Blogging the corporate monster

Abbi Buxton's picture
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24 February 2010

Last week, over 100 bloggers reacted to Prem Sikka’s ‘Comment Is Free’ piece in the Guardian, which opined that ‘big business must be forced to temper its obsession with profit and align corporate practice with social justice and democracy’.

One of the great ‘services’ blogs offer is to provide an interesting snapshot of public discourse from a given perspective – in this case, a handful of UK Guardian readers keen to publicise their opinions.

Given the current economic climate, few will be surprised by the tone or topic of this piece, nor the 116 comments it attracted.

Nevertheless, the increasing public distrust of capitalism and corporations that has emerged from the recession – in the context of ‘business as usual’ as well as sustainability initiatives –may present interesting challenges and/or opportunities for sustainable market theorists looking to utilise market forces for economic, environmental and social good.

The article

Sikka’s article, a broad-brush opinion piece, supports increased democratic and social justice values within capitalism.

Beyond the now obligatory references to £2 billion in bonuses, investment banks’ profits, the £850 billion of taxpayers’ money used to rescue them, and Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury, the piece adopts a wide-lens approach to analysing ‘the increasing disparity between the people’s need for jobs, economic stability, quality of life and human rights, and corporate obsession with profits’.

These arguments are not unlike those found within development literature related to widening income inequalities, the need to consult local communities and the role of government in providing rule of law and public goods. It seems the recession has brought these arguments into the mainstream, not just for developing but developed countries too.

The comments

The 116 comments in response to this article roused 25 mentions of socialism, 20 of communism, 11 of free markets, and 1 of developing countries.

They included protests against the ‘intellectual inconsistency’ that accompanies economic highs and lows shown in the age-old argument between governments (favoured in economic lows) and markets (popular in economic highs).

The comments supported and demonstrated an increasing distrust of big business following the recession: ‘the worship of money has gone too far’ and ‘the simple reality is that [government] is no longer in control of the country’.

An equal number, however, demonstrated a resignation and respect for capitalism and the maximisation of profit: ‘Shock horror! Stop the presses! Capitalist corporations are trying to maximise their profits. Who would have thunk it?!’.

The questions for development

Here I’ve analysed just one set of public opinions following the recession. But discourse, influenced in part by public opinion, has long impacted developmental activities and outcomes. So what lessons should we as developmental actors be taking from the recession?

Has it, in fact, been a lesson in socialism or, as we begin to emerge from the recession, a lesson in capitalism’s durability and dominance in today’s world?

If the former, should we begin to consider ‘new forms of socialism’, somewhere in between central planning socialism and regulated capitalism, which identify with greater equality and a reduction in social and environmental costs?

Or is the reality a prevailing and dominant discourse of industrialism and a global capitalist system against which these socialist arguments are futile? Are workable solutions within capitalism itself a stronger position from which to argue?

A final comment

Sustainable development, to my mind, does not represent a radical overhaul of the capitalist system but rather an imaginative reworking of industrialism for developing countries.

Attempts to force big business to adopt democratic or social justice values are not conducive to sustainable change; nor are black-and-white approaches to the free markets debate.

IIED’s work on new business models is just one example of efforts to find workable solutions that harness the power of big business and capitalism to support the reduction of poverty and betterment of livelihoods in the global South.

It is necessary for development actors to be aware of the critical discourses emerging from the recession in developed countries that fail to recognise the potential for innovative and realistic responses to market failures that affect developing countries.
 

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