I am a big admirer of Bill Gates, but his talk to the WEF, in which he posits that through “creative capitalism” we could create a better world, free of all the bad things of today, well… The only thing that comes to my mind is: Nah…
No, creative capitalism will not save the world. It will not even make a dent on the widespread suffering.
It is also not even so much of a new idea. Ashoka was already on to that fling. They seem to be doing alright, no?
In fact, those are all great ideas. Including Gates’. But they are also supplemental (in Derrida’s sense). None of them attacks the centre of the problem.
And, curiously, the reason for that is that they are all attacking problems.
When a corporation approaches the “improving the world” scene, it cannot do it unloaded. It is inconceivable (and probably not desirable either) that any economic organization would act socially without it’s structures, MOs, corporate culture, perspectives and values. And that means that they cannot act unbiased.
A company can’t work socially outside the system, it can’t take a step back to consider the bigger picture. Therefore, a “creative capitalist” is bound to be always reacting to perceived problems instead of proposing real change.
It can “help the poor”, but it can’t redefine “poverty”, and it certainly can’t see all the ways in which the poor do not think of themselves with values and perspectives that, at least, make the idea of “poor” hard to understand.
Let me give a dramatic example. Say a given corporation chose to address the issue of overpopulation. What can it do? Lots. Maybe it can even outsmart the predictable backslash of fear and religious fervor. But, no matter what course of action it takes, the company can’t touch the fact that, probably, it was the abundance of food that lead to the growth of the populace. In other words, yes, indeed, we have food enough to eradicate hunger, but those pesky people seem bound to just keep breeding as much as necessary to make the ratio of food per inhabitant stable — which is to say, to keep hunger at the gates. The problem exists in so many scales and is so complex that, actually, it is not exactly a problem but a process, open-ended and hard to quantify. But the company needs to address it as a problem.
The fact that Gates’ approach is full of assumptions (that is, biased) should be clear by the term he chooses: Creative Capitalism. What does he mean by “Capitalism”? Is he quoting Marx, who did invent this term? Or is he alluding to Thatcher? Or Rousseau and the french revolution madmen? Or does he simply want to convey the idea that money can buy “betterment of the society”? Or does he mean just “Creative Economy”? — i do not want to prove a theoretical weakness, i just mean that the issues involved are very, extremely complex.
The world is indeed getting “better” in many ways, but it is not getting more “fair” or “just” or “happy”. Our powers grow and so do our problems, and that tendency seems prone to be kept for a long, long time. Creative Capitalism might even ameliorate some woes, but it can’t “make a difference”, so to say, or it can’t be really meaningful to the whole picture. It is just Philanthropy 2.0 — good that he wants to dedicate himself for it, but really his work with software was much more important.
If i have to make suggestions so you’ll see my criticism as “constructive”, then let it be thus: what is really needed is negotiation of the core values — both of the company and of the society as a whole. Businessmen are good at negotiating, but they do not understand the first thing about society. Anthropologists understand, but they suck at negotiation. Maybe Gates could go get himself a major at ethnography. Just kidding;-)
Having said all that, let me point some very good ideas in Gate’s speech:
- And economic demand is not the same as economic need.
- Let me begin by expressing a view that might not be widely shared. The world is getting better.
- Why do people benefit in inverse proportion to their need? Market incentives make that happen. — though on this one i disagree a bit about the directness of the correlation, that is, i believe market incentives have something to do with it, but are not cause
- But our greatest impact is not just free or inexpensive software by itself, but rather when we show how to use technology to create solutions. — though i would stress that more than he does
- I hope corporations will consider dedicating a percentage of your top innovators’ time to issues that could help people left out of the global economy. This kind of contribution is much more powerful than simply giving away cash, or offering your employees time off to volunteer.
- to create measures of what companies are doing to use their power and intelligence to serve a wider circle of people. This kind of information is an important element of creative capitalism. It can turn good works into recognition
As a last note, my guess is that one of the most important contributions of Ashoka is actually a negative one: do not give money to people and projects with good intentions but no competence. This is one idea that could ameliorate things, even if it cannot — by it’s own definition — but react.