As we have seen in recent years, revolutions come in various shapes and sizes. They happen overnight (as in Tunisia and Egypt) or over the course of years (Syria). The self-evident truth about all revolutions, however, is that they are inexorable and signal a profound shift of one sort or another. One such revolution—which we have been discussing in this series—is rooted in the demand that a corporation exist for a purpose other than for itself (embodied by its shareholders). This is changing the way the world works.
Purpose, readers of earlier posts will recall, is to be found at the intersection of “me and we,” of ipse and idem, of self-knowing and other-orientation, of a “brand’s best self” and a “cultural tension”—however you want to put it. That’s not a natural way of thinking for shareholders, however. Our system drives them to consider only what is in their “best interest” short term—profit—but not what is best for others except as it produces more profit. This is, in other words, socially licensed self-interest. The move toward purpose is a wholesale departure from that. Solving real, global problems as a primary intention isn’t in the classic definition of a shareholder’s best interest. This change requires that we appreciate how utterly consumed we, and our businesses, have been by the elevation of the individual to the exclusion of the other.
At first glance, we might be forgiven for underestimating the significance of 342 pounds of black tea, shipped by the East India Company from Davison, Newman and Company in London and parked aboard the Dartmouth, the Eleanor and the Beaver in Boston Harbor. Members of the Sons of Liberty, dressed as Mohawk warriors to declare their identification with the new, independent land of America, tossed the tea, along with their colonial fetters, into the sea. This was no ordinary tea—something far more historic was brewing.
And so began a revolution—the overthrow of an Empire and perhaps the first whiff of a continental preference for coffee that would set the stage for a global colonization by Starbucks a mere 200 years later.
The rejection of the Tea Act of 1773 by Britain’s American colonists is noteworthy as much for the social revolution it represented as for any political implications, significant as they have so clearly been. Some 30 years prior to this heave-ho of British economic hegemony and her efforts to safeguard the profits of the East India Company, another European exporter, Jean Jacques Rousseau, had launched his Social Contract and later Confessions which struck such a compelling portrait of self-awareness that it fueled French peasants to revolt against the deaf ears of the aristocracy and the American colonists to overthrow their economic masters to accommodate an individual pursuit of happiness. Other writers such as John Locke and Adam Smith would further nurture the independence of the individual and the right to private property.
Set loose across the wide-open plains of the uncharted Americas, a self of its own self-making, these continental ideas evolved into the enshrined individual—backed by a durable constitution safeguarding individual liberties—unfettered in his pursuit of private property ownership, self-recognition and self-interest.
In the following century, the observant French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the new world of America had become a laboratory for the new social experiment: “the rise of the individual.” He sounded a caution that balancing material self-interest with the needs of society would be challenging.
The independent colonists—called “Americans” now—cultivated a new sense of self: an autonomous individual with newly protected rights and freedoms, pursuing wealth for its own sake. And, so we “selves” forged the engine of commerce, the modern corporation, in our own autonomous, individualistic and pragmatic self-made image.
It is perhaps fitting that in US law at least, the corporation is legally recognized as an individual. We have for generations linked the primary engine of commerce to the same individualistic and self-actualizing identity that has been driving the ever-expanding Western economies. Thus, when society starts an inquiry into the consequences of unfettered individual consumption, it also puts the brakes to the corporate identity we have likewise forged in our own image.
A dissenting opinion is emerging. Some forms of altruism have become socially acceptable, even expected. For instance, commonly held world-views that now include ideas like the global village or a commitment to sustainability place the individual within context of the whole society, signaling a level of reliance on one another and an expectation that we will provide for present and future generations. At some point in recent decades, we have come to believe that wholesale individualism is flawed. We are seeing signs of that shift from our children at home, and we are seeing signs of it from our corporations in the marketplace.
342 pounds of tea pitched into Boston Harbor, along with the uncompromising and stirring words of the revolutionaries, signaled the overthrow of a suffocating Empire. Today’s revolution may not be so vivid or so beautifully articulated, but it may prove to have effects that last just as long. Today’s revolutionaries, ordinary people now, as then, demand that as consumers, each business from whom they buy and as employees, each business for whom they work should live up to a purpose that serves others. They hold that truth to be self-evident.