February 4, 2014

Can Humanism Replace Capitalism?

MoneyCan humanism replace capitalism? Can capitalism be fought back by a new sense of purpose?

No. Not in my lifetime.

It’s sad. Really, it is.

Can humanism — the concept of value, meaning and purpose — be interwoven in parallel with capitalism?

That *may* have a fighting chance.

We first need to revisit the terms business, company, corporation and capitalism. The word capitalism — the concept of accumulating capital — arrived on the scene in 1854, but of course there has always been the vortex of capitalism. Whether the serfs, aristocrats, feudal land owners, or early mercantiles/merchants … the concept of capitalism has a solid 500+ year history.

But when did we lose the plot? When did capitalism replace the business, company or corporation? When did capitalism become society’s new purpose? (at least the purpose of those pulling the strings)

A business — the original act of being busy — is perhaps a clue. Or perhaps the word company lends us a hand in our quest. After all, a company is to be in ‘company’ with others, no? And what of the corporation? What say you, a word with negative connotations in this the 21st century of uncertainty? From the Latin ‘corporationem‘ it truly means “persons united in a body for some purpose”.

So let’s recap.

To be in business is to keep busy in good company

with persons united in a body for some purpose.

In my humble estimation, capitalism has replaced the business, the company and the corporation.

And we’ve lost our purpose.

Our purpose has ever so swiftly shifted to the accumulation of share; the holder of share, you might say.

We ought to — we must — harken back to a time of the business, the company and the corporation as they are defined for us today and relinquish the magnetic draw that is capitalism and by extension shareholder value.

We are all to blame though. Partially at least. Capitalism is the ugly, older step-sister to the triplets known as materialism, consumerism and individualism. We feed the beast by our unadulterated need for stuff.

In 1933, America instituted the “New Deal”, a series of economic programs to assist the working class get back on its feet after the Great Depression. It revolved around what was referred to as the “3 Rs”: Relief, Recovery, and Reform. That is Relief for the unemployed and poor; Recovery of the economy to normal levels; and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression. We either need a new New Deal — a new definition for a new world order — or workers are going to begin thinking they are in a “Raw Deal”.

John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930:

“Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes — those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows.”

Truer words could not have been written today in 2014. We suffer in part because we have no idea what workplace or financial happiness ought to look like. Shareholder value has become the new normal.

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever — one of the world’s leading suppliers of consumer goods be it foods, home care or personal care — believes the time has come for corporate sanity. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Polman stated:

“The very essence of capitalism is under threat as business is now seen as a personal wealth accumulator. We have to bring this world back to sanity and put the greater good ahead of self-interest. We need to fight very hard to create an environment out there that is more long term focussed and move away from short termism.” (The Guardian, Jo Confino, Thursday 21 June 2012)

Paul is spot on.

You may have asked the question “what is the purpose of these corporations from society’s point of view?”

The bigger question is “what will be the new purpose of these corporations?”

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