… to paraphrase Churchill, capitalism is the worst system, except for everything else that has been tried.
Gillian Tett – whose official title (“markets and finance commentator and assistant editor” of the Financial Times) seems designed so that its holder can write about whatever she likes, whenever she likes – is responding to my question about whether capitalist enterprises can ever escape an inbuilt moral blindness. She has agreed that “profit-seeking enterprises tend to create employees who are focused on profits and subject to tunnel vision”, but that
The best way to counter the flaws of capitalism is to do everything you can to promote a more humane version that keeps some element of the profit motive there, to encourage competition and dynamism, but keeps it in check with oversight.
The question that forms and nags at the back of my mind at this point is how far you would have to dilute the profit motive before you’d end up with an acceptable form of capitalism. And whether at the end of this diluting process it would really still be capitalism at all. But we’ll get to that. Tett continues:
Forcing companies to pay properly for externalities is key. So is creating a level playing field, with real transparency and competition and access to the markets and market prices for a wide array of players. And encouraging companies to take a longer term view, and investors to measure results with a longer-term vision too, is important. For what it’s worth, I am a huge fan of Adam Smith’s version of capitalism, but that vision had four elements that are often missing today (particularly in Wall Street): companies where the owners exercised real control and oversight (because they were family owned enterprises); markets with fairly open access; market prices that were visible; and a wider sense of ethics and moral sentiment.
That phrase “often missing today” interests me. It could be interpreted as suggesting that there was a time when things were better (though I don’t think Tett necessarily means it that way)…
Unwilling to go back and read Smith’s more-than-Piketty-length The Wealth of Nations, I turn to the Baedeker of economists, Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldy Philosophers. Heilbroner is a fan of Adam Smith too. And he seems to think that in Smith’s time the economy really did function as he supposed it would: as a “self-regulating system for society’s orderly provisioning”. “Does the world really work this way?”, Heilbroner asks; “To a very real degree it did in the days of Adam Smith”.
Now what is this “to a very real degree”? Heilbroner’s claim comes after several pages in which he has described some of the working conditions that prevailed in Smith’s day:
… had [Smith] traveled up north and nerved himself against a descent into the pits of Durham or Northumberland, he would have seen … men and women [working] together, stripped to the waist, and sometimes reduced from pure fatigue to a whimpering half-human state. The wildest and most brutish customs were practiced; sexual appetites aroused at a glance were gratified down some deserted shaftway; children of seven or ten who never saw daylight during the winter months were used and abused and paid a pittance by the miners to help drag away their tubs of coal; pregnant women drew coal cars like horses and even gave birth in the dark black caverns. But it was not just in the mines that life appeared colorful, traditional, or ferocious …
To a “very real degree” such conditions resulted from “some element of the profit motive”.
Anyway, back to Tett. A “more humane” version of capitalism that matches Smith’s ideal is possible, in Tett’s view, but this depends on the possibility of moral vision:
I think the issue is tunnel vision – which basically makes people exclude things that they don’t like – and if they live in a social silo they never meet anyone who is going to challenge them. Or, to put it another way, Bourdieu used to talk about doxa – the field of accepted debate. Inside the doxa you can get varieties of opinion, but what really matters is what lies outside the doxa, in the sense of what is never discussed. The social silences, as it were. In the case of banking, the presence of social silences has been critical for the moral blindness that developed.
And the academic scribbler, the great silencer at the centre of Wall Street’s doxa? Dr. Smith again. “Even though Wall Street wraps itself in the flag of Adam Smith (which, in a sense, is like trying to export democracy at the point of a gun)”, Tett tells me, High Frequency Trading and much Wall Street practice “flies in the face” of Smith’s commandments. But Tett’s general point is not that traders need to read their Smith more carefully; it’s that living in a “social silo” prevents confrontation with ideas and problems that might challenge your preconceptions, and which might force you out of a moral blindness you hadn’t even recognised. Dr. Smith may be as much part of the problem as part of the solution, especially if he becomes too cosy a conversation partner and prevents you from going out and talking to other people.
I had begun our exchange, back in January, with a few questions about inequality. My first (pre-Piketty) question asked whether it was time to move inequality back to the centre of political debate. Tett replied that
Inequality is moving back to the centre of the agenda whether politicians want it or not. In Davos this year the CEOs and other elites named inequality as the biggest risk to the global economy over the next year, which is utterly amazing given that it’s never featured in the Global Risks report that the WEF [World Economic Forum] do each year. What people are increasingly realising is that this is heavily linked to the question of technological change, not just developing country supply shocks or even any particular policy espoused by the parties in power.
I ask Tett to go into a little more detail about how technological change relates to inequality and how – if CEOs are indeed starting to recognise that inequality threatens economic stability – they are proposing to address the technology-inequality connection. In short order she sends me a link to an FT article she has just published. Luckily I haven’t yet maxed out my free monthly eight-article allowance on the FT site, so I’m able to view the piece without being paywalled. (As the automatically-generated text in Tett’s email explains, “High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article.”)
The article is about the displacement of “flesh-and-blood workers” by digital machines – “computer business systems” that push employees out of decent jobs and either “out of work or into thankless, monotonous drudgery, even as a tiny elite of skilled managers (or business owners) gets wealthier”. Tett’s reflections have been prompted by a recent book by Simon Head, fellow of Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute. Head points to companies such as Amazon, whose working conditions are the stuff of hellish nightmares – to a very real degree. In the early days, Amazon had private ambulances parked outside their warehouses; this was cheaper than installing the air conditioning systems that would have prevented employees collapsing in the heat, which they inevitably did. In an article for Mother Jones, journalist Mac McClelland described her time working in a distribution centre for “Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc.”:
The place is immense. Cold, cavernous. Silent, despite thousands of people quietly doing their picking, or standing along the conveyors quietly packing or box-taping, nothing noisy but the occasional whir of a passing forklift… People lose fingers. Or parts of fingers. And about once a year, they tell us, someone in an Amalgamated warehouse gets caught by the hair, and when a conveyor belt catches you by the hair, it doesn’t just take your hair with it. It rips out a piece of scalp as well.
After her third day in the job, McClelland is reduced from fatigue to a whimpering state:
I’ll admit that I did start crying a little. Not at work, thankfully, since that’s evidently frowned upon, but later, when I explained to someone over Skype that it hurts, oh, how my body hurts after failing to make my goals despite speed-walking or flat-out jogging and pausing every 20 or 30 seconds to reach on my tiptoes or bend or drop to the floor for 10.5 hours.
“[W]hat is perhaps most interesting of all about Head’s view”, Tett remarks in the article, “is that while he writes from an indignant, leftwing perspective, even he cannot find any answers”. Head points to “Germany’s culture of co-determination and labour-management partnership”; “the John Lewis Partnership in the United Kingdom, employee owned and the best high-quality retail chain in the country”; and “exceptional [US companies] like Lincoln Electric”. But as Tett notes, he also believes “it would be delusional to think that, in the United States, the domain of these alternative work cultures will expand spontaneously”. As I read Tett’s article, I wonder what an answer would look like if it didn’t look like this.
Tett suggests that the most worrying thing about this technological displacement, and the inequalities that follow, is its invisibility: the impression she gives is of a blind and inexorable march into dystopia. It is “a point we all need to ponder more deeply”. I write back that I think there’s a danger of slipping into a form of technological determinism here – of assuming the existence of an invisible hand and ignoring the existence of a hand that exists “to a very real [and visible] degree”: the hand of managers and business owners. Surely it’s because managers and business owners are primarily concerned with profit and not the wellbeing of their workers that they embrace these technologies. In which case maybe we need to look again at the very structure of capitalist enterprises, as Head – with his nod to John Lewis and Germany’s partnership culture – seems to do.
But apparently I’ve missed the point: “the real issue about technology”, Tett responds, “is not what it does to companies on the micro level but that it raises questions about displaced workers on a macro level. If [Brian] Arthur [ – a professor at the Palo Alto Research Center who Tett mentions in her article –] is right, then the issue facing economies today is not how they can become more productive, but how they distribute the fruits of their productivity. This is absolutely key. Economies can grow but only a tiny proportion of people benefit. Yet economists, politicians and journalists tend to be obsessed with the raw GDP growth rate”.
I wonder again whether the micro and macro aren’t more intimately connected than Tett implies, and whether companies set up to prioritise profit above all else won’t inevitably result in the trend towards the concentration of wealth that Thomas Piketty describes in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which Tett refers to. At this point Tett brings Smith and the moral blindness problem back into the conversation. But now the focus is on “silo busters”:
Companies get too focussed on narrow goals sometimes and lack people who can force them to take the wider vision. You cannot expect everyone in a company to take a wider vision. But you do need a few ‘silo busters’ – people who can step back and see the bigger structure and see how the bits join up together, and act as cultural translators between the different parts of the company and the company and the outside world. Being an anthropologist by training, I would argue that every company and institution needs an anthropologist to look at the big picture, see how the dots join up, and see what nobody is talking about – because those social silences often matter very deeply. The problem, though, is that when companies and institutions are under pressure to cut resources, it is those cultural translators and silo busters they often cut first. Streamlined organisations that are narrowly focused on single goals tend to look ‘efficient’ when times are good; but they often cut all the slack out with such ruthless focus that they end up being beset by tunnel vision too.
There are examples of companies who seem to be doing this right: Tett mentions Paul Polman’s leadership at Unilever, where he has “tried very hard to take a more holistic view of companies and put CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] into the centre of the company’s operation”. In Smithian fashion, Tett believes that the best way to encourage companies to look at the bigger, moral picture is for investors to reward moral vision. The fact that “CSR pages are one of the fastest growing areas on Bloomberg terminals these days” is cause for optimism; but, Tett observes, “it’s still often more about window-dressing than a genuine commitment to change”. Presumably, I think to myself, because their genuine and overriding commitment is still to profit.
And this takes us back to the question of what “some element of the profit motive” really means: how far must the profit motive be displaced before we end up with a morally responsible form of capitalism? And to what degree should this moral responsibility be “real” – rather than just theoretical – before we stop looking beyond the status quo for ways of displacing the profit motive even further?
One of the most important elements of the feminist movement, as Nancy Fraser wrote in the Guardian not long ago, was that it looked beyond the status quo celebration of profit-driven entrepreneurship, promoting care and interdependence and valuing the ideals of participatory democracy and social solidarity. Fraser suggested that the current celebration of female entrepreneurs and the provision of microcredit to poor women in the global south marked a worrying general movement away from these alternative values. In a review of recent feminist books, Tett seemed to acknowledge some of Fraser’s concerns: the most notable thing about these books, she remarked, was that the books’ authors “look around at their colleagues, and realise that something has not worked out as they supposed; they are more alone than they expected”. She also seemed to agree with Debora Spar, president of Barnard College in New York, who writes that “We privatised feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations”.
But when I asked Tett about her broadly favourable report on Goldman Sachs’ new fund aimed at raising $600m in capital for 100,000 women entrepreneurs in developing countries – and about whether she thought Fraser’s concerns were valid – this was her reply:
I don’t see these issues as mutually exclusive. Women who are strong entrepreneurs and able to get a sense of confidence and voice often end up being more active politically too. What on earth is wrong with trying to encourage women to have more business experience and opportunity?
Tett also gave a nuanced and more personal answer to the question of feminism’s trajectory:
As someone who has tried to do the juggle of being a woman and journalist – and now a single mother – all at once, I feel very wary of giving any advice or judgement on feminism. Women today have amazing opportunities and I am intensely grateful for that. I grew up with rock-bottom low ideas about what women could do and have been stunned by what has been available to me. But women are not on a parity with men in terms of career success, and that is as much to do with perceptions inside their heads (which are often taught at school and home) as external barriers. Both need to be addressed. But with a big sense of humor. I do think my daughters are going to have it easier than my generation because attitudes about gender roles are changing fast. But, for my part, I also feel very strongly that we should never ever forget in the West how utterly lucky women are to be able to earn their own living, walk away from bad marriages, have children on their own terms, move around, speak up – and forge the world on their terms. No, it’s not perfect. In fact, its a long way from perfect. But having lived with women in places such as Pakistan and Tajikistan, and seen first hand the horrific traps that women can end up in there and the broken lives of some of my female friends there. I feel intensely grateful for what we do have and am determined to teach my daughters not just a sense of ambition, but gratitude too.
Tett’s prose sparkles with that sense of ambition, the possibility of entrepreneurship, the creativity of profit. As she put it in one of her emails to me, “building companies or working in the profit sector can be an utterly honorable thing” – and it’s difficult to argue with that sentiment. But the full sentence read: “Building companies or working in the profit sector can be an utterly honorable thing, since growth tends to be driven by profit-seeking enterprises”.
Here’s McClelland again, describing her first day at Amalgamated:
We are surrounded by signs that state our productivity goals. Other signs proclaim that a good customer experience, to which our goal-meeting is essential, is the key to growth, and growth is the key to lower prices, which leads to a better customer experience. There is no room for inefficiencies.
In a recent article on Italian politics, Perry Anderson joins together some of the dots – and some of the silences – of the FT’s journalism. “For years”, Anderson writes, “[Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan – a close friend of Berlusconi – has been the recipient of fulsome interviews, profiles and reports in the Financial Times and elsewhere”. The opposite was true of Silvio Berlusconi, “thunderous denunciations” of whom were led by the FT along with The Economist. And yet “unlike Berlusconi … whose rule was anodyne in matters of civil liberties, Erdoğan was and is a menace to these”. When the extent of the Erdoğan regime’s “jailing of journalists, killing of protesters, rigging of trials, brutal intimidation of opposition” became clear, the Frankfurter Allgemeine’s denunciation was nothing if not thunderous. “Not a comparable whisper in the FT”. The reason for this discrepancy, in Anderson’s view, was the two leaders’ competence in playing the executors of a neoliberal scheme devised in Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt: Berlusconi, hopelessly incompetent; Erdoğan, by contrast, ruthlessly competent, leaving little room for the inefficiencies, the slack, of human lıfe.