October 06, 2005

To thine own self be . . . partial

The following is an HTML version of an essay I just finished. It runs about 2,700 words. I would gladly accept feedback and comment.

What happened to the "moral core?" What happened to the civility of doing the "right" thing as part of a larger community? Why is it that so many people strain to castigate others for not being "part of the team," speaking in the royal plural, while incapable of acting except for their own good? Where, above all else, are the people who stand for something -- anything, really -- and won’t twist like human windsocks when the next big wind(bag) blows in? I wasn’t there, but it seems that as recently as the 1950s things were different. What happened? I have a theory, and that theory puts the cause squarely on . . . business. Not that business is bad, but that it is so good at what it is and does, and so influential.

Since the 1980s anyway, a disproportionate number of people in North America have been educated for and joined management ranks. MBAs are pumped out the shipping doors of maquiladora management schools like branded merchandise made in the third world. Everybody is in business. Young tech turks to high-priced investment bankers, megalomaniacal property developers to emperors of energy, and venture capitalists are all glorified in popular culture: movies, television, the nightly news. In our consumerist, money culture there is precious little room for anything that doesn’t hold the immediate promise of riches. In this context then, a good place to look for answers is in business or, more specifically, in the structure of today's business world.

The Corporation is a book and documentary film by Joel Bakan that chronicles the creation and ascendancy of the limited-liability share capital corporation as the world's primary form of business structure. Bakan analyzes and opines on the corporation's morality, coming to conclusions would be debated hotly if they were noticed at all and not discounted instantly. You can't label the corporate institution a "psychopath" and not raise some objections. It's an interesting read and relevant to this exploration in one particular way. Bakan quotes corporate lawyer Robert Hinkley, who says:

. . . [The law] dedicates the corporation to the pursuit of its own self-interest (and equates corporate self-interest with shareholder self-interest). No mention is made of responsibility to the public interest. . . .”
So the predominant form of business structure today, the corporation, is bound by law -- as a "person" -- to serve its self-interest to the absolute exclusion of any and all other motives. And, we’ve established that "business" is a predominant part of the (Western) zeitgeist. That should lead nicely to a business-as-cause hypothesis.

Given that all-encompassing fascination with business today, how could we not be influenced by our creation? Who among us could withstand the sensibility and certainty that self-interest is an over-riding, exclusionary driving force after drinking it in for so long? Very few people, I suspect, because we've all been conditioned by education, acculturation, and discipline to accept and catechize the truths manifest in business and the body corporate.

This essay's title derives from the words of Shakespeare's character, Polonius, in the tragedy Hamlet: This above all: to thine own self be true. As are many of the Bard's words, these have been appropriated widely as personal mottos. I even know someone who's affixed it permanently to his body in ink. My twist speaks not to the appropriation of a statement about living one's life with courage and conviction, but to its decontextualized bastardization and relationship to corporatist self-interest.

To thine own self be true is generally accepted to recommend one know oneself and serve that purpose; no one else's. This outward-looking view carries several implicit assumptions, not the least of which are:

  • one "knows" one's purpose; and
  • one "knows" what is true to that purpose.

    Let's never mind for now the fact that most people have no idea who they are or what purpose they serve. When we read or recommend Polonius's counsel, we assume that a "self" conforms to some understood social standard. We expect people to be and act consistently within a romantic notion of how that type of person would behave. For instance, there may be an expectation of community spirit and support, love of freedom, desire to pursue the American dream, or aspiration to win at all costs. We fit one and all into neat buckets informed mostly by definitions of types generated over a lifetime -- often set in childhood. And, guess what? We apply the same process to defining ourselves: we choose a type that is in come way comfortable, perhaps because it's popular. These types exist, and for the most part it's a good thing if for no other reason than because it's easier for most people to be readily "true" to an off-the-rack type.

    But in order to achieve "trueness," so far we've dodged the underlying need for a belief system. That is, it would take a sociopath or an actor to not believe in what they're being true to, even if it is only a stereotype. Generally, we tend to believe in who we are and moreso what we do: the thief believes in the value of larceny (and, if Robin Hood, of justice); the doctor believes in saving lives; the businessman believes in making money; the soldier, policewoman, and fireman all believe in serving and protecting. I could go on, but the short of it is that underlying a choice of "self" is a belief system.

    What happens when a belief system is hollowed out? To what can one be true then? In response to a colleague's request for affirmation that he is trusted, I could only respond, "Yes. But don't think that makes you trustworthy. I trust you to consistently, shamelessly act solely in your own interest, period." In other words: you are true to yourself, but that "self" is doesn't have much substance.

    It's not my place or desire to judge belief systems and changes in belief. But that is precisely what's happened. Why now is another question entirely. One I don't feel fit to address. But, there appears to be abundant evidence to suggest that many people have assimilated the amoral belief system of the body corporate. If so, what these people are dutifully "true" to is unworthy of a human.

    Remember that there was a time not so long ago when religion and then science provided the foundations for belief sets about what was, why, and what will/should be. These moral systems, such as they were (and are), created constructs by which lives were lived. They were shared. One simple example is the laws of Moses. In these 10 rules are the belief system that guided a mass of people for thousands of years. In the past three hundred years or so, philosophers and scientists have put tremendous pressure on the underpinnings of those beliefs. More recently the mixing and mingling of social systems and religions as a function of emigration, multi-culturalism, and globalization has had an adverse effect on simple belief systems as well.

    I would contend that the overwhelming emphasis on things commercial, the consumerist culture, and the glorified prevalence of the corporation have had an immeasurable effect on who we are. We -- many of us -- have taken on the attributes of a business corporation in act and philosophy. Here are a few examples:

  • The personal corporation -- I am guilty here. As a result of years working on my own, I have a corporation that is substantially me. It holds assets (intellectual property) I've created and was the legal entity that conducted business with my clients. It earned money and paid expenses, and -- critically -- paid less tax than I might have on my own. More than that it took on the responsibility for my work, providing me with a modest liability shield. North America is full of these entities designed to play within rules defined to make these legal "persons" the fall guy and beat the rules that apply to the average human.
  • Mission statements -- Achievers occupying the ranks of the business world no longer consider life goals and aspirations, family legacy, or providence as fulfilling a life's purpose. Now we have "missions" presented within "mission statements" to define our place and purpose. It's best, of course, if the mission statement's one to three sentences can capture the essence of desired purpose and phrase it in the form of a "value proposition" that satisfies a compelling need for the relevant audience (market). Sometimes that market includes primarily one's family or community or society at large. Often the market is an employer for which we define ourselves like services to be consumed.
  • Leverage and debt -- The corporate capital structure uses debt as "leverage" to create the potential for higher return on equity. This is a rational, mathematical choice with relatively limited downside because nobody really loses if the lever gets out of control. The body corporate can refinance, shed costs (labour), get more equity, or any other number of things even prior to a "restructuring" (read: bankruptcy). The price of doing so is small for a corporate business organization. Not so much for a person -- yet the accumulation of debt to satisfy immediate, consumable, personal desires is epic. Personal savings rates are at an all-time low, and credit card late payments have last month reached an unprecendented level.
  • Brand -- A small cottage industry of advice has arisen on the wave of personal marketing that presumes a core similarity between the personal reputation of ability and character, and the notion of corporate brand reputation of value propositions going so far as to refer to it as "brand you" or some such.

    More insidiously, however, we seem to have internalized many of the characteristics not just actions of the corporate business institution. By which I mean, too many people have become wickedly self-interested, particularly on an economic measure. What we value has changed to reflect what business corporations value. Our language even frames the belief that we are corporations (e.g., “his stock is up”). Here are a few corporate character traits showing up in people.

  • No character -- Character is who you are when nobody's looking. Instead we're about brand, spin, and pre-fabricated "positioning'; we deny responsibility and pass blame to "externalize" costs and liabilities.
  • No purpose -- Too many people see nothing beyond economic self-interest and the complementary status and position power.
  • No community -- The best deal wins: it's all about ROI and economics. When you no longer serve a (financially) valuable purpose to me, "Goodbye."
  • Hollow words -- We know that we have to at least present humanly, so expedience demands the presentation of a façade of belief, purpose, etc. Like businesses though, we don't care that our actions contradict our words because attention spans are short and critical assessment rare. Besides, there'll be a better story tomorrow.
  • Opportunistic -- A business corporation must, to fulfill its mandate, act opportunistically and rationally without humanity or any sense of history. See "No community" above.
  • Scorekeeping on narrow metrics -- Status, financial worth, and consumer toys are the markers. Other values such as strength of family, contribution to community or to humanity at large, and so forth are scorned, ridiculed, or simply co-opted as tactics for achieving on the primary scales.

    In his book, Bakan and the people he interviews take great care to distinguish the moral people from the amoral corporations that employ them. They paint a picture of people who compartmentalize their lives to be corporatists at work but moral publicly-concerned citizens when they leave the office. I'm not so sure. First off, how much can one compartmentalize? We carry everything everywhere: it's a function of the human condition. Second, even if we accept the compartmentalization apology, my contention is that what these people shift to is but a soft reflection of the corporate mentality anyway. So the shift, even if it exists, is a shift to nothing better.

    What about the self-indulgent entitlement attitude that so pervades North American life that even Dr. Phil has scorned it on his program? Whether in parenting or in accumulating so much personal debt that self-sufficiency becomes not an option, we have an epidemic of corporatist mentality. The limited liability corporation was constructed to ensure that personal responsibility for corporate business losses would not accrue to owners, and certainly employees -- if not malfeasant -- could not be held liable for corporate debts. Is there not a striking parallel between the corporate structure and this self-interest which, if all works out, creates personal wealth and success (in the self-interested sense) but if it doesn't becomes nobody's responsibility?

    That's all well and good, and far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade, but the differences between corporate and corporeal persons have a critical impact on how effective we humans can be as corporate bodies. For instance, you and I can't go back to the market for more money by issuing new rounds of equity. We aren't limited-liability structures in the eyes of the law and no matter how hard and how effectively we try to avoid responsibility, society puts (at least some of) it back on us. Sarbanes-Oxley is legislation designed to put responsibility back on people's shoulders, and Kozlowski, Lay, Ebbers, and others are feeling the pinch of that pressure despite tremendous efforts to avoid both corporate and personal responsibility. We and our legacies ultimately have to live with our actions, not deny and disavow them to some abstraction. Rewriting personal histories (e.g., resume inflation) has become rampant under the rubric of "spin," but even it has its limits when fact-checking is enforced.

    So back to Shakespeare. Polonius's advice to his son ought to be read in full:

    Yet here, Laertes! Aboard, aboard for shame!
    The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
    And you are stay'd for.
    There . . . my blessing with thee!
    And these few precepts in thy memory
    Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
    Nor an unproportion'd thought his act
    Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
    Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
    Grapple them to they soul with hoops of steel;
    But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
    Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade. Beware
    Of entrance to quarrel but, being in,
    Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee.
    Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
    Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement.
    Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
    For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
    And they in France of the best rank and station
    Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
    Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
    For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
    And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
    This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow as the day the night,
    Thou canst not be false to any man
    Farewell; my blessing season this in thee!
    In reading the entire speech, two things become readily apparent. First, the full breadth of advice to Laertes was to not be swayed nor to lose his character as he voyaged into the wilds of the continent far from his father's protective embrace. It was a valediction of a sort and its counsel wide-ranging. Second, and perhaps more important: it presumes with Polonius that Laertes has a character to which to be true. The father did not counsel his son on what to become but rather not to attempt becoming something that he was not -- either by coercion or fleeting self-interest.

    Morality is the issue. Those who are imbued with the corporate credo, who have its self-interest woven into their adult fabric as the result of indoctrination, education, and experience appropriate the Bard's words but not the moral lesson. The corporate creed and Shakespeare's lessons are, in fact, at odds and can be reconciled only by adjusting the value of the meaning to accommodate the morality of the business corporation. Rather than an admonishment to stay true to one's character it becomes a rally cry to stay true to one's self-interest. Quoting Shakespeare again: "And there's the rub."

    Posted by Grayson at October 6, 2005 08:13 AM