Author: Mark Randall
In 1799, David Dale sold his cotton mills in New Lanark, powered by energy from the Falls of Lanark, to his son-in-law Robert Owen. Owen wanted a community with social progress as central and with its prosperity fuelled by leading technology. He opened what is held to be the first infant school in the world, a creche for working mothers, free medical care, full education for children and evening adult education classes. He is one of many capitalists in history – particularly in the 19th century – who put social justice at the heart of their decisions.
Recently social justice and corporate activity have also been headlining. Nike, Gillette and Pepsi have put out advertisements which have race, gender and police brutality respectively as their premise. In the case of Nike it saw 3.4 billion USD wiped off its stock value after featuring Colin Kaepernick, American football player who began kneeling during the national anthem. Pepsi issued an apology for ‘missing the mark’. Gillette had a mixed but more positive response; but in focusing on gender and toxic masculinity the target is a little less hard to miss.
The reasons why corporations are taking these risky steps is the potential strength of ‘Woke Capitalism’. As a term, ‘woke’ has origins in African American culture meaning being awake to racial oppression. However, it has evolved to a much wider definition as being conscious of racial, social, environmental, and economic injustice in your community and the world.
Ross Douthat of The New York Times defined it as ‘…a certain kind of virtue-signalling progressive social causes and a certain degree of performative wokeness offered to liberalism and the activist left pre-emptively’. It is worth keeping in mind Adam Smith’s analysis that the motive of an act doesn’t mean the value of the act is decided. Nor does the motive of business leaders give us much insight into the nature of the movement to which they are reacting to. For a considerable time there has been a sense of atrophy, as is inevitable, in the prevailing form of capitalism in the West. It could be that this is part of a realignment with knowledge access being wide-spread and the power of individual agency being recognised.
‘Woke Capitalism’ will pose significant difficulties for non-Western businesses; they will be challenged to unlock and align with western consumers’ sentiment. Organisations are already going beyond the usual standards in tenders and setting criteria pertinent to their company (and clients’) values. These demands are going deeper into employee conditions and provenance of components which gives increasing opportunity for Western businesses to compete by offering ‘value’ beyond price. Putin would possibly reference this as some evidence that the world is moving toward civilisation blocs which will form the fault lines of conflict.
Of course, the primary concepts of the movement are not new. Aristotle positioned that an individual needed to analyse one’s life ‘activities’ and be conscious of their purpose to have an ‘examined life’, or to use the contemporary term to be ‘woke’. He encouraged people to understand the ‘telos’, or the ultimate aim, of life activities (friendship, work, sport, family, art, study, pleasure).
This points to a considerable gap in the ‘Woke Capitalism’ dynamic. Are employees ‘woke’ regarding their ‘activity’ as employees? There isn’t much evidence for this in the current literature or dialogue. Despite the fact we spend an estimated 35% of our waking hours at work, it remains, largely, philosophically unexamined by practitioners.
Ask a businessperson, what is their ‘Philosophy of Business’ and words will probably not be so forth coming. They will often slide into the ‘philosophy’ of the business they work for. This of course is almost always a ‘mission’ statement or ‘business ethics’ but this is certainly not their individual philosophy.
It is this lack of examination which may be the cause of some of the malaise which many businesspeople suffer, at various stages, and not only that, it could also be instrumental in many seemingly moral individuals participating in business initiatives which result in such suffering to the victims.
In his widely praised book, “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom”, psychologist Jonathan Haidt takes the philosophical teachings from all major beliefs – mostly Jesus, Socrates, and Buddha- and analyses them for constants. Haidt talks of different levels of personality which must align with your present reality to have a sense of coherence and fulfilment, or what Aristotle called ‘eudaimonia’.
The first level is “basic traits” of an individual such as: neuroticism, extroversion, and openness to new experiences etc. The second level is “characteristic adaptations” including values beliefs and personal goals. The final level is the “life story”. We are all trying to make an evolving story of our lives that combines a reconstructed past, a perceived present, and an anticipated future into a coherent and vital life myth.
We can find ourselves in life without being able to have an expression of them at all levels, but instead, take inspiration in the nobility of a single, all-consuming cause (e.g. providing for your family). However, a misaligned company-employee dynamic is not only a missed opportunity for conscious resonance, it is a drain on energy and a hinderance to any sustainable value-based business operation.
If ‘Woke Capitalism’ takes hold, each company will form its own distinct construct. Whilst currently we match company and employee through psychological profiling, which is seeing increasingly challenged in terms of its efficacy and legality – should we perhaps be considering, at least broadly, a philosophical alignment?
To move beyond a fad to an enduring form of capitalism, it will have to be underpinned by employees as well as consumers. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how’.”.