“People should become aware that the difficulties we are confronting are not just the difficulties caused by bad, greedy guys in an otherwise good system”. The Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek is musing on the economic crisis and the state of capitalism in an extended interview for Al Jazeera. The recent ‘occupy’ protest that started on Wall Street and have spread across the U.S. and the world, including to the steps of London’s St Paul’s cathedral are a sign, he believes, that “the system has lost its self-evidence, it’s automatic legitimacy”. Zizek relishes his role as the bad boy philosopher, throwing out “provocations” designed to horrify mainstream thinkers (and gardeners). Yet, on this issue at least, we believe he is on to something.
Even though capitalism has suffered a catastrophic failure, the debate it has triggered has become trapped in a sterile shouting match between those who just want to reboot the system and return to ‘business as usual’ as quickly as possible and the banker-bashers who think that the answer is to simply throw around more government red tape. Neither of these solutions addresses the scale of the challenge we face. Capitalism is still the least worst system we have for generating the prosperity we need to feed, clothe and educate seven billion people and counting. But it is a system that, as Zizek says, has lost its legitimacy with what the occupy campaign calls the 99%. “The Berlin Wall fell but there are new walls, new divisions rising up everywhere within most of the states,” Zizek argues, adding a warning: “If we do nothing we will gradually approach a kind of a new, it will not be old, fascism.”
Capitalism should not be rebooted nor booted out; it needs to be reinvented. This is the challenge at the heart of philanthrocapitalism. First, in a narrow sense, it is a recognition that our economic system is based on a social contract, compact, covenant: the winners from the system cannot ignore the consequences of the system for everyone else. This motivation for philanthropy was recognised by Andrew Carnegie, the Bill Gates of his day, more than a century ago, when capitalism faced the existential threat from socialism and Communism. His ‘Gospel of Wealth’ urged the rich to accept their responsibility to tackle the negative impacts on society that threatened to undermine the economic system. In the 21st century, in a world where the rich have got richer and the rest have been left behind, this message is just as urgent. That is why, we believe, today’s philanthrocapitalists are right to use their giving to find solutions to social and environmental problems (and to argue for greater (properly designed) taxation of the rich).
Zizek does not have much truck with this idea. As a Marxist, Zizek thinks that capitalism is necessarily exploitative, so any philanthropy is a contradiction.For him philanthrocapitalism is like a “chocolate laxative” (chocolate makes you constipated, a laxative, on the other hand,…well, you get the point). He launched a blistering attack on the philanthropy of Bill Gates and George Soros in the London Review of Books back in 2006, which we discuss in detail in the book. But you do not have to be a Marxist like him to think that capitalism is on the wrong track. The financial crisis is evidence that much of the profit and growth of the boom years were just a mirage, not real prosperity (nor real capitalism, since what the financial sector did was so catastrophic for its investors and shareholders). Business that makes a quick buck by creating massive social and environmental problems is bad business in the long term.
Redesigning capitalism to better serve humanity is the deeper meaning of what we call philanthrocapitalism: the recognition that business does not operate in a vacuum but is a member of society and a part of our environment. Some businesses get this and are moving away from PR-driven corporate philanthropy to a whole organisation approach to ‘doing well by doing good’. Sadly, most firms still do not. This problem is particularly acute in the financial sector, which has failed to even engage the Occupy movement, let alone show that it is ready to change. What is needed is a fundamental reorientation of capitalism and finance towards real, sustainable value through the sort of reforms that we describe in The Road From Ruin (the updated U.S. paperback edition is coming out at the end of this month).
Getting capitalism to change is, as Zizek points out, not just a matter of blaming the bankers. It also requires a civic renewal where we all play a part in shaping a capitalism that serves society. The Occupy Movement, in our opinion, has the potential to channel some of the current popular anger into the positive engagement that is needed (here’s 10 things we can all do). The world is also crying out for leadership. Politicians seem blinkered by crisis management and partisan bickering. Civic leaders need to step up and help shape this urgent and important debate.
“You know what the Chinese say when the really hate you? ‘May you live in interesting times’. We certainly are approaching interesting times.” There is a twinkle in Zizek’s eye as he relishes the philosophical challenges of a world in turmoil, descending into authoritarianism and maybe fascism. We are more optimistic. Interesting times are an opportunity for new thinking, if we choose to rise to the challenge.