Is American Shareholder Activism a Social Movement?

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International Journal for Financial Services

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This Essay argues that shareholder activism in the United States is a social movement in which middle- and working-class shareholders, and the institutional investors that represent them, are mobilizing to reshape the distribution of power in corporate governance. Across various stages stretching over the last century, the shareholder activism movement has been defined by bursts of collective action challenging the structures of corporate power and the elites atop the corporate hierarchy. Americans have come to view shareholding and stock trading as important modes of resistance to the economic and political status quo and, as a consequence, shareholder mobilization is intensifying.

The shareholder activism movement is pushing corporate governance, long the protected domain of elite legal expertise, into the spotlight of mainstream social activism. There, the hierarchies that corporate governance law embeds, and the problems that corporate activity poses to American politics and society, are being targeted for disruption and reform. A social-movements approach puts the last century of shareholder activism in perspective by revealing the ebb and flow of an integrated narrative. In this long view, the current surge of activism -- led by elite asset managers, with a young, tech-enabled class of retail investors visible on the horizon -- is one stage in a sustained movement that stretches back more than a century.