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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
The new crypto-capitalists
Peter Day
By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Bill Gates
Is Bill Gates a "liberal communist"?

Perhaps I'm being bamboozled.

Maybe I am being led astray by big bad business, when I thought companies were having an important change of heart.

As I've been mentioning here for some time, huge corporations have been coming out of the closet and confessing their former sins.

Oil companies are publishing their environmental impact assessments; airlines are voluntarily getting involved in carbon trading before they have to by law; banks are lending on sustainability principles.

I thought all this meant they were genuinely starting to listen to their customers, or, if you like their stakeholders (though stakeholding is a vague and sneaky concept).

But perhaps I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Mutual benefit

It is not just cynicism that has put these Mayday thoughts into my head.

Wal-Mart store
Wal-Mart is more likely to fall over than to conquer the world. Microsoft may already be in the process of fading away

I've been reading the ideas of the unstoppable Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, international director of the centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Birkbeck College, London.

Writing in the wonderfully serious London Review of Books, Mr Zizek spotlights the new billionaire entrepreneurs who call themselves (ironically) "liberal communists".

Bill Gates, George Soros, the Google founders - these usual suspects see themselves (says Zizek) as the counter cultural geeks who have taken over big corporations.

They hold, he says, the dogma of a new post modernised version of capitalism's invisible hand as promulgated by Adam Smith.

The market and social responsibility are no longer opposites: they can now be united for mutual benefit.

Two-faced capitalists

The new billionaires are citizens of the world, good people who worry about global problems, and use the riches gained by capitalist exploitation for the greater good: Soros's foundations, Bill and Melinda Gates at war against HIV Aids.

George Soros
Is George Soros's activities helpful or degrading?

"Liberal communists do not want to be mere profit machines," says Slavoj Zizek.

"They want their lives to have deeper meaning. They want to give something back to society."

Such a feeling is not new. Think of the wondrous American art galleries, the Frick in New York and the Freer in Washington DC, both built by men who employed thugs to intimidate their workforces.

Also the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, also using the money acquired from battling with organised labour for vast philanthropic donations to education and libraries.

A Carnegie library shaped my childhood.

Changed spots

These new liberal communists are similarly two-faced, says Mr Zizek: cruel business people half the time, huge benefactors the other half.

But the problems they attack are the symbols of a rotten system, not the rottenness itself.

And the no-holds-barred way they make their money reinforces the imbalances of society that cause its underlying instability.

The market manipulations of George Soros degrade the lives of thousands, even though his profits are then used to promote education in Central Europe.

Big bad business is merely changing its spots, not its impact on our lives, argues Mr Zizek.

Psychopath firms

On the other side of the spectrum, the traditional capitalists argue that campaigners for the new movement of corporate social responsibility are the anti business movement in new clothes, threatening business, investor interests and the free enterprise system.

On both sides of the argument, only appearances have changed.

That recent, boldly anti-capitalism book, The Corporation, put forward the proposition that the law has given the company the legal attributes of a person.

And that personality is that of a psychopath, if you look at it through psychiatric eyes.

It is a compelling proposition, which utterly ignores all the benefits we get, and take for granted, from corporate activity.

But I am not so sure that the sort of capitalism we have got used to over the past 100 years really is still continuing by other means, as the leftish critics suggest.

Ordinary people-passive "consumers" in the old model of capitalism are getting and developing huge individual powers that they never had before, thanks to the network computer and the internet.

Even the poor are being swept up in this.

The 20th century mass production companies will not function effectively for much longer.

Their critics seem trapped in the 20th century understanding of how an organisation works, when they apply their criticism to the new style of business.

Most corporations do not understand it either: they are now too big, too hierarchical, too distant form the people who use the things they make, or the services they provide.

Wal-Mart is more likely to fall over than to conquer the world. Microsoft may already be in the process of fading away.

The grab for sympathy that the new billionaires are making with their philanthropy and their social activism may be only a shield or a mask, a new version of Carnegie's benefactions.

But I think that informed consumer power, defined and activated by the internet, will not let them get away with merely symbolic gestures.

But perhaps I'm being bamboozled again.

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends reshaping the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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