capitalism is good for communities – discuss!

Last night’s debate at discuss.org.uk’s event, held at the magnificently 21st century Manchester Central Library (its remodelled insides, I mean – outside, it remains grand old Manchester), argued for and against the motion: “Capitalism is good for communities.”

For the motion: Breffni Walsh, Founder, Brands Are Best; and Penny Haslam, of PHEW

In the UK, enlightened capitalism helps us all. Right now, big business understands and delivers against its obligations to deliver corporate good and there is an unprecedented – and growing – recognition that satisfied and engaged employees and receptive local communities are good for business. Not least because everyone has seen the increased risk – and often spectacular fallout – from businesses that lose the public’s faith. Also, imaginative ways to respond to economic pressures have resulted in new public/private partnerships whereby our biggest businesses can get involved in helping to deliver fresh, new and effective approaches to education, health and other public services.

Against the motion: Paul Kennedy, Sociologist, MMU; and Georgia Rigg, Leadership lead, RECLAIM

On the other hand, it could be argued that big business has inveigled its way into society in ever more insidious ways. That we are all consumers first and citizens second; victims of increasingly sophisticated ways to embed marketing into our everyday lives. And with zero hours contracts and ever ingenious ways to protect profits and bosses’ windfalls at the expense of the workers, you could argue that as both consumers or employees we have never been more victimised by rampant capitalist forces.

The debate was chaired by Michael Taylor, Founder of Discuss – as even-handed and efficient a chair as one could hope for.  The evening flowed well as a result, with plenty of vocal audience participation – both during the presentations as well as after in the Q&A sessions.  Interestingly, Michael encouraged people to state points of view, not only to ask questions.  This hasn’t happened on previous Guardian Live-sponsored events I’ve been to.  I don’t know if it’s because northern folk know how long to expound a pet theme (maybe more societally conscious of others’ rights of expression!), but offering explicitly a pulpit up to the floor caused zero problems of any kind.  No one attempted to hijack the meeting, as had been the case a couple of uncomfortable times in London events.

I was undecided at the beginning, and prepared to listen.

As the debate developed, some of the key points got lost in the passions on both sides.  There were actually three groups of participants: the “for” and “against” presenters being two; the audience, a participative and necessary third set of voices.  It was refreshing to see that people were open to having their minds changed.

Personal anecdote combined with more technical and general overviews provided for a good mix of approaches.  This Storify gives my impression of what happened.

Yes.  As you can see, quite despite myself I think, I voted “against”.  I think this was more to do with the measured forcefulness of the floor than the cogent preparedness of the panel.

But as I say in my tweets during and afterwards, if we want to fix capitalism – and I still think it’s possible – I think imposing a massive and fundamental change on corporate law by making all corporations into equivalents of US “benefit corporations” would serve much better – than, for example, a harsher regulatory framework – to provide the level playing-field which the good people who work in corporate capitalism everywhere need, in order to be able to consistently follow up their manifestly good instincts:

In the United States, a benefit corporation or B-corporation is a type of for-profit corporate entity, legislated in 28 U.S. states, that includes positive impact on society and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals. B corps differ from traditional corporations in purpose, accountability, and transparency, but not in taxation.

The purpose of a benefit corporation includes creating general public benefit, which is defined as a material positive impact on society and the environment. A benefit corporation’s directors and officers operate the business with the same authority as in a traditional corporation but are required to consider the impact of their decisions not only on shareholders but also on society and the environment. In a traditional corporation, shareholders judge the company’s financial performance; with a B-corporation, shareholders judge performance based on how a corporation’s goals benefit society and the environment. Shareholders determine whether the corporation has made a material positive impact. Transparency provisions require benefit corporations to publish annual benefit reports of their social and environmental performance using a comprehensive, credible, independent, and transparent third-party standard. In some states, the corporation must also submit the reports to the Secretary of State, although the Secretary of State has no governance over the report’s content. Shareholders have a private right of action, called a benefit enforcement proceeding, to enforce the company’s mission when the business has failed to pursue or create general public benefit. Disputes about the material positive impact are decided by the courts.

It’d be a long haul, of course; there’d be many vested interests of the bad sorts out there who’d fight tooth and nail to prevent any such changes.  But for others, others we need to reach out to, eschewing greater regulation in favour of the innovation good capitalism has always been characterised by would surely get more than a few dyed-in-the-wool capitalists onboard.

And it would allow them (us!) all to deal with goals such as social justice within the framework of capitalism: at its very centre and core as well; not just tagged on as lame corporate social responsibilities.

No?

why is the state so afraid of self-contained people?

The state and the people

I tweeted these ideas a few minutes ago:

Today’s post

Now in this post, for a change maybe, I’m not going to be slagging off the Tories, neo-liberals various or the huge consumerist corporations for doing their biz as they must.  Not much anyhow.

That’s not the initial purpose of today’s trains of thought in any way.

Instead, I’d like to briefly point out the following: if it’s rightly the job of a democratically-elected state to fashion, forge and re-engineer societies they represent, where is the sense and sensibility we surely have a right to continue to expect, whatever the political colouring of our government, of a state which, on the one hand, does everything to convince us we should walk our own paths of independence – and yet, on the other hand, is extremely wary of the kind of self-contained and private people many of us would like to remain?

The issue of privacy

Privacy has become the clarion call of those who would split society into two quite simplistic extremes: people allegedly in favour of terrorism’s apologias on the one side, and people against all intents to change society outwith a parliamentary radius on the other.  In truth, it’s probably more likely we’re talking about privacy specialists and interested parties who are interested in ensuring minimal interventions by the state versus people who’d prefer parliamentary democracy to be up to the job of doing everything.

In either case, if you want your privacy, want to be those self-contained, independent bodies the state has allegedly been striving to convert us into (as per its multiple exhortations on scroungers, benefit dependency etc), it seems you are committing the even worse crime of wanting to be truly independent.

In this sense, it would seem clear the independence Tories want us to acquire is intellectually half-baked: it really, actually, favours an independence of government from the people, not an independence of people from the government.

There’s a difference.

And it’s big.

And it’s morally indefensible.

Corporations vs benefit corporations

Whilst government, all governments, not just Tory governments, are in the pockets of corporations whose moral obligation remains uniquely to their shareholders, we cannot argue fairly that it is right for government to say the above: we must push the argument much further and more coherently than this.  We must change not the concentrations of wealth but, instead, the focusses which they accustomed to operating through:

In the United States, a benefit corporation or B-corporation is a type of for-profit corporate entity, legislated in 28 U.S. states, that includes positive impact on society and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals. B corps differ from traditional corporations in purpose, accountability, and transparency, but not in taxation.

The purpose of a benefit corporation includes creating general public benefit, which is defined as a material positive impact on society and the environment. A benefit corporation’s directors and officers operate the business with the same authority as in a traditional corporation but are required to consider the impact of their decisions not only on shareholders but also on society and the environment.

Wikipedia goes on to tell us:

In a traditional corporation, shareholders judge the company’s financial performance; with a B-corporation, shareholders judge performance based on how a corporation’s goals benefit society and the environment. Shareholders determine whether the corporation has made a material positive impact.

And:

Transparency provisions require benefit corporations to publish annual benefit reports of their social and environmental performance using a comprehensive, credible, independent, and transparent third-party standard. In some states, the corporation must also submit the reports to the Secretary of State, although the Secretary of State has no governance over the report’s content. Shareholders have a private right of action, called a benefit enforcement proceeding, to enforce the company’s mission when the business has failed to pursue or create general public benefit. Disputes about the material positive impact are decided by the courts.

The importance of humanity and its independence

If we truly believe in independence as humanity’s defining concept, and we truly wish for society to continue to use the corporation as its main organisational tool, we not only must introduce more democracy into the corporation but, also, make it plain that people who choose to be more alone are choosing a contemplative life of love and affection; are choosing, by their actions, to avoid a life of networked disagreements.

In another sense are choosing to recover the figure of constructive isolation.

Not beings to be feared by an evermore paranoid state.  Just people coherent with the body politic’s memes as they currently stand: look after yourself, don’t be a burden, live your life in quiet self-assertion wherever possible.

Something far worse to be finishing off with

Or is there something else operating here?

Surely we won’t simply be saying:

  1. Be independent of us – even as society can play no part in your life
  2. Accept we can still control you – even as you can control us less and less
  3. Be evermore independent of – more importantly isolated from –  all those around you
  4. In the absence of real affection, be evermore dependent on consumerism to fill the void
  5. More manifestly, fill your empty lives with unsustainable gadgetry
  6. Struggle towards an old age where your investments pay for the costs of ill-health
  7. Die, and through dying, pass on your accumulated wealth way outwith your family, to those very corporations and institutions whose societal benefit is zero

No.  Of course not.

It can’t be that.

It shouldn’t be, anyhow.

A conclusion of sorts …

So what’s the alternative anyone?  Two lines of attack proposed today.  One, intellectually sound.  The second, intellectually fraudulent.  Which shall we follow?

WDYT?

some more thoughts on work (in progress)

Yesterday, I wrote about my realisation that seven years of working in a corporate environment had made me more of a corporate animal than I had ever imagined.

At least as far as expectations in relation to process, procedure and structure were concerned; as far as organisational tools were concerned, too.

triSARAHtops (love the name!) made the following comment:

I don’t think there is anything wrong with working in a corportate setting, or even preferring to work in a corporate setting, as long as you enjoy the work you do and (hopefully) believe in the work the company does. […]

I think a bit of contextualisation’d be worth giving here.

After a period of mental ill-health early in the last decade (already referred to in my previous post), the quite rigid structures of corporate-land were probably exactly what I needed.  What I do at the moment, teaching English online and proofreading, would’ve been impossible then.

When corporate-land works well is when it manages to make coincide a) the ability of a large org to learn organically (ie within and without) from the experiences, thoughts and actions of its component parts with b) the capacity such an org has to imprint its values on and engage with the communities it earns its living and future through.

Where corporate-land works terribly is when transnational instincts take over; when emotional and financial blackmail become a par for the course; when local communities are mere stepping-stones to be stomped on towards a far greater, more distant and disconnected glory.

I’ve experienced both in the same company.  For that’s the curious thing: whilst corporations love to present a singular and homogeneous face to the world, in truth they are – like all human constructs – racked and riven by petty turf wars; ideas too clever by half; empire-building; and nest-feathering.

On the other hand, they are simultaneously populated by people and departments that do their very best, despite all, to make their world, or at least the bit they can influence, a better place for as many of the souls whose lives they touch.

So.  Corporations, maybe large organisations would be a better term (for corporate bodies can just as easily be charities as they might be large oil companies or soft-drink behemoths), are a microcosm of modern life, and if we’re looking to see why there’s so much ingenuity wasted – or so much waste ingeniously generated – we need only go to our local corporate org and spend a couple of weeks watching from within what they do.

If business leaders and their sponsored political representatives find it so easy to damn the nation as essentially one of scroungers and benefit-abusers, if the words fall so easily from their lips, if the thoughts form so easily in their prejudices, it’s surely only because they have plenty of experience of the same in their own contexts.

Only, in their own contexts, out of awful self-interest, they find enough half-baked reasons to justify their behaviours.  Whilst, at the same time, lashing out against the poorest who never know what hit them.

That, then, is the context around my previous post.  Some of the things I magnificently admire in corporate orgs, even now: the organisational tools, when used intelligently, allow for an organic learning and a seamless transmission of knowhow; the breaking-down of large challenges into bitesized gobbets, easily analysed and processed, is a lesson in creative problem-solving; and even the corporatisation of public image – where not abused by PR departments – shows what can be achieved to generate a sense of identity with a bit of sensible marketing.

But where I still cannot agree is in the tendency to rapacious transnationalism.  If nationalisms are the bane of body politics everywhere, transnationalisms are the downfall of the global economy.  Unsustainable, in no way likeable, in no way fair, just or decent … they play one group of citizens, and their perishable lives, against another group of equally defenceless souls.

And in this matter, we need a better way.  In this matter, I am not your typical corporate animal.