Culture out of crisis: A new capitalism

There is increasing concern about the workings of the least-worst economic model.

Winston Churchill once described democracy as the "worst form of government except all the others". When it comes to our economy, the same might be said of capitalism.

It’s not perfect and never has been, but in many respects it’s the best we have. Nevertheless, there is increasing concern about the workings of the least-worst economic model.

You should care not simply as citizens, consumers, employers and shareholders, but because advertising and marketing were born to serve capitalism. The very idea of a brand is to encourage people to pay more for a product or service than it costs to create – this is capitalism, red in tooth and claw. No capitalism, no advertising.

Even before the pandemic, capitalism’s cheerleaders were starting to question its health. With escalating inequality, collapsing competition, feeble productivity growth, degraded democracy and an environment that is biting back, the shareholder capitalism that we all grew up with was looking increasingly troubled.

Then Covid-19 swept away all our neat plans and predictions for this and many years to come. The shock to our economies, societies and democracies that a tsunami of unemployment, mounting public debt and evaporating growth will deliver has made calls for wholesale reform even louder.

In this light, the World Economic Forum has redoubled its call for a "great reset" for capitalism to promote inclusivity, equality and sustainability. It advocates an unprecedented transition from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, something many have paid lip service to but which has remained elusive.

To be clear, this is not about the intellectually sloppy idea of purpose, so beloved of those in marketing who crave easy answers and superficial solutions. The newly fashionable phrase "purpose beyond profit" is at best a means for those embarrassed by commerce to claim a higher calling and at worst a form of corporate distraction by which organisations whitewash the actions and activities that actually make them money.

No, resetting capitalism is about radical reform to ensure that it has a sustainable future in the literal sense of the word.

It is about restoring competition between organisations and halting the market-perverting monopolies that have emerged unhindered by robust anti-trust legislation, notably in the technology sector.

It is about recognising that while spiralling inequality is a deeply moral issue, it is also an economic one. A properly functioning economy depends on everyone having some money, not a few people having all the money.

It is about economic stimulus being used to bolster goals shared by the whole of society rather than the narrow desires of vested interests, and in particular helping our people and economy transition to a low-carbon future.

It is about refurbishing our jaded democracy and the vacuum of leadership in our political class. Stopping an emerging plutocracy taking hold in this country as political patronage is bought and sold and elections rigged by nefarious powers inside and outside our borders.

Above all, it is about restoring a more dynamic form of capitalism in which the economy gives everyone a justified belief that they can share in its benefits. In which the tension between the collective good and individual desire is balanced.

The demand for a stakeholder approach to capitalism is not new – the term first emerged in the 1960s in Stanford. But the failures of recovery after the global banking crisis and the economic devastation of Covid-19 perversely offer it new hope. In particular, the response of people and businesses to the pandemic has been transformative.

On the one hand, populations have been prepared to make huge personal sacrifices for the common good, not least the most vulnerable in society. People showed that they were capable of incredible acts of selflessness and significantly reduced individual freedoms to achieve commonly agreed goals.

 On the other hand, companies instinctively stepped up to meet the challenges faced by their people, customers and communities. In many cases we saw stakeholder capitalism, in all but name, adopted overnight as the best business leaders protected employees, revolutionised operations, stood by their customers and made a life better for those touched by their organisation. A moment in which organisations dispensed with purpose, rediscovered their authentic duty to serve and made a real difference from manufacturing sanitizer to offering NHS staff free data on their phones.

Now that we have seen a form of stakeholder capitalism in practice, we know that with grit and determination it is achievable, and we have witnessed the galvanising effect that it has on employee pride and customer conviction, it is just possible that we are on the cusp of real change to a stakeholder business culture.

However, to achieve real and meaningful reform we need not just the goodwill of our population and the imagination and leadership of our businesses, we also need the political will of our government to change the framework in which we all operate. To encourage competition, reverse inequality, promote sustainability and refresh democracy.

Richard Huntington is chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi London

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