Corporate Purpose Swings as a Social, Atheoretical Process: Will the Pendulum Break?

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Abstract

This article argues that conceptualising corporate purpose as a normative question which can be examined in isolation from its socio-historical context is
inappropriate and ultimately futile. Corporate purpose is examined here as historically determined, a social fact, independently from whichever theoretical position might prevail in scholarly debates. Interestingly, corporate law doctrine pertinent to corporate purpose has remained mostly static but fairly open-ended. This has allowed purpose itself to oscillate between shareholder primacy and the balancing of stakeholder interests rather seamlessly as a socio-historical phenomenon. However, the article finds that, where it is used by private business organisation, corporate law has a limited capacity to accommodate purpose oscillations. Those are limited to merely one-dimensional movements representing corporate income distribution choices considered as socially legitimate each time. Using concepts such as Polanyi’s ‘double-movement’ and Gramsci’s ‘passive revolution’, the article argues that, for as long as social dynamics focused on wealth distribution, private corporate purpose had little difficulty in absorbing social critique and in finding a legitimacy basis for the private business corporation. However, more recently, critique has been shifting
away from merely distributional trepidations and towards other non-economic concerns caused by economic growth per se. These concerns add new dimensions for corporate purpose oscillations, which cannot be accommodated irrespective of how open-ended corporate law doctrine on purpose might be. The article concludes with an analysis of what this might entail for corporate law as a socially legitimate structure for private business.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages31
JournalOxford Journal of Legal Studies
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2024

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