This paper has developed a framework in which CSR represents the contested terrain of global governance. Advocates view CSR as a move toward a form of civil regulation that is more responsive and accountable to social concerns, while critics see it as a privatized system of corporate governance that displaces the regulatory authority of the state and is frequently more geared toward public relations than substantive change. Our framework draws from Polanyi and Gramsci to argue that CSR is an emergent form of governance that can redress, to some degree, the governance deficit that exists in the international arena, and that reflects strategic contests as well as common ground among competing social forces. CSR is emerging as a set of discourses and practices that reflects the particular balance of forces in a contested issue arena. This political-strategic approach stands in sharp contrast to more conventional perspectives that develop a normative and ethical case for CSR, backed up with positivist arguments asserting a financial case for such behavior. Activists and academics have found CSR to be a powerful discourse that can be deployed strategically to influence corporate norms and practice. Advocating for CSR can generate legitimacy for stakeholders, shift societal expectations of business, create media attention, directly pressure business, bring attention to win-win opportunities, and even shape market environments to expand those opportunities. For business, CSR comprises an element of corporate political strategy that offers social legitimacy, some attractive market opportunities, and protection against more severe activist demands and regulatory pressure. CSR therefore rests on a rather precarious balance of conflict and cooperation. At the same time, CSR is limited by the logic of the marketplace. It relies primarily on the pressure exerted by NGOs and consumer activism in affluent countries on MNCs with vulnerable brand names. CSR does little to empower workers in developing countries, neither has it reversed adverse labor market trends in industrialized countries, such as wage stagnation, rising inequality, and the erosion of health care and pensions. From a Gramscian perspective, it is not surprising that CSR, as a hegemonic accommodation, largely reflects the dominant cultural, economic, and political role of business in society, and the permeation of the discourse of competitiveness and free markets into state and social structures. Yet Gramsci offers us optimism of the will, the conviction that collective action, organization, and smart strategy could overcome conventional sources of power. Rather than view the current status of CSR as a disappointing endpoint, CSR can be viewed as a long-term strategy that challenges corporate power on numerous fronts. A particular CSR arrangement, such as a code of conduct, might dampen pressures for change, but it might also prepare the stage for a new round of struggle in which NGOs build on their successes to demand effective monitoring and enforcement. Indeed, some elements of the CSR movement are increasingly using the language of business accountability to society rather than responsibility for society (Newell & Wheeler, 2006). CSR is thus not just a struggle over practices, but over the locus of governance authority, offering a potential path toward the transformation of stakeholders from external observers and petitioners into legitimate and organized participants in decision-making.
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