On Counter-Hegemonic Realism


Many corporate actors do it: Coca Cola, H&M, Chiquita, Primark, G-Star, Starbucks, Apple, BMW, etc. They all publically proclaim that their marketed commodities are produced with a social responsibility, in accordance with ethical standards that respect humans and the natural world. Standard economic reasoning provides a clear-cut explanation for this phenomenon: market supply and demand tends to converge towards an equilibrium. The fact that ‘socially responsible products’ are increasingly marketed implies that everyday consumers purchase these products.

So once again, free-market reasoning seems to provide an effective solution for the organization of our societies! No need for government to regulate social concerns, the private sector can self-regulate, right? The ultimate win-win situation – private corporations profit whilst tackling eminent social concerns. In the academic management and development literature, as well as in de facto policies around the world, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has emerged as a buzzing concept.

In this essay, I aim to critically assess the practice of CSR. In the process, I aim to contribute to the debate on strategizing counter-hegemonic resistances (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001). The main claim I make is that CSR can be a tactical medium for individuals and/or social groups to effectively voice political concerns, and that it can contribute to a strategic process of radical socio-economic transformation. The essay advances in three stages. In the first instance, I briefly describe CSR in the light of the global institutional arena wherein this practice is embedded. Secondly, I introduce the distinction that runs through this volume: privateers versus pirates, which I reframe as hegemonic vs counter-hegemonic. I claim that both privateers and pirates operate within the global institutional arena, and that both can claim ownership over CSR practices. Conceptualizing counter-hegemonic strategies in a realist manner implies taking explicitly tactical action within the prevailing institutional arena in a conscious attempt to change this arena. As a consequence, I claim that consuming (or not consuming) CSR products becomes a political act. The third section claims that CSR presents itself as a potentially powerful tactic in forging a unified counter-hegemonic movement, and speculates what role pirates can play in transforming the transnational production process.

The transglocal institutional arena and CSR

The present point of departure is the perception that politics is changing. The realm of political actions has shifted dramatically. Both institutions and individuals find new ways to be political, while classical methods are being eroded. The present section aims to sketch a perspective on the global institutional arena wherein political actors operate. I argue that CSR is a political practice operative in the present global institutional arena.

Before advancing, I need briefly to clarify how I use the notion of ‘institutions’.[1] In first approximation, the notion of institution ties in to a vast body of literature in the social sciences that conceptualizes institutions as the formal and informal ‘rules of the game’; iterated structural incentives that inform individual behavior and consequential social interactions (North 1990). The analytic lens I apply is one that conceptualizes our social world as made up of institutions. In other words, I adopt a social ontology that analyzes human interactions in reaction to the institution wherein that behavior is embedded. Institutions are thus, generally taken, all explicit and implicit guides to human behavior. As such, they may be formal or informal, both organizationally structured or culturally implied, and everything in-between. In this sense, there is no escaping from institutions. All human actions occur, by definition, in relation to social institutions. This does not imply, however, that actors are wholly determined by their institutional embeddedness. Whilst institutional structures are both disciplining and enabling, individuals have degrees of agency to comply with, combine or defy institutional inductions. This usage of the concept of institutions has emerged in the analytic tradition and is, in my reading, similar to the continental usage of the concept of discourses.[2] Like discourses, institutions are multi-leveled and ever-interacting with other institutions. The matrix of institutions, wherein human interactions are embedded, is in constant flux. This conceptualization of institutions provides leeway for analyzing and strategizing institutional change and, consequently, socio-economic transformations.

The all-encompassing usage of the notion of ever-evolving and intertwined institutions implies that, for reasons of analyzing and strategizing CSR, hypothetical lines could be drawn between institutional levels and governance mechanisms. An analytic framework could consist of three scales, i.e. the global level, the national level and the local level (Cox 1981); and three governance mechanisms, i.e. public (state) governance, private (market) governance and local (community) governance (Uphoff 1993). But these would be suppositional delineations, while de facto institutional levels and governance mechanisms constantly combine and interact. In effect, it seems appropriate to speak of hybrid governance mechanisms, as de facto governance is likely to be comprised of a complex mixture of governance mechanisms. By a similar token, ‘the glocal’ has become a focal point of analysis, whereby de facto practices are generated by interlocking actors operative at various levels (Hart 2006). In the remainder of this essay, I will use the term ‘transglocal’ to indicate that hybrid governance mechanisms operate simultaneously at various levels, interlocking actors at the global, national and local levels. The practice of CSR, the central topic in this essay, operates in this transglocal institutional order.

As a reading of history, qua politics, the nation-state has for centuries been the main organized institution in the ‘developed’ world. Individuals and groups could turn towards a given bureaucratic department of the state for their political actions. As a public institution, the state operated as a collective actor. The rule of the state is here conceptualized as a cluster of public-governance mechanisms. Public-governance mechanisms didn’t only dominate institutions at the national level; national governments also became the dominant entity at the global and local level. Although the state has never been devoid of influences of private sector actors, in recent decades these influences have augmented exponentially (Hessel 2010). Private-governance mechanisms, i.e. governance structures set up by private-sector actors, have hence gained significant importance in the de facto organization of the transglocal institutional order. Especially in the economic realm, the power of private-sector actors to organize the geographically dispersed production process is prevalent. It is important to note here that private-governance mechanisms are only possible within the structural grid of public-governance mechanisms. It is with this realization that the dichotomous distinction between market and government collapses: it is a specific conjuncture of public government that facilitates ‘free’ market interplay between private-sector actors. The term neoliberalism has become a widespread buzzword with contested meaning. That the term is widespread indicates a shift in global governance. In this essay, neoliberalism is conceptualized as a particular set of public-governance mechanisms that facilitates private governance to reign supreme, whereby the private-sector actors are presently primarily in the business of accumulating capital. The focus lies on minimal social responsibilities of public governance whilst enabling market forces to leave their mark on the everyday organization of our societies.

In the early twenty-first century, therefore, we experience the birth of a new political arena: a transglocal institutional order that is dominated by private-sector actors in a complex hybrid governance mechanism. As the traditional responsibilities of the nation-state erode, private actors now govern issues that used to fall under the jurisdiction of the state. National democratic governments, and by extension the democratic citizenry, used to be a powerful entity that carried primary responsibility for the social organization of our societies. Yet as there is a shift of power, so there is also a shift of responsibility. Political power is not confined any longer to the classical medium of the nation-state. Rather, the transglocal cluster of public, private and local governance mechanisms makes the political, the economic and the social increasingly intertwine. The question at hand is how, as particular individuals and/or as social groups, can we effectively voice our political concerns within this transglocal institutional arena?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a striking example of the type of practices that emerge within the transglocal political arena. CSR is a practice that operates within global value chains. Global value chains are a particular mode of production that is geographically dispersed, where generally low-cost production process are outsourced by ‘developed’ private sector actors to geographic entities where cheap labor, low-standard environmental legislation and accessible natural resources provide a comparative advantage. This is not the place to develop an in-depth genealogy on the emergence of CSR within global value chains, nor on its immanent particularities. In short, it suffices to say that CSR is a generic term for a set of social practices that private actors adopt in the present transglocal institutional order. The most inclusive definition characterizes CSR as the voluntary adoption of extra-legal social responsibilities by private-sector actors. At the same time, however, the emergence of CSR implies that national governments (of the states where the production process is located) refrain from upholding certain social standards. In other words: only as public-governance mechanisms become eroded, private-governance mechanisms fill that void and commit to production in a socially responsible manner.

At this point we arrive at the central controversy about CSR; how to interpret it? It is marketed as an extra-legal commitment of corporate-sector actors, but only at a time that the legal framework is being eroded. So is it a beneficial development that merits applause and support, or is it merely a hegemonic justification of a privateering practice? Is it, as it is depicted, truly a win-win practice – i.e. generating private profit while responsibly restructuring society to uphold its common goods? – or is it, as its critics proclaim, a mere marketing strategy to ‘greenwash’ structurally flawed global-production practices?

The interesting question is not whether all for-profit CSR corporations currently consciously produce with utmost respect for fellow humans and their common natural environment; this is probably not the case. One should be wary about high-profile marketing strategies of big corporate actors proclaiming to produce in ‘a socially responsible manner’, whilst codifying this with a dubiously vague corporate standard and marketing it as a corporate fairytale.

Rather, the interesting question is whether CSR could be instrumental to a type of corporate flourishing that is connected to a socially-responsible production process? Or, more fundamentally, whether CSR can be instrumental to radical political protests that aim to transform the present institutional context and its immanent corporate structures? The answer to these questions is, to a large extent, open. It depends on whether those consuming products are willing to pay a higher monetary price for a more valuable – or ‘socially responsible’ – economic production process.

Privateers vs Pirates

The present Krisis issue focusses on the distinction between privateers and pirates. In the approach outlined in this essay, both privateers and pirates operate within the transglocal institutional order. The privateer – pirate distinction is here interpreted as antagonistic, whereby privateers are conceptualized as hegemonic and pirates as counter-hegemonic actors. Hegemony is a state of affairs in which a particular discourse is dominant. This implies that the discourse presents itself as self-evident, generating and legitimizing de facto practices, but that oppositional forces remain active in the margins. From the discussion above, it is clear that in the present global institutional order the neoliberal dictum is hegemonic. Privateers are hegemonic actors in that they drive, legitimize and benefit from neoliberal governance practices. Privateers are here conceptualized as those private sector actors who are primarily in the business of accumulating capital. The eminence of private-governance mechanisms in the transglocal institutional order enables privateers to profit from the particular reorganization of the production process in our globalizing world.

The widespread presence of the neoliberal governmental logic doesn’t imply, however, that this logic is accepted by all. Logics that defy the hegemonic discourse are conceptualized as counter-hegemonic. In this essay, pirates are portrayed as counter-hegemonic actors within the transglocal institutional order. This implies that their practices counter-act the dominant logic of that order. Whereas hegemonic privateers are concerned in the accumulation of capital, counter-hegemonic pirates are here conceptualized as engaged in a radical project of socio-economic transformation. Pirates are hence characterized by their willingness to contribute to the process of transforming the private economy into a socially responsible economy.

Counter-hegemonic actors are often fragmented. Consequently, dispersed groups of pirates fail to augment pressures to effectively challenge the hegemonic discourse. Following Laclau and Mouffe (2001), I believe it is important that the political antagonism between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic practices is both explicated and cultivated, emphasizing the need to foster a unified counter-hegemonic movement that can develop effective pressures to defy the dominant logic. It is in this light that the essay is titled On Counter-Hegemonic Realism. I share the belief that unifying counter-hegemonic resistances need to be forged in reaction to the prevailing institutional configuration. As a realist tactic, I call on pirates to consciously and consistently purchase commodities that are socially-responsibly produced.

Some will renounce my call for counter-hegemonic consumer activism as weak reformism. I want to clarify my realist position by introducing the distinction between tactics and strategy. A tactic refers to a short-term, goal-related practice that can be applied in the present institutional configuration. A tactic considers the next move in a competitive game-situation. A strategy, on the other hand, is goal-related practice that entails a long-term plan and objective. The objective of counter-hegemonic strategizing is to bring about a deep transformation in the prevailing institutional configuration. A realistic counter-hegemonic tactic can then be adopted today whilst fitting a more radical and idealist strategy that attempts such a future transformation. A realist take on counter-hegemonic strategizing entails tactically considering how to actively deal with the present configuration of institutions. In this essay, CSR is considered a potential present-day tactic in a more fundamental transformational strategy; it is a short-term political tactic in a long-term strategic effort to forge a ‘socially responsible’ economy.

That pirates defy the prevailing hegemonic norm does not imply that they operate outside the transglocal institutional order: conceive of the transglocal institutional order as the playing-field whereon actors can generate practices in reaction to existing rules. That certain rules are dominant need not imply that those rules are not prone to change. This institutional order is not an essential set of institutions that are fixed in time; rather it is an existentially discursive field that fluctuates – i.e. a discursive field that evolves in relation to practices of the players acting on the field at differential levels.

The distinction institutional essentialism vs. institutional existentialism is crucial to my claim that pirates should consciously engage with CSR as to generate socially responsible production practices. To exemplify the distinction, consider a board game with multiple players at the table. In situation A, the rules of the game are set at the beginning of the game. As the game goes on, one player might win while the others lose (this might happen because of pure luck, pure skill, and everything in between), but the entire game is played according to the fixed set of rules. The institution in situation A is an essentialist institution in that its rules do not change in the process of engaging with the institution. The game of chess is an example of an essentialist institution; its rules are fixed, the institution does not change. Situation B, however, is different. The board game starts with a set of rules, but this time the players can alter the rules of the game as they are playing. An initial winning position, a good bargaining hand, or strategic alliances, they all become important as the game evolves and the players change the rules of the game while playing. The institution in situation B is an existentialist institution in that its rules can change in the process of engaging with the institution. The global institutional order is, as a whole, an existentialist institution: its rules are not fixed in time, the cluster of institutions is prone to change.


Let’s turn to the central topic of controversy and assess it in the light of the aforementioned distinction. If CSR were an essentialist institution, it could be discarded as a hegemonic project that legitimizes privateering exploitation of human, natural and environmental ‘resources’ or ‘capital’. The legitimation is derived from the win-win narrative, i.e. that privateers can generate profit while yielding optimal social organization by implementing minimally regulated ‘free’ markets. With this type of win-win CSR would be a mere Pyrrhic victory for those concerned with social justice, even if it yields the sporadic social benefits it claims to generate, as structural power asymmetries don’t alter and the associated institutional rules do not change. CSR would then be a mere euphemism for a neoliberal type of market colonization. Yet if CSR is regarded as an existentialist institution, it presents itself as a tactical opportunity for a strategic counter-hegemonic movement. So here it becomes possible to hypothetically move from privately owned to shared means of production networks by means of augmenting market pressures. By demanding that privateers adopt increasing social regulation in the transnational production process, pirates may be able to change the rules of the globalization game. CSR would then function as a lever to get counter-hegemonic concerns into de facto governance mechanisms. The proposed tactical method would be to explicitly politicize CSR and tie it to everyday consumption patterns.

CSR is a practice that has emerged within the contours of the transglocal institutional arena. Despite a healthy sense of skepticism about its transformational capacity (Blowfield and Frynas 2005), I argue that CSR might become an initial vehicle to foster a more socially responsible production process. Yet it is necessary to wage a discursive battle over whether any given CSR initiative is driven by privateers (hegemonic CSR) or pirate (counter-hegemonic CSR). The question then becomes whether the normative discourse that underpins CSR is merely instrumental in legitimizing the neoliberal political project of privateers, or whether it articulates an actual commitment to change the anti-social premises that characterize privateering projects.

Before addressing the particular tactics that pirates can employ in waging a discursive battle over the meaning of CSR, we need to address the question of how CSR occurs in the first place. Although the literature generally characterizes CSR as shareholder-driven, it is counter-intuitive that privateers – who are in the business of accumulating capital – voluntarily adopt extra-legal regulations to produce in a more socially responsible manner. Why would hegemonic privateers commit to CSR?

It seems evident that CSR is, at its root, triggered by market trends (McWilliams and Siegel 2001). When conscious consumer choices threaten shareholder viability, corporate opportunity costs are raised, pushing private actors to increase their CSR commitment. Behind the marketing rhetoric of privateering CSR thus lie market fluctuations caused by purchasing acts. In other words, if a critical mass of consumers opts to purchase CSR commodities, privateers will match their supply to this market demand. For privateers, then, CSR is a corporate tactic to differentiate commodities on saturated markets. Yet the crucial realization for pirates is that consumers have leverage in steering corporate practices. As such, if a critical mass of consumers consciously and consistently opt to purchase goods with a genuine socially responsible character, then it is likely that they uplift (part of) the transglocal production process to more socially responsible levels. If CSR is triggered by market trends, consumers can push private CSR commitments to a higher platform. Given that consumers have the institutional leverage to steer private-governance mechanisms, consumption and non-consumption are political acts; it consists of, respectively, endorsing or refusing a particular mode of production. If indignados would put their money where their mouth is, they could augment market pressures on corporate actors at a transglocal level.

I stress again that my claim is that political consumer agency can be a tactic in the strategic endeavor to foster radical socio-economic transformation. Although the tactic focusses on the immanent practice of Corporate SR, this does not imply that its strategic outlook needs to be confined to corporate private-sector actors. In other words, a counter-hegemonic pirate movement and its aspirations for social transformation need not (and arguably should not) confine itself to changes within corporate production structures. Although I believe that pirates should operate realistically within the prevailing institutional framework, I do render it vital that they simultaneously self-organize in order to radically confront and transform the transglocal institutional arena. The tactic of political consumer agency is then conceived as compatible with grassroots initiatives that are not mediated through corporate structures and multi-levelled institutions.

Towards a counter-hegemonic strategy

So far I have asserted that: 1) the political arena has changed significantly, and is now a transglocal cluster of public, private and local governance mechanisms; 2) that pirates should foster an explicitly antagonistic identity, opposing hegemonic privateers, within the contours of the present institutional arena; and 3) that, within those institutional contours, political consumer agency is a valuable tactic in strategizing socio-economic transformations.

Although I have claimed that I render it important that pirates foster an explicit counter-hegemonic identity, I have not explicated what that identity entails beyond the claim that they aspire for socio-economic transformations. The clue is that I am not planning to define that identity any further. It is not the task of a philosopher-king to designate what ‘pirates’ are; rather it requires active articulation of various social groups and individuals to foster and claim that counter-hegemonic identity. It is important that such an identity is symbolically powerful so as to be able to overcome fragmentation and unify heterogeneous struggles into a common narrative that is strong enough to challenge the hegemonic discourse. As such, in the language of Laclau and Mouffe (2001), ‘pirates’ is an empty signifier with quite strong symbolic power. What the actual identity of ‘pirates’ is to be is open for deliberation and dependent on the voices that claim this identity. The identity and long-term strategy of pirates is to be forged through a democratic ‘chain of equivalence’. Although I hold that the identity of pirates should be open for the articulation of interests by various actors, and I thus explicitly refrain from discursively closing the counter-hegemonic identity, I do believe that market-activism is a potentially powerful short-term tactic.

The remainder of this section focusses on three issues. The first opposes the counter-hegemonic identity of pirates to the widespread symbol of the 99%. The second argues for consumer activism as a potentially powerful tactic in forging a unified counter-hegemonic movement. The third introduces the Internet as a valuable instrument in both the general counter-hegemonic struggle and the particular scheme of consumer activism.

Recently, the notion of ‘99%’ has emerged as popular symbol of widespread socio-politico-economic protest. Given my previous argument in defense of the use of political antagonism, it might be suspected that I endorse the notion of 99%, as it is constructed in clear political opposition to the 1%. Yet I believe that this symbolism is flawed. It is flawed in that it misconceives the role of many people that are allegedly part of the 99%. It suggests that the 99% are ‘victims’ of the present socio-economic organization and demand a redistribution of wealth from the 1% to the 99%. Rather than being victims, though, many (Western) 99%-ers are, as consumers, actively upholding and benefitting from the present global institutional order and its hybrid governance mechanism. The characterization of the 1%, although effective political symbolism creating an oppositional antagonism, is not nuanced enough. It is too easy to solely blame the greed of bankers, the biased valuation schemes of economic experts and/or the technocratic attitude of policy-makers for the crisis, when everyday consuming citizens of developed countries continue to reap disproportional benefits from the current mode of glocalization. It is contradictory to oppose the present wars in the Middle East and condemn foreign fighters in Syria if one continues to consume oil for the car to take the kids to school around the corner, so to speak. It is for this reason that, as counter-hegemonic symbolism, I prefer the notion of ‘pirates’ over and above the notion of ‘99%’. An oppositional logic is required for the activation and unification of counter-hegemonic forces, but the logic shouldn’t be confined to finger-pointing without incorporating counter-hegemonic demands into one’s own behavior.

It is said that the duty of non-maleficence – i.e. to not impose preventable harm – is the most minimal of liberal duties (Pogge 2002). In the act of everyday consumption, this duty is faced regularly; if I buy a smart-phone produced with blood-minerals and child-labor, am I, as consumer, not fueling socially irresponsible practices? Who is responsible for the production process – only those at the top of business and government? Or can we speak about a societal responsibility for perpetuating the harmful production process by indulging in and benefiting from it? Can we speak of institutional harm imposed by a type of market neocolonialism of which many societal actors are part?

If one is discontent with the present configuration and its associated practices, it would only be a partial and limited strategy to voice that discontent as civilians towards the state. It is not that citizens shouldn’t voice their concerns towards their democratically elected governments; it is only that, as a result of the above trend, the political voice of democratic citizens would be a lot more powerful if it was harmoniously combined with the act of political consumption. If individuals or social groups intend to voice their concern, they should not restrict themselves to either the market or the state, but wage a struggle on various institutional layers. 

I do not render consumer activism to be a final tactic; given that the larger institutional order doesn’t change, CSR upgrading by means of consumer agency would be a mere Pyrrhic victory. For one, it is evident that this is not a democratic tactic: consumer power can be characterized as ‘one dollar, one vote’, leaving it to be a tactic that can mainly be employed by the upper segment of our societies. Yet it can be a powerful lever in a larger transformational strategy. A profound change in the prevailing corporate structures is unlikely to come from corporate shareholders; such change is likely to be triggered by the ultimate arbiters of corporate success – i.e. those who consume the products and determine the viability of the production process. The underlying reasoning is straightforward: if well-off consumers are powerful agents in prolonging the present state of affairs, then they can also be powerful agents in changing this state of affairs. As such, it could bring various actors together, make a critical mass of people realize their collective power in steering socio-politico-economic organization and motivate them to actively continue setting up alternative transglocal governance structures.

Given that consumption has a definite cultural aspect, pirates could cultivate their identity whilst tying that identity to a mode of economic production that stands in contradiction with the dominant privateering one. In Gramscian terminology (1996): the art of an effective counter-hegemonic movement is to tie a ‘war of movement’ to a ‘war of position’. There is no point in waging political pressures if there is no popular basis for those pressures. Therefore, a counter-hegemony must foster an identity that serves as a basis for actions. In this particular instance: to consume politically has to be explicitly connected to a socio-cultural project of co-developing alternative modes of production and related socio-politico-economic organization. In political consumer agency, both a war of movement and a war of position are waged in that a strategic consumer identity is built while tactical political pressures are augmented in an attempt to change prevailing governance mechanisms.

The hypothesis that CSR is a tactical platform for social transformation is underpinned by the assumption that conscious consumers would actively purchase commodities that are produced in a socially responsible manner. The question then becomes: how to foster those socio-cultural institutions that generate political consumer agency? The trend of argument I uphold is that the possibility of effective consumer activism is dependent on socio-cultural institutions that articulate alternative modes of socio-economic organization whilst practical alternatives are developed. The consuming citizen then becomes a potentially powerful actor playing the present institutional field in an attempt to steer de facto hybrid governance mechanisms to a more socially responsible level.

It is at this junction of my argument that I want to stress the transformational potential of the Internet as a tool for communication, identity-formation, and social, political & economic self-organization. Both within the particular tactic of political consumer agency and the broader strategy of social transformation, the Internet is likely to be a crucial instrument. Given that economic production is geographically dispersed, CSR as a practice lacks genuine transparency. It is easy for a corporate actor to claim that they are producing in a socially responsible manner; it is a lot harder for the consumer to verify that commitment. The Internet is here a medium for transmitting economic information and consequential coordination between actors at various levels. Only when local stakeholders are connected with groups of conscious consumers can CSR become a genuine vehicle towards a socially responsible economy, rather than a marketing tool for corporate brands who intend to differentiate themselves in saturated markets and opt for a strategy of corporate greenwashing.

As an instrument for strategizing a counter-hegemonic movement, the potential of the Internet is vast. For one, I genuinely believe it can foster not only a counter-hegemonic identity, but also modes of interconnected grassroots organization in synergy with that identity. Likeminded activists could develop and maintain a collective online network with the intent to function as a vehicle for socio-economic self-organization and related political pressures. Such a counter-hegemonic movement would stand in relation to the present transglocal institutional arena in an existential attempt to change it.