Why We Do What We Do

ESSAY BY: Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director, SMSBF

Those who think in abstractions are often criticized for being of little use in the practical world of business. “Yes, but how will your ideas make money?”, was a question I’d often hear in senior staff meetings whenever I talked about sustainability, or the idea that business is more than “maximizing shareholder value”. Back in those days, it was easier to suggest that increasing social capital and reducing harm to the environment were “externalities”, which was simply code for, “things that don’t make money”. That was fifteen years ago, and much has changed, or so we think. Are things all that different?

There can be no doubt that we are undergoing a shift; however, as I continue to learn about history, it becomes increasingly clear that political and social change are slow indeed. Unfortunately, we’re running out of time. 

If we learn anything from the pandemic, it must lead us to taking a very critical look at how we, as Americans, see the world around us. In other words, we need to ask the abstract question, “why”, and we need to be prepared to take-on the radical changes necessary to avert the biggest disaster in human history: the one being brought about by global climatic change. 

As Americans, though, and as illustrated by my C-suite experience of nearly a generation ago, we generally have a hard time with overarching frameworks, philosophies and abstractions. Our culture is very pragmatic: We tend to value the enterprising, the folks who go out and “do”, versus those who “think”. As Americans, we claim a right to choose, or so we think, how we see the world. We cling tenaciously to the notion that we can think what we want, irrespective of what others think, and for some, irrespective of what nature reveals. 

Alexis De Tocqueville, the French sociologist who visited the US during the early 1800’s and chronicled his experiences wrote, “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own; and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them.” Few things are truer today. What De Tocqueville is describing are the roots of a cultural trait in which so many of us take a deep and abiding pride: rugged individualism. And it is this trait that so manifestly affects the American worldview, a worldview that – by its very nature – undermines any sense of the communitarian and makes it very difficult to make real progress toward averting large scale and complex problems such as global climatic change. 

The truth is that rugged individualism is actually, at least in some sense, a school of thought. In other words, while we Americans may delude ourselves into thinking we can shun schools of thought, it’s impossible to do so. The one thing that’s fundamental to being human is our need to answer the question, “Why?” 

Why do I get up in the morning? Why am I working? Why should I buy a house? At some point or another, many of us find ourselves asking these questions, and we if don’t find a reasonable answer, we could go nuts. So – at least for most of us – we need a reasonable answer to the question, why do I do what I do?

That rugged individualism is a tenant of our culture is easy enough to see. What may not be so easy to see is how it’s part of an entire system of thinking, a system so pervasive it makes up the background noise of daily life. It’s the sort of thing Plato imagines in, The Allegory of the Cave, and it’s what the Italian philosopher of the early twentieth century, Antonio Gramsci, understood as the “manufacture of consent”. 

As a dimension of our rugged individualism, Americans expect “choice” in the market place –regardless of how uninformed or unintelligent that choice may be. Individual choice, or the perception thereof, is foundational and sacrosanct in our culture; it is the basis for consumerism. That we can buy what we want, when we want it, is considered an American right, and for many, the marketplace is the only thing that drives innovation. Never mind that human beings are naturally inquisitive, and there are many, many examples of folks who innovate for no other reason than the joy of discovery it brings. To accept the idea that people would undertake innovation because it brought joy, and not profits, would undermine a way of thinking, and we cannot have that!

So, in American culture we have rugged individualism and the power of the market to drive innovation and progress. How we define progress is a whole other matter. But since we’ve established that choice – irrespective of how uniformed or unintelligent it may be – trumps everything else, we simply trust the market to solve all of our social, environmental and economic justice challenges. This idiocy is called neoliberalism, and it’s a uniquely American philosophy, one we follow, without realizing it, because Americans don’t follow philosophies. As Americans, our answer to why is to ask the market.

Neoliberalism is so pervasive it also affects our nonprofit system. If you wonder about this, ask yourself what happens when someone discovers a social, environmental or economic injustice: The person will likely start a nonprofit. The community, what it needs, and what it believes or thinks, is secondary to the perception of innovation and the churn of the market. Never mind that rendering the fight for justice contingent upon competition for funding does little more than drive a cacophony of ever-changing terms and vocabularies, justifications, proposals and theories of change. We’ve unwittingly applied the idea that the market place, and competition for funding, ought to control the fight for justice. This is the fundamental dictate of neoliberalism. 

We are indeed on the precipice of an epochal shift in human history. Unfortunately, it’s being foisted upon a culture largely ill-prepared to handle it – not unlike our being ill-prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, there’s no reason we cannot seize this moment, emboldened by what the pandemic is teaching us about the failure of neoliberalism, and undertake the difficult work of waking-up to the Matrix in which we live. 

The time has come to root-out rugged individualism and begin to see, in the eyes of every human being in our community, persons with dignity, worthy of our love. This is a difficult thing. In fact, it is the most difficult thing any human being has ever attempted to do, but it’s just this countercultural way of thinking that will transform the world around us. It will lead to our seeing cooperation as more effective and efficient than competition. It will lead to our perception of business as the way in which we organize work, not aggregate wealth. It will ensure our businesses are run for the benefit of the worker, the community and our environment, not just those who occupy the C-suite and pray for the intercession of St. Milton Friedman and St. Ayn Rand.

Martin Luther King once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” It is this sense of “infinite hope” that also marks the American spirit. We would do well to leverage it and use it as our force for change, and thus bring about the good we so desperately need now, and will in the months and years ahead.

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