The paradox of corporate power

Very interesting piece by Jo Confino at Guardian Sustainable Business. He makes a strong case that we often underestimate the power that the business sector holds, particularly over government – where do the bulk of their tax resources come from? The paradox of the title is that while businesses are often the most obstructive when it comes to sustainability issues, since it threatens their existing business models, they are also the sole group making any real difference. The more enlightened see that unless change is made they may not have a business in the longer term.

What I’d like to explore a bit more is our attitude to business. (Partly picked up in the comments under the article.) Cofino concludes with a quote from James Hillman:

Those voices that insist on a contest between love and power are Western, Northern, Christian and romantic. Partly they are reflected in a simplistic division of the Bible into the Old Testament of power and a New Testament of love. What results from this opposition but a loveless power of tyranny and control, and a powerless love that can wish but not will? Love and power are not opponents; it is our ideas that have constructed them so.

This seems a fair description of one faulty way to look at business, although it is not restricted to the four groups listed above. This is the trap fallen into by many writers, like Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed’s book which I recently reviewed. Diagnosing our current ills as the result of misused power, overthrowing all power relationships may be an attractive solution, but fails to address how we resist those currently with an interest in preserving the status quo, or how we should run the world thereafter.

The opposite error is an under-critical acceptance of business, either as something morally good, or even just morally neutral. A major strand of opinion, represented in particular by the Libertarian tradition manages to conflate the two, seeing government power as at best unnecessarily onerous, but have no issue at all with business power. Of course, this may not be completely out of choice. As Confino points out after being challenged on this point, the Guardian itself is a business and depends on advertising revenue. It cannot afford to be completely outside the system, even if it chose to be.

How to square this paradox? We have to be honest that business does have this power, and the prospect of it losing substantial amounts of it is minimal in the short term. It needs to be encouraged to use power in a ‘loving’ way and be held accountable. But for this to happen, there needs to be considerably more understanding on both sides. Critics need to have an understanding of how businesses operate, rather than just “they are bad”. But similarly business leaders need to think more about how and why they are acting the way they do. Compared to many other fields, business tends to be purely pragmatic, and getting a better grip on the history and philosophy of the subject can only help.

Christian ethics do, we believe at least, have something helpful to say in the balance of love and power. As Hillman notes, opposing them is just simplistic. Large tracts of the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, provide teaching and examples of power, both loving and not, and show the consequences. And, perhaps stating the obvious, God himself combines both infinite love and infinite power among his attributes.

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