Commentary,  Environment & Work,  Finance,  Inequality

The Contradictions of ‘Caring Capitalism’

Many companies these days try to promote a ‘socially responsible’ image: giving money to charities, speaking broadly about ‘stakeholders’ and ‘sustainability’, and even joining debates about issues like racism. But when it comes to their own bottom lines, few diverge from the fundamental goals of minimizing costs, avoiding taxes, and maximizing profits – regardless of the harm that might result to their workers, communities, or the environment.

In this commentary, originally published in the Toronto Star, Jim Stanford takes aim at contradictions of this ‘kinder, gentler’ image corporations are trying to create. His jumping-off point is Hasbro’s effort to improve the image of its iconic Monopoly board game. The commentary also discusses an important new film from Canadian law professor Joel Bakan, titled The New Corporation (now available for streaming). Jim also spoke (starting at 49:00) in a recent international webinar, hosted by the CRIMT network at the Université de Montréal, on the film and the problems of corporate social responsibility.

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Rescuing Puppies Can’t Save Capitalism

The game Monopoly has been around for 85 years. It’s the biggest-selling board game ever. But its manufacturer, Hasbro, isn’t sitting on those laurels: it’s giving the game a socially-conscious makeover.

Hasbro is hosting a public contest to update Monopoly’s ‘Community Chest’ cards, which give players a random bonus or penalty as they move around the board. The original cards are hackneyed, with messages like: “You won second prize in a beauty contest,” or “You are assessed for street repairs.”

Hasbro figured a pandemic is a great time to modernize these cards, and get woke in the process. “Clearly today community is more important than ever,” says an earnest Hasbro executive. In that spirit of sharing, Hasbro wants the public to vote on proposed new cards, which contain laughably trite messages of caring and sharing. Choices include visiting an elderly neighbour, rescuing a puppy, or buying dinner for a relative who forgot their wallet – not exactly a manifesto for revolution.

One proposed card would even pay you $200 for “shopping local all week.” Yet Monopoly’s playing pieces are made in China. Hasbro itself puts access to cheap labour ahead of local business, so why shouldn’t Monopoly players? And remember, the whole point of Monopoly is to take over entire neighbourhoods and then soak tenants for all they’re worth. Tenants with any money left at all will head for the cheap imports at Wal-Mart, not politically correct local boutiques.

Bankrupt your opponents to win it allIt is tempting to dismiss Hasbro’s contest as a clumsy gimmick. But it inadvertently highlights the shallowness of the ‘caring capitalism’ craze that has become fashionable in many boardrooms. Supposedly progressive business leaders claim their corporations now act for all stakeholders, not just shareholders. They hope we will commend their charity – rather than raising their taxes, prohibiting their pollution, or unionizing their workers (all more direct ways of achieving social responsibility).

Think of the well-heeled CEOs who fly to Davos each year on private jets for the World Economic Forum. Last year, with the tony summit forced to go virtual, they endorsed a program called the Great Reset. The Forum’s communiqué urged “global stakeholders to cooperate” to solve the ravages of disease, poverty, and climate change.

Among old-school capitalists like Pierre Poilievre, the prospect of global business elites concerning themselves with environmental and social issues sparks fears of dangerous conspiracies and the end of Western civilization. They needn’t worry. Yes, CEOs and investment bankers now praise social responsibility at evening fund-raisers. But during working hours they still push for the tax cuts, privatization, and unfettered globalization that made them rich in the first place. 

Canadian law professor Joel Bakan has just released a book and film, The New Corporation (a sequel to his 2003 The Corporation), which exposes the hypocrisy of caring capitalism. He shows that most companies pledging to ‘do good’ are really just shoring up their fragile social license. Worse yet, many supposedly humanitarian initiatives are a smokescreen for privatizing public services (like education or health care) that should properly be delivered by governments. And governments would have plenty of money to do those things, if corporations and their owners paid more taxes.

Monopoly’s remake is thus an unintended parable for the empty rhetoric of corporate social responsibility. Never mind the new Community Chest cards: Monopoly still explicitly celebrates corporate concentration and exploitation. The game’s slogan is “Bankrupt your opponents to win it all!” 

That could equally describe the mission of modern monopolists like Amazon, whose market value rose $1.2 trillion during the pandemic, even as billions suffered and millions died. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos also plays at social responsibility: he recently gave $10 billion (about 5 percent of his fortune) to fight climate change. But his warehouses are run like sweatshops, 20,000 Amazon workers caught COVID (including hundreds in Canada), and the company spent millions last month trying to prevent low-wage workers in Alabama from unionizing.

Like Amazon, Monopoly is slapping on a veneer of social responsibility – but without altering its core business model. Let’s hope consumers react with the derision this contest deserves. And the next time a CEO comes around saying they really do care about the community, just say: “Pay your damn taxes.”

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.