Imagining corporate personhood. Special issue of Political and Legal Anthropology Review, edited by Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch, with an introduction by Kirsch, essays from Peter Benson, Robert Foster, Ilana Gershon, Dina Rajak, and Kedron Thomas, and an afterward by Ira Bashkow.
Anthropologists since the 1990s have paid greater attention to the state and governmentality than to one of the most consequential forms of power in our time, the corporation. The lack of attention to corporations is especially problematic when the harm they cause is readily apparent and substantial. We propose to reorient the study of power in anthropology to focus on the strategies corporations use in response to their critics and how this facilitates the perpetuation of harm. We identify three main phases of corporate response to critique: denial, acknowledgement and token accommodation, and strategic engagement. In case studies of the tobacco and mining industries, we show how corporate responses to their critics protect these industries from potential delegitimization and allow them to continue operating in favorable regulatory environments. Finally, we connect these corporate strategies to pervasive feelings of discontent about the present and the perceived inability to change the future. Although corporations usually benefit from the politics of resignation, we argue that widespread dissatisfaction with corporate practices represents an important starting point for social change.
Corporate oxymorons. Special issue of Dialectical Anthropology, edited by Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch, with an introduction by Benson and Kirsch, contributions by Peter Benson (Safe cigarettes), Kim Fortun (Essential2Life), Stuart Kirsch (Sustainable mining), Adriana Petryna (Paradigms of expected failure), and Suzana Sawyer (Human energy), and an afterword by Robert Foster (Corporate oxymorons and the anthropology of capitalism).
Corporate oxymorons are a vivid and dangerous part of the contemporary world. Think of the safe cigarette myths of big tobacco, the calculated repositioning of big oil amidst climate change debates, and questionable claims about sustainability made by mining and other extractive industries. Across various industries multinational corporations have strategically turned to a language of social responsibility in order to legitimize capitalist activities that entail very clear negative human and environmental consequences. While neoliberal market reforms and international free trade agreements have benefited corporations by reducing regulation and permitting the flexible organization of production and consumption chains around the world, the realm of images, culture, brand names, and advertising has remained crucial to contemporary multinational capital. Corporations like BHP Billiton, Chevron, DuPont, Google, Merck, and Philip Morris claim to operate for the public good and address the problems of human life more efficiently and effectively than the state. They are not bad actors who harm people or the planet and unabashedly produce uneven geographies of accumulation, inequality, and suffering in the name of increased shareholder value. Much like governments, these corporations claim to play a beneficial and indispensable role, making healthier communities, cleaner environments, and better functioning economies and societies. Corporations also astutely appropriate the discourse of critique, manipulate and package science, and borrow the tactics and strategies of oppositional movements. Anthropologists are well-positioned to document and analyze the paradoxes that underpin these claims and practices. Ethnographic research can unpack oxymoronic claims about corporate social responsibility by revealing social, health, economic, informational, and environmental quandaries (often catastrophes and crises) that the tobacco, petroleum, mining, information, and pharmaceutical industries help make. Moreover, by connecting in-depth ethnographic studies to larger issues of social and public policy, anthropologists can provide a critical perspective on how corporate oxymorons are legitimized at multiple levels, often with government support, despite their contestation by various social actors, agencies, and movements. The papers collected here take corporate oxymorons in various industries as entry points into critical ethnographic and theoretical engagements with the constitution of contemporary capitalism on local and global scales.
The mining industry moves more earth than any other human endeavor. Yet mining companies regularly claim to practice sustainable mining. Progressive redefinition of the term sustainability has emptied out the concept of its original reference to the environment. Mining companies now use the term to refer to corporate profits and economic development that will outlast the life of a mining project. The deployment of corporate oxymorons like sustainable mining is one of the key strategies corporations use to conceal harm and neutralize critique.