9, No. 2, May 2008
On The Cultural Logic of Ethical Capitalism
by Nicki Lisa Cole
University of California, Santa Barbara
Today, the concepts of ethical capitalism and corporate social
responsibility have become mainstream in the United States. Ideas
about the regulation of pollution and emissions, fair labor practices
and human rights, and the nuances of cultivation and production
of goods are prevalent in society, as are goods marketed
based on these ideas. Today one can find goods certified fair
trade, organic, sustainable, sweatshop free, or eco-friendly,
as various as food, beverage, tobacco, flowers and plants, clothing
and shoes, jewelry, art and hand-crafts, paper and plastic goods,
car tires, automobiles, and bombs and ammunitions. When Wal-Mart
carries it, mass saturation has been reached.
Though not always framed and executed as critical acts by consumers,
the purchasing of such products reflects a particular stance
on the dominant mode of capitalism that structures social relations
around the globe. More specifically, the market for ethical goods
reflects critique of the social and environmental conditions
generated by the current system of capitalism. In this essay
I argue that ethical capitalism is emerging as a new dominant
mode of capitalism, which suggests shifts in the cultural
logic of capitalism, to borrow a phrase popularized by Frederick
Jameson (2000). What are these shifts? And what is their significance?
To contemplate this we must begin by recognizing that ultimately,
morality is at the heart of this matter. It is the desire to
breathe morality back into the relations of production and consumption
that sparked ideas and practices of ethical capitalism and consumption.
I use the phrase “breathe back into” because historically,
morality was extracted from the system of economic exchange.
I argue that ethical capitalism reflects a desire to reinsert
morality, and also importantly, the recognition of a market for
Looking back, the relationship between morality and capitalism
has been soundly theorized, though rarely in such explicit terms.
When capitalism took shape during the mercantile period in Europe
it displaced a feudal system organized by what E.P. Thompson
described as a “moral economy” (1971). In his descriptions
of the food riots that occurred throughout Britain in the context
of mercantile capitalism and the formation of division of labor
and class structure for industrial capitalism, Thompson illustrated
how peasants who found themselves forced to buy milled wheat
and baked bread at high cost expressed grievances that prices
were not “fair.” These protests reflected the common
expectation that merchants would not profit off of the poor,
but rather should do their part to ensure the good of the community.
The idea of working for the common good traveled to colonial
America with British colonists, however as the spirit of capitalist
accumulation, the idea of individualism, and a sturdy belief
in self-help and self-sufficiency spread throughout early United
States society, the concept of moral economy, and investment
in the common good that accompanied it waned (Bell 1996; Weber
1999; Lloyd and Thomas 1998). As Weber documented, the spirit
of capitalism flourished as the United States emerged out of
the eighteenth century. During this time period the place of
morality in social life was firmly exiled to the realm of the
church and fully extricated from the emerging dominant economic
system – industrial capitalism. The rise and acceptance
of scientific and rational thinking fueled the study of economics
as a science in the academy, separating “economics” from
the tradition of political economy. Markets and morality
were effectively divorced.
The industrial revolution, and following that, the shift to “finance
capitalism,” or “monopoly capitalism,” as others
call it, generated massive wealth accumulation for the owners
of the means of production, and later, for those who financed
production (Baran and Sweezy 1966). A growing wealth gap, and
a quickly growing poor class of working people pressed on the
moral contradictions of capitalism, however consciousness of
this was muted by the firm belief in self-help, and the notion
that individual success was the result of individual effort alone.
These ideas were nurtured at this time by early social science,
which framed poverty and destitution as deviant and pathological,
and which framed racial groups other than white as culturally
inferior. Yet many perceived the poor as helpless and in need
of saving, and these ideas crystallized into a new title for
the wealthy: Philanthropist.
In the United States during the twentieth century the introduction
of installment buying helped facilitate the mass production and
mass consumption of goods (Bell 1996). And in turn, the mass
production of goods spurred the rise of the presence and significance
of commodities in social life. Much has been written about the
increased integration between capitalism and culture, and specifically
between the consumption of goods and the process of identity
formation from the mid-twentieth century on. During this time
of suburbanization and baby booming, the notion of individualism
deepened. At mid-century scholars and cultural critics began
to observe disturbing trends in the decline of political and
critical consciousness which appeared in tandem with the rise
of consumer society and mass media (Marcuse 1964; Horkheimer
1972; Adorno 1976; Lasch 1979).
In the latter half of the twentieth century, a period described
by Jameson as “late model capitalism,” scholars
became increasingly concerned with the intensified relationship
between consumption and identity, and even further dissociated
from political consciousness (Baudrillard 1981; Barthes 1972;
Jameson 2000; Dunn 1998; Harvey 1990). Others observe that in
this period there emerged a somewhat vague discourse on “values,” “tradition,” and
notions of “right” and “wrong,” which
individuals employed to organize and structure their lives. These
vague notions allowed morality to be ultimately subjective
and contextually adaptable (Bellah 1985; Taylor 1989). Bellah
found that many people explained what was “right” and “good” as
what felt right and good to do.
At the same time, Baudrillard noted that commodities bear moral
significance in social life, and that goods speak to the morality
and social status of those who posses them (also duly observed
by Bourdieu (1984) in his study of French culture and values).
Yet while goods took on signification of lifestyle and status
they were soundly disconnected from another highly relevant source
of signification – their origin and journeys through the
channels of production. And, as Baudrillard points out, it is
not simply that there is commodity fetishism in the Marxist sense,
but that goods (commodities) fetishize the system of
production and consumption itself.
I argue that since the scholars reviewed above shared these
ideas, ethical capitalism emerged and over the last twenty years
has taken shape and steadily grown and is positioned to become
the new dominant mode. By dominant mode, I mean the normative,
assumed mode of capitalism, and the popular way in which capitalism
is understood to function. In this way, ethical capitalism represents
the ultimate form of hegemonic domination. This new mode incorporates
critiques of the capitalist system and affords some minor concessions
to appease them, and in doing so, it absorbs and neutralizes
discordant views by suggesting that the solutions to the problems
attributed to the system reside within the system itself.
With ethical capitalism the system of capitalism remains relatively
unchanged, except for that it has been endowed with moral legitimacy.
I investigate these claims in my dissertation research by studying
the socially responsible/ethical niche market of the coffee industry.
By examining this case I hope to unearth the cultural logic that
both shapes and is shaped by ethical capitalism. I am particularly
interested in how notions of morality structure the marketing
discourse of the goods, individual consumption choices, and identity
for middle and upper class individuals in the United States.
What is this morality that is fused with consumption and capitalism?
What characteristics define a “good person” in this
cultural climate? What is the social significance of this, particularly
in relation to ideas about global capitalism?
Starbucks tells its customers that “by buying this coffee,
you're doing something good.” The discourse of ethical
capitalism (the packaging, marketing materials, corporate websites,
and store displays) states that to be a good person is to consume
the “right” products; that all one need do to help
abate global social problems is to continue to consume. Thus,
one can project an ethical identity through the channels of consumption.
The rewarding sense of benevolence suggested by this discourse
resonates with Bellah's observation that people know what is
good based on what feels good. Certainly under these
circumstances, consuming such products feels good.
Preliminary interviews I've conducted with coffee consumers
and small business owners in the industry suggest that not only
do people see the solutions to the problems of global capitalism
in the system itself, they do not even identify the system itself
as problematic. The way they speak about the coffee industry
and business more generally implicates bad corporate actors who
do bad things and produce bad conditions. They do not critique
the system of capitalism itself. Additionally, the small business
owners (café proprietors and owners of a roasting facility
and distributor) position descriptions of themselves and their
businesses against the bad corporate actors in order
to illustrate their own goodness, and to effectively position
themselves as part of the solution, and not the problem. This
reflects the spirit of individualism that shapes our society.
Much as they do not see themselves as part of the problem, they
do not appear to see themselves as a part of the overall system
either. They thus remove the need to consciously deal with the
burden of guilt related to global social problems.
So what does this development in capitalism and consumption
suggest about the culture of contemporary society? The desire
to be moral and good observed by Bellah, and the emphasis on
appearance and lifestyle observed by Lasch seem to coalesce here
to produce the desire to project a socially conscious, moral
lifestyle. Since consumption is popularly viewed as the ultimate
in democratic choice, people thus channel political and social
unease into consuming. Identity and morality are thus articulated
through consumption of goods. The hesitancy to examine real conditions
and personal culpability fuels the drive to consume morality,
and often what is consumed as moral is premised on paternalist
(and racist) views of the poor and working poor caught in the
web of capitalism that spans the globe. It appears then that
ethical capitalism, and the ideas and cultural practices that
support it do nothing more than rearticulate the hegemony of
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