|Flag of the East India Company from 1801|
The entire series CRISIS OF THE CORPORATION is now available as a single PDF article on our Economy pages. What follows is the final part.
"Many companies extol the value of work-life balance for their employees, but the reality for senior executives? There isn't any. Frequently, stressed and harried managers look up the organization hierarchy and assume that they'll have greater control of their time when they advance to the C-suite. What they don't understand is that modern-day telecommunications, the hair-trigger requirements of financial markets, and the pace of global organizations create 24 x 7 work lives for most executives."This text is taken from that symbol of social radicalism called the Harvard Business Review in November 2011. It summarizes the existential issue of the corporation in terms that are direct and unequivocal. It also poses the fundamental ethical problem of modern life: corporate ambition.
Ambition in modern society, really the drive toward personal power, isn't fundamentally different from ambition in any other era. It involves persistence, single-mindedness, immense energy, and commitment. In a word: passion. The corporation has become an instrument of this passion. But it is an instrument which cannot be controlled. In theological terms it is a Power, a force beyond the control of human beings, a force, like the state, which we theorize is under our control but which in fact has a life of its own.
The legal recognition that the corporation is a “person” does not give it an inappropriate status. Rather it serves as a warning that the corporation is not a tool that can be
confidently directed toward some end. It has its own ends, which it defines and pursues even while giving the illusion of subservience. As the Harvard business experts know, the corporation consumes its most talented and most willing members.
The corporation dominates modern life, but its role has become destructive. It is destroying life by destroying relationships, beginning with family relationships; and from there, our relationships with friends, neighbourhoods, and national states; and finally our relationships with everything on the rest of our planet. The corporate is the fundamental relationship in modern society and it has gone wrong. How do we fix it? New laws? Law is now controlled by corporate interests. Better practices of corporate governance? Those who have been most damaged by the corporate system are those who wield most power in it. Historically no system of government has ever reformed itself from the top. Training better corporate managers? The world now has perhaps ten generations of professional corporate managers through which to judge the effects of training and advanced education for business. What conclusion can be drawn but that all this effort has produced simply more ambitious managers, more powerful corporations and a far less attractive world in which to live.
The real solution to the corporate problem is simple, straightforward, and immediate. It is also something so counter-cultural that it is daily rejected without real thought. We need to replace the passion of ambition with compassion. In short, give up using corporate relationships instrumentally. The relationship of the corporation is its own end. The separation of dominium from usufructus, of control from benefit, is a profound social act that implies an unlimited responsibility for those who exercise control to ensure their own benefit is subjugated to the benefit of others. Part of that responsibility is the articulation of what constitutes benefit at all. The modern conceit, taught to MBAs and repeated by politicians around the world that “shareholders own the corporation” and are consequently the genuine beneficiaries of management action is simply false, historically and legally. The beneficiary is the corporation itself, a moral and legal entity that is independent of every other corporate stakeholder, including the shareholder.
Although false the conceit is understandable. It is an attempt to formalize the danger of personal ambition to corporate existence. In fact it merely provides the means to act in personal interests by positing a supposedly objective criterion of managerial action that can be manipulated by the managers it is meant to constrain.
Corporate managers are indeed “agents”, but of the corporation, not of its shareholders. This is no easy relationship to be in. It demands, in theological terms, a kenosis, an emptying of self in the service of the corporation. This is an outrageous and irrational demand. It is nevertheless the foundation of “corporateness”. The implications are dire: Leave your “vision”, your dearest commitments, your dreams and aspirations, at the corporate door. It matters not whether these are toward personal aggrandizement and wealth, or about solving the world's energy and food problems. All ambitions are merely grist for the corporate mill of power. There are no meaningful distinctions that can be made between positive and negative, good and bad, selfish or altruistic ambitions. Ambition itself is the raw material of corporate corruption.
Only by voluntarily becoming a tool for others – in other words by mutual submission within the corporate relation – can the corporate monster be transformed into the vehicle for human, indeed planetary, salvation. This is the eschatological message contained in the history of the corporation, from its biblical forebears, its medieval entry into law, and even in its modern form. The corporation is, if we choose it to be, a way of living – with compassion rather than passion, through creative response rather than restrictive direction, with relationship as end not means. In this way the corporation becomes what it was born to be: a theological person with its own place in the kingdom of God.