Getting Past the Adjectival Capitalism Fix

17 October 2014

Proposals for adjectival capitalism are springing up like mushrooms: we have Sustainable Capitalism, Caring Capitalism, Breakthrough Capitalism, Democratic Capitalism, Conscious Capitalism, Regenerative Capitalism, Inclusive Capitalism—and I have probably missed a few. Democratic Capitalism probably tells it best: capitalism is the noun, democracy is just the adjective.

The assumption seems to be that If only we can get capitalism right, all will be well with the world. No doubt capitalism needs some fixing: the short-term pressures of stock markets are encouraging mercenary behaviors that are doing great harm to our democracies, our planet, and ourselves. (Predatory capitalism is, of course, adjectival too.) A broken world needs to get past the adjectival capitalism fix.

How did the word capitalism, coined to describe the creation and funding of private enterprises, themselves intended to supply us with commercial goods and services, come to be seen as the be-all and end-all of human existence? Is capitalism any way to run public services or judge their effectiveness, any way to understand the needs of education and health care, any way to organize our social lives and express our values as human beings?

Fixing this world will require less inclusive capitalism. To any corporate chief executive who truly cares about social responsibility, I say: start by getting your company out of our government. Claiming that government must not meddle in the affairs of business while business meddles in the affairs of government is a hypocrisy that distorts our societies and degrades our democracies. As citizens, you and I have every right to make our wishes known. But no citizen, let alone any corporation, has a moral right to use private wealth to influence public policies, at least not in any country that wishes to call itself democratic. Democracy is about one person-one vote, not one $-one vote.

What we need is better balance across the three sectors of society—public, private, and plural (civil society). To achieve this, capitalism will have to be put in its place. That is within the private sector, where its activities are beneficial, and away from the lobbying and bribing (political donations) that have been co-opting the public sector. We know that capitalism needs reform; we need to realize that this will not happen until power is better balance across the sectors.

So please, enough of the adjectives. Let’s get on instead with fixing our societies, and our thinking. As Pope Francis put it: “Money must serve, not rule.”

To be continued… Next weekend’s TWOG: an unsent letter from the CEO to the board about executive bonuses. More on Shareholder Value and short-term thinking in later TWOGs. Meanwhile, the above has been adapted from Rebalancing Society—radical renewal beyond left, right, and center, an electronic pamphlet posted on and coming out revised in book form in January (Berrett-Koehler, or from or, etc.). Order it while they last (hopefully a decade or two).

© 2014 Henry Mintzberg