Business and Liberal Democracy

Business and Liberal Democracy

Where we’re headed and why it’s not good for business.

What does business have to do with liberal democracy? Before setting out to answer the question, it’s best to consider our terms: What do we mean by “liberal democracy”?

The first term is liberal, and in this sense, it has nothing to do with left wing thinking. The term comes from the Enlightenment and a Hobbesian view that sees individual human beings as giving up some portion of freedom to be members of the tribe or community. In our current parlance, the term libertarian comes to mind. Now, never mind the fact that this understanding of human nature proceeds from a 17th century worldview, a time wherein there was nowhere near our understanding of the Earth system and evolution. Today, we have mountains of anthropological science (read facts) that demonstrate this view of human nature is incorrect.

Prior to the advent of sedentary agriculture, modern human beings lived in communities void of hierarchy and essentially egalitarian in nature. Individuals were completely dependent on the tribe for survival; they could not possibly have survived without it. From a strictly intuitive perspective, if the Hobbesian view is correct, then how could human beings have emerged from nature, a thing that Hobbes called, “…cruel and brutish…”? In other words, how does nature, a “cruel and brutish” thing, bring forth a mammalian creature that is entirely dependent upon it for survival? Nature is exceedingly interconnected. Things that are “cruel and brutish”, on the other hand, do not exactly lend themselves to interconnectedness – to state the obvious. In any case, the term liberal, as used here, means human beings are independent and free to adopt worldviews and act upon them.

The word democracy, or democratic, comes to us from the Greek. It means, quite simply, “rule of the people”. How “the people” enact democratic principles is quite varied. The US system falls under the category of liberal democracy. The way in which we put democratic principles into practice is called a representative democracy. If one undertakes a critical study of US history, it’s fairly clear that those who ought to comprise “the people” is something that has been hotly contested since 1789. More on this later.

So, a liberal democracy is one wherein the people are free and unencumbered to adopt and act on worldviews, and the people are in control, or can rule over their own destinies.

Another term that may need clarification is worldview; in this sense, we mean what constitutes the set of precepts, rules, notions etc. that frame the way one acts in the real world. A term synonymous with worldview, one that has largely fallen from daily use – especially among business folks – is philosophy. Like it or not, however, the only way we can get out of bed, go to work, play and so forth depends on what sort of worldview or philosophy we hold.

One’s worldview can be either exceedingly complex, quite simple, somewhere in between or completely unhinged from reality. One thing that is of paramount importance, however, is that our worldviews are not things that ought to be left static, or ensconced as if written in stone. We need to regularly evaluate and think critically about our worldviews; this necessitates what Thomas Aquinas called, “interior work” (which has nothing to do with choosing what color to paint the kitchen).

Not unlike everything else about modern life, far too many of us have become consumers. So much of the dominant narrative defines us as creatures that consume things. This framework affects how we provide for our existence and the way we think. In this age, it’s easy to simply consume others’ worldviews. Many of us rarely, if at all, undertake the interior work of critically thinking about the worldviews we consume. After all, it’s much easier to log onto our favorite platform and feed on whatever streams across the screen, rather than looking at things critically. Yet, critical thinking is precisely the thing on which liberal democracy relies. Without critical thinking, we wind-up prone to mass manipulation, and in this age of corporate power, the work of mass manipulation has been made much easier and less costly than ever before.

This brings us to what business has to do with liberal democracy. It could be argued that businesses rely on the liberal democratic context to function. It’s not much of a stretch to see that being free to adopt and act on worldviews is foundational to the notion of a “free market”. In other words, if one is free to adopt a particular worldview, then it follows that one ought to be free to make decisions about what to buy and from whom to buy it. In addition, liberal democratic thinking provides the context for entrepreneurialism. As actors in the market, we’re free to come-up with ideas to fulfill needs, start businesses and so forth. While this is a broad stroke, it provides the context for understanding why business leaders, especially those responsible for small to medium enterprises (SMEs), would want to see a functioning, liberal democracy maintained. The more folks are free to decide from whom to buy stuff, and the more the market encourages entrepreneurialism, and thereby creating more options in the market place, the better

Today, however, our electoral processes are distrusted and voting rights are being attacked. These things are undermining liberal democracy. Yet, to what extent are business leaders, especially those responsible for SMEs, working to ensure the health of our liberal democracy? To be sure, there are business leaders who are actively engaged and working to protect our democracy. On the other hand, considering the context highlighted above, we ought to see much more activism. What’s at play here could be characterized as cognitive dissonance.

Business leaders tend to align themselves with what is broadly characterized as conservative or libertarian views. This perspective sees the role of government as “intrusive”, constrictive and more an impediment to the ease of running a business than anything else. This is the neoliberal, or “new” liberal view. It’s consistent with our definition of the liberal perspective and characterizes government as “the problem”. Neoliberalism views minimum government intrusion as the best way to shape the market’s behavior. In our two-party system, this view is represented largely by the Republican party and explains, in a general sense, why many business leaders tend to vote for Republican rather than Democratic candidates.

When we look to which party tends to be in favor or restricting voting rights, it’s the Republican party. Constricting access to voting undermines our definition of liberal democracy, and if a liberal democracy makes sense for business, especially SMEs, then why would business leaders tend to support Republican candidates? This gets to the point about thinking critically, doing the interior work to reevaluate our worldviews and making sure they’re consistent with reality.

Restricting voting rights, or contracting the franchise is dangerous, especially now: a moment in human history that is seeing the entire ecosystem threatened by our behavior. That power is concentrated among a few, and that large, business corporations have far greater capacity to affect electoral politics is not something that requires a PhD to understand: it’s common sense. Contracting the franchise, and thereby undermining the ability of the powerless to vote, bodes well for perpetuating the status quo and furthering the trends toward authoritarianism that are already underway.

To understand where we’re headed, we need look no further than the Weimar Republic and what was going-on in Germany prior to the take over the National Socialists (Nazis). Threatened by mass uprisings, the capitalists of Weimar Germany threw the car keys to the Nazis. German capitalists sought to protect their interests and ensure the growth of their businesses; they did so by facilitating the totalizing power of the state. There’s a parallel here in the US.

The party affecting voting rights restrictions tends to represent the interests of those who desire to maintain the status quo (read conservative). That the status quo is failing an overwhelming majority of the citizens of this country is another topic that does not need tomes of research to prove: it’s a matter of common sense. Restricting voting rights is a move to aggregate power among an increasingly small number of people: those who already have too much power.

In a recent interview with Thom Hartman, Marxian economist, Richard Wolff was asked what he thought would happen if a strong-arm, authoritarian-type was elected president in 2024. Wolff’s answer was, “Not much.” In other words, our descent toward increasing wealth and income inequality would continue; the environment would undergo further assault and most Americans would see their struggles intensify, but lose what little power they have to affect change. The other thing Wolff brought-up is the possibility of there being further consolidation of businesses within the marketplace. Large corporations would be allowed to simply behave as they have been, eliminating competition (tendency toward monopolization) and aggregating power and wealth.

Those of us who do not stand in the way of restricting voter access – especially the leaders of SMEs – are unwittingly furthering what political theorist Sheldon Wolin called “corporate totalitarianism”, which is a term having to do with the amalgamation of power between the state and large, business corporations.

Contrary to what many have thought, it can happen here. Unless we stand-up for liberal democracy, and do what we can to protect and further voting rights and access, we will continue an ugly trend toward authoritarianism, and most likely, the extinction of our species.

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