Conscious Capitalism and the Left-Right Divide

March 02, 2016
  • Raj Sisodia
  • Raj Sisodia
    FW Olin Distinguished Professor of Global Business

Businessmen are ruthless, and we must elect Democrats to protect the people from them.

The government is way too big and powerful and abusive. We must elect Republicans to protect people from it.

The left-right divide in the country has become sharply more pronounced in recent decades. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, “Left is left and right is right, and never the twain shall meet.” The current Republican front-runner, businessman Donald Trump, has long been known for his brash and remorseless leadership style. Bernie Sanders on the left has set himself up as the only candidate able and willing to fight the evil and greedy capitalists who have stolen our country from the people. A recent Gallup poll has only one in five Americans expressing great confidence in big business, one of the lowest numbers for any institution they poll on (only Congress ranks lower).

The belief that business is inherently greedy and destructive is not only cynical and depressing, it has the story backwards. Let us never forget, first and foremost, that modern capitalism has been the solution to humanity’s misery; starting around 1800 and for the first time in human history, we experienced a dramatic decline in poverty as more people had access to more opportunities because of the spread of free markets and free people – which is all capitalism really is.

It is not difficult to understand where many Americans got the idea that successful businesses require ruthless and selfish people to run them. In the early days of the republic, most business leaders were religious men rooted in Judeo-Christian ethics. But over time, capitalism lost its moral/ethical foundation. It became amoral and the cause of suffering for too many.

For example, in the 1890s, Carnegie Steel cut wages and went to a six day, 12 hours a day work week. Soon, nearly 10% of steelworkers were dying on the job each year. The company deployed the private Pinkerton army to subdue protesting workers and killed many of them. Why? Because Andrew Carnegie wanted to be richer than John D. Rockefeller, and for that he needed to increase profits.

Naturally, such tactics fed the growing and increasingly militant union movement. The pattern became clear: workers and owners were on opposite sides of the table and their interests were essentially irreconcilable. All of this was fuel for the fire of socialism and Marxism that soon had the whole world divided on the left-right axis – a division that persists today and has been growing over the last few decades.

Today, if you drive through many small towns in Wisconsin or Ohio or Michigan, or in rural Pennsylvania or in many parts of California or indeed in most parts of the country, you see many sad and stark reminders of a world and a way of life that has gradually ceased to be. Decaying hulks of abandoned factories, shuttered warehouses, and empty office buildings are all that remain of a once-thriving manufacturing economy that delivered secure, well-paying jobs and supported full, vibrant lives for tens of millions of people.

Even among businesses that are still operating, you see many with a proud heritage that are trying to shrink their way to success, routinely announcing mass layoffs and never-ending “restructurings” in desperate bids to survive. You see people losing their livelihoods, along with their sense of self-worth and hope for the future. You see communities being hollowed out, schools operating at a fraction of their capacity, young people leaving en masse in a despairing search for opportunities elsewhere. It feels like a race to the bottom; everything that can be cut has been cut, and little of value remains.

The cause of all this is a corrosive mind-set that has taken root in the world of business, based on a narrow and cynical view of human beings. The devastation we are seeing today is the predictable end point of an unfolding that started in the first decades of the industrial revolution.

There was a fatal flaw at the heart of the capitalist enterprises that once enabled these communities to flourish: from the beginning, employees were treated as functions or human “resources,” as interchangeable as the parts they labored to produce. Concessions on safety and better working conditions were granted grudgingly and only after protracted battles between uncaring management and militant unions. Lacking heart and passion and soul, such enterprises eventually became easy prey to ever more hard-nosed competitors operating with lower costs and willing to cut every possible corner.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to restore hope and provide secure futures for people living and working in these kinds of communities, indeed in all communities. But to do that, we first have to radically change the way we think about business, about people, and about leadership. If we do so, we can build thriving organizations that bring joy and fulfillment to all who serve them and depend on them.

Though they are the exceptions rather than the rule, organizations do exist today in which everybody connected with the enterprise flourishes: customers, employees, suppliers, communities and investors. Such companies operate with an innate sense of higher purpose, have a determination to create multiple kinds of value for all of their stakeholders, have leaders who care about their purpose and their people, and have cultures built upon trust and authenticity and genuine caring for human beings. I’ve documented some of these companies in my books Firms of Endearment, Conscious Capitalism and Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, co-written with Bob Chapman about his company, Barry-Wehmiller.

At Barry-Wehmiller, this way of being as a business is slowly bringing about a renaissance in American manufacturing. It is a mindset that is proving to be effective in diverse locations around the world and that works equally well in business contexts outside of manufacturing.

It’s time to remind America that we should be bringing our deepest sense of right, authentic caring, and high ideals to business. With this approach to business and leadership, we have built a strong track record of enriching the lives of team members and creating extraordinary shareholder value at the same time. It is an approach that has been tested, refined, and proven to work dozens of times in several very different countries and in numerous towns and cities across the United States.

Ultimately, we all want the same thing: human and planetary flourishing. People on the left and right can agree: the business of business is people, as legendary Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher put it. Unconscious capitalism fed and strengthened the left-right divide; caring, conscious capitalism can help close it.


Raj Sisodia is the co-author of  the Wall Street Journal best seller, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family and the co-author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. He is also Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Conscious Capitalism Inc. His newest book, Shakti Leadership: Embracing Feminine and Masculine Power in Business is available May 2.

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