Top positive review
Fine ideals, recommendations lack pragmatism
on May 30, 2002
Derber, a sociology professor at Boston College, gives us a noble, yet futile effort to bring change to our overbearing corporate culture. He does a commendable job of describing the historical role of corporations, starting with their charter as entities that are beholden to public scrutiny and will and with finite lifespan through the sea change of the Gilded Age where the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Goulds and others forced the country to accept corporations as private enterprises that also had the protection given to individuals. Much of Derber's best work is describing how this took place and what the ramifications have been through today.
He also does a decent job of describing how corporate power has been consolidated and is now so powerful that it holds an ever increasing dominance on public policy. With behemoths such as GM, GE, Disney, Microsoft and others holding vast amounts of power, Derber argues that government has become an unbalanced lackey of private enterprise and no longer is a trusted countervailing force to the private sector. As a prime example, Derber points to the merger activity in media companies which compelled the FCC to relax ownership constraints on media companies and has effective consolidated media power in the hands of very few companies. He rightly asks the question, how does this effect the quality and balance of news and information that the public receives and is this a threat to our political, economic freedoms.
He speaks of the corrupting power of contributions to political campaigns and how the legal fiction of the corporation as a person has allowed companies to wield undue influence in our political process. Derber does not make a significant distinction between Democrats and Republicans, arguing that both have become suckled to the corporate dollar, thereby diminishing their role as independent keepers of the public gate.
While Derber sees some silver lining in efforts by companies such as Ben & Jerry's, Tom's of Maine and others to practice corporate responsibility and bring a different set of values to corporate decision making, he believes these efforts will essentially fail to create fundamental change due to the divisive influence of financial markets, globalism and other pressures on companies to produce short-term profit for shareholders. Indeed, while Derber sees large financial institutions and money managers as potential harbingers of change due to their large ownership stake in companies, he doesn't think they will provide the type of change necessary to force companies to take into account, social, regional, environmental and other issues when making decisions.
Derber spends the final third of the book describing his antidote to this issue, however, while he consciously tries to evade sounding utopian and idealistic, that is exactly how he sounds. He puts his faith in a movement called 'positive populism' which looks to change their fundamental values while at the same time selling this idea to a skeptical public who may look upon it as threatening their own livelihood and security. He believes four separate movements can come together, labor, the 'third sector' of volunteer-based organizations associated with community, church, clubs, neighborhoods, etc., women's and civil rights movements and finally, environmental organizations. By demonstrating to all four their common goals and by shifting emphasis in labor from one of narrowly-defined interests to one of a broader social context, he believes they can be a powerful countervailing force to the corporate giant. While noble in theory, Derber gives very little direction on how this can happen. It seems he wills it to happen more than anything. As mentioned earlier, Derber has put his finger on a bedrock issue in today's world, but his solution has more to do with slinging arrows at Goliath.