This dissertation examines the historic relationship between corporate social responsibility, public relations and corporate power. Using a qualitative historical analysis and the theoretical tools of Marxism, this study argues that CSR and corporate public relations need to be viewed as modes of corporate power that have been historically deployed to re-assert and defend corporate hegemony in periods of democratic challenge and popular agitation. However, while originally deployed in tandem with corporate public relations, CSR has emerged in our current conjuncture as a profound source of corporate legitimacy in its own right. The success of CSR as a new mode of corporate legitimation is premised on its ability to constrain democratic pressures both discursively and materially; discursively through the ideological representation of the corporation as a benevolent and even democratic institution capable of regulating itself in the public interest; and materially through the promotion of corporate-inspired policies and regimes of corporate governance that allow for the private appropriation of previously public goods and functions of democratic government.
This duality of CSR is most manifest in the corporate response to environmental crisis, which has strained not only the legitimacy of the corporation but also that of the capitalist system of production. This study investigates the tactics through which CSR has enabled business to transform itself into the preeminent environmental steward while simultaneously advancing policies that further corporate interests while circumscribing avenues for popular participation in issues of environmental concern. Therefore, CSR should be viewed not only as a strategy to curtail democratic opposition to corporate power, but also a means to expand and deepen corporate power as it is used to grant ever-greater autonomy and authority to corporations over areas previously deemed the sole purview of the democratic state.