Running across the title of a new book over the weekend on seeking spirituality in politics without getting religious made me think of what might be going on at the present time with demands for a more “spiritual” capitalism.
I then wrote the following comment to share with our network:
I am increasingly bemused, or better, perplexed, at the recent rise of calls for a “better” capitalism because, to me, the various proposals brought forward have little to do the actualities of running a firm. They are well-intended, I think; intentionally aspirational, without crass or hypocritical self-seeking agendas, but vague to a point of being useless.
With respect to their proponents, I am referring to calls for companies with a purpose. Is not profit a purpose for a company? The point seems to be that “profit,” as we have understood it and accounted for it, is not a good purpose. Companies should have higher purposes than making money.
And then, there is “ESG” – a demand that private firms provide public goods “good” for the environment, society and governance (or is it government?). But there are no standards, no metrics to let us know, as Lenin once demanded, what is to be done? We are told that trillions of dollars are lined up to reward with investments companies which do well in ESG outcomes.
Then, mostly in the U.S., there is woke capitalism, where firms are expected to and many like Twitter and Disney do, take cultural stands to favor some over others, given their progressive personal, but largely elitist opinions, their birth metrics of race or ethnicity or their chosen metrics of sexuality. Woke companies are expected to deliver cultural and political change without respect for voters or election outcomes. A movement for race-based “diversity, inclusion and equity” has trumped various criteria for merit in the decision-making of HR and community relations staffs of many corporations.
So, what is going on?
Is it late-stage 4.0, post-industrial, post-modern, deconstructed capitalism? The triumph of Antonio Gramsci’s proposed long march through cultural institutions with a program of non-materialist Marxism?
About six years ago, I complained to one of the wisest people in our network that I felt leadership vanishing all around the world, replaced by managing and teamwork and “go along, get along,” “don’t make waves” ladders leading up to high positions. I expected to be corrected for being out of line, but no. The response was immediate and forceful:
“Steve, we are living at the end of an age. Everyone knows it. But they don’t know what is coming, what the new age will be like, what it will demand of us. So, everyone does today, just what they did yesterday.”
Recently, a friend proposed in line with this premonition that the European Enlightenment “has run out of gas.”
The age of the European Enlightenment is indeed over. Just look around you. Russia has invaded the Ukraine and entered a pact with China asserting that great peoples with traditions going back millennia can impose their own parochial values just as they see fit. Xi Jinping boasts of China’s great dream as one of taking the world in hand and setting it right.
The historical norm for dominant regimes – dynastic, nation state, religious/intellectual – is roughly 250 years. The European Enlightenment took off in the mid-18th century, though it was foreshadowed by the work of Descartes, Spinosa and Leibniz. Through promotion of science and human-centered philosophy, the European Enlightenment shifted energies and attention to secularization, giving dynamic intellectual and cultural inputs to industrialization and modernity. At the same time, however, such regime gave prominence to materialism more than the ideal and the spiritual through the theories of Hegel on the state; Adam Smith and Karl Marx on economics; John Stuart Mill on liberty; Herbert Spencer on survival of the fittest; Nietzsche on the will to power replacing God; Darwin on evolution; Alfred Marshall in micro-economics; and later, Freud on personhood.
Simultaneously, the basis for morality was confined to a universalistic individualism – “I” think, therefore “I” am.
What I think is going on with calling for new purposes for companies, for ESG business models and with woke capitalism is simply a cry for help, as the European Enlightenment fades into history. The help sought is for something spiritual to provide a nourishment that neither materialism/prosperity nor narcissism can provide.
Modern humanity appears to be in need of meaning, but a spirituality that is not religious. I am not at all sure that such a product can ever be made and sold by capitalism, even a moral one.
As Jesus Christ is reported to have advised the Devil: “People do not live by bread alone.”
Ironically, I am writing this observation on May 1, International Workers Day, the annual holiday of the very “enlightened,” scientific and materialistic socialist movement. This date was chosen in 1889 for political reasons by the Marxist International Socialist Congress, which met in Paris and established the Second International as a successor to the earlier International Workingmen’s Association.