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Pluto Press
Corporate Capitalism and Political Philosophy

Corporate Capitalism and Political Philosophy

by Suman Gupta


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Corporate Capitalism and Political Philosophy

This book is a political philosophical critique of corporate capitalism. Corporate capitalism is usually examined from a sociological or economic viewpoint, and this book breaks new ground in providing a thorough account of the mechanisms which define it from a philosophical perspective, revealing how these processes determine the way we live today.

Marxism and other left-oriented political philosophies had ideological roots that were based, sometimes incongruously, on particular economic and sociological readings of the capitalist process. Political philosophies associated with conservatism and neo-liberalism have either been assimilated within capitalist discourses, or they have been designed to justify corporate capitalist processes. This book re-examines these issues with an unusually dispassionate approach, providing a systematic view of contemporary corporate capitalism in all its complexity, without expecting the reader to have a specialist knowledge of sociology or economics. It clarifies the scope of political philosophy by reflecting on its own methodology and practice, and offers a controversial conclusion-that within contemporary corporate capitalist modes of organization there is actually no space left for political philosophy at all, as corporate capitalism systematically denies all political agents an ability to exercise their political will.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745317557
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 12/20/2001
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.46(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Suman Gupta is Senior Lecturer at the Open University. He is the author of three books, including Marxism, History and Intellectuals: Toward a Reconceptualized Transformative Socialism (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000).

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The Evasiveness of Corporate Capitalism

Nothing evades the approach of political philosophy as deftly, or denies the application of political philosophy as stubbornly, as the condition and practice of corporate capitalism in our time. At this point, at the beginning of this study, I offer this statement intuitively – without the academic frame of validating evidence or authoritative support – but I think it rings true. It is my intention here to bring, insofar as I can, the amorphous unwieldy ever-assimilative area of corporate capitalism in our time (as the millennium turns) under the gaze of political philosophy, and render it subject to the concerns of political philosophy.

A few preliminary definitions (however tentatively and provisionally offered) and initial resolutions are unavoidable.

So, a tentative definition to set the ball rolling: political philosophy is an attempt at understanding (illuminating, clarifying, elucidating) and conceptualising human communal existence (individuals living together and with an awareness of living together in terms of some notion of collectivity) with a view to conducting this communal existence by certain ostensibly practicable means towards certain apparently determinable ends. The attempt at understanding and conceptualising a given state of human communal existence could itself reveal what the relevant political means and ends should be. But political means and ends need not be based so squarely on analytical or critical grounds. Political means and ends could simply be considered as given, for instance, or could well prove to be relevant only for certain parties and irrelevant for others. These too would come under the purview of political philosophy, at least insofar as the effort of understanding and conceptualising involved in political philosophy would enable an assessment or critique of all available political means and ends, with a view to supporting some and rejecting some or supporting none and finding new ones.

I call this a tentative definition because I would like to reserve the right to modify it and elaborate on it in any way that becomes necessary as this study progresses. As it stands now, without the support of illustration or explanation, it might seem like a bald collection of words – suggestive and coherent in several ways, yet not entirely transparent. I hope to give it more flesh, and substantiate it or elaborate on it in different ways, as this study touches upon specific issues. Even as it stands, however, it is probably coherent enough to indicate why the concerns of political philosophy and the nuances of corporate capitalism in our time meet awkwardly, if at all. Political philosophy begins and ends in its concern (or occasionally lack thereof) for human communal existence. The corporation which is devoted to the maximisation of capital, and the systems and institutions which are designed to allow this corporation more or less free play to do so (roughly what I mean by corporate capitalism), may need to take account of the nuances of human communal existence, but do not necessarily derive from or answer to any concern (or even lack thereof) for human communal existence. The means and ends here are no more than those which serve the abstract person of the capitalist corporation (such as a company, for example) itself, or the real persons who invest in some way in the capitalist corporation. There is indubitably a voluntaristic and optimistic energy about political philosophy – 'if we consensually understand and conceptualise we can do what is necessary' usually seems to be the underlying idea. The dynamism of corporate capitalism is of a quite different order. Corporate capitalism essentially presents the heroism and determination which can overcome (by collaborating with or forestalling) apparently uncontrollable or at best only semi-controllable forces – competition, market forces, consumer behaviour, labour constraints, technological constraints, etc. More often than not political philosophy is a celebration of intellectual and moral rationality; whereas generally corporate capitalism exalts the instinct, foresight, intuition, etc. of its participants (entrepreneurs, promoters, investors, managers, and so on). When political philosophy conceives of the happening of politics in the world it is in terms of rational action in some universalised sense; when corporate capitalism is involved in the happening of politics it is primarily in terms of effective or efficient action to serve certain limited and accountable ends – ultimately the maximisation of capital.

Political philosophy and corporate capitalism are both involved in the happening of politics, but there is little other common discursive ground. It is therefore generally true to say that there is no political philosophy of corporate capitalism: there is either political philosophy after the fact of corporate capitalism (a poor second cousin, trying to do no more than justify what corporate capitalism does and/or achieves in terms which are of no interest to corporate capitalism as such), or more potently there is political philosophy against corporate capitalism. But there is something unsatisfying about this situation. Philosophy should be neither partial nor hostile without reason. At least to begin with, philosophy should be neutral.

When I say that I will try to bring corporate capitalism under the gaze of political philosophy, make corporate capitalism subject to the concerns of political philosophy, I am making a rhetorical gesture. It is a rhetorical gesture that announces at the outset that I am on the side of political philosophy and that I wish to confront corporate capitalism without evasions and without any unnecessary partiality or hostility. I wish to scrutinise (whether I am able to or not is another matter) the condition and practice of corporate capitalism in our time dispassionately and see how these bear upon a philosophical concern with human communal existence and with political ends and means. I particularly attempt this because I suspect that the evasiveness of corporate capitalism to the approach of political philosophy is indicative of something deeper: that, in fact, the systems and processes of contemporary corporate capitalism are such that they undermine politics, subvert political philosophy, disable the political philosopher and political activist in some essential sense, even while appearing not to. By confronting corporate capitalism dispassionately and single-mindedly from the side of political philosophy I should be able either to confirm this or discount this.

To scrutinise the condition and practice of corporate capitalism in our time: what could that mean? What is the object to be scrutinised that is corporate capitalism, or the frame or area or phenomenon to be observed that manifests corporate capitalism? Surely, the political concern with human communal existence – that broad putative object, human communal existence – would not in itself provide a frame for the particular attempt to come to grips with corporate capitalism in our time? That object is the object for all political philosophy; the specific political philosophical quest of this study requires a delineation of object (within human communal existence) whereby corporate capitalism would be confronted. Human collectivity itself would have to be redescribed or reassessed in a manner which would make it possible to apprehend the working of corporate capitalism in its midst.

This is a problem sociologists are more accustomed to dealing with than are philosophers. When Marx made his first forays into sociology from the realms of philosophy, this was precisely the kind of question he had asked himself. His early critiques of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, and his observations on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts are within the field of philosophy – these had to deal with the absolute abstractions of individuality, collectivity, history and authority, within a specific mode of philosophical understanding (German idealist). To challenge this effectively though, he had to move away from that mode of philosophical understanding, he had to find a method of redescribing his philosophical object (human communal existence) whereby those absolute abstractions would be dislocated, and the coherence of the philosophical concepts which attend them would be disturbed. Sociology was arguably invented at that point to revitalise philosophy: Marx described the proletariat (in economic terms) as a sub-category within human communal existence in his 'Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction' and in 'Excerpts from James Mill's Elements of Political Economy', thereby allowing class categorisation and class analysis to emerge by the time he wrote (with Engels) The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto. That descriptive act, whereby human communal existence became a differently apprehended object, wasn't one that could be characterised in terms of philosophical methods or objectives. That descriptive act, which could be given the form of economic charting out, which could reconceive and rewrite history, is, to my mind, the sociological act whereby philosophy could be dislocated and rejuvenated. Once the sociological description brings the object of philosophical (especially political philosophical) contemplation within view, philosophy can engage with it and progress or regress.

I mention Marx here particularly because he more than anyone else wedded together sociology and political philosophy (especially insofar as they are geared towards political means and ends), and it seems to me that his particular form of sociological description (in terms of social categories) continues to invigorate political philosophy. And when it doesn't, political philosophy still harks back to the very general and abstract conceptualising available from Plato and Aristotle to Rousseau and Hegel and Feuerbach. Of course, modes of sociological description in terms of social categories have become immensely more complex since Marx; and, for that matter, the very general and abstract conceptualising now that is reminiscent of Rousseau, Hegel, Feuerbach, Proudhon, etc. has also renovated itself in interesting and complex ways.

Sociological description by social categories has extended beyond class description to categorisation – by gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, for instance – and these have either shouldered class descriptions in a competitive fashion or negotiated with class descriptions in complex and generally unresolved ways. A considerable section of what passes for 'critical theory' now – postmodernist theory, feminist theory, post-colonial studies, gay studies, cultural studies, etc. – is somewhere in the nexus of political philosophy and sociological description in terms of social categories. These are never too distant from the spirit of a Marxist effort, even if they systematically eschew the specific class analysis and consequent view of materialist dialectics, history and political agenda associated with Marx. That these are not too different from the Marxist spirit is evidenced in the frequent and not incoherent reinsertions of Marxist class analysis within the folds of these areas of critical theory.

The political philosophy that has by and large stayed indifferent to sociological description, and that continues to be reminiscent of the kind of general and abstract conceptualising – often ostensibly addressing a universal human condition or communal existence as a universal phenomenon – also derives from its more or less traditional roots. This is associated with liberal philosophers such as Rawls or Nagel; libertarian philosophers such as Hayek or Nozick or Fukuyama; revisionist socialist philosophers such as Sartre or Miller or Walzer; and some conservative philosophers such as Scruton. When any of these philosophers offer a formulation about political ends and means, this is done in terms of an abstract and potentially universal human community, of abstract and potentially universal human individuals, and of abstract and potentially universal concepts of action and agency and communication and value, etc. The fact that this approach to political philosophy (which is fairly remote from the details and nuances of sociological description, though it often hits upon specific sociologically pertinent observations to validate universalist formulations) can branch off in so many different ideological directions is itself an indication of the multifarious and complex possibilities involved therein.

Modes of sociological description apart from the sort that derive from social categories had come to exist, despite Marx, almost from the outset. In very schematic terms, these could be thought of as the applications of various quanta of sociological description that may be considered to be either more amenable to providing universal terms for the description of all possible sociological phenomena and contexts, or more comprehensive and inclusive in enabling description of sociological phenomena and contexts, than is description in terms of social categories alone. These devolve on the one hand into notions of basic quanta of sociological description (such as 'social things', primarily associated with Durkheim, or 'social action' and agents, primarily associated with Weber); or, on the other hand, into large configurations such as systems, corporations, organisations, discourses, etc. The configurations could either be seen as having a continuous relation with the basic quanta, such that the latter act as the building blocks of the former; or the configurations could determine the characteristics of the basic quanta, such that the former could determine which kind or kinds of quanta become relevant and in what sort of relationships (a view of sociological description which is sometimes associated with thinkers like Parsons, Luhmann, or Foucault, for instance). These modes of sociological description do not indicate a dismissal of description according to social category (such as class); more often than not class, for instance, gets accommodated into descriptions by discourse formations, systems analysis, organisation theory, and so on, or gets constructed in terms of social action or social facts.

These different modes of sociological description that are not concerned essentially with the social category do give rise to considerations which overlap with political philosophy. Thus, for instance, Habermas's synthetic use of different modes of sociological description (including discourse formations, systems analysis and social action analysis) leads him to concerns which are close to (if at all distinguishable from) that of political philosophy. So, his description of the difficulties of legitimation in capitalist economies, and his conviction in the efficacy of communicative action for effective political and social mediation, are clearly with regard to problems and resolutions of political means and ends in the most general sense, and therefore within the remit of political philosophy. Unsurprisingly Habermas often finds himself thrown back to the German idealists. Indeed, it is probably facile to try to distinguish rigidly between the contingencies of sociological description and the concerns of political philosophy; these arise, as they did for Marx, in such close proximity that distinctions are blurred. However, sociologists and political philosophers have often been at pains to distance themselves from each other despite a common interest in political means and ends, and at least two major grounds of distinction are worth mentioning (though I am not convinced that these are particularly material). One, sociologists, starting from Marx and Durkheim, have modelled the modes of sociological description and the projections that become possible from such description on scientific practice: that is, starting from empirical observation, deriving law-like or rule-like formulations from that, and making projections or solving problems by inferences based on these. In general this inheritance of sociology (to do with the dominant ideas of the period wherein it found its disciplinary status) continues to manifest itself, though occasionally sociologists do have qualms about an excessive attachment to scientific practice. Philosophers in Enlightenment Europe (particularly the Anglo-Saxon empiricists and the German idealists) were also keen to cultivate a scientific spirit in philosophy, but more as a taking-into-account and an accommodation of science than as an imitation. Two, by and large sociologists, in keeping with scientific practice, gear their interests in political means and ends to the problems which arise from and within their descriptions. Sociology therefore usually presents itself with regard to political concerns in a pragmatic fashion: it starts from a given and documentable state of affairs and offers its projections (particularly when pertinent to political ends and means) in terms of its apprehension of that state of affairs. Political philosophy also, of course, hopes to be pragmatic, but generally it begins from certain first principles of politics and then apprehends given states of affairs accordingly. The problem-solving and functional approach to political means and ends has recently been evidenced, for instance, in the work and political influence of Anthony Giddens.


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Table of Contents

Part I: Philosophical Methods and Capitalist Processes: Means, Definitions, Intentions

The Evasiveness of Corporate Capitalism
The Political State
The Capitalist Corporation
The Contradictions of Capitalism
Intentional Systems
What Follows

Part II: Reasons, Causes and Practices in Contemporary Corporate Capitalism

Classical Sociology and Managerialism
Management Discourses
The Macro-Issues Behind Executive Pay
Corporatism and the Corporate Capitalist State
Corporate Capitalist States and International Politics

Part III: The Disabled Political Will and Anti-Political Philosophy

The Mechanics of Disablement
The Anti-Political Self-Defeat of Mannheim
Popper’s Anti-Political Philosophical Tendencies
Hayek and the Mature Anti-Political Philosophy
Nozick’s Anti-Political Philosophy
Fukuyama’s Anti-Political Philosophy
The Need for Rational Utopian Thinking



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