Preaching to the Converted

how much inequality can less affluent take?

Posted on May 21, 2016


A major European university invites a major academic star for a public lecture and a workshop. The star comes from a top university (Harvard) and a top country (USA) with top publication records (bestseller lists).  The topic is “Creating shared value” - the role of socially minded business corporations in making the world a better place for everybody, including the poor and the exploited. Managers from the business companies are asked to pay around 1000,- € for access to the academic star’s performance in a postmodernist ambiance of the former modernist factory. There the managerial star will speak, managerial scientists will ask intelligent questions and lunch will be served. Students are offered a significant reduction – they are expected to pay only 800,- € for an entrance ticket. They are not amused. Student representatives ask the academic star and their professors, the managerial scientists, if they could follow the lecture as a streaming video a few hours later and a few miles further away. The permission is granted. Then students approach the undersigned - asking for a critical introduction to the lecture.

The main statement of the star is simple: sustainable competition with an eye on social and environmental values will raise all boats and demonstrate the power of a capitalist market economy. Is it a correct educated guess about the future? If we look at the world from the perspective of a campus of a Stanford or of a Harvard, it makes sense. 80% of the bachelor students in Stanford try to run their own start-up company. Management gurus tell us to learn from the start-ups even if our own company is large, well-connected and successful. They point out to the immediate success of recent brilliant start-ups – for instance Airbnb or Uber. Uber ruins the cab companies but provides cheaper transportation in large cities. Data processing allows us to date many more drivers. Technology and user price provide an alibi. But technology does not stand alone. Sales also go virtual and online purchases compete against physical visits to material shopping malls. Ikea tried to make us all work both as temps who transport and assemble furniture and as investors, who pay for the pleasure of playing the role of temporary employees. The idea caught up, especially in places where shopping malls are scarce. Entire populations are redesigned as workforce on demand – moving along the global routes, dispersing and concentrating on demand as if they followed invisible hired hands and higher aims. Workforce on demand resembles Lego blocks – no wonder some companies provide their employees with recreational spaces filled with Lego sets.

But technology and economy are not enough either. Cultural visions, shared ideals, symbolic communications are necessary to persuade human individuals, to convince future agents of change, to trigger physical movement of their limbs and to influence their senses and sensitivities.  These visions, ideals, symbols are communicated through the media. Some of the media are even called “social” media, as if the others were not. All media are social, because they link societies, all media are cultural because they communicate meaningful symbols, and all media are political, because they mobilize and lead the mobilized to action. Density and complexity of multi-mediated communications make us swim through them as if they were water, which we, like fish, never notice. Because we can become blissfully unaware of mediated communications, we are slow to realize how thickly they are saturated with ideological messages. Messages from not so hidden persuaders – governments and their secret services, corporations and their spin doctors, agents of influence whom it may concern. But critical intellectuals and concerned citizens, even distracted and non-committed clicking netizens - are not without a chance. Some questions surface, albeit slowly.

How much inequality can the underdogs take? The answer is – quite a lot, especially if they believe in fair rules of the game of getting better.

Will the historically random marriage of capitalist markets and representative democracies survive or is historical divorce waiting in the wings? The answer is – we do not know, but membership in a middle class within an open society might work in Africa and Latin America as it did in China, India and southeastern Asia.

So an academic sermon as a commercial mega-event managed by teachers of management merits attention: markets and profits are ok, as long as they contribute to the shrinking of the most damaging inequalities. No child should be left behind when training the next meritocracy of netizens. No student should be kept out if he or she cannot afford to pay for the real time education. Marriages of democracy and market are ok as long as they bring up their children together – concerned and informed citizens. They are ok if they secure all-round negotiations and allow us to measure up against values, sustainabilities and solidarities (also with underdogs). As long as they allow students, patients, clients, audiences, constituencies to close the gaps imposed by pricing and dispowering.

Capitalism is a historical process, and we can identify its forces (and counterforces, and counter-counterforces, with all the complexities and trajectories of history). Listening to the current story of creative, knowledge-intensive, disruptive accumulation of cultural, social, emotional, financial and every other capital, we are slowly becoming aware of our chances in evolutionary drawing of lots. We have already become formatted by the French and American revolutions, and by the industrial capitalism by design, and by the three world wars – the Ist, the IInd and the Cold one. But we have also been influenced by Bartolomeo de la Casa and his Valladolid defense of the conquered American Indians. He was the first one to defend them against the enslavement. To defend them as free subjects of the Spanish crown and as human individuals with a right to property and dignity. History gave his opponents, represented by Sepulveda, a better chance. But he had inserted his message into the long term cultural investment, genetic innovation in the long cultural conversation of mankind. Today’s management gurus and consultants of socially and ecologically responsible corporations preach to the converted. It should not surprise us. All preaching is usually to the converted, even if some are less affluent than the others. 


May 22, 2016