Umair Haque asks that his new book The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business be evaluated– as a “toolkit,” a “lens,” a “handbook” and it’s basically successful. We evaluated the book as a manifesto, however, and it’s less believable.
The premise of the book is this: capitalism as a system has run away with itself, but it needn’t be abandoned. The theoretical or conceptual framework from its birth, what Haque calls “industrial era capitalism” just needs a little updating. New capitalism could be what Haque calls “constructive capitalism.”
Here’s what the New Capitalist Manifesto does that’s effective as a toolkit:
- Haque takes concepts taught in introductory business and economics courses and updates them in order to redefine business as usual (not meant in climate change context).
My favorite updated concept is the ‘value-conversation:’ (paraphrasing Haque) the ability to produce “better decisions faster” by democratizing the decision making process, allowing more agile managers to cut decision making costs and deliver better, more responsive products faster. (Market completion is pretty good too.)
- The “better” business concepts he offers are contrasted alongside their outdated counterparts. They are used repetitively and with repetition which
- gives the affect of a textbook. It’s easy to see (though the author requests otherwise) Haque’s book being dropped into an intro to economics or business course as a supplementary text.
So what’s with the noise?
Haque has written a deftly crafted vision.
This is not capitalism by Umair Haque, it’s capitalism as it could be, as a man-made system that’s evolved past its original intended purpose (for the more academic amongst you see Jane Bennett or Donald MacKenzie). If you like, he translates a framework with which to understand how to move forward.
And it’s a useful ‘body check’ to mainstream green economics: nowhere does Haque promote a slower economy. In fact, he spends a lot of time talking about speeding up business as goods and services are increasingly co-produced and co-designed between economic actors.
The emphasis in mainstream sustainability thinking has been on producing new systems of metrics to quantitatively value biodiversity, carbon, and social impact. It’s not that Haque says that isn’t necessary, he adroitly suggests that it isn’t as necessary as immediately as we think it is. That is, lacking metrics aren’t necessarily a pre-requisite.
By illustrating what capitalism could be, using companies already practicing his “constructive capitalism” and updating business concepts as he does, Haque shows that the transition to what we have been calling ‘sustainable business’ is very easily just business. It’s really just a matter of a simple thought exercise.
Almost too simple, and too utopian.
It’s frustrating because according to Haque no company is doing it all right, rather there are some companies that are– Wal-Mart, Apple, Google, Interface Floor, and Nike; Threadless and Grameen Shakti. The trouble with his examples are that more than half are large corporations that have the money to experiment in making the “better business” transition and then others began in “better business” (social enterprise) practice.
And maybe Haque doesn’t need to engage in the ‘yeah, but…’ debate about whether or not for example, Google is turning evil, Apple is starting to exclude from the market it has “completed,” Wal-Mart’s labour practices.
Haque admitted in a recent interview on Tummelvision.tv podcast * “when I set out to research this book, companies that I did find meeting my criteria for what I call constructive capitalists were not companies that I expected to find, nor were they companies that I hoped to find, frankly.”
But he doesn’t succeed any more than any other book of this type at convincing that sustainability is (for the most part) just a different way of thinking.
Property rights and short-run valuation, and other institutions upon which we practice capitalism today do need reform, in the book Haque says this repeatedly but almost too simplistically.
Conspicuously absent is a discussion of the structural implications for the labor market: Haque’s value-cycle wipes out swaths of middle-managers. At other points he suggests that employees will need to be both differently and highly skilled, interdisciplinarily educated. The implication is that for his system to work, we need a better educated work force to produce his ‘thick’ (higher) value goods and services. It’s not hard to imply that there is a bloody, gut-wrenching structural adjustment that’s needed in the labor market. But he doesn’t even acknowledge it (nor how difficult it could be).
The institutional reforms needed for “constructive capitalism” will be dirty, long, nitty-gritty fights with lots of stakeholders that will resist change. Suggesting that transitioning these institutions is merely a thought exercise away is intriguing and may indeed aid the process. But until those institutional reforms are addressed in a practical and active way that will provide market certainty, these institutions fluctuate back and forth, policy remains uncertain. And the examples of “constructive capitalism” that Haque provides aren’t bullet proof.
In the same podcast interview Haque was asked twice to provide transitionary details and his answers were disappointing.** Simply saying that the question is still framed in “20th century terms” and that there needs to be an “enlightenment” and “we all have to realize that we are all in this together” may work for the academic intellectual types but I fear for the vast majority of people that still need to be knocked over the fully sustainable business practice edge answers like that will fail.
Because Haque has titled his book a ‘manifesto’ business people will look to him for concrete answers about how to transition between this outdated economic system we find ourselves in and Haque’s promise of tomorrow. Haque needs to find better answers to transitionary institutional questions. But there’s still something missing in the middle, still something left unformed, and in that the book fails to distinguish itself.
This is a good book. And you should read it, mark it up with a pencil, and then read it again.
3 out of 5 stars.
*This is a fantastic podcast that deals with cooperation, communication, co-production, and the digital / creative economy. You can find it at tummelvision.tv. Yes, they are a bit long and could probably be better edited but they are fun– kinda like eavesdropping on an interesting coffeeshop convo.
** about 30-ish minutes in, if you’re interested.