Archive for the ‘Commerce’ Category

Big Ideas:
Business and Pleasure
Monday, 20 June 2011

Monday, June 20th, 2011

A week or so after reading In Search of Civilization, I’m still surprised by John Armstrong’s suggestion that business can come to the aid of civilization by providing “desire leadership.” And that business will learn how to do this from the study of the humanities. Earlier in the book, Armstrong discusses C P Snow’s “Two Cultures” lecture, and maybe it’s simply the fact that we have been familiar with Snow’s challenge for fifty years that makes the chasm dividing science and the humanities (basically, the numerate from the innumerate) look much easier to bridge than the gulf between the humanities and business.

It is, however, perhaps the same gap; what business and science share is the determined reduction of phenomena to figures. But the very possibility of a discussion between businessmen and humanists seems outlandish. The two groups have such a long history of mutual contempt! We’re educated to flinch at the claim that genuine happiness — Armstrong, very interestingly, is more interested in “flourishing” than in happiness — might require purchases and acquisitions. And yet of course it does require them, at least for most people. At a minimum, we require reliable electric power to remain connected to the Internet, which has already transformed the nature of public discussion to an extent from which there can be no going back. 

In the biographical note at the end of In Search of Civilization, John Armstrong is identified as Philosopher in Residence at the Melbourne Business School. Now, what sort of job is that? Since when did business schools take on resident philosophers, and what do they expect of them? Whatever the answer, the job certaintly throws light on the point that Armstrong has to make about “desire leadership.” (Desire leadership, by the way, replaces the old, false relationship between business and consumers, which was desire creation.) And it explains, to no small degree, why of all the figures in the history of civilization Armstrong chooses as his model “desire leader” the Abbé Suger of St-Denis, the twelfth-century adviser to Capetian kings and, in some accounts, the personal inventor of the Gothic style of architecture. 

Suger — at St-Denis — was such an important pioneer for civilization because of his way of combining, and yet keeping apart, idealist and realist attitudes. His idealism was evident in the way he held on to a vision of perfection: he wanted people to love what was fine and beautiful and intensely serious. His realism was evident in the way he recognized what people are often like (feckless, greedy, status seeking). He did not use his realism about what people are like to undercut his vision of where he wanted them to go. He did not end up saying that since people are like this, this is fine and who am I to say they should be any different? His idealism — and the gap it opens between perfection and the way things are — did not lead him to hate or despise people. He shows us how to link generosity and the pursuit of perfection. 

A hero of civilization — like Suger or Cicero or Matthew Arnold — is
someone who is teaching us how to combine devotion to noble values with an acceptance of the ways of the world. They are heroes in my eyes because they do not seek to exploit whatever authority they might have; they accept that they have to do the work if they are to convince other people; they stand for kindness as well as wisdom. 

To speak of the fabrication of the Gothic ideal at St-Denis mere paragraphs after extolling the civilizing propensities of commercial transactions is to rub against a stubborn grain in Western thought, which has, from the dawn in which the great poets and the great industrialists first walked the earth (at the same time, if not in company), shrugged helplessly and hopelessly at the two camps’ hostile styles, instead of trying to articulate a connection between the creation of wealth and the benefits of prosperity. 

As usual, I believe that the computer will solve many tensions. The big fight between poets and industrialists concerns the importance of details, with the industrialists insisting opon the obvious importance of paying attention to facts and figures and the poets complaining that attending to figures and facts crushes the soul. The computer certainly has the potential to reduce the soul-crushing tendencies of accounting and balancing budgets, freeing industrialists to read more poetry. Dwarfing that  issue, however, is the cognitive revolution that is transforming the way we think about ourselves. I often suspect that it was the computer’s hyperrationality that allowed human beings to overcome their vanity on this point, and concede that we are not, after all, rational creatures. This ought to make business much more interesting, if only because it deprives business of the power to be boring. 

I hope that Armstrong is alert to the biggest problem facing business today, which is the pre-emption of capital by financiers (who make nothing except private fortunes). 

Business is not only to do with making profits. It is to do with facing competition, understanding the needs of your clients and customers and knowing what your strengths (and potential weaknesses) are. 

That’s all very well, but too much modern business, especially at the global level, is only to do with making profits. The only competition in view seems to be among workforces, not their employers; increasingly, sovereign governments have been persuaded to eliminate competition (formerly with regulation and tariffs, now with tax breaks and other subsidies) and to compenate for those “potential weaknesses” (by supporting organizations that are “too big to fail”). And almost everyone I know would agree that, far from understanding the needs of clients, today’s businesses insist that clients accept their desires. What we need today is  more business as Armstrong  understands it. To me, this means more small businesses. Computers help here, too, both by denaturing the advantages of economy of scale and by enabling the proliferation of goods and services that will, by means of desire leadership, put an end to mass production. I’m optimistic, but I’d like to hear some of this from the Philosopher in Residence.