Following the New Deal era in America, when business people took for granted, more or less, that they had a moral responsibility to the community, the rise of the right wing (ably documented by Rick Perlstein in Before the Storm) mixed a racist, John Birch Society movement with big business interests to change the way people thought about morality in American business.  Milton Friedman, the highly influential economist from the University of Chicago, became a kind of fundamentalist for the notion that the only social responsibility of business was to make money, disregarding as irrelevant the question of how that money is made.

In film, this notion found some expression in the famous words of “Gordon Gecko” that “Greed is good.”  And yet, other films show us how we take for granted that Friedman was full of shit.  Anyone who watches Schindler’s List understands that a business person making a rational profit from an immoral system deserves moral opprobrium, at the very least.  

But what happens when poverty, exploitation, sickness and death are less apparent than are the death camps, in retrospect, active in Hitler’s Germany?  More to the point, what happens when a cultural ethos of only “individual responsibility,” absent consideration of the effects of policies and behavior on the wider community, dominates, such that exploitative CEO’s who propel immoral political and business policies are seen as cultural heroes?

That’s the situation in America – still – today.  The myth of the rugged individualist, the hardscrapping superhero CEO still exists as a kind of dominant cultural model to which to aspire, and we never really look at how the money gets made, or at whose expense.  This cultural myth, post Enron, and, it must be said, post George W. Bush, has been tarnished, but nothing yet has replaced it.

Matt Stoller was on a roll today highlighting institutional corruption of our big business community through its efforts to rig the regulatory environment toward the development of ever more powerful barriers to community prosperity.  One example includes the efforts of the telecommunications lobby (with some muddled assistance from the Communications Workers of America) to make the US a third world information economy (Update:  see also here ).  Another post of Matt’s examines the big institutional forces behind the continuing feudalization of America:  the National Manufacturers’ Association, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Restaurant Association, NFIB (National Federation of Independent Businesses) and NAW (National Association of Wholesalers-Distributors).

Though the defenders of Milton Friedman’s anti-community fundamentalist philosophy often claimed there was no place for a discussion of “morality” in business policy, practice or strategy, they simply replaced one view of what is “moral” with another, transforming what has always been defined as a vice (greed) into a virtue.  Neat trick. 

This has always been, from its inception, partly a racist movement, not always on the level of individual racial animus (in all cases), but from the perspective of the systemic exclusion and subjugation of those outside the privileged classes, obviously mostly comprised of caucasian males.  That’s why I chose the immortal and brilliant artist Leadbelly to headline tonight’s post.  The same business forces at work today to bust up unions, legitimize the racist apologetics of Michelle Malkin or sustain Rush Limbaugh’s corporate sponsored “Barack the Magic Negro” parodies will bring us back to, if left unchecked, the kind of brutal, pervasive poverty and exploitation Leadbelly subtly undermined through his art in his time, expressing as he did the blues of working African Americans barely out of historical slavery. 

While it’s true that aristocratic corporatism will continue to subjugate light skinned people as well, the effects of our current pro-big business politics and cultural affinities are clearly, at least in part, racist, as American businesses feel free to exploit working people of color all over the globe, from the slave labor factories of Asia to the disempowered, disenfranchised immigrant labor community in this country.  These same corporate forces own media paltforms that continually denigrate people of color and give platforms to anti-immigrant screeds laden with racially coded language.

It’s time to propel a new conversation about morality and American business, a conversation for the new century.  We’ve had enough of conservatives like the John Birch Society, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, conservative aristocrats who justify the exploitation of the powerless and call it morally upright.  I know many great businesspeople and CEO’s who do not operate from this mindset. 

In fact, the greatest American entrepreneurial vigor comes from people who, rather than build anti-competitive regulatory roadblocks to innovation, must in fact fight against them while shouldering the burden of societal subsidies to corrupt pharmaceutical companies and the insurance lobby through ever rising health care costs.  As leaders in smaller organizations who know more of their employees personally, they are far more aware of the value and growth potential inherent in human capital when you invest in people and put them in situations that make best use of any given person’s natural talents.  There’s an incredible amount of leverage and profit in finding out what people do best and helping them grow.

It’s morally right to create national free broadband access.  It’s also a great national investment.  So is universal health care, leaving the insurance lobby essentially out of the conversation:  the insurance companies have lost their moral credibility. 

Business relationships are a subset of social relationships, the ways we interact with each other to attempt to cooperate economically for mutual benefit, the exchange of goods and services.  Business is not some exceptional sui generis thing apart from all other modes of social interaction:  it is a subset of human society, something people do, and therefore as subject to moral review as any other human activity.  That is not to say it is the role of government to legislate morality, but it is the role of government to incent and create the minimal conditions to promote or sustain the principles of community life expressed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  Regulation of corporations plays a part in this, but right now, the regulations are being written in secret by bad corporate actors because, collectively, we let them.

There are people working to forward this needed, new conversation, like the corporate social responsibility folks, and even some departments of major business schools have ostensibly been created to examine these questions.  But academics and people in the corporate social responsibility world are only part of the necessary national ecosystem required to undo decades of abuse and exploitation, and progressives like us can (and in my view) should begin to connect the dots publicly using moral terms. 

The business community is answerable to the rest of society, and that’s us.  The big business community propels a media infrastructure that in part promotes racism, whether it be Imus or Rush Limbaugh or Smerconish or Glen Beck or Pat Buchanan or Howie Kurtz’s mindless devotion to Our Lady of the Internment Camps (Michelle Malkin).   Meanwhile, we’ve been creating our own, alternate media machine and national political narrative, but in my view, we still have a lot of work and talking to do to change America’s understanding of itself so that heroes are once again people who prosper by serving the community, be it through business or through any other human endeavor.

On an unrelated note, as one who has written previously that there is no “war on terror,” I feel duty bound to give major kudos to John Edwards for refusing to endorse this false metaphor when prompted to do so during the debate this week.  Today Matt Stoller has brought more attention to the story.  Why you people read me when I just seem to link to Stoller anyway, I have no idea.