How to Govern Corporations So They Serve the Public Good: Wrong Title, Right Book

William Sun’s excellent book is less on how to govern corporations to serve the public good than it is an analysis of corporate governance from the perspective of ontology, epistemology, and sociology of knowledge. Sun does an absolutely fascinating job of tracing the development of two pre-Socratic cosmologies that continue to shape modern thought. Heraclitus emphasized the primacy of a fluxing, changeable and emergent or processual world. Parmenides insisted on the permanent and unchangeable nature of reality… a homeostatic and entitative conception of reality.

Sun favors a processual perspective, since it allows us to understand corporate governance as is is socially constructed. By stripping away the semiotic mask, he reveals how much of what is known in shareowner and stakeholder models of corporate governance is based on political power.

Reading his book was a personal joy to me, since my mind was transported back to graduate school days as a student of Peter Berger during his all too brief tenure at Boston College. I found Berger and Luchmann’s The Social Construction of Reality a liberating work, since it implied that reality could be reconstructed to diminish coercion and domination.

However, Berger and Luchmann excluded from their treatise on the sociology of knowledge epistemological problems which they felt “belong” to the discipline of philosophy. “The sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people ‘know’ as ‘reality’ in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives…” In other words, they didn’t seek to explore the possibility of obtaining a better approximation of the “truth,” but rather a better explanation as to how commonsense knowledge is externalized, internalized and institutionalized.

The failure of Berger and Luchmann to weigh historical factors and their abandonment of ultimate concerns left no grounding or basis for analyzing coercion, long-term trends or future possibilities. Instead, through his body of work we are largely provided a description of how social reality constructed in the past is maintained in the present. The resulting static relativism limited Berger’s emancipatory potential, since a critical theory must evaluate whether the naive realism of everyday life is a necessity due to biosocial needs or a mere justification of false consciousness, necessary to maintain the status quo.

Berger lays blame for society’s ills largely on the state, which he sees as “devoid of personal meaning.”

One of his most liberating works, To Empower People, stresses the need for increasing the individual’s political efficacy through the mediating structures of neighborhood, family, church and voluntary associations. The only institutions not viewed by Berger as political are businesses. Failure to include that sphere may serve Berger from the “trap of politicizing all of life” but it largely dooms his efforts to empower people to failure.

William Sun’s offering suffers no such limitations. While the book speaks only indirectly to how corporations can be governed to better “serve the public good,” implicit is that such positive changes will follow once people realize how the corporate governance we know as “real” was socially constructed and once we employ a processual framework of time, space and context, leading to reflexive dialogue.

Sun is under no delusions. He writes, “living in a processual reality, we cannot ‘mirror’ corporate governance practices accurately, and cannot construct corporate governance ideally.” “To improve corporate governance we should not force-fit corporate reality into the established abstract templates… we need to turn away from the current dichotomized, entative and static way of theorising… We need to dive into the underlying living experiences and processes that comprise corporate practices to understand the internal impetuses and environmental dynamics that drive the processes and changes of corporate reality.”

After leading the reader through an exceptional deconstruction of Cartesian dualism, Locke’s empiricism, Kant’s objective idealism, the fallacy of representationalism, the realities of shareholder and stakeholder perspectives, the myth of market and economic efficiency, and much more, Sun focuses on the value of a processual view of knowledge, borrowing from a bevy of resources, including Richard Rorty.

Rorty aimed for a “philosophy without mirrors,” believing that what we need “is the ability to think about science in such a way that its being a ‘value-based enterprise’ occasions no surprise.

All that hinders us from doing so is the ingrained notion that ‘values’ are ‘inner’ whereas ‘facts’ are ‘outer.'” In his seminal work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty wrote that “Hermeneutics is not ‘another way of knowing’ – ‘understanding’ as opposed to (predictive) ‘explanation.’ It is better seen as another way of coping.”

If we see knowing not as having an essence, to be described by scientists or philosophers, but rather as a right, by current standards, to believe, then we are well on the way to seeing conversation and the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood. Out focus shifts from the relation between human beings and the objects of their inquiry to the relation between alternative standards of justification, and from there to the actual changes in those standards which make up intellectual history. (p. 389)

Likewise, Sun has a similar aim for what he terms the processual approach, which is “not a denial of substance; rather, it views substance as merely stabilized clusters or patterns of variable processes.” “Processism tends to be ontologically realistic; yet, it is not a ‘being’ realism, but a ‘becoming’ realism.” Those who rail against a “one-size fits all” approach to corporate governance will find a strong advocate for structures that contextually emerge, rather than are pre-designed.

The shareowner model may be waning, because as Sun notes, physical assets and financial resources used to be more important than human resources and social capital. In the stakeholder perspective public corporations must be aware of their social obligations, such as fairness, social justice and the protection of employees. Human-capital intensive firms are more likely to move in the direction of the stakeholder model. Under a processual approach, political institutions, indeed all institutions, cannot take human nature as a given but must accept some responsibility for their involvement in its creation.

“Unlike the current theoretical models that rest their solutions on scientific measures and universal recipes, we suggest the explicit change of corporate governance to be initiated and triggered in the sense of collective construction and discourse formation.” “The key factor in context-making is to find or create a more powerful ‘attractor’ to compete with the dominant ‘attractor’ and to shift the old one to the new one to create a new context.” “Corporate governance and control must be realised through our collective representations – representations of our will, desire and sense-making, representation of a specific mode of thought and social convention, and the representation of social negotiation, selection endorsement and rationalism… in an ideal construction process, corporate governance is not seen as universally good, but as partial, selective and interested.”

While Sun appears relatively certain that a processual approach will bring new insights and open dialogue, he is less certain about the criteria for judging governance, “all of which depend on the social construction of ‘faith.'” Ultimately, he aims for “balanced and pluralistic thinking.”

“Although the damage caused by corporate violations is far more serious than the individually perpetrated crime, it is regarded by the public as less of a crime.” To get people to understand that requires a change in conciousness. Corporate governance is best understood in the context of capitalism, where Sun finds three dilemmas:

  1. The conflict between self-interest and others’ interest, or private interest and public interest. Capitalism presupposes the sacredness and inviolability of private property rights as its first principle. Other interests must be considered within that context.
  2. The conflict between the economic interest and the social interest. All other possible principles and values such as justice, equity, humanity, and religion are subsumed to protecting capitalist interests. This rationality leads to its own contradiction and such notions as “the only responsibility of the corporation is to make profit.”
  3. The conflict between shareowner and manager interests. How capitalist interests are protected from management’s manipulation is a serious concern of politicians, academics and corporate owners. Agency theory, will it hold back the coming pitchforks?

Perhaps Sun will shake up the world of corporate governance like Werner Karl Heisenberg shook up physics. But, as Robert Chia notes in the book’s introduction, “despite the advent of quantum mechanics the assumption regarding the primacy of substance and entities over patterns and relationships remains pervasive and overwhelming.” Our conceptions of reality take a long time to change. Unfortunately, time for central issues like corporate governance may be running out, given the moral and environmental challenges we face.

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