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The Howling Inhospitable Wilderness of…the Marketplace?


Peters

It’s

instructive that the heroics of early 20th century explorer Sir Ernest

Shackleton are being mined by businesspeople for how-to pointers regarding

increasing the bottom line, maintaining employee loyalty, nurturing creativity

among managers, and inducing optimism and faith in the workings of business. For

those who aren’t familiar with the much studied and applauded explorer,

Shackleton is famous for surviving for two years in the Antarctic after his

ship, the Endurance, was stranded. Not only did Shackleton and all his men

survive the extremely harsh conditions but they kept up generally high spirits

in a situation where it would have been reasonable for them to feel doomed.

Businesspeople, it seems, feel they have something to learn from “Shackleton’s

Way” (also the title of a recent book by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell,

subtitled “Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer”). The themes of

survival, optimism, hope in the face of disaster, unity, and loyalty resonate

for business leaders who realize that these qualities have a positive effect on

the bottom line.

But

pause for a moment and consider the analogy. Shackleton and his men daily defied

death. They demonstrated how it is possible to draw from enormous internal

resources in order to survive. They were in a fight for their very lives.

Business leaders, on the other hand, hope to increase profits. So, does this

mean that the cultural and social norms of moneymaking are something like the

Antarctic wilderness – basically inhospitable to human life, requiring intensive

strategies for inspiring creativity, loyalty, and hope just to make it from one

day to the next?

Most

commentators certainly don’t notice that such is the underlying analogy of

“Shackleton’s Way” and the other management books with a Shackleton theme. A

Globe business writer, for example, is enamored with the way the narrative

of Shackleton’s adventures is interspersed with “bullet-pointed summaries and

follow-ups from contemporaries who have found his example singularly salutary,”

making the Shackleton story a “kind of business parable” (Boston

Globe, 3/25/01).

Business writers accept and promote the idea that the norms and requirements of

capitalism require constant servicing, and they are part of a mainstream media

that dedicates gallons of ink and reams of newsprint to exploring, tweaking, and

debating the way capitalism works and how it might work better.

Just

check out the Business section of the newspaper on any given day. (And it is

available every day of the week – at least in Boston and New York.) On May 10,

2001, for example, the Globe touts the entrepreneurial prowess of

Boston Herald owner, Patrick Purcell, who’s motto is “Grow or die.” His is

an all-American rags-to-riches story, proving that you can use spunk, hard work,

and cut-throat competitiveness to go from working-class roots to

multi-millionaire. If in the course of that trajectory, you get to the point

where you can truthfully say, as he does in the front page article, “There’s

nothing better than making a sale,” then that is not perceived as a loss, but an

exemplary state that should be plumbed for lessons so that it might be

replicated by others.

A guy

who sees good and bad in terms of column-inches of advertising sold is held up

as a role model.

No

wonder bookstore shelves groan under the weight of self-help books for managers.

Look at what they daily have to “sell” to their employees: the idea that human

resources – creativity, intelligence, motivation, capacity for satisfaction in

work – should be marshalled for increased sales, often of pointless and even

destructive products. That’s a tough sell. As tough as Shackleton’s mission of

putting a positive spin on daily life in the Antarctic where there is little

chance of rescue? Apparently.

And

that’s what the business section of the newspaper is about: putting a positive

spin on capitalist economic relations. The media promote business by taking it

seriously, studying it, reporting on the intricacies within it, normalizing the

ideologies that underpin it, and providing the space for businesspeople and

business commentators to share information and ideas.

Look

further in the Business pages, and you’ll see an announcement of the forthcoming

Windows XP operating system as being available in time for Christmas shopping,

detailed analyses of the telecommunications industry, an investigation of

banking customer service relations, a human interest angle on pharmaceutical

companies’ efforts to make allergy drugs purchaseable over the counter, a survey

of how corporations hold their annual meetings, and a humorous (or perhaps not)

take on the way the boot industry has benefited from “some high-profile product

placement, courtesy of President Bush” (NYT, May 13).

The

Sunday Globe even has numerous sections dedicated to participating in

capitalist society: Boston Works (for the workers); Business & Money (for the

owners and managers); Automotive, Travel, and Real Estate (for the consumers).

Threaded throughout all the sections, of course, are advertising and additional

articles that explore the role of the individual as a worker, manager, owner,

and consumer – supporting our efforts in these areas, providing helpful tips and

tricks, and generally naturalizing a set of man-made economic relations.

Imagine a daily section of the newspaper that was dedicated to ins and outs of

living in a democratic society. It’s not such a crazy idea, after all. Democracy

is tricky to achieve. It could use some daily reflection and investigation in

order to fine tune it, get people thinking about it, debating it, improving upon

it. There are obstacles to participation, hierarchies, concentrations of power

and knowledge – all of which might benefit from daily critique and commentary

available to masses of people. Articles might include profiles of grassroots

organizers, investigations into how public policy promotes democratic

involvement or not, explorations of how institutions can be shaped to facilitate

democratic participation, and the occasional humorous (or not) piece about

favored footwear among the people.

Imagine a media dedicated to promoting citizenship rather than selling and

consuming.

Perhaps in this imagined “Citizen” section of the newspaper, we might even look

to Sir Ernest Shackleton for certain life lessons. Shackleton, after all, defied

hierarchical norms by serving his men their hot milk, and requiring his officers

to do chores. (Note that business leaders – following Shackleton’s example – are

sometimes willing to deploy democracy as a motivating weapon, but only among

those in the same class.) But I doubt we would need Shackleton and his extreme

survival strategies to keep people inspired to participate in democracy.

Challenging as it may be at times, democratic participation has its own rewards,

and has less in common with the Antarctic than, apparently, the world of markets

does.

 

  

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