Join us for a book talk with Kyle Edward Williams, who will speak about his new book, Taming the Octopus: The Long Battle for the Soul of the Corporation. A conversation with Lindsey Hall will follow. This in-person event will be free and open to the public. We recommend arriving early for the best seating.
About the Book: The untold story of how efforts to hold big business accountable changed American capitalism.
Recent controversies around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing and “woke capital” evoke an old idea: the Progressive Era vision of a socially responsible corporation. By midcentury, the notion that big business should benefit society was a consensus view. But as Kyle Edward Williams’s brilliant history, Taming the Octopus, shows, the tools forged by New Deal liberals to hold business leaders accountable, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, narrowly focused on the financial interests of shareholders. This inadvertently laid the groundwork for a set of fringe views to become dominant: that market forces should rule every facet of society. Along the way, American capitalism itself was reshaped, stripping businesses to their profit-making core.
In this vivid and surprising history, we meet activists, investors, executives, and workers who fought over a simple question: Is the role of the corporation to deliver profits to shareholders, or something more? On one side were “business statesmen” who believed corporate largess could solve social problems. On the other were libertarian intellectuals such as Milton Friedman and his oft-forgotten contemporary, Henry Manne, whose theories justified the ruthless tactics of a growing class of corporate raiders. But Williams reveals that before the “activist investor” emerged as a capitalist archetype, Civil Rights groups used a similar playbook for different ends, buying shares to change a company from within.
As a rising tide of activists pushed corporations to account for societal harms from napalm to environmental pollution to inequitable hiring, a new idea emerged: that managers could maximize value for society while still turning a maximal profit. This elusive ideal, “stakeholder capitalism,” still dominates our headlines today. Williams’s necessary history equips us to reconsider democracy’s tangled relationship with capitalism.
About the Author: Kyle Edward Williams, a historian of the modern United States, is senior editor of The Hedgehog Review and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
About the Moderator: Lindsey Hall is head of ESG Thought Leadership at S&P Global Sustainable1, where she hosts the popular ESG Insider podcast, which takes listeners inside the environmental, social, and governance issues shaping the business world through interviews with sustainability leaders. Lindsey co-leads the Sustainability Research Lab at S&P Global and is a steering member of the S&P Global Diversity Research Lab. She started her career as a journalist writing for various Financial Times publications in London and then spent more than a decade covering financial news and regulation. She graduated from University of Virginia in 2006 and received her master’s degree from London School of Economics in 2008.
Taming the Octopus will be released on February 20. To order the book, please see below for the New Dominion Bookshop book order form or call the shop at 434-295-2552.
"A fascinating account of efforts to rein in the excesses of capitalism."
New Dominion Bookshop Book Order Form
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