« Davos Man | Main | Artificial Intelligence – the Coming Revolution »

Business with a Human Face

British high streets and out-of-town shopping centres have reached the end of an era. All 164 stores of the retail giant BHS, founded in 1928 by US entrepreneurs, have closed their doors for the last time, leaving around 11,000 employees facing an uncertain future. Two official reports lay the blame squarely at the feet of the business' former owner, Sir Philip Green, the most recent of which labels him 'the unacceptable face of capitalism'.

Such a stinging indictment raises a question: what is capitalism's acceptable face? Ever since Karl Marx made 'capital' central to his economic critique, many have argued that there is nothing acceptable about capitalism because it is a system based on exploitation and avarice. For them, business leaders like Sir Philip represent not the unacceptable face but the true face of capitalism.

Some of those who argue that capitalism is based on greed embrace capitalism for this very reason. They find inspiration for their 'greed is good' hypothesis in the figure of Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, and in the writings both of Adam Smith (1723-1790) and of the Russian-born philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Her belief that capitalism is based on radical individualism fuelled her endorsement of it, as reflected in the title of her book The Virtue of Selfishness. As with Smith, Rand is a complex and ambiguous thinker. Yet her aversion to the misery-inducing collectivism of her mother country drove her to portray and embrace a Gekko-like caricature of capitalism.

Rejecting both these extremes, many thought-leaders now avoid the term 'capitalism' altogether, despite the language used in the second BHS report. Others have sought to moderate the term by juxtaposing adjectives like 'compassionate', 'conscious', 'responsible', 'enlightened', 'social' or 'sustainable' before the word 'capitalism'. While all these composite 'isms' have deficiencies, they ought not to be dismissed as self-contradictory.

Each of them mirror the fact that exchanges of economic value take place in a relational context and depend on a moral code. That is why, when business leaders enrich themselves at the expense of those who are vital in the creation of that wealth, trust and profits eventually plunge. The public shaming of such individuals, when justified, suggests that the dignity of the human person is crucial to acceptable economic behaviour – to business with a human face.

Peter Heslam

the unacceptable face of capitalism

economic exchange is relational and moral