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Is Ethical Capitalism an Oxymoron?

Is Ethical Capitalism an Oxymoron?
When Jan 29, 2007
from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Where Foster Auditorium, 101 Pattee Library
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Professor Emerita, Department of Sociology,
University of Oregon


Joan Acker is Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oregon. She specializes in research on class, women and work, gender and organizations, gender and the welfare state, and feminist theory. Her visiting professorships include three years at the Swedish Center for Working Life in Stockholm, Sweden, and the Marie Jahoda International Guest Professorship at Bochum University, Bochum, Germany. She is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon, a major feminist center for scholarship on gender and women. She has been awarded the American Sociological Association's Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award and the ASA Jessie Bernard Award for feminist scholarship.

Is Ethical Capitalism an Oxymoron?

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Contemporary wealthy corporate leaders are giving a great deal of money to charitable causes. At the same time, business leaders are publicly discussing and endorsing the social responsibilities of the private economic sector. Historical studies suggest that social responsibility has not been at the top of corporate agendas and theoretical analyses argue that corporate social responsibility is a structural impossibility. I add to the argument that structural processes make “ethical capitalism” an oxymoron. Non-responsibility is built into the basic organization and aims of capitalist economies through a divide between the goals and organizing necessities of families/households and profit-making firms. This divide constitutes a gendered understructure of capitalist organizations: women are those socially assigned to take responsibility for human well-being, negotiate the spaces across this divide, and compensate for the non-responsibility of the system of production. Non-responsibility for human welfare, including the environment, is continually reproduced in the concrete activities and policies of organizations. Welfare state distributions and state control of corporate actions compensate for corporate non-responsibility or mitigate its effects. Neoliberal politics tend to undermine such efforts to curb non-responsibility. Is there any way to make "ethical” an accurate adjective to describe capitalism?