capitalism [kap-i-tl-iz-uhm]

    An economic and political system characterized by a free market for goods and services and private control of production and consumption.

    The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

    "Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants: money will not give him a code of values, if he's evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he's evaded the choice of what to seek.”

Ayn Rand , Atlas Shrugged

“The ideas I’m articulating… encourage and tap into more powerful motivations than self-interest alone. Someday businesses like Whole Foods, which adhere to a stakeholder model of deeper business purpose, will dominate the economic landscape. Wait and see.”

John Mackey, Reason magazine
 


It has become popular for successful capitalists to qualify their terms. To attach a more abstract significance to a product than its concrete use is a marketing strategy based on simple induction. The question to ask, as whenever one hears a raise in the sales pitch is: “What’s the catch?” Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream maker, coined the term “Caring Capitalism” to indicate the value their company places on community. In a speech to the World Economic Forum in 2008, Bill Gates presented “Creative Capitalism,” in which Microsoft’s costly environmental and philanthropic efforts were to be supplemented by the currency of “social recognition.”

“Conscious Capitalism” is the brainchild of Whole Foods Market CEO, John Mackey. It is a business model based on the multiple stakeholder relationship (MSR) of a corporation. “Stakeholders” here is wordplay on “stockholders,” the key beneficiaries of a more traditional business plan. Who are Mackey’s “stakeholders”? The people involved at every level of a company, including customers, employees, managers, investors, suppliers, and the surrounding community “from farm to fork,” is the catchphrase. But Mackey isn’t interested in a loosely balanced cooperation of all these agents. Rather, the ethic of Conscious Capitalism holds that the entrepreneur of a business is responsible for creating a purpose for the business—a complex, synergistic mission statement which orients and is oriented by every stakeholder’s utmost passion and potential, resulting in each individual’s self-actualization and self-transcendence. Mackey suggests some philosophical classics as deeper purposes for a business: to pursue “The Good,” “The Beautiful,” “The Heroic.”

“To Sell Tasty, Nutritious Food,” presumably, will not do the trick.

Conscious Capitalism is in fact, a program within a body of ideas of broader scope, called FLOW. John Mackey, co-founder of FLOW, contributes both financially and intellectually to the project, but Michael Strong, an author and educator, is CEO and Chief Visionary Officer. FLOW is a non-profit entrepreneurial forum, a marketing campaign, and nothing less than a world-view—as described in Strong and Mackey’s business plans, articles and essays. Their ideology is informed by four thinkers: classical liberal economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and positive psychologists Abraham Maslow and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-SENT-me-high”), who coined the term “Flow” for his psychology of optimal experience. The FLOW website logo depicts these two “streams” of thought, the psychological and the economical, first merging then splash-bursting outwards, a riot symbolic of both unbound human expression and the spontaneous order of the free market. The caption reads: “Liberating the Entrepreneurial Spirit for Good.” The paradox is in the grammar.

Here is the catch.

In FLOW ideology “the Good” is usually in reference to a generic peace, prosperity, and well-being for all. John Mackey often uses the phrase “the common good” in his speeches and essays. This led T.J. Rodgers to parody Mackey’s position as: “How Business and Profit Making Fit into My Overarching Philosophy of Altruism.” (Reason magazine debate, 2005) Michael Strong, similarly, describes himself as a “compulsive do-gooder.” Michael Strong’s recent book, Be the Solution, includes Strong’s fictional utopian account of FLOW’s widespread success, “The FLOW Vision for the 21st Century.” This essay describes his visit to a progressive private school, in the year 2060. The students are engaged in various activities such as music, sports, meditation, and technological innovation. Organic computer chips have been implanted in everyone’s brain, which contribute to an experiment in radical emotional openness, in which moods with unknown causes wash over the community, wiping out the sense of individual identity. Strong is knocked to the ground by undulating waves of environmentally sustainable ecstasy. He happily contemplates the outside world, where corporations are competing to provide better and better “lifestyle” packages which resemble religious and cultural stereotypes: “Confucian Discipline,” “Mormon Glory,” “Life is God.” “Marin Medley” is the hedonistic philosophy manifest. All the corporations seem to be in agreement that the meaning of life is to experience coherent joy, somehow. But a corporation for rational self-interest is conspicuously absent, despite both Mackey and Strong’s familiarity with Ayn Rand . “The Good,” in Strong’s ideal world is serving anyone except one’s self. The entrepreneurial spirit, the inner source of creativity, is to be politically liberated in order to be morally re-harnessed. Michael Strong’s vision of pluralistic human flourishing is such dense foliage that it entirely obscures the philosophical roots of its classical liberalism—individualism.

In part, John Mackey and Michael Strong’s rejection of self-interest comes from the psychological theory called FLOW. Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi’s book, FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was written on his findings that people best achieve happy states by directing their attention towards their environment, and by becoming fully absorbed in a challenging activity. He writes

“A person who pays attention to an interaction instead of worrying about the self obtains a paradoxical result. She no longer feels like a separate individual, yet her self becomes stronger. The individual grows beyond the limits of individuality by investing psychic energy in a system in which she is included. Because of this union of the person and the system, the self emerges at a higher level of complexity. This is why ‘tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”

I speculate that Michael Strong had something similar to this passage in mind when he described his utopian vision—a society in which all the individuals were fully engaged with their surroundings and with each other in healthy, life-affirming activities that pushed their boundaries. And I think that John Mackey expressed the same desire when he wrote, “This is our potential as human beings, to take joy in the flourishing of people everywhere.” I agree completely that this is a desirable state and a valid purpose for action, and I think that many others do, too. But I also think that the moral philosophy which best defends and delineates the desire to learn, create, and love is not one for “the common good.” Rather, it is the philosophy which acknowledges the experience of the individual who is the beginning and end of these desires: the self. A self experiencing an emotion of belonging with others who share similar values, and engagement with one’s surroundings, is still a self—“a stronger self,” in Csiksentmihalyi’s passage above. In Objectivism this stronger self is, in fact, the self we are interested in. To modify the words of Ayn Rand : in order to say “I love life,” one must first be morally able to say the “I.”

My second criticism is not as generous. In a speech at FreedomFest in 2004, John Mackey encouraged the Freedom movement to “evolve our paradigm along with the brand [of freedom] that we offer the world.” In the debate in Reason magazine quoted above, John Mackey defends Conscious Capitalism by saying, “To extend our love and care beyond our narrow self-interests is antithetical to neither our human nature nor to our financial success. Why do we restrict our theories to such a pessimistic and crabby view of human nature?” When Milton Friedman turned that question back on Mackey, he answered, “If our two statements are equivalent, if we really mean the same thing, then I know which statement has the superior ‘marketing power.’ Mine does.” By “Conscious Capitalism” John Mackey means “Less Controversial Capitalism.”

While it’s true that self-interest is not always agreeable to a great deal of people, it remains the basis of political and economical freedom. It also remains the basis of trade with others, whether that trade is money or love of life. It is what John Mackey might call a deeper purpose: “The True.” And it is the difference between “Liberating The Entrepreneurial Spirit For Good” and liberating the entrepreneurial spirit, for good.

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