What is to be done?

by

“I feel kind of temporary about myself.” The words are Willy Loman’s, in Death of a Salesman. They capture perfectly my reaction on learning the result first of the EU referendum and then the U.S. election.

Born in the USA, I grew up in Europe: first the Netherlands, then England, at a time when the street fights of the civil rights movement and Viet Nam protests made me ashamed to be American. At an early age, I hated being identified with a country known for discrimination and violence. So Europe became my home, a place I associated with greater tolerance, a visceral discomfort with discrimination and, I thought, a longer, more nuanced worldview.

So now? After Brexit and after Trump, I’m feeling kind of temporary because I’ve lost both my homes. Many others feel the same: brought up to believe in equality, to respect thinking, truth telling and compassion, we feel lost, though grateful to be, for now, refugees in mind only.

And it’s no consolation to me to reflect that Wilful Blindness was right: that its delineation of causes were demonstrated, then amplified beyond my wildest imagining. We could, as everyone has, devote more time and energy analysing the deceitful campaigns, irresponsible media, bad economic policy. Our troubles have so many accomplices. But the deep underlying cause, the one we must look straight in the face, is inequality.

Of course I’m talking about economic inequality – the kind we turned a blind eye to until Thomas Piketty slammed his doorstopper book onto our desks. The kind some dismissed by conjuring up trickledown – until it was revealed as an illusion

But I’m also talking about deeper, inchoate inequality: the inequality that says some people matter more than others. The existential inequality that says: My children are worth more than yours. I am entitled to a home – and you are not. I deserve the truth – while you can be fobbed off with buffoonery, beer and lies. The inequality that is implicit and explicit in racism. In sexism. In xenophobia.

The tortuous irony of Brexit and Trump is that those who opposed them may benefit while their supporters stand to lose most. This is a confidence trick on a scale that leaves Bernie Madoff, Enron and BHS in the dust. But if we truly believe in equality, we must now stand beside all of those individuals and groups who feel most under attack and vulnerable. Immigrants. The unemployed and under-employed. Children assaulted by messages of hopelessness. Women. The marginalised and trivialised. We must stand by the weak, the unprotected and unprivileged and make it obvious that they do not lack for friends and defenders. That everyone matters.

But how can I take this out of the abstract and make it real?

Inequality takes many forms. As an educated, well-employed, affluent executive I have power and access to power. I know stuff. I know people. I get opportunities – to go places, meet people, learn more. Rich in these, I get richer. There are many forms of inequality and they compound: the rich get richer in everything. But what if we put our privileges at the service of those who don’t have them, instead of those that already do? Share that wealth with those who need support.

A simple example proffered by the economist Kimberly McKnight. Her little daughter had a school friend failing in the bottom math set. McKnight proposed a simple deal: she would coach the girl as long as the child would make the appointments and do the work. In the bottom set, only 75% of the curriculum was taught – the assumption being that such children could never manage the whole syllabus. McKnight taught the whole syllabus. When the school blocked promotions into upper sets, McKnight negotiated every stage until the child reached the top set, getting an A in GCSE, an A* at A level before going on to university and, today, a Masters. This economist was putting her resources – knowledge, time, a confident understanding of the system – at the service of someone with none. Which of us cannot find ways to do likewise?

When I’m invited to meet amazing people or visit remarkable places, I now ask myself: who do I know to whom this invitation would be helpful? Educational? Inspiring? How do I share my privilege?

Everyone in this country gets an education but too many lack the experience and access they need to make good choices. One terrific woman I met years ago – Jane Delfino – worked with her local school to make sure that every single poor child visited design offices, media and software companies, law and accounting firms to see firsthand all the opportunities inside. Forging links between the school and local businesses, she determined that every child would leave school with the confidence to walk into any company, able to present themselves well. They couldn’t get this from their parents, any more than they could get help with their homework. But thanks to Jane, they gained access, experience, knowledge. Why did Jane have to make the running? Does your company do this? Do you take an interest? Do you care? Enough?

I’ve spent most of my life in business so I think about this as simple business strategy: Where is the need? Where are the resources? And then there’s a third, important question: where do you have passion? The Venn diagram in which those three intersect is where you start: with the people whom you know have need, with the resources you can share, with the passion that is who you are. Why does passion matter? Because to be consistent, you will need to love what you commit to. There’s heat there. And energy. Stand by the vulnerable with your resources and your commitment. And when you’ve identified what you can do, tell people. It will give them hope and help them to see that they need not be bystanders. Good ideas are as contagious as bad ones.

Treating people as equals means seeing and talking to people not like us: breaking out of our bubbles and echo chambers, actively seeking difference. This feels unnatural because we mostly choose to spend time with people just like us. So the next time you meet anyone, seek for the differences between you. It’s uncomfortable. But it is really interesting. Because when you find those differences – where you don’t agree, where you don’t share experiences – you’ve found where you can learn from each other and where you can contribute. Instead of running away, explore the uncommon ground. Is this hard? Sure it is. Where we are is hard. But we have to do new things if we want a new world. We have to see each other to matter to each other.

At work, seek out a successor not like you. Our diversity efforts over the last thirty years are a busted flush. Forget the lip service and take responsibility. Encourage, nurture, mentor a successor for your job who does not share your background or your privileges, does not share your gender or religion. Imagine what would happen if every one of us gave up our seats to someone not like us.

You will argue that these are small steps – and you will be right. But each one of them can build social capital: the everyday norms of generosity, reciprocity and trust. And we need those now. Unlike financial capital, social capital doesn’t divide, it unites. It doesn’t fragment society but reinforces the bonds that make it robust and resilient. We need that investment now. We have always needed it and we always will.

You may be able to do more than this: house refugees, train the unskilled, care for the elderly, coach the unconfident or hire the more challenging intern. You may be able to do less than this and instead write cheques to homeless shelters and foodbanks, defend a woman’s right to choose, adopt a craftivist or support the survival of truthful journalism. But you will be able to do something and in whatever you choose to do, you will find that you are not powerless.

 

-o0o-

 

We can do all of these things – and so many more – alone. But we all know that we have more impact at scale. Nowhere was that more obvious than last March, when companies as diverse as Apple, Unilever, Delta Airlines, Salesforce, Hilton, Walt-Disney and Coca-Cola came together to oppose legislation designed to discriminate against the LGBT community in Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina. You could argue – and many businesses did – that these corporations were economically self-interested and they were. But this initiative was a value statement, demanding equality for a large and diverse community. In rejecting discrimination, these companies were not seeking to dominate society but serving it. And that is the business of business.

The big black book of corporate scandals has added many chapters in recent years – VW, GM, Wells Fargo, BHS, Sports Direct. Like democracy itself, business has a significant repair job to do on its reputation. But in its capacity to stand as a bulwark against the racism, sexism and xenophobia lies its greatest opportunity. When everyone matters, financial capital and social capital aren’t segregated but united. This will, however, require change.

Companies that reject hate- and fear-mongering, don’t invest in organizations that do. When LEGO withdraws from its relationship with the Daily Mail because of its hate-mongering, then IBM, Microsoft, Armani, Browns, Net-a-Porter, John Lewis, Virgin Media and Schroder’s must re-consider how coherent their financial and social aspirations really are. When Kellogg, Allstate Insurance and AppNexus withdraw from Breitbart News (sample headlines: Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer? Gabby Gifford: The Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield) then surely Uniqlo, Millenium Hotels and The Body Shop need to reflect on whom they think they serve.

This requires forging a new language of transparency and honesty. A language free of abuse and lies. If I deserve respect, and you do too, then we both deserve to be told the truth. And in environments where it is easy to tell the truth, where trust is high, ideas move fast. Trust is always more efficient than bureaucracy. Insight and creativity depend fundamentally on safety. So responsible leaders tell the truth – and create environments in which it is easy, commendable, even rewarded to be a truth teller. If, after 20 years of spin, this feels awkward, even dangerous, then that is a sign of progress.

Everyone is supposed to be equal before the law. Yet the fines levied against large corporations – for PPI, for LIBOR and ForEx manipulation, for environmental degradation, sexual harassment and discrimination – have become the price some companies pay to place themselves above the law. It’s no different from the millionaire who parks in the disabled bay. Fines erode social bonds, dividing the world into those who obey the law and those who can afford not to. Corporations that believe in equality, that seek to serve the society in which they are freely given a license to operate, cannot believe they are above the law.

So they must also pay tax, our simplest social affirmation of each other: the membership fee of a democratic society. When the roads run smoothly and the schools are full of energetic, optimistic teachers, and hospitals replete with doctors who aren’t exhausted or harassed, everybody thrives. When tax is paid on all jobs then everyone’s work counts. Zero hours contracts are just another form of tax avoidance. They were never about flexibility but about power: who has the power to avoid tax and who does not? In a world where everyone matters, everyone pays tax.

Inequality has frayed our social fabric and these measures are some of our means to repair it. But repair it we must. For the intelligent and automating technologies emerging over the next ten years will exert even greater pressure than we experience today. Climate change too will put every connection to the test. If the fabric holds, it will be only because everyone cares enough, and matters enough, to contribute.

A place in which everyone matters is called a society.

 

-o0o-

No snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche.

Voltaire

 

When I first read Hannah Arendt on the origins of criminal states, I imagined other countries, far away in time or place. I didn’t imagine my time, my place. Now I do. And my words feel inadequate. Arendt understood the power of willful blindness, its gravitational pull and the sanction it provides to those who do nothing. So we must start where we are. Do everything we can. Learn from our mistakes. And repeat. Because this is how complex systems like society change. Because this is how all creative work is done.

Pessimism is an indulgence for the powerful; if you believe everyone matters, optimism is a moral requirement. To make our work, we must believe in it, before knowing how fares. Many of us are among the best educated, most experienced, most connected, best resourced people in history. It cannot be that we have nothing with which to stand against the forces of nationalism, racism, misogyny and deceit. It cannot be that we lack resources with which to protect the people and the values we say we believe in. At the least, and to the last, we stand together with the poor and the vulnerable because everyone matters.

Will that be enough? No. It will be no more than a beginning. But the contingencies of history recede so rapidly from view that we forget how much of today’s normality was once implausible. Gay rights? In the middle of the AIDS epidemic, death felt closer than freedom. Votes for women? Stymied by war. Economic growth and prosperity in Viet Nam? A cruel joke in the 1960s. Norms change, not through a single policy, one great leader or a miraculous event. They change through the concatenation of what people do, how they think, how they vote, the gestures and friendships they make, the meetings they attend, the questions they ask. Conversation by conversation, gesture by gesture. Singly and through partnerships, alliances, arguments and rows. The world is changed when fallible people see the freedom they still have.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

~September 1939, W. H. Auden


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