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New Capitalism, Old Problems

Corporate elites like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff are holding out the prospect of a kinder, gentler capitalism. But relying on the goodwill of businesses won’t mend global inequality. We need democratic socialism.

Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, in January 2009. (Robert Scoble / Flickr)

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s “fair, equal, and sustainable capitalism” is a charade that won’t convince.

Earlier this month, Benioff published an opinion piece in the New York Times proposing that businesses sign on to a vague and voluntary moral code to solve wealth inequality and climate catastrophe. He touted his experience at Salesforce as proof positive of “profit and purpose going hand in hand.”

What a time for Benioff to make that argument: his employees are currently organizing as part of a national campaign calling on Salesforce to drop their contract with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Benioff only mentions immigration in the op-ed in the context of reflecting on how bewildered his immigrant great-grandfather would have been by the enormous wealth he has accumulated. For Benioff, this great wealth is not a problem but rather a prerequisite for the solution: philanthropy to address social injustice.

Yet injustice is baked into Benioff’s business model. Since March 2018, Salesforce has been selling software to US Customs and Border Protection for the purposes of hiring and management of border activities. In June, 650 Salesforce employees signed a letter detailing their concerns about the use of Salesforce technology to aid “practices irreconcilable to our values,” calling on Salesforce to “re-examine its contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its current practices.” While the letter touches on CBP’s involvement in carrying out the Trump administration’s particularly cruel child-separation policy, it also recognizes the everyday cruelties inflicted by CPB, such as the routinized detention of children with their parents at the border.

Unsurprisingly, Benioff refused to consider terminating the CBP contract, denied any complicity in facilitating child separation, and ignored the countless other human rights abuses meted out by CPB. Instead, he directed a Salesforce spokesperson to applaud his employees for being “passionate and vocal” and created an Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology. He wasn’t willing to sacrifice profit over CBP abuses, but he was attentive to their negative public relations implications.

In his op-ed, Benioff calls upon his fellow CEOs and billionaires to “no longer wash our hands of our responsibility or what people do with our products,” while continuing to vehemently defend his company’s contract with CBP.

He waxes compassionate about homeless families and public-school children who are “stakeholders” to be factored into Salesforce business decisions, while refusing to extend the most minimal consideration to the immigrants subjected to brutally racist and punitive immigration enforcement, enabled by his products.

For a corporate CEO like Benioff to address capitalism’s moral failings — including profit obsession, yawning inequality, and catastrophic climate change — may be somewhat unusual. But his specious virtue-signaling is not.

Confronting even a few of the problems Benioff identifies will require more than public relations window dressing. The efforts of Salesforce workers to align the company’s practices with their principles underscores our need for workplace structures that would democratize corporate governance. Benioff’s “new capitalism” would continue to allow capital owners to unilaterally make decisions detrimental not only to the workers who generate wealth for the company but to the communities that are harmed in the process. To confront the profits-above-all-else model of corporate decision-making, climate devastation, and wealth inequality that Benioff criticizes, we need democratic socialism.

Democratic socialism would put control of businesses in the hands of workers, giving them the power to cut their company’s contract with the Border Patrol and end the profiteering from violence. A society imbued with solidarity-based values of socialism would put an end to an immigration system that criminalizes people on the basis of citizenship while continuing to exploit them for their labor. We would stop the resource extraction and foreign intervention that fuel climate change, political instability, and the global migration crisis. We would tax the rich to provide resources like housing and healthcare that all people deserve, and not depend on the whims of philanthropists.

Relying on the goodwill of businesses and executives won’t mend global inequality; Benioff’s refusal to cut ties with CBP proves that corporate ethics can’t prevail over the profit motive. Business practices will only change if we make them do it.