Tuesday, 24 March 2015

20. The crisis of Masculinity and corporations trying to play a social role

In the last few years, we've been witnessing corporations and brands trying to appear more human, more social. They are spending big money in developing a social soul and in showing it. Sometimes the show comes before the actual development, though. In some cases, the appearance of having a social commitment is more important that the commitment itself. The story takes over the facts. The hashtags are more important that the actions. This seems to have been the case of Starbucks' attempt to drive a conversation about race.

Starbucks, as a business concept, was inspired by Italian coffee houses. In one of his latest trips to Italy, Mr Schultz, Starbucks' current CEO, noticed how these coffee houses are places of conversation. They have a role in Italian society: they are familiar places where people go regularly, know who is going to serve them coffee and can tell the difference between a barista and the other just by looking at how the coffee was served. Mr. Schultz wanted to copy&paste an authentic, emerging phenomena from a country were conversations are more central to its culture than mass communication, to the US and to a huge coffee shop chain... .  So he's been trying to manufacture this personal experience with baristas misspelling your name in coffee cups, so you feel "recognised" and with whom you're supposed to have a 30" debate about race. -"Racism is bad. Agree?", -"Yes", "Here's your cappuccino".

Corporations are lacking self awareness. They certainly know they have to make money and that's the priority. "We provide products and services to consumers and customers", they may attempt. "We are in the business of beautiful hair", a hair manufacturer may say. They may even try to turn beautiful hair into some sort of statement, some sort of idea for people to buy into. Will using Panthene as a shampoo help women to disregard the labels they are faced with in their professional life? No. Will opening a bottle of Coca Cola help people "choose" happiness? Really?  
Even if I am not offended by brands spending their advertising dollars in reflecting back to society the ideas that society feeds them with in focus groups, there is a feeling of self delusion, of self importance, that is slightly disturbing. Because, while people work under the spell of a well written story and a snappy hashtag, they do not connect with the reality that surrounds them and, believing their own narrative, don't assume the responsibilities that truly correspond to them. See this animation based on a a talk by the philosopher Slavoj Zizec.

Corporations seem to have forgotten what they are there for. 

This comes at no surprise with the current crisis of masculinity and "traditional masculine values" as a right wing american TV channel would describe it. This week we've  seen Jeremy Clarkson's "kind of fall" and read about Russell Crowe wondering where are those men he admired as a child. 

It is no surprise because corporations represent the masculine force in society. A pure masculinity principle focuses its energy and creativity in a single outcome (to make money). In a polarised world, they represent the dual opposite of the state (the female principle), where its creativity needs to multi-task to provide improvements in education, wellness, health indexes, take stands on civil rights, gay marriage, abortion, urban planning, infrastructure, climate change as much as improve GDP. And which is also, by the way, questioning what is -in today's society- the role of the state.

In the past, when the only overwhelming power was the state (ie monarchies), liberalism tried to establish a balance between the individual (even though it was mostly about white men of a certain class) and the authorities, establishing the freedoms that the "individual" should be granted and limiting the power of the state and its invasive potential. Corporations are not equal to the individual, though. People have to face an imbalance of power in front of concentrated corporate power too. But corporations hid (and hide) behind the "individuals" to push neoliberal ideas to demand more "freedoms" that actually weaken governments more than ever before. Not surprisingly, it was mainly corporations the ones that truly benefited from weaker governments. That's why when corporate responsibility is mentioned by the right, the left tends to look at it as another dubious rhetoric that leads to the foggy lands of self-regulation; while, if it is coming from the left, the right sees is as another attempt for the government to over-regulate. 

Famously, Milton Friedman fused and defused the individual and the corporation at will. He claimed that corporations are false persons so they cannot have social responsibility or social consciousness, in an article that he titled "The social responsibility of business is increase its profits". 
 "What does it mean to say that "business" has responsibilities? Only people have responsibilities. A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but "business" as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense."
Corporations don't have responsibilites but have -apparently- interests and if it pretends to play a social role, it is only in the pursue of its own interests.
"To illustrate, it may well be in the long-run interest of a corporation that is a major employer in a small community to devote resources to providing amenities to that community or to improving its government. That may make it easier to attract desirable employees, it may reduce the wage bill or lessen losses from pilferage and sabotage or have other worthwhile effects. Or it may be that, given the laws about the deductibility of corporate charitable contributions, the stockholders can contribute more to charities they favor by having the corporation make the gift than by doing it themselves, since they can in that way contribute an amount that would otherwise have been paid as corporate taxes. In each of these--and many similar--cases, there is a strong temptation to rationalize these actions as an exercise of "social responsibility." In the present climate of opinion, with its widespread aversion to "capitalism," "profits," the "soulless corporation" and so on, this is one way for a corporation to generate goodwill as a by-product of expenditures that are entirely justified on its own self-interest.
It would be inconsistent of me to call on corporate executives to refrain from this hypocritical window-dressing because it harms the foundation of a free society. That would be to call on them to exercise a "social responsibility"! If our institutions, and the attitudes of the public make it in their self-interest to cloak their actions in this way, I cannot summon much indignation to denounce them. At the same time, I can express admiration for those individual proprietors or owners of closely held corporations or stockholders of more broadly held corporations who disdain such tactics as approaching fraud.
In this point, Milton and Zizek seem to agree (!) that window-dressing self-interest as social responsibility is close to fraud.

However, in these neoliberal ideas, the concentrated power of corporations was never seen as a threat or in contradiction to the principle "free to choose", when they usually are a threat as in the long run. These ideas support more oligopolies and monopolies in detriment of SAMEs and entrepreneurs.  

Something is missing

The question is, why then the CEOs, obedient of Milton Friedman, go and maximise the profit of a company and find every possible loop holes to avoid paying taxes, every possible regulation to pay as little as possible, then go outside and in their private lives turn to philanthropy and even call for all billionaires to give away most of their earnings? Are they recognising that this exuberant accumulation they fought so hard for is -at some point- useless or purposeless and needs to be put to better use? Do they need to fulfil some sort of god instinct and want to become saviours of the world? Are they bored? What's missing?

On the other side of the spectrum, men are seeing increasing levels of suicide. Some of them cannot longer deal with stress, with not being able to fulfil the provider role of the family and cannot ask for help.

and consumers? why are they asking these corporations to show they care? that they care for the environment, feminism, the farmers in a different country? Is it because we care or because we don't want to care? Superficially, we recognise that the values of the brands we choose reflect on the fabricated image of ourselves we want to project to the world. So we want to be seen as if we care. So brands and big multi-nationals run around trying to make something up to keep people engaged, which in many cases it ends up being just... make-up. 

Masculine archetypes

The point is that it would be a disaster for a society if the masculine principle disappeared. What we need instead is masculinity in its best expression, the one that emerges when men (and corporations) are self aware and connected to their centre. In this article, John Walters cites a book on masculinity and two different models: the masculine man and the macho man:

 ...the dichotomy outlined by Robert Bly in his seminal book Iron John - between the 'Wild Man' and the 'Savage Man'. For Bly, the two were opposites: one a benign archetype which every man must access if he is to become an adult; the other a weakling affecting hardness. The Wild Man has, through pain, discovered his own centre, the Savage Man is filled with rage because his heart is numb. According to Bly, the Wild Man's vital qualities have been caged in the modern male by the processes of capitalism, industrialisation and organised religion. Most men tend either to remain chained or burst out into savagery.
And more: 
There's a world of distance between alpha-male masculinity and the macho man. A masculine man is steadfast and rooted, centred within himself. A macho man is emotionally and existentially incontinent, spewing his insecurities in every direction via the codes of aggression and narcissism. A real man could survive on lettuce for six months; a macho man needs a large steak in front of him, less for nourishment than to announce his manhood.
A macho man is a weak man pretending to be masculine - and is generally found to be someone who has spent too much time around women, trying to ingratiate himself and attract their attention instead of burrowing into his own soul. Deprived of a convincing male mentor, he has never learned how to be a man, and so must project a fake masculinity to conceal his deficit. An alpha-male is something different, being a man who has gained control over his masculinity and father energy, and is therefore able to instil confidence in others and suggest himself as a potential leader if the effluent hits the extractor. 
As a feminist, I would argue, that men are not pure masculinity. And that feminine functions have been denied and externalised in women to the detriment of men: 

  • Nutrition, feeling we are worthy of food and receiving attention. Hunger, leads to anger or an obsessive pursue of accumulation and traps individuals in an infant estate where they can never assume responsibility over another person. They cannot become effective fathers.
  • Processing of negativity: denying weakness opens up to violence. Weakness is subjected to violence to make it "disappear". When there is no legitimate target, this ends up in self inflicted violence. 
  • Expression of emotion: linked to being weak, emotions are not recognised as vital forces to be used and to be named.

Rescuing corporations

In a constructive spirit, I'd say that corporations should look at the archetype of the good father or the wild man for guidance of what's their role in society:

1. They have to have a healthier relationship and better partnerships with the states in which they operate. They should not see them as enemies but complements. They cannot continue to turn the blind eye to them, dis-empower them, corrupt them, find ways to avoid responding to their tax responsibilities nor expect the state to be at their service. In a kind of institutional feminism: feminine entities also need to be recognised and set limits whilst connecting through dialogue to corporations in touch with their centre. 
In this sense, a response like Bill Gates' on tax avoidance feels instinctively wrong (towards the end of the video). 

Denying the duty of a corporation in taking part in the collective projects of the country in which they operate, is social neglect. Without disregarding that, very commendably, he chose to expend some of his personal fortune in very efficiently run world saving projects. However what he does as himself (giving money away in the projects he alone decides are worthwhile) and what he does as a leader of a company (not paying tax to fund the projects that a democratically elected government decides are priority) cannot be added up together. They are not the same. This is not at all about negating the freedom and the benefits to pursue philanthropy, but rather to question that when philanthropy happens at the expense of taxes, there are consequences.  A fragmented personality does not offer a neutral balance to the world. In any case, we can always argue that no government was paying attention to -say- Malaria vaccinations in Africa and it is fantastic that the philanthropic projects of Mr. Gates, the person, looks at that gap. But that fact, does not exempt, Microsoft, the company, from its duties. Microsoft is, of course, only an example of a long list. Starbucks, Amazon, etc, they have been all in the news for these matters. 

But to do this, they have to respect and integrate the femininity that lives within men and masculine entities. The one that is nourishing, comforting and able to deal with negativity, so they do not need to keep in captivity feminine entities to work as their external organs. Playing a social role cannot mean subject, disempower, occupy or replace the state. 

2. They have to assume the due responsibility for the working conditions they create: for every individual working in their ranks, directly or indirectly, in the headquarters as much as the most remote third party that has been subcontracted in a corner in China. In this sense, Apple's response to the BBC Panorama documentary showing the working conditions in China feels utterly insufficient: "We are aware of no other company doing as much as Apple to ensure fair and safe working conditions". The implied excuse "China is like this, not us" does not work when working in China it is their most central strategical supply chain decision and they just had a year with record profits. But, at the end everything that was overlooked will be forgotten, all sins will be expiated when Tim Cook donates his personal fortune to charity when he dies (yes, another one). The same happens with tea producers procuring tea from the Assam region in India. Even if they very proudly include a "certification" logo in their packaging, somehow reassuring consumers that an independent body has verified that biodiversity and livelihood of communities are being protected, the reality is different. This also shows the increasing "Ivory Tower" syndrome, where everyone is seating in their office buildings and 5-star hotels happy with themselves because they have an email, a trendy presentation or a cute video saying that everything is ok, but no one bothers to see if the narrative in their screens reflects reality.

3. They have to assume responsibility on the full outcome of their activity. The products and their waste, as much as the resources they consume in the process. 

4. As a good father, they have a role of promoting non-dependence on the state (the mother) by paying living wages for example, through developing self discipline, showing the expression of love through 'doing and achieving' and the development of self mastery and self confidence (ensuring equal pay for equal jobs, equal opportunity and equal recognition for example). 

5. As the wild man, steadfast and rooted and centred in himself, their role in society is also create, express themselves meaningfully, explore freely the whole spectrum of the ambiguity of masculinity and be. 

And it is only here, through demonstrating how they do all these things, where a true social mission can emerge for any company. And if they want to talk about, that would be fine for me.


1. In conversation of Ian Mason, touches some of this point from the wider angle of the economical system.

2. Even traders are starting to speak about this. Even if what is being proposed does not tackle the core of the problem.

3. An interesting article from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung by Thomas Beschorner and Thomas Hajduk: Corporate responsibility in Switzerland. The article is in German but readable in English using the translate function of Google Chrome.

See also:

The absent father and our quest for freedom

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