Why the business world is so bad at politics
Before the ritual self-disembowelment, Yukio Mishima had other ways of getting his point across. The point was that Japan had lost its martial soul in the postwar boom. There was too much of the pocket camera and not enough of the sword for the great writer’s chivalric tastes. One of his lesser works, spoofing the consumer cult, tells of an office chump who takes out a tabloid ad. What he puts up for sale is the right to kill him. Mishima performed seppuku two years later.
Zealots, even rightwing ones, don’t get business: the pragmatism of it, the lack of absolutes. To judge by Elon Musk’s faith that Russia will honour whatever peace deal he has in mind, instead of coming back for more, the incomprehension is mutual.
It is said often enough that business people are all at sea in politics. Allow me a speculation, formed over years in and around both worlds, as to why.
They don’t understand fanaticism. They don’t believe that something as abstract as an idea can move people to extreme deeds. No, there must be earthly and negotiable grievances under all that mystical bluster. There must be a deal to be done. Consider this a capitalist spin on Engels’s notion of false consciousness. An aggressor in war can cite imperial honour and other intangibles as animating drives. “Let’s talk”, is what someone of a commercial cast of mind hears. Even Donald Trump, who knew something of the extremities of human nature, dealt with strident regimes in transactional terms.
Of those I know who take the Musk view of Ukraine, almost all work in business, mostly in finance. But of course they do. Their world is one of positive-sum deals between good-faith parties, or at least rational ones. There is a third-party enforcer called the commercial courts if someone reneges. They encounter intransigence all the time but never doctrinal fervour. No wonder the war screams out to them to be lastingly bargained away. Theirs is what the French call“déformation professionnelle”: the tendency to see the world through the lens of what one does for a living. It is a kind of innocence, not a kind of malice. And no less dangerous for that.
The refusal of business people to take zealots at their word shows up in less life-and-death ways. Take Britain’s clown car of a government. Much of the fiscal loosening it announced to such market uproar last month was trailed in advance. Investors simply couldn’t believe that Liz Truss had meant it. They couldn’t accept she was an ideologue because they can’t accept anyone is. She has been panned for her failure to understand their temperament. But the ignorance runs both ways.
Or take the left’s march through the corporate world. Speaking to business audiences over the past decade, one trend stands out. Executives more and more report the politicisation of the office. Some are concerned. Most, to my surprise, are keen on “allyship ” or whatever jargon they have half-understood from their children or more ornery staff that week.
Now, as someone who aims to retire without ever having managed a single person, I shouldn’t presume to guide them on corporate leadership. But I will say this: CEOs, I notice, assume they can decide how far this stuff goes. Their bet is, if you give the cultural left half a loaf, the rest is yours to munch at your leisure. That is what happens in business, after all. But this is politics. And the wilder edge of it, at that. So expect them to come for everything. Expect no concession to be enough. “Marxism” is a word used a lot about campus-radicalised activists. “Leninism” is more accurate. One describes an historically ordained and ultimately harmonious social order. The other insists that it must be fought for, all the time, without quarter.
In a sense, Musk is of a piece with the woke CEOs he seems to define himself against. Neither can fathom the extremist ken. Because no one with a rigid and abstract mind ever thrived in business, neither can credit that it flourishes elsewhere. The tension between dealmaker and true believer is ancient and reciprocal. But it is not quite symmetrical. Mishima, after all, never tried to run Nissan.
Email Janan at email@example.com
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