Today, it was Breakfast With Socrates, a book my wife is reading. The author essentially shows how some of the most important philosophers, artists, musicians, and other thinkers actually address our real life issues, since, as the author says, philosophy was always meant to inform how we live our lives. (True dat.)
I had just enough time to peruse a bit of the chapter on work. It starts off by asking if you love or hate your job, and whether, like 35% of lottery winners, you’d do it even if you didn’t need the money. I think you can imagine which bearded figure this was all heading towards. It was an introduction for the man who haunted the British Public Library as he composed the economic philosophy that would compete one day — and ultimately lose — against capitalism. I’m talking about Uncle Karl.
On my bicycle ride to work I pondered, loosely, my whole engagement with Marxism which occurred during a particularly idealistic sophomore year of college, and what it’s attraction was, and why it still holds a certain sense of moral superiority, despite the massive failures of the Soviet experiment. And I think the answer is pretty simple, really.
Communism arises as a response to exploitation, pure and simple. The cornerstone of Marx’s theory, to my understanding, is the premise that capitalism pays workers less than their labor is worth and pockets the difference when it sells the products of that labor. So the working classes stay poor while the capitalists get rich.
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that the moral outrage of Marxism might not be so much about the capitalists taking a mark-up as it is about the workers staying poor with no perceivable way of jumping up to the next level of income and comfort. This reminded me of the dad of color I overheard in the pizza parlor not long ago explaining to his young children all the ways in which the American dream was a lie meant to keep people down.
What Marxism did was to exchange the profit-motivated capitalists, who essentially create the jobs, with a non-profit state to sponsor the jobs, which would mean, ideally, that the workers would earn what their labor was actually worth. I think we all know how that turned out in the former Soviet Union.
The real gas in the engine of Marxism, I believe, is the moral outrage over exploitation. But just because Capitalism seems to have triumphed doesn’t mean that the issue of exploitation is done with. In fact, it’s bigger than ever. And the concern over exploitation is actually shaping the business and marketing world today.
Just look at the mess Nike got into when people perceived that the company (or its vendors) were exploiting Asian workers, which led to a boycott, which led to big employment practice changes and a whole new focus on corporate responsibility at Nike. That was really, in hind sight, the shot across the bow warning capitalism that the old ways were not going to cut it anymore. A new set of values were driving consumers and consumption.
This is what’s giving birth to a movement called Capitalism 2.0. My understanding of Capitalism 2.0 is that, fundamentally, the larger human culture, which is served by our economic system (and not vice versa) is telling capitalism that it’s not going to tolerate the business school delusion that a corporation’s first and only responsibility is to maximize return to shareholders. In this day and age, corporations are expected to have a whole lot of other responsibilities, and a very different set of priorities than that.
Exploitation of workers is going to be no more accepted, in the long haul, than exploitation of the environment (BP), exploitation of personal privacy (News of the World), exploitation of children (the Catholic Church), or exploitation of loose oversight (Wall Street bankers). Not that every business-inflicted injustice is immediately being punished by the larger culture — not yet. But the way the world seems to be working these days, I’d say punishment, or retribution, or brand rejection, or the triumph of a competitor, or whatever form the payback might take, will come around eventually.
In this day and age, we who advise brands and corporations about their marketing have a responsibility to stress the consumer desire to patronize values-driven brands, and the need consumers have for businesses to show they’re making the world a better place, not just stripping it of wealth and resources. When you think about it, the opposite of exploitation is probably sustainability. (I’m talking about the larger sense of that word.)
As long as we live in a capitalist system, I believe people will not begrudge the capitalists a return on their risks and investments. But exploitation will be grudged severely. And that’s a grudge that companies will eventually feel.