A more progressive spirit in the world of business wouldn’t be a bad thing. But it’s unlikely that more substantial and lasting progressive social change will come from a new corporate ethic. While proponents of progressive business often proclaim to be the vanguard of a new ‘revolution’ wherein the role of business in society as we know it will change, it is worth noting that progressive business is by no means a new idea.
For example, the 1956 book The American Business Creed — the most comprehensive account of US business ideology ever written — laid bare a conceptual tension between two kinds of business ideologies: ‘the classical business creed’ and ‘the managerial business creed.’ Where the former saw profit-maximization as the central goal of corporations, the latter saw social responsibility as the key goal.
Where the managerial creed existed alongside a rising middle class, today’s proponents of ‘progressive business’ find themselves in an almost contrary environment. There is no comparable, countervailing force to Big Business.
Where the mid-century managerial creed operated on the basis of there being a contradiction between being for-profit and for-society, contemporary proponents of progressive business often reject that there is any. And where progressive business people might increase the wellbeing of stakeholders to their particular corporations, other institutions such as social democracy and labour and social movements would be necessary if the goal is to raise the welfare of all citizens.
Progressive business is an idea with a longer history than commonly recognized. This history shows that while progressive business can certainly help achieve good things, it should not be a substitute for progressive politics.