Cheerleading for Capitalism (and Consciousness Too!)

A new book champions the heroic spirit of businessStuart Smithers

Conscious Capitalism
By John Mackey and Raj Sisodia
Harvard Business Review Press, 2013
368 pp.; $27 cloth

I don’t think Max Weber could have predicted the appearance of Conscious Capitalism.

Weber was busy working to demystify capitalism and the origins of our current ideology of work when he wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). What horrified Weber most about the cultural forms that capitalism produced were the dehumanizing results that came along with the benefits of efficiency, division of labor, innovation, enterprise, and technology.

Weber showed that while capitalism was in its early stages, it leaned on Protestantism when attempting to assert an ideology that would encourage people to work hard—with the belief that while you were making money for the boss, you were really working for the Glory of God and your own soul. The religious narrative of capitalism dropped out in the 20th century but the message to pursue work as if it were a calling remained: workers will provide their boss with millions in stock, while also being assured that they are working for the Glory of Capital, making the world a better place for everyone, a more prosperous and wealthy world.

Weber wouldn’t have bothered to write a rebuttal to Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey, the co-CEO of Whole Foods, and Raj Sisodia, a marketing professor at Bentley University—a modern day morality tale, in which capitalism has won, and good and evil, success and failure, stay in neatly prefigured boxes—but he might have been amused to see the reincarnation of capital’s spiritual persona in the present volume. Readers should be prepared to learn not only about the “heroic spirit” of business, but also about the “calling,” sacred duty, spiritual intelligence, noble virtues, servant leaders, the true, the good, and the beautiful, and a whole host of “highs”—including higher levels of consciousness, highest aspirations, high integrity, and, most disturbing to me, “higher purpose.” The reader will learn how businesses transform themselves from caterpillars into butterflies.

The return of the mystified and mystical robes of capital in these concepts and ideas is part of an attempt to rewrite and promote a revised narrative of capitalism and the heroism of business. Mackey and Sisodia suggest that capitalism has taken it on the chin of late (imagine that, when 40 percent of household wealth was lost in the Great Recession and real wages have steadily declined for decades), but the authors marvel at capitalism’s rise in the long arc of history, recounting its great gifts: lifting the masses out of poverty, indoor plumbing, medicine, increased life expectancy, education, and the rise of democratic states worldwide, and so on:

In a mere two hundred years, business and capitalism have transformed the face of the planet and the complexion of daily life for the vast majority of people. The extraordinary innovations that have sprung from this system have freed so many of us from much of the mindless drudgery that has long accompanied ordinary existence and enabled us to lead more vibrant and fulfilling lives. Wondrous technologies have shrunk time and distance.

But in reality, the crisis of capital is not a PR problem: the latest economic catastrophe has helped many people begin to recognize that the crisis is a manifestation of structural problems in the system of capitalism. Conscious Capitalism is quick to point out the benefits derived from capitalism, but the authors are in silent denial of the dark side; for, as Marx pointed out, capital is full of contradictions. Capital not only creates wealth, value, and jobs—it also destroys wealth, value, and jobs. Those “wondrous technologies” also manifest as wrathful deities, efficiently eliminating or reducing the need for labor. The discussion about work and workers is both a little parochial and one-sided, not taking into account global capitalism—including, for example, conditions of migrant workers, our relationship to the Apple products we love, the terrifying working conditions in Foxconn factories, and NAFTA’s transformation of agricultural economies. Mackey’s list of “stakeholders” doesn’t extend very far into the global south.

Conscious Capitalism and the “good works” of Whole Foods both reveal and conceal the realities of production and labor: revealing and confronting some health issues, GMO concerns, and conditions of meat, fish, and poultry production, while a kind of commodity fetishism remains largely intact, concealing the reality of laborers in production and supply chains, both nationally and globally. In fact, the concealment of the conditions of labor that goes into the products sold at Whole Foods might actually be strengthened and more deeply mystified because the consumer can believe he or she is doing the right thing as an “enlightened” consumer—an identity that conscious capitalists might be all too willing to sell.

The book provides relatively benign fodder for readers on the same diet. I have no doubt that John Mackey is a likeable former hippie-turned-libertarian/conservative CEO, with some good ideas and habits. We know that he thinks it is good for “conscious leaders” to quit caffeine, get lots of sleep, and maybe become a vegan like him. And he’s also keen on contemplative practices like Insight Mediation.

But despite the well-intentioned advice, the abundance of “heart” rhetoric, and the cheerful silly talk about the “heroic spirit” of business, Conscious Capitalism is a failed intellectual adventure, and a little soulless. Mackey might imagine himself in the role of philosopher-king, but he needs to get a better grasp on economics and the critique of capital (and consciousness, too!) before he is anointed.

Stuart Smithers is a Tricycle contributing editor and the chair of the Religion Department at University of Puget Sound.

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