Can Capitalism Be Caring?


Despite the increasing problems that Ben & Jerry’s is having in actualizing the integration of its project with the "real" world, its basic philosophy of honesty stands out as a characteristic that eludes the reality of compromised ethics that characterizes fast capitalism. Their annual report recognizes the problems that they have had with the Rainforest Crunch product, and they have revoked the label that is now somewhat misleading. And, although Lager does not fully recognize this in his portrait of the company, the annual report does not fail to mention the effect growth is having upon Ben & Jerry’s "life":


An over-all impression gained from performing the [social] audit two years in succession is that growth is driving almost every level of the Company and is affecting every decision. Although there are those who would say that size begets inhumane characteristics, and that it takes constant attention to maintain values in a commercial world driven by growth, the Company is discovering its own limitations, a sign of maturity. It is reaching out to institutions and persons outside of the Company to assist in developing the Company’s practices and management. The shareholders can be proud of the Company, but should be prepared to accept the vicissitudes that come with the new heights reached because of growth. No one can say where the watershed is between small and large, but once crossed there is no going back. Ben & Jerry’s has crossed that divide, and the years to come will bring enormous challenges, the challenge to preserve and retain what is valuable, and the wisdom to let go of what no longer works…The expression of the Company’s values is finding competition with the ‘values’ of growth (Ben & Jerry’s 1993 Annual Report, pg. 25).


The duplicity and twofold nature of this statement cannot go unnoticed. While at one point they recognize and openly acknowledge the "vicissitudes" that plague their business (what I have here called rationalization and submission to the principles of the growth economy), in the next phrase they take pride in them, calling them a "sign of maturity", and display a willingness to "let go of what no longer works". The juxtaposition of being wholly honest about the position of compromise within which they have been placed (regarding their ethical stance) makes itself plain, perhaps, if we understand the company as having a "life" of its own. This egoistic relationship that a company may have with itself (especially strong when given the positive incentives of the mainstream press and popular opinion) can then be examined with reference to the "truth-telling ethic" that Collard discusses here, with regard to Hirsch:


Hirsch (1975) has interestingly suggested, in a banking context, that ‘telling the truth and keeping one’s word’ may be treated as collective intermediate goods, the creation of which is positively hindered by normal competitive processes. But he adds that a truth-telling ethic may be most effectively induced in small, closely knit groups. Once again, therefore, the small group seems to be more promising than the large group for voluntary co-operation.


Outside the small group situation the only way for altruistic individual preferences to find expression in collective action is through the ballot box. The outcome then depends on two sets of factors, first the prevalence of altruism in the community and second the decision-making process linking individual preferences and social choice (1978: 34).


As the young, altruistic Ben & Jerry’s grew in sales, it grew in size, moving beyond the point at which the employees and owners constituted a "small group". Not knowing which way to turn as the company grew larger and larger, they ended up haphazardly instituting a traditional business hierarchy, an autocratic bureaucracy. The evidence of this is clear, even from Lager’s standpoint: "Ben had been the company’s most visible autocrat and was therefore the easiest one to take shots at, but he was by no means the only manager at the company whose interpersonal skills left something to be desired" (1994: 194). It is more likely not that the interpersonal skills of the managers were lacking, but rather that the mode of communication that was necessitated by the auto/bureaucratic paradigm that they absorbed from traditional corporate culture was lacking. In fact, Cohen "wanted to go one step further [than educate its employees about the idea of the social mission] and use the company’s values as a screen for new employees". He wrote up a document and circulated a copy to the board. "We were taken aback. As written, it was a loyalty oath that said, ‘our employees must adhere, support, encourage and work for the following values’, after which it listed six beliefs covering everything from human rights and the environment to reducing military expenditures". Cohen maintained, correctly, that this was a normal part of the business process, citing IBM as an example: "Buck Rogers, the former vice-president of marketing at IBM, said…in his book, The IBM Way: ‘Since IBM operates with a well-defined value system, it’s essential that the young people recruited into the company are comfortable and compatible with those values’ " (1994: 201). Although the idea was shut-down at that point, later in the life of the company it was re-instituted, although in a more subtle way. Making changes upon Lager’s movement from general manager to CEO, Chuck Lacy (the new general manager) made an effort to


backtrack from some of the statements we had made about participatory management. In some ways the organizational development work [of past years] had unleashed a bureaucracy with committees of people who were debating issues that should have been decided by one person or at least by much smaller groups. Even the administrative assistants, for example, had formed a committee to voice their concerns…Inadvertently we’d created the expectation that we would solicit everyone’s input before making any decision. In an article in the March 1989 Daily Plant [the company newsletter], I made it clear that wasn’t going to be the case. ‘The company is not and never has been a model of democracy," I wrote. In some areas, having a values-led organization precluded participation in decision making (Lager, 1994: 207).


The reason that the democratic style was not working was due to the competitive ethos of the mainstream corporate culture that Ben & Jerry’s adopted upon maintaining its devotion to growth. Ben & Jerry’s, forced to comply with the speed and complexity by which fast capitalism moves, suffers with respect to the cooperative ethos found in their interpretation of the "social mission". However, the egoism of the economic mission, what Amartya Sen will call next a "self-goal", fails to allow them fold under the pressure of the competition. This is the nature of the Prisoners’ Dilemma game:


In the Prisoners’ Dilemma each person has a ‘strictly dominant’ individual strategy, in the sense that no matter what others do, each person’s own goals are better served by following that dominant (and ‘self-goal’) strategy. At the same time, everyone’s goals would have been respectively better served had they followed a different (and more cooperative) strategy. Given ‘self-goal’ choice, it is clear that each person will indeed follow the non-cooperative strategy, and thereby everyone will end up in a situation inferior to following the cooperative strategy. There are real-life analogies of this kind of problem in many areas of real importance in economics…Experimental studies of game-theoretic behaviour have also tended to reveal departures from self-goal choice (see, for example, Lave 1962, Rapoport and Chammah 1965, Axelrod, 1984). Such departures are quite clearly noticed also in real-life experiences, involving economic and social matters.


In recent years there has developed a fairly extensive game-theoretic literature in dealing with the prevalence of cooperative behaviour in finitely repeated Prisoners’ Dilemma games. This is interesting and important since there is a general argument against such cooperation in finitely repeated Prisoners’ Dilemma. The argument is that any reward from not pursuing self-goal choice must arise from the favourable response of other players in later rounds. Clearly, there is no case, therefore, for departing from self-goal choice in the last round, since there are no later rounds. But since each party has no incentive to depart from self-goal choice in the last round, there is no point in selfless behaviour in the last-but-one round either, since noone will respond in the last round anyway. Inducing backwards, it can be shown, on the basis of this type of reasoning, that there will be no case for departing from self-goal choice at any stage of the game. The fact is, nevertheless, that cooperation does seem to emerge in these games (1987: 83-84).


There is evidence in theory and by empirical tests that, contrary to some views that the marketplace represents an arena where only the fit survive in unbounded competition (the supposedly Darwinian view espoused as the untamable nature of the human animal) people do behave cooperatively without the incentive of maximizing gain, i.e. without the incentive of profit. This is the same ethos that Cohen and Greenfield enveloped when they started Ben & Jerry’s back in 1978. In fact, Cohen stills maintains these ideals today:


In a letter to our shareholders in early 1992, Ben wrote,


The most amazing thing is that our social values - that part of our company mission statement that calls us to use our power as a business to improve the quality of life in our local, national and international communities - have actually helped us to become a stable, profitable, high-growth company. This is especially interesting because it flies in the face of those business theorists who state that publicly held corporations cannot make a profit and help the community at the same time, and moreover that such companies have no business trying to do so [e.g., Milton Friedman]. The issues here are heart, soul, love and spirituality. Corporations which exist solely to maximize profit become disconnected from their soul - the spiritual interconnectedness of humanity. Like individuals, businesses can conduct themselves with the knowledge that the hearts, souls and spirits of all people are interconnected; so that as we help others, we cannot help helping ourselves (Lager, 1994: 225).


This is the very opposite of Smith’s notion of the "invisible hand". Unfortunately, the current state of corporate culture dictates that "self-goal choice" be the dominant strategy in today’s economic game. The attempt by Ben & Jerry’s to infiltrate this ethos with their own is, day by day, proving to be in vain. This, after all, is indicated by the "rules of the game". How, then can the competitive ethos that drags us down from achieving a greater sense of connectedness be more well-established in our society?


In answering this question, it may be useful to discuss how this issue was handled by previous thinkers. Collard finds an answer in Hume’s thought, regarding his contagion thesis of altruistic advancement: " ‘The passions are so contagious", says Hume, "that they pass with the greatest facility from one person to another, and produce correspondent movements in all human breasts’. Hume very clearly recognised, in a brilliant passage, that the economic problem would vanish either if there was very great material prosperity and satiation of demand or if people were strongly altruistic. Hume put it rather better: ‘[the poets] easily perceived, if every man had a tender regard for another, or if nature supplied abundantly all our needs and desires, that the jealousy of interest could no longer have place. Encrease to a sufficient degree the benevolence of men, or the bounty of nature, and you render justice useless’ " (1978: 55). However, despite our arrival at a period in which we have mastered our environment to the point where we can control its bounty and "supply abundantly all our needs and desires", we have nonetheless avoided such a society in which we can render justice useless.


The economic problem has not vanished despite very great material prosperity. According to Collard, this leaves only the other factor by which the problem can be resolved: through the embodiment of a strongly altruistic ethic among the people. The contagion thesis is important in this respect. "Of course," Collard notes, "there is little direct evidence for it.…But in spite of the lack of direct evidence, the dynamics of the relationship are attractive to the modern eye: preferences, selfish or otherwise, cannot on this view be taken as static but are subject to interaction with events. There is, moreover, some indirect evidence in favour of the contagion thesis: it may plausibly be said to have been holding, though in a downward direction, in Nazi Germany. At a more humdrum level economists have found it convenient to explain consumer durable purchases in terms of pioneers, taste learning and epidemics" (1978: 179). This idea of "taste learning" is, incidentally, highly reminiscent of Bourdieu’s notion of "cultural capital". "The work of art considered as a symbolic asset (and not as an economic asset, which it may also be) only exists as such for a person who has the means to appropriate it, or in other words, to decipher it. The repeated perception of works of a certain style encourages the unconscious interiorization of the rules which govern the production of these works" (in Alexander & Seidman, 1990: 206, 207; my emphasis). For example, if we consider television commercials "works of art" (for, undoubtedly, they do have aesthetic qualities), certainly it can be seen that those who are subject to repeated perception of these works will consequently unconsciously interiorize the values that the commercials transmit, namely the values of fast capitalism. The effect is even more dramatic given the class-transcendent property of television viewing. Our mass culture has allowed commercialism to break class barriers and infect the whole of our society with an ideology that encourages conformity and ignores the vita contemplativa, or the capacity for reflection and imagination. In this respect the contagion thesis seems pessimistically appropriate. Furthermore, the notion of contagion emphasizes the difficulty which companies that choose to act in altruistic, or "socially responsible", ways will have in assimilating into this mass culture.


This is the impetus for the twofold character that Ben & Jerry’s displays: the company is now caught in the interstice of two antithetical ethics. In the first, one "celebrate[s] bourgeois capitalist society as the best polity actualized so far, while regretting that it is irrelevant to most of the problems of most of the population of the planet" (Rorty, in Stout, 1988: 229). Stout’s analysis of this description of fast capitalism describes the second ethic:


If the concession tagged onto the end of [that] sentence were intended only to say that bourgeois capitalist society is unlikely to solve most of the problems of most of the population of the planet, Rorty is certainly right. But it is hard to see how bourgeois capitalist society could be deemed irrelevant to most of those problems, at least as a source of dramatically important unintended consequences, many of them bad enough to make celebration seem the wrong tack to take. With no more than asides like this to go on, we are left with what seems a dangerously myopic moral vision, apparently blind to relations of interdependence and dominance within the economic world-system from which we derive our wealth, a vision compatible with gross insensitivity to that system’s sorrows, injustices, and corrupting influences (1988: 229-230; my emphasis).


The difference between Rorty’s understanding, which Stout types as "liberalism" and stands against his own "communitarianism", is logically akin to the competitive/cooperative division seen between mainstream corporate culture and Ben & Jerry’s, respectively. Rorty is quite optimistic about the goods that modern capitalist society has brought us, optimistic enough to "celebrate" it. Furthermore, he views the problems of society as insulated from this economic order. This is the same externalized perspective which the capitalist world-order uses to justify "the deception". Take for example this message from a local TV station, aired after an hour-long commercial for ‘JoJo’s Psychic Hotline’, whereby callers will have their lottery-winning lucky numbers revealed to them, their woes soothed by astrological charts and their wallets seriously drained of cash (the hotline costs a $4.99 per minute): "The preceding was a paid commercial. WUTV is not responsible for the production of the preceding program, nor does it endorse its use or content." The only shred of connection between the station and the products of the capitalist world is the transmission that occurs when cash itself is exchanged. The movement from a world of solid goods to a world of the transient exchange of small green pieces of paper seems to have left the money itself as the chief value to all who use this mode of exchange, that is, to nearly everyone. On the contrary, Ben & Jerry’s recognizes that currency is not the only thing being exchanged in a business transaction. On this subject speaks Cohen:


Most people suspend their values about contributing to society when they go to work, believing that its something they’re only supposed to be concerned with in their free time at home. It’s when we’re at work that we’re most powerful…The results we can achieve within the company, working together, are far greater than those we could accomplish working as three hundred individuals on our own (Lager, 1994: 189).


So, if we can characterize the "liberal" and "communitarian" viewpoints as analogous to the ethical frameworks of mainstream corporate culture and Ben & Jerry’s culture, a second reading from Stout seems appropriate:


[Rorty] seems to be saying this: Our institutions are the best invented so far…[so] be not alarmed about a culture dominated by the rich aesthete, the manager, and the therapist, ‘so long as everybody who wants to gets to be an aesthete’ (and, if not rich, as comfortably off as most - as rich as the Managers can manage). He is too quick to say that a sense of common purpose may just have to be given up if we want to enjoy the benefits of our society, or ‘that even if the typical character-types of liberal democracies are bland, calculating, petty and unheroic, the prevalence of such people may nevertheless be a reasonable price to pay for political freedom’.


We do not confront a choice between a society in which political freedom reigns but the people are lousy and one in which somewhat better people would emerge if we were only willing to sacrifice political freedom. We do however live in a society where economic and other forces seem increasingly to produce people who lack the virtues needed to use their freedom well - whether in the political arena, in the workplace, in the home, or elsewhere. Terminal wistfulness [the supposed character of communitarianism which Rorty debases, i.e. utopianism, idealism, romanticism, etc.] doesn’t help, but neither does the idea that liberal freedom is worth the price of bad people. The latter is as far removed from our actual choices as the former. What we need to discover, it seems to me, is the mean between smug approval of the status quo and wistful alienation from it - the mean between liberal apologetics and implicitly utopian criticism (1988: 231-232).

I agree with Stout that it is neither possible nor desirable to retract the modern era and all of its conveniences and beneficial technologies so that we may re-enter the supposed bliss of a social existence that precluded individualism, but rather that we should attempt to discuss ways in which we can reintegrate the now theoretically separate realms of economy, politics and culture into a societal system that no longer ignores injustice and instills virtues in its people that are "needed to use their freedom well".


In examining the case of Ben & Jerry’s, we may be able to gain certain insights from their mistakes. First and foremost of their mistakes was adopting the traditional auto-bureaucratic, hierarchical structure of the contemporary corporation. As Collard explains with reference to the prisoners’ dilemma, if we are to move beyond a small group interaction "the only way for altruistic individual preferences to find expression in collective action is through the ballot box." Thus, those people that exist within the work organization itself must be able to meld their altruistic ideas with the corporate mainstream through a democratic process designed to incite an expression of various viewpoints. The democratic process was won on the level of sovereignty and governmental authority during the Renaissance. Today the same ideas need to find a presence in the economic realm so as to foster a democratic corporate authority. Indeed, this was Marx’s major idea: to revolutionize the workforce so that each individual had a greater control over what they were doing and why they were doing it. The values of rationality maintained by mainstream capitalist culture diminish this kind of individual autonomy by encouraging production on a mass scale.


Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, before altruistic ideas find their way into a society’s institutions (the economic institutions, in our case, because they are the ones found to be so lacking), they must be possessed by the individuals who incorporate those institutions. But what are these increasingly vague ‘altruistic ideas’? They are ideas that encourage or promote the members of the society in question to reflect upon their dehumanizing activity and determine whether that activity is beneficial to both the individuals who compose the society as well as the continued existence of the society itself: the ability and opportunity to reflect and be imaginative, to examine and question one’s existence (i.e., one’s work) unhindered, and to be, consequently, happy.


In order to achieve this reflexivity, we must be able to assimilate many different positions regarding the meaning of work, to become "multi-perspectival", to ‘put ourselves in everybody else’s shoes’, so to speak, or become like a child in front of a mystery: in short, to be open-minded. This characteristic of individuals denies the notion of an all-encompassing, nomothetic truth of universal laws of humanity (or human nature); but it also denies a moral relativism that today commonly resides in positions of "value-freedom" (or the "I’m ok, you’re ok" mentality).


Unfortunately, as we recall from Freud, the effect that adopting this mindset has is counter-intuitive regarding the activity of acquiring an altruistic idea (or of being happy):


We shall always tend to consider people…objectively - that is, to place ourselves, with our own wants and sensibilities, in their conditions, and then to examine what occasions we should find in them for experiencing happiness or unhappiness. This method of looking at things, which seems objective because it ignores the variations in subjective sensibility, is, of course, the most subjective possible, since it puts one’s own mental states in the place of any others, unknown though they may be. Happiness, however, is something essentially subjective. No matter how much we may shrink with horror from certain situations - of a galley-slave in antiquity, of a peasant during the Thirty Years’ War, of a victim of the Holy Inquisition, of a Jew awaiting a pogrom [or, I would add at this point in history, a gas chamber]- it is nevertheless impossible for us to feel our way into such people - to divine the changes which original obtuseness of mind, a gradual stupefying process, the cessation of expectations, and cruder or more refined methods of narcotization have produced upon their receptivity to sensations of pleasure and unpleasure (1961: 36).



Our inability to really step into someone else’s shoes stunts and dulls us; it impedes our ability to become reflexive and imaginative and it thwarts our advancement toward an ultimately altruistic social ethic. However, our ability to sympathize, in a limited respect (if not the real respect of the one with whom we are sympathizing) blocks the other escape route by which we might pursue an ultimate end - self-destruction. Our lives, individual and collective, bounce in between these two points of egoism and compassion, resting briefly on a spot only to be washed by a wave of ideas put into action toward a new place on the continuum. The development of technology (or applied science) has caused this continuum to grow ever wider. The process of creating new technologies that allow us to pursue our individual autonomies with as great a level of control as possible also creates the need for a greater degree to which we must work in concert to achieve these technologies! As we further our pursuit toward a faster capitalism we exchange individual freedom for corporate bondage. Rather than attempting to balance these two extremes, we are moving to either end of the scale and pushing the boundaries apart even further.


This is the bind within which Ben & Jerry’s notion of "caring capitalism" seems to be caught, despite efforts to avoid it. As the company has grown, the pluralism of ideas and perspectives of the individuals who constitute the business have changed the socially responsible ethic that Cohen wanted to imbue upon the organization, but could not do without instituting a "loyalty oath."


Striking a balance between liberalism and communitarianism was, in fact, the project of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. from their inception. It recognized the way in which people are isolated in the modern economic order, the way in which workers are separated from each other and must deal with one another using standardized rules of conduct (bureaucracy) rather than relying upon their own conscience as a guide. They wanted to change such ‘individuation’ into an ‘individualism’, whereby people could "be themselves" and still operate a "successful" business, by the definitions of the larger society. However, the fact that they must exist within and negotiate with the corporations of fast capitalism exacerbates the problems they are having in making such an integration. Their attempt to integrate a communitarian ethos with the mainstream corporate culture is ill-fated. Because of the paradoxical nature of this endeavor, their attempts at developing a caring capitalism in today’s business climate is counter-intuitive and ultimately self-destructive. Either they will cease to exist, or they will be adopted by the competitive corporate culture. And it seems, as we have seen, that the latter option is becoming the case in fact. Here a short anecdote is appropriate: As I was driving out of town just a few weeks ago, I was overtaken by a bright light sitting above the thruway, nearly blinding me. It was a newly installed road sign, found just before a thruway rest area. Emblazoned upon the sign were the fat, chunky, friendly letters of "Ben & Jerry’s" laying hand-in-hand with the golden arches of McDonald’s, urging me to avail myself of their mutual treats, whilst I travelled ever faster down that speedy highway.


Such is the nature of the hegemony of fast capitalism. It is all-consuming. However, it is not indestructible. Over time such efforts as Ben & Jerry’s to avoid the pitfalls of fast capitalism may prove more successful. Only a strong educative effort, first toward the reflection of individuals upon their existence in such a totalized economic world order, and second, toward the realization that investigation regarding the repercussions of supposedly "socially responsible" programs should be made prior to enacting them in an empirical sense, will turn the tide toward "contagion" of a more altruistic ethic. Cohen and Greenfield appeared to have this kind of organization at first, proving their commitment to owning a business with a "social conscience and a sense of humor." They chose not to maintain "the deception", not to accumulate great masses of personal wealth (with the establishment of the five-to-one ratio,), not to compromise the values they held as individuals as they became less and less individually responsible for the management of the business. But, despite worthy efforts toward the opposite, the mechanisms of corporate culture seem to have taken over in direct relation to the growth of the company, and caring capitalism for them is not now quite what it used to be.


The juxtaposition of a company that cares enough to be honest and simultaneously is losing that very character of integrity (by virtue of the method it must use to "survive" in a world dominated by fast capitalism) stands out as oxymoronic. From this point of view, they are becoming increasingly less "vigilant to traces of McDonaldization" and less able to "demonstrate that it can both be successful and ward off McDonaldization over the long haul" (Ritzer, 1993: 177). With renewed imaginative efforts by similarly social-minded ‘entrepreneurs’, however, perhaps the goal of a "new corporate concept of linked prosperity" can continue to enhance the contagion of altruistic ideas in the marketplace.


It seems likely though that pursuing such efforts through the means and ways of contemporary corporate capitalism, i.e. by adopting the rationalized ethos of modern business, any new concept will be prone to eventual failure and subsumption by fast capitalism. Perhaps, however, by arriving with truly new and imaginative ideas for a structure of the institution of business based not upon "rational" premises but rather upon the reflexive and imaginative principles fostered by the kind of individualism that exists in the theoretical democratic corporation, such new businesses can help to create "guideposts" by which the society in which they are established will shift toward a more equal balance upon the continuum that stands between a wholly competetive, non-caring, individual, liberal ethos and a wholly caring, altruistic, cooperative, communitarian ethos. To promote this result, we all must make an effort, through democratic political and economic means to combat the legitimation of a capitalism that promotes desensitization, depoliticization and dehumanization.


Next Section - Bibliography/Notes

Back to Title Page

Back to Cyberstudies