I was 18 when I had the blinding realisation that democracy was not the exclusive, ultimate political good to which all countries aspire. It was similar to the moment, aged 8, that I realised that not everyone necessarily saw the same colour when using the word ‘blue’. In other words, a blinding, philosophical breakthrough which I was the first to ever consider. Plato had nothing on me.
I was in Oman, which seemed to be running pretty damn well. No taxes. Clean streets. Dignified people. And a dictatorship! This couldn’t be right!* As it was the first (and last) time I happened to be with a diplomat, I asked the British ambassador what he thought of this rum political system. He too found it preferably to democracy, given the right dictator. My mind boggled.
It’s been like this for a while with capitalism. I’ve assumed there’s no alternative, but it’s pretty clear the whole shabang is horribly flawed and – well, awful. But we aren’t about to go back to barter, so we were just going to have to cope and hope the banking system started acting in a slightly different, but equally mystifying, way. So Umair Haque’s proposal of a better capitalism was irresistible, and I set to feeling like a latter-day Marx.
I was not disappointed. I’ve expressed before a frustration in No Logo that the private sector is widely disregarded as a potential source of any positivity at all. Haque puts the responsibility for a new capitalism of what he calls real “thick” value firmly in the hands of the worlds’ businesses and corporations. “Thin value” is conventional profit – increased balance sheet numbers at the wider cost of the planet and society. “Thick value” is his vision for the future – a value that is created as profit for businesses, but also accrues value to the wider world and community – a value that is not at the cost of anything else, but in benefit to it. It’s about accounting for the “real” cost of something – he returns to the fact that a burger’s real cost is around $30 when you take into account the environmental and social cost around its production.
He then offers ways, principles and rules through which businesses can address the issues in their operations to ensure the value they create is of high a quality as quantity. You can find a good overview at Haque’s tumlbr page, which I highly recommend you take 20 mins to browse.
The big problem with the whole thing is trusting businesses to move in this direction. The argument that all will see that this approach will actually make better profit in the long term is all very well, but short termism is endemic to everything in our society, particularly business and politics. I only hope that his star examples, returned to repeatedly throughout the book, such as Walmart and Nike, are indeed harbingers of the future and a corporate realisation that investing true social and environmental value back into their operations is a business imperative, not a nice-to-have only of worth in proving to consumers they aren’t evil.
Having said this, it’s a profoundly positive message – that capitalism evolved for the needs of industrialisation, and will evolve again to accommodate modern needs to become the positive force it was onnce wholeheartedly believed to be.
* This probably isn’t right. I may remember this wrong and have no idea of Omani politics.