Auteur Kyle Edward Williams, a historian of the modern United States, is senior editor of the Hedgehog Review and Fellow at the In...
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Kyle Edward Williams, a historian of the modern United States, is senior editor of the Hedgehog Review and Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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Recent controversies around ESG investing and "woke" capital evoke an old idea: the Progressive-era vision of a socially responsible corporation. By midcentury, in fact, the notion that business leaders could benefit society had become a consensus view. But as Kyle Edward Williams's brilliant history shows, New Deal liberalism realized a kind of big business supervision narrowly focused on the financial interests of shareholders. This inadvertently laid the groundwork for a set of fringe views to become orthodoxy: that market forces should rule every facet of society. Along the way American capitalism itself was reshaped, stripping businesses to their profit-making core. As a rising tide of activists pushed corporations to account for societal harms from napalm to seatbelts to inequitable hiring, a new idea emerged: that managers could maximize value for society while still turning a maximal profit. This elusive ideal, "stakeholder capitalism," still dominates our headlines today. Williams's necessary history equips us to reconsider democracy's tangled relationship with capitalism.