The choices companies and their staff make are less determined by the organisation design and their individual values than by the way the company is incorporated. To address today’s global injustices, such as climate change and the SDG, we must incorporate in inclusive ways that deliver equitably on the needs of all stakeholders, including investors, staff, customers and the broader community. In a FairShares company staff, suppliers, customers, any relevant stakeholder group, even perhaps the city and country the company is based in, all qualify for voting rights and a share of the wealth generated. Read first the section most interesting to you 1) I compare the systems of separation in business and apartheid; 2) discuss how separation blocks us from addressing our challenges and; 3) why current solutions and are not sufficient; and 4) describe a way of creating new startups in a fundamentally different way, viable today, using the FairShares Commons incorporation.
1) How modern business has parallels to apartheid
I grew up in apartheid South Africa. I never felt safe, and struggled to see any path out of the morally wrong and socially unstable system to a viable future. I felt powerless to do anything, hopeless about the future, and angry at how South Africa was.
Are you angry about climate change, and other injustices in today’s world, but feel powerless to change the system? Have you joined the Extinction Rebellion, or the school strikes, and want to know what comes next; how do we build a new system that really works? These blogs are a call to action, and four essential steps to building a system that works.
Looking back at South Africa, I can now see clearly how apartheid was like a hidden force, a gravity, pulling at all South Africans. Anyone who tried to act differently was pulled back into the apartheid swamp and a binary choice, of either defending or attacking apartheid.
In 2008 I decided to leave my career in the middle management of Procter and Gamble to focus on figuring out how to harness the power of business for the greater good. I also left because my work no longer felt safe. Not safe for me in the moment, and certainly not safe for future generations. Even though P&G’s clearly stated purpose was, and is, to improve lives, I observed that too many choices were made to improve shareholder returns at the cost of the quality of life today and far into the future.
Is this relevant to you? Do you feel psychologically safe at work? Do you trust your boss with your future? Do you trust the shareholders to vote for what will be good for you, your children, and your grandchildren, even if that might diminish their return on investment this quarter?
My experiences in P&G, and the very similar experiences of my friends in other companies, led me to deeply question the fundamentals: what are the structural foundations of trust, psychological safety, and fiduciary vs. moral responsibility in business? What might the hidden gravities be — gravities pulling well-intentioned people back into the swamp of behaviour contrary to their values?
The foundation of South Africa’s apartheid is also hidden in the foundations of business today, and is one root cause of the global problems we are facing. This common foundation is the legal construct restricting the power to govern, and the right to a share of the wealth generated, to only the investing shareholders, rather than to all stakeholders.
Apartheid as a word means “a context (heid) of separation (apart)”. Such a context of separation was the gravity driving the behaviours that harmed all South Africans, and a context of separation is the gravity driving the behaviours harming us all today.
Apartheid grew out of a worldview that saw having a white skin as the reason for someone to have better capabilities and to deserve more. So only those who had a white skin were eligible to vote for politicians, own land, and enjoy most of the wealth of the country. In reality, a century ago having white skin just meant that you came from Europe, which had just been lucky enough to be the first in the next industrial revolution.
Apartheid was a legal construct allowing only one stakeholder group to have voting rights in elections, and the right to own property, work, education etc. In parallel, business is a legal construct where only the stakeholders investing money have the right to vote and a share of the wealth generated.
Apartheid disenfranchising all other stakeholders, denying them any role in steering the country into the future, denying them a share of the wealth generated from their past labour. All the emotional and physical injustices; the lives lived far short of their potential; and the protests inside and outside South Africa were inevitable consequences of the construct of South African apartheid, and all entirely a choice driven by a few with power.
Does having more money, or financial power, mean today that you are more capable of making the better choice in the annual general meeting of a multinational than any other stakeholder?
We have invented another context of separation in business, and embedded it in the laws we have written. This prevents all but the investors from engaging in steering our companies into the future, and reserves most of the benefits, e.g. the capital gain generated, to those investors. Does having more money today mean you are more capable of making the better choice in the annual general meeting of a multinational, and deserve all the dividends and capital gain? Or does it simply correlate with having the power over others to satisfy one’s short-term emotional drives?
We seldom make it a habit to become truly aware of the context we are in, whether it’s physical gravity or some other kind of gravity pulling at us; and seldom recognise how this pull shapes everyone’s behaviour and our collective responsibility to change it.