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Cultural Critiques of the Corporation
A growing discontent with the massification of culture, homogenization of identity, and bureaucratization perceived of corporate culture
These radical critiques and direct attacks on The Coca-Cola Company and its signification bubbled up over an undercurrent of generalized discontent with the massification of culture, homogenization of identity, and bureaucratization perceived of corporate culture. In academic and popular discourse, sociologist David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) suggested that the prosperity of post-war America and its institutions (like the modern corporation) and its social arrangements (like suburbia) privileged an “other-directed” man who looked to those around him for guidance and approval, rather than being directed by internal values or ideals. Business writer William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) argued that the collectivist- and bureaucratic- decision-making of firms led to the valuing of conformity and loyalty over creativity and individuality. John K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958) argued that by measuring production as a sign of prosperity, overlooked measures of social and personal well-being, increasingly strained by the consumer economy’s dependence on the creation of new consumer demand through advertising (rather than actual needs) to drive economic growth. The best-selling novel and popular film, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, were influential fictionalized accounts of these arguments, portraying a businessman discontented in his rat-race for material acquisition and corporate success.
Remarkably, as French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, and US cultural historian Thomas Frank have argued, much of the sixties’ cultural critique of the hierarchies, conformity and alienation of corporations - if not a critique of their structural role in the economy or systematic exploitations - even appealed to many in the business community, especially younger professionals, who sought to revivify a grey corporate capitalism from the inside with a vibrant counter-cultural impulse. Management professor Douglas McGregor’s influential book, The Human Side of Enterprise (1960), called for a throwing off of the dominant management model which he termed Theory X (or the motivation of workers through coercion, standardization, regulation and hierarchical power like Taylorism), to be replaced with, Theory Y (empowering productivity through recognizing worker creativity and individuality). By 1970, Avis Rent-a-Car Exec Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits, argued that “monster corporations” and their “hierarchies” “made slaves” of employees and executives, invoking Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and even Ho Chi Minh as models for business revolution.[i][i] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2007); Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998), p. 22-23.