Salesforce's Marc Benioff has not kicked off a 'new era of corporate social activism'

I never planned this when I started my blog, but it is interesting how one of the themes that keeps (re-)emerging here is topic of how new forms of capitalism inform, interact with and inspire the aid industry. 

Some of my posts in the last few years addressed MBAs and their limited merit for development, how precarious labor spreads through a growing volunteering sector in EU countries as well as book reviews on philanthrocapitalism, social entrepreneurship or the self-help myth.
Therefore, I was not surprised when the Wall Street Journal presented Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff as a 'trailblazer' for a new generation of companies and executives who are keen on combining people's needs with profits - Silicon Valley start-up-style...

As important as his initiative is to speak out against North Carolina's anti-LGBTQ law and announcing to move his business out of the state to a more liberal environment the debate reminds me a lot about discussions in 'our' industry on short-term approaches and long-term complexities.
It’s high risk for CEOs to show selective outrage against North Carolina...They will soon recognize the complexity of wading in too quickly into social issues where a great disconnect exists between the corporate suites and Main Street.
In a strange, twisted, development-related way, the NC Governor Pat McCrory has a point. Not on this particular issue of LGBTQ rights, of course, but about 'selective outrage' and issues where the corporate elites (not sure how many of them necessarily wear suits these days...) perceptions differ from actual complexities 'on the ground.

I wonder how the Salesforces of the world would speak out against gun violence, the military-industrial complex, abortion rights, the private prison industrial complex or inequality, say in specific sectors such as agriculture or health care.
And what about more complicated issues such as 'underdevelopment'?

When 'corporate social activism' is merely based on a elite consensus with the edginess of a TED talk

In short, Salesforce's Marc Benioff echoes an elite consensus ('gay rights are important') that comprises business elites, media, academia, pop-culture and substantial parts of the political establishment; even in a globalized world this consensus is firmly embedded in certain geographical locations, Silicon Valley, New York City or a few other global 'innovation' hotspots. This makes it easy for an outlet like the Wall Street Journal to celebrate his engagement and create a brilliant PR and communication win-win situation-everybody likes a billionaire who is rocking the boat ever so gently to remind us about his personal stature and the cutting-edge disruptive thinking that happens on those presumed 'margins' where he lives.

So how can (and want) CEOs set an agenda-especially if that agenda leads to more substantial backlash than comments from a peeved Republican Governor of a small state?

Moving an office, call center or any other movable part of the organization from one state to the next is one thing, but what it you speak out against surveillance and the Pentagon or other government agencies pull out their business?
If you are a cloud-based software company in this day and age chances are that both 'good' and 'bad' people are using your products and services. As with all CSR or similar window-dressing initiatives things usually change quickly when the 'bottom line' could be in danger and you need to defend your 'activism' against well-paid and well-oiled lobbying machines.
Marc Benioff presents his vision on the level of TED talks, of feel-good and feel-right criticism that numbs the oh-so-critical-and-expecting-more-from-life Generation Y without necessarily expanding the boundaries of social change.
I am also a bit afraid now that Benioff might discover 'Africa' in his next step and embark on a mission to 'eradicate poverty' through cloud-based software licenses...
As the company moves into its new 'Zen-Heavy, Eco-Groovy, Starchitect-Designed' building we are once again told a story we have heard quite often by now: How the Silicon Valley discourse can produce profits and a better world at the same time and how we are entering a 'new era' of philanthrocapitalism that balances people, planet and profits.


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