Christian O. Christiansen
An Intellectual History of the Role of Business in American Society
Oxford University Press 2015
Christian Olaf Christiansen is an associate professor in the history of ideas at Aarhus University, Denmark. His book Progressive Business: An Intellectual History of the Role of Business in American Society (Oxford University Press, 2015) offers a compelling history of the idea of a gentler capitalism, or of the “soulful” self-regulating corporation, that can flourish economically while doing social good. The idea of “market reformism” against a pure laissez-faire has been an important concept in three distinct periods of U.S. history. In the late nineteenth century, the nation experienced the first economic transformation toward large-scale industrial capitalism engendering “paternalistic market reformism” to alleviate the harshest elements of laissez-faire. The second period of change was the decades of the New Deal in which “political reformism” took hold. Advocates for self-regulation promoted a “managerial market reformism” in which professional managers were to play a key role in negotiating the needs of the corporation and multiple stakeholders. The third period is the most recent era of globalization in which neo-liberal ascendancy was met by a complimentary “entrepreneurial market reformism” in which capitalism is promoted as democratic, cool, revolutionary and egalitarian. All forms of self-regulation, as a third way that rejects both pure capitalism and state intervention, have been met with criticism. Some have held to the idea that the business of business is to maximize shareholder profits, not social engineering. Others advocating for political reform were skeptical of business acting against its own best interest and called for the countervailing power of government. Christiansen has provided a valuable roadmap for understanding the claims of corporate social responsibility in a neoliberal age.