Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf? How corporations maintain hegemony by using counterinsurgency tactics to undermine activism

Barthold Charles, Layla Branicki, Guillaume Delalieux

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We contribute to critical theory building in relation to political corporate social responsibility (PCSR) by conceptualizing the underlying processes and practices through which corporations seek to counter threats posed by activist groups. We argue that the problematic nature of PCSR is entangled not only in its state-like aims, but also in its covert deployment of military tactics towards the maintenance of corporate hegemony. We illuminate how corporations use counterinsurgency tactics to undermine the ability of activists to hold them accountable for their wrongdoing. Building on the work of Gramsci, we propose that counterinsurgency tactics combine elements of force and persuasion that enable corporations to maintain hegemony (i.e., secure consent over time). We ask: How are counterinsurgency tactics used by corporations to neutralize activist pressures and maintain corporate hegemony? We draw upon historical sources regarding the Nestlé infant milk boycott case to undertake a genealogical analysis that exposes counterinsurgency tactics enabling corporations to counter activists and sustain their hegemony. We find that Nestlé deployed four key counterinsurgency tactics to nullify activist pressures (suppressing external support, isolating the activist(s), capturing the dialogue, and covert intelligence gathering). From our analysis, we propose the term corporate counterinsurgency and theorize the historic use of corporate counterinsurgency tactics as an example of a hegemonic strategy that enables corporations to covertly undermine activist pressures. We conclude by calling for further reflexivity in organizational studies research on the military origins of PCSR, and by outlining how activist organizations might mobilize against corporate counterinsurgency tactics.
Original languageEnglish
JournalOrganization Studies
Early online date6 Jun 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Jun 2024

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