Beyond the Politics of the Possible: Corporations and the pursuit of social justice


This document was presented by Brian Murphy at Corporations as a Factor in Social Justice, a forum organized by Concordia University Institute in Management and Community Development in June 2002, and explores the limits of the concept of corporate social responsibility.

Read the full text at Interpares

The Challenge

In the social responsibility discourse promoted in the corporate world, the issue has largely been civility and noblesse oblige, rather than fundamental rights and justice for all. But justice is not fairness, nor some process of balancing the needs of corporations against those of citizens and their neighbourhoods. To shift this discourse to emphasize the pursuit of justice, the movement to promote corporate accountability will have to engage in dynamics that transcend the current polite consensus within the mainstream of the movement itself. This consensus is documented best, perhaps, by the Corporate Accountability Commission – whose discussion paper relies on a definition of “the public good or public interest” that is as utilitarian as it gets: “…that the mode of behaviour of all of society’s institutions must cohere with individual rights and the well-being of at least a majority of the free and equal citizens.”*

But,“at least the majority” is not even democratic, let alone just, and increasingly this consensus is being challenged at the grassroots, by the anti-poverty movement, the peace movement and the anti-nuclear movement, by the biodiversity movement, natural food movement, by greens and other ecologists, by anarchists, by socialists, by all those that the media label “anti-globalization”, but whom in reality are globalizing social solidarity in profound and powerful ways. These folks have taken to different forms of agitation and confrontation, and do not feel obligated to emphasize civility in their critique.

These groups, their experience, their perspectives have to be brought into this conversation. This prospect may make some uncomfortable. But we would do well to remember that it is activists in the streets who have allowed CSR to become a viable discourse, and have created the space for CSR advocates in the boardroom and conference hall. It is these activists who maintain the tension that gives insider CSR advocates their ante at the table and their caché within the corporate sphere.And it these groups that educate and mobilize citizens around the daily issues that generate public opinion and citizen action. Those who live on the inside should never forget this. The freight is being paid on the streets, and that is where the truth lies. We need to reach out to this reality and honour it; we should never scorn it or, worse, slander it.

*Canadian Democracy and Corporate Accountability, An Overview of Issues, p.8