In the 1970s, the story goes, a CEO met with environmental activists only to tell them: “I agree with you. Now go out and make me do it.” Businesses operating from a responsive mindset require relentless outside pressures to do the right thing. What is needed in the present moment is not uncritical celebration of “woke” companies working to ingratiate themselves into certain political constituencies, which would likely expand the current us-versus-them political divides into the private sector. Recognizing the dominance of the responsive mindset means all businesses, woke and un-woke alike, will need a healthy degree of “vigilant belligerence” from wider society as they navigate a politically contentious era. But perhaps at a more basic level, concerned citizens need to continually evaluate the degree to which profit-seeking, market-responsive entities should be tasked with preserving the social and political goods necessary for a flourishing society.
–Andrew Lynn, “The Limits of Corporate Activism”
The hallmark of the neoliberal thought collective was that they more or less accepted the inherited image of an addled and befuddled populace, but thoroughly rejected any appeals to a scientific technocracy to instill some discipline in the masses. For them, the discombobulation of the masses was not a reason for despair, but rather the necessary compost out of which a spontaneous order might blossom. The primary way this would come to pass was through acknowledgement that “the market” was an information processor more powerful and more efficacious than any human being was or could ever be. The cretinous and nescient would propose; the market would dispose. In effect, the NTC believed if only the masses could learn to subordinate their ambitions and desires to market dictates, then their deficient understandings and flawed syllogisms could be regarded as convenient expedients smoothing the path to order, rather than as political obstacles to be overcome, as in the technocratic orientation of postwar social sciences. And, conveniently, the neoliberals would mobilize numerous institutional structures to nudge the people down that path.
Hence, when it came to the simple matter of bamboozling the masses with ripping tales of government as the very embodiment of evil, as Friedman did, there were never any qualms expressed about their simultaneous drive to take over the Republican Party, and then the U.S. government, in order to impose a strong state and an even stronger set of state-instituted novel markets. The neoliberals often had to disguise their true allegiances from the masses: as Friedman once claimed, “the two groups that threaten the free market the most are businessmen and intellectuals.” Yet Friedman promoted the destruction of state education and the privatization of universities to put the intellectuals out of business; he never attacked the businessmen to any equivalent degree. Indeed, he openly preached the doctrine that corporations had no responsibilities to society other than to maximize their profits; if corporations were persons, they were of the purest strain of self-interested creatures, free from all surly bonds of obligation. The demonization of the state relative to the corporation was the epitome of the short-term tactic; the usurpation of power to the extent of reregulation (not deregulation) and extension of state power both at home and abroad were the long-term goals. No matter what Grover Norquist might rabbit on about, no neoliberal in government has ever actually shrunk the size of the state, much less drowned it in a bathtub. That was merely red meat for the groundlings. While in power, neoliberals may have subcontracted out parts of government, but that rarely makes a dent in bureaucracy. The coercive power of government inexorably grows.
–Philip Mirowski, “Neoliberalism: The Movement That Dare Not Speak Its Name”
In a still-influential paper from 1937 titled “The Nature of the Firm,” the economist and Nobel laureate Ronald Coase established himself as an early observer and theorist of corporate concerns. He described the employment contract not as a document that handed the employer unaccountable powers, but as one that circumscribed those powers. In signing a contract, the employee “agrees to obey the directions of an entrepreneur within certain limits,” he emphasized. But such characterizations, as Anderson notes, do not reflect reality; most workers agree to employment without any negotiation or even communication about their employer’s power or its limits. The exceptions to this rule are few and notable: top professional athletes, celebrity entertainers, superstar academics, and the (increasingly small) groups of workers who are able to bargain collectively.
Yet because employment contracts create the illusion that workers and companies have arrived at a mutually satisfying agreement, the increasingly onerous restrictions placed on modern employees are often presented as “best practices” and “industry standards,” framing all sorts of behaviors and outcomes as things that ought to be intrinsically desired by workers themselves. Who, after all, would not want to work on something in the “best” way? Beyond employment contracts, companies also rely on social pressure to foster obedience: If everyone in the office regularly stays until seven o’clock every night, who would risk departing at five, even if it’s technically allowed? Such social prods exist alongside more rigid behavioral codes that dictate everything from how visible an employee’s tattoo can be to when and how long workers can break for lunch.
–Miya Tokumitsu, The United States of Work