Capital and the Community

There is — or has been till lately — an informal, unspoken social contract between the public and corporate capitalism. In exchange for the privilege of being allowed to operate within a democratic society, capital is expected to forego, occasionally, the pursuit of raw self-interest and help build the commonwealth in the form of community give-backs — sponsorships and patronage being one form of give-back — of sports, the arts, community and cultural events, and so on. Not everything was to be viewed as an exploitable commercial opportunity.

That implicit social contract has broken down with neo-liberalism, particularly the principle promoted by the Friedmanites that capital owes society nothing and has no responsibilities towards the community, only shareholders. This rupture of the implicit social contract which hitherto allowed corporate capital the privilege of operating in society, or even just with the public’s toleration, coincides with the rise of the “culture of narcissism” also, and with Fukuyama’s “end of history” triumphalism. Corporate capitalism no longer feels that it owes the community anything, and even wants the give-backs reversed. This new attitude is directly connected, as I will argue, with the remarkable success of Bernie Sanders’ socialist campaign in the United States.

I wanted to mention this because of something I came across in a book I’m reading called The End of Advertising as We Know It (2002) by the former chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola Sergio Zyman. Zyman, apart from also being very cynical about the “stupidity” of the public, which is so characteristic of admen, also has a bug bear about sponsorships unless they can be proven to yield a measurable commercial results. And he remarks that it is a step in the right direction when The International Journal of Advertising in 1991 redefined sponsorship as “an investment, in cash or in kind, in an activity, in return for access to the exploitable commercial potential associated with that activity.”

In that redefinition of sponsorship and patronage, coming as it does at the beginning of what Joe Stiglitz called The Roaring Nineties, and at the tail end of Thatcherism and Reaganism, and of the capitalist triumphalism that attended the fall of the USSR, the Berlin Wall (and then Fukuyama’s declaration of “the end of history”), we see the essence of neo-liberalism, and a change in the attitude and relation of corporate capitalism towards the society in which it is permitted to operate. The socialist and communistic challengers apparently gone, corporate capitalism’s sense of obligation to the public weal and well-being evaporated as well. Mr. Zyman typifies that new arrogance, cynicism, and sense of entitlement that has come so typical of neo-liberalism and corporate capitalism — the “masters of the universe” now occupying, unchallenged, “the commanding heights”.

This is, of course, all connected with what Christopher Lasch observed already in 1979 and which he called, in a book, The Culture of Narcissism. And, in fact, not only did the “give-back” virtually stop, but, with the weakness of the Left after the assaults of the New Right, an actual “claw-back” began. Corporate capitalism had often abused the implicit social contract, but complete abrogation of the social contract only seems to have come about finally in “the Roaring Nineties”. Privatisation and deregulation are essentially this “claw-back”.

It seems to be reflected in the new “miserliness” that begrudges the community even sponsorships unless they can be shown to have “exploitable commercial potential”. The apparent resurgence of the left in the US, in the form of Bernie Sanders presently, is certainly testimony to the fact of the new arrogance and hubris of corporate capitalism, that seems to have forgotten that it is only the goodwill of the public that allows and tolerates capitalism to function at all, and that this same public can be just as ready to revoke its privileges if it oversteps itself. Which it has.

It seems that simple, really. I think capitalism fell for its own propaganda when it equated itself with “democracy”, which it isn’t. Capitalism was tolerated and allowed to function only as much as it contributed something back to the commonwealth in exchange for the right to function at all. Now that it has become a bloodsucker on the democracy and the commonwealth, much of the American public seems prepared to revoke its driver’s licence, or at least put strict conditions upon it.

I don’t think that, when Mr. Trump trumpets his slogan about “Making America great again”, that he has in mind restoring public confidence in the unspoken social contract in which, for the privilege of operating, capital is expected to commit its share of the wealth, even if in the form of small sponsorships of the local little league team, of community and cultural events, the symphony, and so on as part of the “cost of doing business”. That’s probably not even on Mr. Trump’s mind. But right here is where, I think, corporate capitalism is finally digging its own grave, and that Mr. Sanders is, perhaps, only the beginning of the public’s revocation of the social contract that allowed corporate capitalism to operate relatively freely in democratic society.

It’s in the little things, like begrudging sponsorships, that the community begins to see the real face of corporate capitalism and neo-liberalism — mean-spirited, small-souled, petty-minded. It’s reflected in exclusive gated-communities, and in what Mike Lofgren, writing in The American Conservative (of all places) called “The Revolt of the Rich“, in the Panama Papers scandal, and much else besides. Corporate capitalism has broken the social contract, and the offended party has the right to terminate it, or to declare it null and void.

Probably not at all what Mr. Zyman expected from his “shallow” and “stupid” consumers. But there’s a kind of myopia and tunnel vision that seems peculiarly characteristic of admen — an over-confidence that their propaganda techniques will overcome reality and resolve any difficulty in public perception. That’s an attitude that may be headed for a fall, or at least the proverbial “rude awakening”.

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4 responses to “Capital and the Community”

  1. Steve Lavendusky says :

    • Scott Preston says :

      That’s the original meaning of “student” — it comes from the word for “eager”. It’s the difference between a “pupil” and a “student”. The student is eager and hungry, the pupil, not necessarily so.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    The old idea of the “tithe” relates pretty well to this notion of sponsorship or patronage as something that is expected of the wealthy and successful. A tithe isn’t alms. Alms was charity or philanthropic, and was voluntary. Alms is called Zakat in Islam. But the tithe was expected, corresponding to “a tenth”, and was used for public projects in most cases.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    Oil Sands City is burning. And we’re getting all the smoke here.

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