Donald Trump is not the problem - Part IV

5 September 2019






How to reverse the imbalance that extends from our heads through our societies to our planet?  Certainly not by lining up behind a favorite sector and ignoring the other two.

Fixing Private Sector Capitalism?  The popular solution in the United States is to fix capitalism. Proposals abound for what can be called adjectival capitalism: Progressive Capitalism, Breakthrough Capitalism, Caring Capitalism, Conscious Capitalism, Inclusive Capitalism, Regenerative Capitalism, Sustainable Capitalism, and best of all, Democratic Capitalism (capitalism being the noun, democracy the adjective). Methinks that capitalism doth propose too much. How in the world did this word capitalism, essentially about the funding of private enterprises, become the be all and end all of human existence? (Ask an economist.)

Capitalism certainly needs fixing, not least in its stock markets, with their relentless drive for MORE—more production for more consumption with more waste and more warming, the consequences be damned. There are better ways to grow healthy enterprises, for example with patient, responsible capital. Likewise, while we need as much corporate social responsibility (CSR) as we can get, can anyone seriously believe that more CSR could compensate for all the CSI (irresponsibility) we now see around us? Moreover, will private sector interests voluntarily cede the immense power that they have amassed? 

It is societies that need fixing, and fixing capitalism will no more do that than would fixing communism have fixed the broken regimes of Eastern Europe. Capitalism will have to be put in its place, namely the marketplace, out of the public space.

Public Sector Government to the Rescue?  Then there are those who expect government to fix the problem—it is, after all, the paramount authority in democratic society. But look what’s been happening to that authority, and to democracy itself. What can the many governments already coopted by private interests really do? Furthermore, government is hardly the most nuanced institution for a problem that requires nuanced solutions, nor is it especially venturesome for a problem that requires bold action. Whether they come from the left or the right, widely elected governments are drawn toward the center, so as not to upset any major interests.

If not the private or public sectors, then what? The answer will have to begin with an appreciation that there are three fundamental sectors in society, not two.

The Plural Sector for Balance   Just as a stool cannot balance itself on one leg, so a society cannot balance itself on one sector, be that capitalism in the private sector any more than communism in the public sector. And trying to do so on the two more moderate legs of social liberalism on the left and traditional conservatism on the right has driven many countries to swing back and forth between them, fruitlessly, while private interests advance unchecked. A third leg is required for balance.

I call it the plural sector (rather that “civil society”) because it requires a label to be seen as taking its place alongside the sectors called public and private. A society can stand tall when it is supported by the solid legs of respected governments in the public sector, responsible businesses in the private sector, and robust communities in the plural sector.

What is this plural sector? It is all those associations that are neither public nor private—owned neither by the state nor by private investors. Some are owned by their members, as in cooperatives; others are owned by no-one, such as NGOs, clubs, foundations, charities, religious orders, and not-for-profit hospitals, many of these community-based. Alexis de Tocqueville referred to them as associations in his 1830s volumes on Democracy in America, and recognized the key role they were playing in sustaining the new democracy.

We too are the plural sector, each of us and all of us, in our social lives. Many of us work in the private sector and most of us vote in the public sector but all of us live in the plural sector. (How many of its associations figured in your life last week—say, shopping in a co-op, working out at the Y, attending a “private” university, maybe even marching in a protest?)

Thus, the plural sector is huge, far larger than most people recognize. (In the U.S., for example, there are more cooperative memberships than people.) Yet it is obscure, long lost in the great battles over left versus right, public controls versus private interests. This will have to change if we are to get out of the mess that we have created for ourselves. Here, then, is the fundamental point: if we are to stop our descent into self-destruction, the sector that should be called plural will have to take its place alongside the ones called public and private.

Starting in the Plural Sector    With so much dysfunction in the other two sectors, rebalancing will have to begin in the plural sector. We shall have to assert our concerns in our communities, and connect them into an international movement for reformation. The new globalization begins here, in the plural sector—socially and politically as well as economically.

Bear in mind that local community is where major social change—namely reformation—has often begun, whether the collapse of a wall in Berlin, a bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama, or a list of 95 theses nailed to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The established institutions of society—governments, businesses, even some associations—usually need  to be pushed into reform of this kind. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt told a group of activists: “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.”  Many a business CEO, facing the constraints of the financial world, could well be telling the activists of today the same thing.

The time for such action is right, now. Perhaps never before have so many people around the world been prepared to vote with their feet and their wallets as well as their ballots. This energy just has to be channeled constructively, toward tangible changes across all three sectors, rather than just being used to lash out in frustration.

Each of the Sectors and all of the Sectors   The plural sector, as noted, has to take the lead, but with clout. Recent protests have brought massive numbers of people into streets around the world, yet the problems continue to intensify. Effective protest requires targeted action: for example, not just occupying Wall Street, but challenging objectionable activities taking place behind its closed doors. In Paraguay, recently, women fed up with the acquittal of a corrupt politician pelted his house with eggs. He resigned. The potential of caring people—especially women and youth—has hardly been tapped.

The associations of the plural sector can also be a potent force for rebalancing, especially working together. Now more than ever, we need full recognition of de Tocqueville’s point about the role that these associations can play in sustaining democracy. This sector may indeed be plural—it includes the National Rifle Association, and so on. But for every NRA, the sector encompasses NGOs concerned with the consequences of imbalance. Amnesty International deals with the problems of social justice, Greenpeace with threats to the environment, Doctors Without Borders with the injures of war.  Beyond each of these specific causes, however, lies their common cause, namely to correct the imbalance that helps to create these problems. What if an alliance of prominent NGOs championed a mobilizing manifesto for balance? As David Brooks put it in a New York Times comment, “…people in the exhausted majority have no narrative…no coherent philosophic worldview to organize their thinking and compel action” (17 October 2018). 

In the private sector, corporations can likewise be addressing the causes of social and environmental problems, beyond relieving their conditions. For example, recycling is good, but reducing waste is better. And best of all would be CSR to promote balance in society, in place of corporate activities that exacerbate the imbalance. But for serious consideration of this, publicly-traded corporations will have to liberate themselves from the tyranny of the stock markets---that short-term obsession with MORE. A utopian thought? Maybe. But businesspeople need only look to Venezuela to appreciate what they have to lose when imbalance runs its full course.

Turning to the public sector, to deal with income disparities, governments will have to liberate themselves from the monied interests of society, domestic and global. This can start with a frontal attack on the legal bribery of political donations.

Some countries, notably in Scandinavia, function well because they have retained their balance. Others, especially some of the most “advanced”, need to recover it before they too cede their democracy to narrow populism. And internationally, few countries can stand up to the divide-and-rule tactics of economic globalization. But acting together, however, they could—as the European Union has demonstrated in confronting companies such as Google. Moreover, acting together, smaller democratic countries need to challenge the assumption that three superpowers must vie with each other for global superiority. Enough of this dangerous nonsense. Is some sort of balanced global governance possible? It had better be so long as nuclear holocaust is possible.

Imagine a city with weak government and no police force. The gangs would take over, carving up the place for themselves, or else battling until they destroy each other, and perhaps the city as well. This is the state of our global village today. Imagine, instead, if an assembly of balanced democracies took on the common cause of global sanity. Who knows, maybe one day this could metamorphose into a Peace Council, to replace the Security Council of the United Nations, whose five permanent members account for about three-quarters of the world’s exports of arms. This is an insecurity council.

Does this idea sound impossible? Only in the context of the lunacy that we take for granted. Such a council in waiting could certainly be possible, indeed may be exactly what we shall need when a real catastrophe is imminent. And please understand that with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in a world ruled increasingly by loose-cannon thugs, this is a question of when, not if. Thus, we need solutions that seem impossible until they become obvious.

Above all there must be a consolidation of effort across all the sectors. We have heard much about PPPs—public-private-partnerships. We need to hear more about PPPPs—again with the plural sector taking its rightful place alongside the other two. Our downward spiral will continue as long as the sectors work at cross-purposes, with the powerful private sector lobbying a weakened public sector that accedes to it or else colludes with it, while both sectors ignore the plural sector, which, in turn, lash out at the excesses of both.

An ascending spiral of renewal can combine what each of the sectors can contribute for balance. Grounded engagement in the plural sector can prompt orchestrated planning in the public sector to encourage autonomous venturing in the private sector. We need to act personally and plurally, privately and publicly.

Each of us and All of us    All of the above is not about whoever “ought to be doing something about this.”  It is about each of us and all of us, who need to create a groundswell for a world of decency. We vote knowing that our one ballot hardly counts but that all our ballots together do. We shall have to adopt the same attitude as we vote in other ways, for the sake of balance: socially, politically, economically, and environmentally.


© Henry Mintzberg 2019. No rights reserved: this blog may be reproduced without alterations, for non-commercial purposes, so long as the original © and posting are acknowledged. See Rebalancing society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center  for the forerunner to this series.