The corporate pursuit of social goals – known as Corporate Social Responsibility or ‘CSR’ – has been subject to critique on a number of grounds. However, a hitherto underexplored potential consequence of CSR has been suggested in a recent paper by C. Garsten and K. Jacobsson (‘Post-Political Regulation: Soft Power and Post-political Visions in Global Governance’ (2013), Critical Sociology 39: 421–37).
They suggest that CSR is part of an international trend towards ‘post-political’ governance discourses, where an emphasis on different actors’ common goals obscures conflicts of interest, subverting the open political conflict necessary for a well-functioning democracy.
This paper examines whether such post-political discourses – including an outright denial of conflict of interest – can be found within the alcohol and gambling industries, where conflicts of interest are likely to be particularly acute given the addictive nature of the goods/services in question. Based on interviews with CSR professionals in these industries in Italy, the UK, and at EU-level, we do indeed find evidence of a post-political discourse. In these discourses, alcohol/gambling industry staff deny potential conflicts of interest on the basis that any small benefits from sales to a small number of addicts are seen to be outweighed by the reputational damage that addicts cause.
Crucially, however, this coexists with another, less post-political discourse, where addictions CSR professionals emphasize ‘common ground’ as a basis for CSR, while accepting some instances of possible conflict of interest. Here interviewees make considerable efforts to differentiate good (sustainable) from bad (short-term) self-interest in order to stress the genuineness of their own actions.
We conclude the paper by considering whether CSR embedded within a ‘common ground’ discourse still hides conflicts of interests and subverts democratic debate, or overcomes the problems identified by Garsten and Jacobsson.