Five years ago it would have been unimaginable, but today there is a global movement convinced the world’s largest corporations are engaging in stealth warfare to transform liberal democracies into neo-communist dictatorships.
At the heart of this corporate-led Marxist revolution, apparently, is the trend towards businesses not just focusing on profit maximisation but taking into account environmental, social and governance responsibilities (called ESG for short).
According to ESG opponents this is putting democracy on a downhill road to socialism – or worse.
Purportedly central to this sinister plan is United States company BlackRock and its chief executive, Larry Fink. BlackRock is the world’s biggest funds manager, overseeing more than US$10 trillion in investments on behalf of clients such as superannuation funds. Fink is paid more than US$30 million a year, and his wealth is estimated to be more than US$1 billion.
You might think this would make Fink a very unlikely champion of destroying capitalism. But due to his support for ESG – particularly for business taking action on climate change – he’s been accused of advancing a form of “corporate socialism”, with ESG criticised as “socialism in sheep’s clothing”.
All the way to the president
Concerns about the “woke” politics of ESG don’t just live in the dark recesses of the internet. In the US it has become a mainstream fixation. Anti-ESG opinions abound in the pages of The Wall Street Journal and on the infotainment network Fox News. It is a hot battlefield in the culture wars.
In 2020, the Trump administration proposed a rule requiring pension funds to put “economic interests” ahead of “non-pecuniary” concerns – in other words, to force them to ignore issues of long-term social and environmental sustainability and focus on short-term profits.
The Biden administration reversed this plan. But last month the US Congress passed a bill to reverse that reversal, with support from two Democrats in the Senate. Biden then used his presidential power to veto the bill – the first veto of his presidency.
In all likelihood ESG will be a major campaign issue in the 2024 presidential election. The speaker of the Republican-majority House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, has accused Biden of wanting “Wall Street to use your hard-earned money to fund a far-left political agenda”. Republican presidential contender and Florida governor Ron DeSantis has also been railing hard against the “woke ESG financial scam”.
A short history of stakeholder capitalism
What’s notable about all these emotive denunciations of ESG is that they demonstrate little understanding of how capitalism works.
This point was made by Fink in his 2022 annual letter to the chief executives of the companies in which BlackRock has invested clients’ money.
In today’s globally interconnected world, a company must create value for and be valued by its full range of stakeholders in order to deliver long-term value for its shareholders. It is through effective stakeholder capitalism that capital is efficiently allocated, companies achieve durable profitability, and value is created and sustained over the long-term. Make no mistake, the fair pursuit of profit is still what animates markets; and long-term profitability is the measure by which markets will ultimately determine your company’s success.
The idea that business owners have responsibilities to wider society is not new. It dates back at least to the 17th century when the modern corporate form began to emerge through innovations such as joint-stock ownership and the legal privilege of limited liability.
The origins of the corporate social responsibility and ethical investment movements can also be traced back hundreds of years – generally to groups and individuals motivated by religious values – and have been mainstream business ideas for decades.
Why? Because paying attention to social and environmental sustainability, ESG advocates argue, produces better long-term investment returns. If it didn’t, businesses wouldn’t be interested.
Arguing over the best way to do capitalism
This is not to say the application of ESG principles isn’t above criticism – for going too far, or not going far enough – being mere window-dressing for the status quo.
But such arguments are over the best way to do capitalism. It’s all about as far from interest in a neo-Marxist insurgency as can be imagined. Debating the best way to produce shareholder value has nothing to do with wanting a “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” and to see private property abolished – key features of Marxism.
Capitalism is changing, that is certain. But it is doing so in a way that has accepted, and is willing to commercially exploit, changing public sentiment concerning climate and change social inequalities.
This is what businesses that make money do. They listen to customers, and other stakeholders – their workers, suppliers, the communities in which they operate, and the governments that regulate them. They plan for the future. They mitigate future risks.
So what explains this fantastical rhetoric about ESG being the road to Marxist tyranny? In my view, it shows just how much the intellectual foundations of conservatism and liberalism have been debased in a media marketplace that favours reactionary emotionalism over tempered thought.
Economic conservatism (rooted in the belief in free markets, globalisation and small government) has become disconnected from social and political conservatism (especially as related to climate activism, social justice and diversity and inclusion).
All of this is a fatal distraction from the broader political and economic problems we face both locally and globally. It pushes serious discussions – such as what to do about economic inequality, political polarisation and declining social capital – into the background.
There are biting criticisms to be made about ESG that don’t make the headlines. You don’t often hear business-friendly ESG supporters campaigning for increases to the minimum wage, progressive taxation, worker solidarity or the need to curb the runaway train of executive compensation. Climate and social justice are pressing issues, to be sure. But they shouldn’t push fair economic distribution and shared prosperity off the agenda.
Ironically, the bogus labelling of ESG as a Marxist plot also helps do this. It serves the interests of the very elites populist pundits and politicians claim they oppose. It works against the interests of the working-class people they claim they care about. That is not socialism.