Enterprise, empire and ego: the road to extinction?

Enterprise, empire and ego: the road to extinction?

A guest blog from Cliff Mills of Exchange venue stakeholders Anthony Collins Solicitors

As history tells us, empires wax and wane. Founded by a heroic leader, established by force, they rise to prominence as weaker nations succumb; the new winners build new palaces, and bask in their increased wealth and prosperity, paid for by those they oppress.

History is the story of who killed who, which kingdom conquered another before itself yielding to the next.  Babylonian, Roman, Ottoman, British, American; the old story continues.

Except it has been changing before our very eyes.  At some point, constitutional sovereignty over people and land started facing a challenge from commercial enterprise as an effective base of power.  Empires started to emerge, founded on scale of production, size of work-force, turn-over and economic might.

These empires are based on the ownership of brands, a dependent work-force, a captive customer-base, and acquisitive investors in pursuit of economic gain.  Their turn-over exceeds the GDP of nation-states; and they flex their muscles when states inconveniently seek to regulate their use of private data, or to restrict their new-found ways of extracting fossil fuels.

These corporate empires wax and wane just the same; some gently sink beneath the waves of history (remember GEC, Allied Lyons, Cadbury-Schweppes, ICI and Trafalgar House?); others crash and burn (Enron, Lehman Brothers, Carillion).  Of course, there were those which were “too big to fail” (RBS, Lloyds – thank you tax-payers), but that’s another story …

Today’s corporate juggernauts imperiously shrug off the rule of law without a second thought: banks fined for manipulating interest rates (Barclays – $200m; UBS – $1.5b; Lloyds – £218m); Google fined €1.49b for advertising violations; Facebook fined $5bn for privacy violations.  Another day, another $billion fine. 

Hong Kong, Palestine, care workers and taxi drivers. Empire thrives, oppression continues, and “normal” gets redefined. Again.

So far, so gloomy.  Where can we look for hope?

In 2008, a systemic and existential threat faced most of the world’s major financial institutions, because their shares were all traded on stock exchanges and their business model encouraged exploring exotic financial instruments.  Once these were known to be toxic, the risk was a chain-reaction triggered by one bank failure, leading to melt-down.

But there was one group of financial institutions whose shares are not traded, and whose business model is inherently more cautious because they are not owned by investors.  Whilst not immune from the crash, mutual financial institutions were largely unscathed.

There is an advantage to us all where there is a plurality of corporate ownership, as the Ownership Commission found in 2012.  Diversity of forms of ownership increases an economy’s resilience, as 2008 proved.  This is good news.  It acknowledges that the profit motive is not the only possible basis for enterprise: and that we need other forms of business like mutuals and co-operatives which seek to provide access to goods and services based on the pursuit of fairness and equity, not profits for investors.

Mutuals, co-operatives, and all other types of business which carry on business for the common good, rather than for private benefit, and which exist primarily for a social and community, rather than a private and economic purpose – all of these social businesses, their founders and promoters provide hope for us: they demonstrate an alternative basis for enterprise based on concern for humanity, not personal gain.

That’s all very well, you will say, but our world is dominated by the approach to business which unashamedly pursues profits and growth.  We are all caught up in it – as customers, workers, savers – and making different choices is often difficult, commonly impossible.  We know that it exploits workers, pillages and lays waste the natural environment, and passes the cost of prosperity for some onto the weakest members of society.

That’s what empires do, and always have done.  So how do we respond?

In his book God’s People and the Seduction of Empire, Graham Turner sets out his reading of the Bible as a call to leave the ways of empire behind and to follow a different path.  The message to Abraham, to the enslaved Israelites, the disciples of the first century and the churches of Revelation is to resist and get away from empire (Babylon, Egypt, Rome), away from collusion, oppression and enslavement, away from the pursuit of ego.  Turner argues that we too are called to leave today’s empires behind and to choose something else.

But leaving something behind requires first that it is named.  As Walter Brueggemann argues, the silence which empire enforces must be interrupted by those willing to speak out against oppression, to look the oppressor in the eye, to speak truth to power; like the Old Testament prophets, “unauthorized poets without pedigree or authorization who uttered words from outside the regimes”.

Taking a cue from a Swedish teenager who told an audience at Davos that she wanted them to panic because the house is on fire, the voiceless future of humanity is following Brueggemann’s lead.  Extinction Rebellion is taking forwards this vital mission.  Telling the truth, and explaining the urgency of the crisis are fundamental to their work.

Nowhere is this more needed than in the world of enterprise and the empires of commerce.

Resisting the seduction of empire is always painful and costly, but as long as the happily-ever-after delusion continues to hold us in thrall, we collude in enslavement.  Will that change?  Will humanity reach and then cross its Red Sea?

I don’t know.

Cliff Mills, Anthony Collins Solicitors

Visit the Exchange venue at Greenbelt 2019, brought to you this year by Central England Co-operative, Traidcraft, Resonance, CMS and Anthony Collins Solicitors.  This is where we explore how business needs to be different; how private profit must come second to social justice; how social businesses pursue the common good, not private gain; and how it is essential that we play OUR part in radical change.