Taming the Octopus: The Long Battle for the Soul of the Corporation (Hardcover)

Taming the Octopus: The Long Battle for the Soul of the Corporation By Kyle Edward Williams Cover Image
Not On Our Shelves - Available to Order


The untold story of how efforts to hold big business accountable changed American capitalism.

Recent controversies around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing and “woke capital” evoke an old idea: the Progressive Era vision of a socially responsible corporation. By midcentury, the notion that big business should benefit society was a consensus view. But as Kyle Edward Williams’s brilliant history, Taming the Octopus, shows, the tools forged by New Deal liberals to hold business leaders accountable, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, narrowly focused on the financial interests of shareholders. This inadvertently laid the groundwork for a set of fringe views to become dominant: that market forces should rule every facet of society. Along the way, American capitalism itself was reshaped, stripping businesses to their profit-making core.

In this vivid and surprising history, we meet activists, investors, executives, and workers who fought over a simple question: Is the role of the corporation to deliver profits to shareholders, or something more? On one side were “business statesmen” who believed corporate largess could solve social problems. On the other were libertarian intellectuals such as Milton Friedman and his oft-forgotten contemporary, Henry Manne, whose theories justified the ruthless tactics of a growing class of corporate raiders. But Williams reveals that before the “activist investor” emerged as a capitalist archetype, Civil Rights groups used a similar playbook for different ends, buying shares to change a company from within.

As a rising tide of activists pushed corporations to account for societal harms from napalm to environmental pollution to inequitable hiring, a new idea emerged: that managers could maximize value for society while still turning a maximal profit. This elusive ideal, “stakeholder capitalism,” still dominates our headlines today. Williams’s necessary history equips us to reconsider democracy’s tangled relationship with capitalism.

About the Author

Kyle Edward Williams, a historian of the modern United States, is senior editor of the Hedgehog Review and fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Praise For…

[A] bold new book…Both activist critics and paternalist CEOs [are] colorfully accounted for…An excellent vehicle for clarity.
— Hamilton Craig - Compact

Reveal[s] how alluring narratives have nurtured corporate power…a detailed and timely history.
— Adam M. Lowenstein - The American Prospect

The history of the corporation finally comes to life in Kyle Edward Williams’s gripping and surprising new book. Deftly moving inside and outside the boardroom, Williams uncovers a wide cast of characters engaged in a fierce debate about the purpose of the central economic institution in American life. I know of no better single book on the relationship between corporate power and social responsibility in American life. Essential reading.
— Jonathan Levy, author of Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States

Fascinating and timely, Taming the Octopus is a revelatory history of the fight to make corporations more responsible to their stakeholders, and to the larger society. Kyle Edward Williams shows that social responsibility has been imposed on corporations not primarily by liberal reformers from the outside but often by business leaders themselves. A must-read for anyone interested in the past, present, and future of corporate capitalism.

— Adam Winkler, author of We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights

Do the huge corporations that now so control our economy and pollute our politics have any obligations other than the pursuit of profit? Taming the Octopus tells the surprising, chilling story of how America originally had, then lost, then gained again, and then surrendered protections—even from the Goliaths now fueling authoritarianism and ecological collapse.

— Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

In this astute history, [Kyle Edward] Williams charts the evolution of the corporation into its outsized and seemingly predatory role in American life, along with prominent efforts undertaken to reform it…[T]he author’s consistently lively presentation of the drama involved in battles over profits and social welfare creates an engaging narrative…A fascinating account of efforts to rein in the excesses of capitalism.
— Kirkus Reviews

[A] sharp study of the struggle to hold corporations accountable in the 20th century….[A] riveting look at corporations’ ever-shifting role in American society.
— Publishers Weekly
Product Details
ISBN: 9780393867237
ISBN-10: 0393867234
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: February 20th, 2024
Pages: 304
Language: English