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Monkey Business

by Rick Lewis

Bored by banking, irritated by investors, enervated by economics? You shouldn’t be! Philosophers tend to ignore the intricacies of international trade and the world of commerce. People sometimes sneer about economics being the ‘dismal science’, but if it was good enough for a thinker like Adam Smith/Karl Marx (please delete according to your political preferences) then surely it is good enough for the rest of us?

Philosophy, among other things, involves thinking systematically about the problems we encounter in life, so the health of the system which brings us our daily bread must surely be worth the occasional thought. Last summer, collapsing corporations crowded the front pages. Most people blamed the ‘company cultures’ of corporations such as Enron and the colour supplements have been full of lurid stories about get-rich-quick executives, dodgy accountants, misled shareholders, inflated expense accounts and business meetings held in lap-dancing clubs. We could fulminate grandly about the need for morality in business, thunder socialistically about the inherent rottenness of capitalism or, even more fun, we could suggest that business requires morality, so that immoral business practices eventually result in their practitioners coming unstuck and going bust. But we won’t because the whiff of self-righteousness is offensive unto the nostrils of the Lord, and besides, those columns have probably already been written.

Does philosophy have anything else to say about these corporate crises, apart from timidly pushing the benefits of business ethics? According to Alan Malachowski (p.7), it does. He says that recent corporate disasters have actually been the predictable result of a fundamental change in the way the markets assess a company’s prospects. In fact, he says, there has been a full-scale conceptual revolution which has wreaked disaster and will continue to do so until philosophers blow the whistle on its misconceptions.

Another urgent question concerns globalisation: what is it, and is it a Good Thing? A whole range of critics noisily accusing multinational corporations of all kinds of crimes. Do they have a point? The global market exists, so whether you are a teenage graffitiartist or a retired stockbroker, surely the question of whether globalisation is good deserves a glance? Multinationals have never been wildly popular, but in cities from Seattle to Genoa, vast crowds have begun to noisily demonstrate their anger with this thing called globalisation. What they mean varies vastly, but often includes (1) unhappiness with rich companies paying peanuts to poor people (2) homogenization of culture – a Starbucks in every city etc. (3) overuse of natural resources (4) dislike of the fact that, being international, global corporations are beyond democratic regulation (5) dislike of capitalism in general. The messages are too diverse and the participants too anarchic to speak with one voice, but one clear picture of what is happening comes from Mike Fuller’s article (p.11) about philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky.

According to Chomsky, we may have a global market but we don’t have global free trade. The whole thing is a facade which conceals a network of influence, power and ‘military Keynsianism’ – i.e. spending on weapons in order to boost the economy generally.

But let’s look at the advantages of global capitalism, too. Some might say that we are individually freer and richer than under most alternative systems imaginable. Isn’t it wonderful (they might add) to have such an amazing choice of goods in the supermarket, and for producers in remote corners of the world to be able to reach customers everywhere rather than just the folk in the next village? As always down the centuries, the spread of ideas follows the trade routes, and in its own small way the magazine you are holding is an example of that. The problems described by Malachowski are an illness of capitalism, undermining it, not a necessary part of its operation. As he says, they could be fixed. And as Fuller hints at the end of his article, perhaps the world could be weaned off its mad infatuation with military spending. But then we still have to decide whether we want to live in a worldwide capitalist economy or not. What about social justice, whatever that means? This issue barely scratches the surface of the problems, but I hope you enjoy it anyway. Tell us what you think!

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