Some thoughts on the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

I am finally kicking off this blog, after several weeks of learning the subtleties of WordPress, with some thoughts about business culture in the twenty-first century.  As I browsed through the news this morning, an article caught my attention that raises important question about the role of business in American society.  The Washington Times reports that the Natural Products Expo East, the “East Coast’s largest natural, organic and healthy living trade event,” is promoting the theme of “Conscious Capitalism.”

According to an article in The Washington Times, the Natural Products Expo East, the “East Coast’s largest natural, organic, and healthy living trade event,” is underway at the Baltimore Convention Center this week.

The theme of the trade show is “Conscious Capitalism,” an idea that business should as a matter of principle pursue the good of its stakeholders as well as the larger society.  Conscious Capitalism has gained some traction in recent months through the support of several business leaders, particularly John Mackey of Whole Foods, whose book, Conscious Capitalism (2013), has been received with enthusiasm from socially concerned business thinkers.

Still, what I find intriguing is how the rhetoric in the article plays with our assumptions about the “nature” of business.  “Conscious businesses,” we are told, “are driven by a higher purpose, built on love care rather than fear and stress.”  Implicitly, then, the typical business model must aspire no “higher purpose,” and thrive on negative emotions.

What, exactly, is at stake in this claim?  Is free enterprise actually erected on a moral foundation of fear and stress?  This characterization of business culture seems to reveal more about the contemporary moment rather than the history of American business.  It speaks to the uncertainties wrought by globalization, the increasing mobility and volatility of capital, and growing job insecurity under neoliberal political regimes.

According to author, this perspective is the cornerstone of much more than financial success, but “also a meaningful vocation and potential for social change.”  Conscious Capitalism therefore seems to represent a political claim here: that business, imbued with the proper virtues, can improve the world.   Is the morally aware business actually the solution to our social problems?  After all, haven’t initiatives committed to the idea that business is the savior, such as “free trade,” “right to work,” and “privatization” contributed to, or even caused in some instances, the very problems that Conscious Capitalism seeks to overcome?

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2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

  1. A while back I read an article on “stockholder capitalism” vs “stakeholder capitalism,” which argued the difference between the two was where the profits went. Did the profits go to the stockholders of a company? Or did the profits go to the workers of that company and that company’s consumers, in the form of more pay or compensation, lower prices, fewer externalities, improved products, and the like. For Conscious Capitalism, what’s at stake is not “virtues” but whose virtues.

    • Great point Christa. Certainly Conscious Capitalism is about redefining who “counts” and where a business’s responsibility to society begins and ends. I think it’s important to remember that, according to the law, a corporation is legally obligated only to its stockholders. Although it must ensure worker safety and consumer protection to some degree, these rules are pre-defined as “constraints” in the language of economists rather than “responsibilities.” Conscious Capitalism tries to bridge this gap, but ultimately this business model relies on the voluntary actions of owners and executives, who are still under a legal obligation to consider stockholders first. This means that there will still be firms out there who choose to disregard the conscious model, and probably profit more as a result. I’m not sure I buy the logic that a business will experience greater success if it voluntary assumes these greater “costs.” Real reform of business has to deal with the problems at the systemic level: redefining the obligations of corporations, and increasing the effectiveness of regulations. Without strong accountability to the democracy, Conscious Capitalism seems little more than a great public relations campaign on the part of savvy business thinkers.

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