Thursday, 9 June 2011

All the World's a Business Opportunity

In Wednesday's Guardian, John Harris bemoans the fact that 'the world needs a new Marx, but it keeps creating Malcolm Gladwells'. I've just been reading 'The Social Animal: The Story of How Success Happens' by David Brooks (another New York Times columnist), the latest manifestation of this phenomenon, and - like its predecessors from 'Blink' to 'Nudge' - being devoured by the political elite.

What all these books have in common is the promise to reveal the hidden workings of the human brain, the unconscious but pro-social, pre-rational bases for our behaviour. Here we have 'the emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms' which influence decisions below the level of awareness (Brooks, p.x), enabling people to read each other, grasp situations and contexts, build networks and become 'street smarts'.

What these texts seek to demonstrate is that successful people have intuitively been practising these arts since the human world began. It was philosophers and political theorists from Plato onwards who have misled us into a hyper-rational view of society, leading either to utopian visions of a perfect order through enlightened individual choices, or to complex bureaucratic designs to control our irrationality for us.

So who were these smart operators who had it right all along? Why - you guessed it - business people of course. The way they laid out supermarkets, to get us to spend more than we planned; the way they created brand loyalties; the way they sold us insurance and pensions, all drew directly on their implicit understanding of our unconscious desires, fears and habits. They had intuitive knowledge of the brain science,the behavioural economics and the sociobiology that that researchers have only just turned into a systematic 'revolution in conciousness', to put philosophers and politicians on the right path.

Brooks's version of this story is told through the lives of Harold, the dreamy, clever, kind but slightly ineffectual offspring of a conventional, privileged couple, and Erica, who has escaped deprivation and psychologicl damage in a Chinese-Mexican household to become a driven entrepreneur. Although they eventually move sideways to work in government, their identities and career pathways are forged in business, and their success is confirmed by a prosperous old age.

Why is this stuff seen as so important by those who exercise power on our behalf? And why, as Harris asks, does our age produce so much of it?

It seems to me that this is not so much because of the failure of the grand political projects of the past three centuries as because humanity has surrendered the quest for control over its destiny to impersonal forces. We have chosen to entrust our fate to computer-operated trading floors in currency and stock markets, and to geeks designing electronic systems for eliminating risks through feedback loops. The 'revolution in consciousness' provides us with an alibi for this surrender, and tells our political leaders that it is OK to manipulate our behaviour while dancing to the tune of global market forces.

But closer examination shows that it should supply us with no such excuse. The tricky shift in Brooks's book is to treat the world of commerce as given, the 'natural' environment and context in which we must all find meaning, purpose and fulfilment. His whole story depicts people with well-functioning stone-age instincts and skills getting by in a society shaped by business plans and corporate strategies.

This is deeply misleading. During my lifetime, almost every institution which defined our way of life, from the post office to care homes, has been turned into a business. The latest victims have been universities, demeaned by the requirement to sell themselves to student 'customers', who are themselves forced to mortgage their futures for the price of a degree. In this context, the creation of an elite 'New College', charging twice as much as the going rate, and staffed by television celebrities, can claim to be a defence of true scholarship.

People are indeed 'social animals', but this is not a reason for putting us in a cleverly-organised zoo, run by the super-rich. A true 'revolution of consciousness' would be a revolution against these restrictions on our potential achievements.

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