My column from the current issue of Arthur magazine.
Business is not the enemy. Not in itself, anyway.
There’s an often unexpressed, underlying assumption these days about the way power in America works. An extension of what used to be called “crude Marxism,” the idea is that Bush and the NeoCons are brilliant propagandists, yet merely marionettes in a drama puppeteered by the true power elite: corporations.
I think that’s got it backwards. As hard as it may be to fathom, I suspect Bush and his cronies really do believe in the God-ordained superiority of their ideas, the manifest destiny of America to rule the earth, and the holy sanctity of free market capitalism. And most people in business are simply trying to keep their companies alive in a global economy and cultural landscape increasingly dominated by these beliefs.
You can think of it this way: Fox News is intentional. The way that CNN, CBS, Time, The New York Times and pretty much every other reputable news agency have chased FoxNews into the right-wing echo chamber in the last few years, wasn’t. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes’ expertise is right wing propaganda for mainstream audiences, so it’s appropriate they run just such a channel. The people running the other news agencies, however, didn’t truly want to surrender newsgathering to jingoism – but what they saw as the necessity of the marketplace drew them off their own best course. These latter failures of purpose, integrity and most of all, I’d argue, competency, were the result of panic, fear, and the short-sighted need to compete for the viewers Fox seemed to be stealing from them. Instead of making their own product better, they aped the other guy’s stuff.
By succumbing to this short-term hunger of an audience for newscasters’ unquestioning allegiance to the administration and its neoconservative doctrine, these news companies exacerbated the problem for themselves. Now, all Americans are subject to the same party line, putting us in a world with only one opinion. In a sense, by joining their competitors in the endless assault of similarly skewed product, they’ve conditioned the public for even more of the same. Except for the few of us who’ve ventured over to the BBC or The Guardian on the Internet (or maybe Air America on the radio), there is really only one option.
It is not a problem of ideology, but of basic business confidence. News companies have traded in their journalistic expertise—the product they actually have to offer —to become part of the pandering chorus. The more war-skeptical, even marginally critical journalists and executives, from Ted Turner and Walter Isaacson at CNN to Gary Webb at the San Jose Mercury News, Phil Donahue on MSNBC, or even someone as mainstream as Dan Rather at CBS, have been forced out or made too nauseated to continue. As a result, the ability of any of these networks to correct course has been diminished.
The very same sort of problem has affected nearly every business in America and, in many cases, beyond. That’s why I’ve written a business book: to speak directly to the businesspeople—from individual entrepreneurs all the way up to corporate chiefs—who I believe are surrendering what’s left of their competency and common sense to the necessities of a marketplace and ideologies of a colonialism, neither of which are appropriate to the current situation, and neither of which make good business sense.
So, as I brace for what I fear will be the inevitable attacks from my friends and core readership for having written a book – Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out – aimed at what we call “businesspeople,” I’d like to explain where I stand on these things called “corporations.”
In short, corporations aren’t real. They’re not these big, unstoppable, powerful menaces. They are merely social constructions – agreements between people to behave in a certain way. They are rules written down on paper – a list of commands, like a computer program, for how an entity should function. They are not conscious, they are not in control. For the most part, they have been improperly conceived as processes through which to do nothing but make money (generally over increments of three months or less), and they do that pretty well. Problem is, they don’t do very much of anything else too well at all.
Most businesspeople watch on in powerless paralysis as the corporations they work for destroy lives, the environment, or even their own future profits in the name of short-term revenue. Meanwhile, those of us in more activist circles watch with horror as the goliaths of industry appear to wrest resources from those who need them, and bend law to serve their own purposes. It tends to make us all see commerce itself as a necessary evil – something we only want to touch when it’s absolutely necessary to get a magazine published, a record released, or a few lentils on the table. Heaven forbid we come in contact with a “real” corporation like Viacom, Procter & Gamble, or GM.
But in viewing corporations as unstoppable behemoths, we’re making the very same mistake that the most rapacious venture capitalists are making: we are seeing corporate activity exclusively through the lens of the 15th Century. That’s when the very first chartered corporations were born into existence as a tool for the merciless expansion of European empires into new colonies. These corporations—like the infamous British East India Trading Company—were created for no other reason than to compete for the resources of Asia, Africa, and the New World. The models they developed—the zero-sum game of resource capture—is the model they passed down to companies, today.
Yes, the corporation was born as an instrument of state, as were most Renaissance-era reforms. The centralization of currency (and eradication of local currencies) served as a tax on the periphery. The philosophy of competition between individuals as the dominant and positive force of nature similarly served to keep everyone competing for approval of the monarch.
Once energized by the mechanics of the Industrial Revolution, the inhumanity of these reforms was exacerbated. Just as tall ships turned the world into colonies ripe for exploitation, the factory reduced human workers to mere cogs in the engines of industrialization. Mass production reached an apex with “Fordism,” named for the assembly lines of the founder American-style corporate fascism (and, incidentally, anti-Semitism), and what used to be called running a company became an exercise in resource management -maximizing efficiencies. So people who may have once been experts in and passionate about making shoes or raising geese were now imprisoned by the spreadsheet.
And spreadsheet management favors short-term visible revenues at the expense of the development of expertise, continuing innovation, values-driven decision-making, and, perhaps worst of all, fun. Businesses “outsource” key components of their manufacturing and product development, only to realize they’re no longer the best at what they used to do. How could they be? They don’t actually do it, anymore.
Today, even entrepreneurs who seem passionate about whatever enterprise they’ve chosen to pursue nonetheless go off-course once they become successful.
See, “selling out” has nothing to do with making money doing business, and everything to do with selling off the entire enterprise in order to make money, instead. Sure, if you’re really bored with the business you’ve built, go ahead and get rid of it. But remember, the minute you sell your company—and this includes going “public”—you’re no longer a shoemaker, muffin baker, or airplane designer. You and the company you built are the asset of a group of shareholders. And believe me, most of those shareholders don’t even know or care what you do or believe. They just want your shares to pop so they can sell for a fast buck. And you’ve signed paper promising to do what they say.
So goes corporate capitalism. It’s why so many companies have little or no idea how to design or build better products—only how to market them. In fact, the reason I became aware of this whole dynamic is that, as a media theorist, I’d been called in by dozens of CEO’s asking me to help them “think outside the box” about their companies, and help them come with new “branding ideas.” When I’d suggest that rather than rebranding, they might consider innovating from the inside-out by creating better products, they’d invariably stare at me with horror. They didn’t make their products, anymore, and wouldn’t know where to start if they had to.
These companies don’t need to learn how to think “outside” the box; they need to figure out how to get back inside it. Instead, victims of their static template for what a corporation must be, they remain paralyzed.
The amazing thing is that most CEO’s don’t quite realize that this outdated Industrial Age model and the rules of business it prescribes are not set in stone. The landscape has changed. Unlike neocons, who must stick to the Bible as written, businesspeople are free to rewrite their corporate charters, and free to do so in new ways. Google, for one, is attempting to be a corporation that “does no evil.” Companies from Honest Tea to Patagonia have been built from the ground up not just to generate cash for their owners, but to distribute genuinely quality products and make the world a better place while doing so. They source materials from local agriculture, support workers in their communities with education scholarships and public parks, and think about every action in the context of its environmental impact. Even General Electric —a historically notorious polluter—has turned something of a new leaf, and now openly hounds the Administration for not recognizing the threat of global warming and the need to move away from petrochemicals. Is this the only way to make a buck? No—but it’s certainly a more fun, rewarding, and inspiring path leading to greater motivation, a more deeply committed consumer community, and a more sustainable business model. Corporations, created for the financial benefit of the few, can just as easily exist for the purpose of benefiting the many.
Not that there’s anything wrong with making money. It’s just that—unless you’re working at the Mint—this is not a true core competency. Making money should really just be a happy result of contributing to the world what you do best. The minute you sacrifice that intention for short-term gain, or that you go against the grain of your own value system out of fear of the competition, that’s when you’re selling out.
Rather than confirm businesspeople’s sense of inadequacy by maintaining some angry, counterculturalist posture, I’m instead inviting them to reorient to their businesses from a place of passion and concern rather than timidity and terror. What I’m trying to do with my book is show that these failings are ingrained into our business mentality, but are not essential to commerce, itself. Inherited, maybe, but not inherent.
And yes, finally, I wrote my book because that’s my own core competency. I believe that commerce, enacted mindfully, can liberate itself from the neocon mythology that it currently serves, and instead turn both our labors and economy toward serving needs instead of a central authority that—quite frankly—does not exist. I suppose for the sake of counterculture street cred I could pretend I don’t know or care about business. But for me, that would be selling out.