to bring together so many of the leading representatives of US capitalism and have them agree to this charade, was no small undertaking and must reflect some very significant concerns in high places. A leopard might never change its spots but this initiative and quite a few others coming from key mouthpieces of global capitalism, show a considerable interest in convincing us it’s possible. They know very well that it will not be an easy sell and that decades of neoliberal austerity have created a volatile and dangerous mood. As more than a decade of sluggish recovery gives way to an impending global downturn, they know that this mood is not likely to improve and they fear what it may produce. It may only be a telling coincidence that the US Business Roundtable issued its statement the same week that the main yield curve inverted, as major investors looked for a safe place to park their riches in the face of recession.
In July, acting IMF manager, David Lipton, declared that capitalism ‘is an imperfect system in need of a course correction.’ He expressed concern that ‘excessive inequality’ was producing ‘rising anger, political polarisation and populism.’ Of course, the IMF remains a neoliberal jackal on the world stage, imposing its austerity agenda regardless of the human cost. However, this body is following a trend in trying to foster the illusion that global exploitation can be less rough round the edges that has been developing for some time. No less a pirate than Richard Branson has penned his thoughts on the bright future we could all enjoy in an age of ‘enlightened capitalism.’ Even Theresa May, has taken a stab at this with her Bank of England speech, in 2017, in which she suggested “A free market economy, operating under the right rules and regulations, is the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created.”
May’s dubious venture into the field of social conscience was certainly prompted by more than a general sense that capitalism’s legitimacy was in question and she reflected a very specific concern about the threat of Corbyn-led Labour. Similarly, the Business Roundtable CEOs in the US have a fear that generalised anger can find a focus and take organised and dangerous form. Mainstream polling shows that, right in the country that is at the heart of global capitalism, socialist ideas (however imprecise) are starting to resonate in a very serious way. Whatever disagreements may exist on the left over initiatives within the Democratic Party, there is no doubt that the titans of Wall Street look on with alarm as millions are drawn to the alternatives to austerity and rampant inequality that Bernie Sanders advances or that they cringe when the congresswomen who make up the Squad defy Trump and his crude racism and generate a base of support in the process. You can also bet that it has not escaped their notice that the membership and influence of the Democratic Socialists of America has expanded considerably and rapidly. That such political activism could spill over into an upsurge in community based and trade union struggles is also not lost on them, especially in light of the wave of teacher strikes that the US has experienced.
A political mainstream that has been in charge over several decades of neoliberalism is increasingly despised. Volatile and unpredictable right-wing populists have come to the fore, pandering to a social base that is even more alarming. As economic crisis and unprecedented climate disaster loom up ahead, the prospect of radical left alternatives is the greatest fear of all. While they might not yet want to be tied to something with modest specifics in it, like Elizabeth Warren’s ‘accountable capitalism,’ some of the most powerful and influential people within the US capitalist class understand clearly that their system is in trouble and that it must either re-establish a certain level of legitimacy or face a fundamental challenge in the period ahead. There will never be a benign capitalism delivering social justice to a society of ‘stakeholders’ but the crafting of the lie is incredibly revealing.
John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.