Politics and business: who is governing whom?
Professor Simon Robinson, Director of the Research Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility at Leeds Beckett, discusses the relationship between business and politics.
What has business got to do with politics? Go to a business school and you might be hard pressed find any answer. Yet business has everything to do with politics; regulation, taxes, opportunities for enterprise; government investment in business and infrastructure; lobbying; corruption; the nature and purpose of business, and so on. There is more than enough for a module there.
The arrival of Mr. Trump on the scene makes it even more interesting. Now we have a business man leading the free world. Wolin, Hedges and others have argued that what has led to this, certainly in the US, is the ‘incorporation’ of democracy. Business behind the scenes has dominated politics, through intense lobbying, leading to a form of an ‘inverted totalitarianism’, not based in ideology but rather in materialism. Wolin argues that this is focused precisely on subverting genuine democratic dialogue (whilst at the same time avowing to uphold democracy), and substituting this with populism and propaganda. At the same time it is the corporate centred policies, not least de-regulation, which have led to the major financial crises, and the growth a remarkable wealth gap in the US.1 Now, though, the face of corporate democracy is less behind the scenes. The president of the USA is a businessman with no experience of public service, voted in to fix the ‘mess’ that politicians have got the nation into. This is not the place to analyse this thesis in detail. However, it is clear that underlying this dynamic are many myths which reinforce this vision.
One key myth is that business leaders are ‘magical’, able to solve any problem. Mr. Trump is the most remarkable manifestation of this myth, but as I write a billionaire business man is being touted for an external review of the intelligence agencies in the US, and the new president’s cabinet is populated mostly by billionaire businessmen. The myth of the fixer replaces the ideal of the wise leader. In turn this is supported by an academic myth, prevalent in business schools, that there is a science of fixing (Huzzard, Benner, and Kärreman 2017), we only need to develop the models and then everyone can use them. The fixer does not engage with people so much as use the tool, the magic tools of seven steps, more or less. Sliding in behind this is the myth that the business leader does not have be an expert in the area concerned. They have the unique capacity to fix anything, health, higher education, and so on. And how quickly governments have ingested this myth, from business leaders ‘fixing’ Higher Education in the UK (Dearing 1997, Browne 2010 HE reports) to a climate change sceptic, with no scientific expertise, endorsed as the head of the EPA.
It is remarkable how robust these myths have become, and they dominate issues such as the remuneration of the CEO. Whenever the high rewards of CEOs are questioned we see the same mantras: the limited market of those capable of fulfilling these posts; money as the only motivation of business leaders; the danger of losing such magical figures to foreign fields; the high level of risk and stress which demands bonuses even when the business is failing. Few of these arguments have empirical credibility, or logical or moral coherence (Kolb 2006), and behind them is the figure of the ‘great’ leader who is necessary if we are to secure survival and success. Who says so? Nonetheless, the myth stays firmly in place, partly because there is not the time and the space to actually think about it. A good example of finding time and space is the UK Green Paper on corporate governance which has invited contributions about CEO remuneration, amongst others. This includes one from the Centre. It remains to be seen if the debate will lead to an effective engagement with justice in the workplace, without involving the workplace in that dialogue. Wolin’s thesis suggests that this kind of debate is the last thing democracy incorporated wants. The fixer doesn’t have time for debate and dialogue, or reflection on purpose, still less for regulation. There are too many objectives and tight deadlines; most of them, of course, put in place by the fixer.
I am not suggesting that testing such myths is easy, not least because there are many other narratives which make effective public debate difficult and which provide flying buttresses to maintain the myths. The rise of Trump has been accompanied by: the Christian Right and nationalists who share the anti-intellectualist stance; the gun lobby and others who see the elites as robbing them of freedom (even the freedom of mentally ill to own guns); the poor who have been left behind and who have lost faith in politicians; those who fear the incursion of aliens, i.e. Muslims. None of these narratives are ‘bad’, but there is little effective public dialogue to engage them, supportively or as challenge.
This raises the question of how they are to be tested, because contained within those myths, and others, is a breakdown of rational discourse. Along with the demise of the expert is a distrust of empirical evidence, along with mistrust of the intellectual is the demise of rational thinking, and the reality that anyone can be president of the US is confirmed.
- In the USA in 2016 the top 10% of families holding 76% of total wealth (money.cnn.com/2016/08/18/pf/wealth-inequality).