Jim Simon’s defense of stakeholder capitalism (November 13) should invite a chorus of responses. Mine takes place along two tracks. First, Simon’s rosy gaze for stakeholder capitalism blurs the structural commitments that make capitalism, well, capitalism.
And second, his belief that an enlightened business sector can overcome public problems obscures a dangerous paradox: such insistence will require embracing the debilitating restrictions of privacy.
Feeling good while doing good forgets that stakeholders always and always navigate social and political issues through a disheartening fog of loneliness. Government, at its best, invites us to wrap ourselves in the mantle of citizenship. This title is infinitely more important than that of stakeholder.
Simon’s logic in the name of stakeholder capitalism is compelling. How to be disappointed by the fervor of millennial workersof which 63% believe that “the primary objective of companies should be to ‘improve society’?”
The condemnation of these new workers will inspire companies to get on the right side of climate change, immigration, health, education, race relations, income equality and countless other issues. The conference room will set us free! The promised land is adjacent to the water fountain!
The problem with Simon’s argument is this: the practices of capitalism are baked into the recipe for structure and cannot be reconciled with genuine altruistic engagement with the aforementioned public issues.
Uncompromising attention (because attention must be paid) to the profits, bottom lines, margin losses and mercenary results that capitalism demands means that the structural system cannot be spiced up with clever substitutes. Mashed potatoes call for butter. Lots of butter. Olive oil can be an alternative, but let’s face it, you’re not eating real mashed potatoes.
Socially minded stakeholders may want companies to do more for the public good; workers may want the companies to which they donate their valuable labor to do more than scan budget sheets and count their stock earnings.
But the truth is harder to accept: capitalism revolves around an ethos of necessary exploitation – resources, time, labor – essential to the momentum and success of the structure. No sugar or gluten in this birthday cake? You may as well eat porridge. And everyone knows it.
The disturbing crux of Simon’s meditation is the resignation she projects on politics and governance. Yes, polls confirm that the federal government is among our least trusted cultural institutions. Yes, partisanship has too long acted as the purpose for the government.
But we also know that self-government can push us to confront issues at local, regional and national/global levels that take us beyond the easy belief of stakeholder capitalism that “ethical behavior” will follow when corporations revel in of their “social purpose”.
Stakeholder capitalism will never achieve this public spirit. It draws on our private feelings, feelings of complacency, easy engagement, detached stewardship as social conscience.
Make no mistake: stakeholder capitalism is your great-grandmother’s capitalism. It is the capitalism of Henry Ford and British Petroleum, of Mark Zuckerberg and Steven Jobs. He is implacable, indifferent and indifferent to the public good. The more things change, the more they stay the same. You do not believe me ? Check your wallet.
Unlike Ronald Reagan about the anxieties that follow when the government knocks on the door and offers help, we must seize the opportunities the government offers to solve pressing public problems. COVID-19 vaccines were not isolated industry triumphs. The government mattered. Hitler’s fascism was not defeated in the workshop. The government mattered.
But government cannot be a passive business. We must be responsible for the practices that genuine self-government requires: we need government, as Lincoln knew, to do what we cannot do on our own, things we can accomplish when we work towards ideals greater than ourselves.
Instead of stakeholders, we need citizens. Instead of socially conscious businesses, we need to double down on self-government and regain public trust.
Langston Hughes understood this well: America can become America again. Not because of compassion capital, but because we believe in each other.
Jeff Kurtz lives in Newark, Ohio, and teaches at Denison University in Granville.