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Clicking ads or saving the world

Tue, 26th Apr 2011

April 2011. It's not the silly season, but there's more than a whiff of end of empire in the air.

On one hand, unemployment, no growth, foreclosures, and the richest states in the world queuing up to appease the financial institutions' demands for savage cuts to pay back debt incurred to save ... the same institutions from bankruptcy caused by their own reckless stupidity. On the other, as one twitterer succinctly put it, 'The Royals, Trump, birthers, Sheen.'

And while, to continue the litany, the Middle East erupts with people seeking a future and the planet groans under the ever-heavier burdens we lay on it, what, pray, is business up to?

'The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," sighed an ex-Facebooker recently. He added: "That sucks."

In this climate of unreality, it suddenly clicks into focus that incremental change doesn't cut it any more. Think about it a bit. The world is running out of water, we can't seem to manage even basic welfare such as health and pensions for citizens in their old age, and the best Silicon Valley can do is to use its breath to puff mightlily into a social media bubble? Even by its own high standards, this is vacuous.

After a long delay, while it surreptitiously tried to stuff the events of the crisis into the 'business as usual' file, even management is slowly waking up to the fact that the levers it has learned and loved to pull – options, incentives, takeovers, financial manipulations of all kinds – are actually endangering its own comfortable life.

Interestingly, much of the debate is coming out of Harvard – perhaps those attached to it have so much at stake. Thus the first alarm bells were set off by articles in Harvard Business Review about ‘fixing capitalism’ and ‘capitalism for the long term’ by establishment figures such as strategy guru Michael Porter and Dominic Barton, global head of McKinsey. Both are thoughtful pieces whose tenor, not surprisingly, is steady-as-she-goes: primarily they aim to make the world safe for the big companies they advise.

More radical is Rotman School's Roger Martin, who writes in his latest book, Fixing the Game, excerpted on the excellent (apart from the pop-ups) Harvard Business School site, 'The true cause of the mayhem in capital markets is slavish devotion to the theory of shareholder value maximization.' Yesss! And about time too.

But is even this far enough? No, choruses a vocal, but growing, minority who believe we need to go further – a lot further. Umair Haque, in his coruscating The New Capitalist Manifesto (published, again, by Harvard Business Review Press), argues vehemently that the 'growth' produced by the last 30 years has been illusory and meaningless.

'The real roots of this crisis are that 20th century institutions, whether banks, governments, or corporations, are becoming more and more useless to people, communities, and society,' he charges. 'They're extracting wealth from them, instead of creating enduring, authentic value for them. And that game of musical chairs is this Great Stagnation writ large.'

In the Great Stagnation, everything has become its mirror-image.

Wealth flows from poor to rich. Corporations and their management have become a travesty of themselves. Thus HR, often itself outsourced, is anti-HR: at best about outsourcing jobs and keeping wage costs down, at worst about making jobs so awful that people leave or even take their own lives – see the spate of recent employment suicides in France. Customer service is about exploiting customers and keeping them at arms' length – just as public services, including health and benefits, are not about making it easier, but harder, for citizens to get the support for which they pay their taxes.

But industrial-age organisations created along these lines – outsourced, IT-driven, fragmented – are not only impersonal but hollowed out.

It has taken the crisis to reveal the full extent, but once their debts are called in the only livelihoods they can provide, as in society as a whole, are for the 10 per cent at the top. The accumulation of wealth at one pole is simultaneously the accumulation of debt and misery at the other (exactly as Karl Marx described it a century and a half ago).

So what we heard in 2008 wasn’t the sound of the popping of a financial bubble, Haque says, but the end of the industrial-age model of prosperity itself - BANG! – for which we are totally unprepared.

In turn, that means that talk about ‘recovery’ is so wide of the mark that it’s laughable. If it’s not a recession but the end of an era, the last thing we need is a return to the exploitative status quo ante. As for austerity, ‘That's what you get when you bail out a toxic, brain-dead, ponzi zombieconomy: it turns around and starts munching on your brain,’ Haque tweeted bitterly.

The issue, then, is not so much 'fixing' capitalism – tweaking existing practices or smoothing off their rough edges – as reinventing it.

For companies, this means creating 'goods' rather than 'bads' – Toyota's 'dream car' that expels cleaner air than it draws in, food that nourishes as it slims, and more generally generating new dynamic value that is not hoarded but handed on to society as a whole. For economies it means redefining fundamental institutions such as markets, corporations, economic measures and the relationships between them.

For individuals, finally, it means taking hard decisions about the way we live, consume – and work.

'Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?' Steve Jobs demanded of John Sculley in 1983. Thirty years on, do we want to spend our lives figuring out how to make people click on ads?

'Creating the future's not about "recovery"', says Haque. 'It's about reimagination, reinvention, and probably a little bit of revolution.'

I know which side of the barricades I'll be on.

 


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