Democratic Business Ethics: Volkswagen’s Emissions Scandal and the Disruption of Corporate Sovereignty

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Citation:
Organization Studies, 2016, 37 (10), pp. 1501 - 1518
Issue Date:
2016-10-01
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© 2016, © The Author(s) 2016. There is an established body of politically informed scholarly work that offers a sustained critique of how corporate business ethics is a form of organizing that acts as a subterfuge to facilitate the expansion of corporate sovereignty. This paper contributes to that work by using its critique as the basis for theorizing an alternative form of ethics for corporations. Using the case of the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal as an illustrative example, the paper theorizes an ethics that locates corporations in the democratic sphere so as to defy their professed ability to organize ethics in a self-sufficient and autonomous manner. The Volkswagen scandal shows how established organizational practices of corporate business ethics are no barrier to, and can even serve to enable, the rampant pursuit of business self-interest through well-orchestrated and large-scale conspiracies involving lying, cheating, fraud and lawlessness. The case also shows how society, represented by individuals and institutions, is able to effectively resist such corporate malfeasance. The ‘democratic business ethics’ that this epitomizes is one where civil society holds corporations to account for their actions, and in so doing disrupts corporate sovereignty. This ethics finds practical purchase in forms of dissent that redirect power away from centres of organized wealth and capital, returning it to its democratically rightful place with the people, with society.
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