Monday, April 20, 2009

The Third Way

Emotionally-charged words such as "fascist" and "socialist" thrown around inaccurately in the performances of the baggy-pants media comedians recently should remind us that fanaticism about the means (the system, formula or "ism") to be employed by society shows great intellectual weakness. A few religious and economic thinkers have observed that successful life is the creative reconciliation of opposites which are always before us, not the exclusive adoption of absolutes. Those eternal opposites in the social realm are planning vs. freedom, managerial responsibility vs. untrammelled democratic participation, Stalinism vs. chaos, and so on. In this age of marketing and propaganda, our egotism and desire for simple answers are appealed to, and a formula like state fascism can be easily sold as libertarian, patriotic freedom (at a tea party rally).

Anything carried too far is destructive, but that is a truth we evidently didn't learn in kindergarten. Once in a great while, an individual or group in a moment of clarity develops a creative and practical approach, a third way, toward reconciling the opposites. Early in the Depression, leaders in Sweden looked around at the failure of capitalism, the horror of communism and the menacing Fascist hybrid of government/corporations/military and concluded, as so few do, that these existing ideologies were all highways to hell. The Social Democratic Party instituted reforms which incorporated effective compromises between these extremes, with the cooperation (believe it or not) of the private capitalist sector, based on a strong Cooperative movement (democratic participation), active government involvement in economic matters, and private ownership with a social conscience. Unlikely -- but a mix of monarchy with a socialist government in a healthy capitalist environment (accepting redistribution as a valid means toward shared prosperity) worked, based on egalitarianism and pragmatism.

People have short memories and are subject to mood swings, however, and influenced by the wave of "free market" thinking, a conservative Swedish government in the 1980's went the financial deregulation route touted by the Reaganites, which led to the usual bad real-estate lending frenzy. Inevitably, the bubble burst in 1992 and our Nordic friends woke up and remembered what had worked before they were duped into embracing the latest absolutist ideology.

Another rare example is the tale of one company in the United Kingdom you have probably never heard of (does any MBA program study this amazing story?? I'd like to know), Scott Bader Co., founded in 1920. By 1951, this plastics and polymers enterprise was prosperous and still privately held, but Ernest Bader was no one-dimensional non-reflective businessman. He was in a position to take some very original steps to change his firm to one "based on a philosophy which attempts to fit industry to human needs." He was financially comfortable, and recoiled from the prospect of becoming insanely rich; and had already wisely protected his company and employees from the short-sighted tyranny of stockholders and a board of outside directors. There had been profit-sharing from the very start, but the new Commonwealth arrangement of employee-owners with clear rights and responsibilities provided that the firm should remain a limited size, so that everyone in it was, and felt themselves to be, an essential partner and not a replaceable cog. Like Ben & Jerry's today, remuneration was limited to a ratio of 1:7 between the lowest and highest paid. Fixed percentages of profits were designated for taxes and self-finance, bonuses and charitable purposes in the immediate locale. Industrial organization was to be a servant of man, instead of its using people as a means of enrichment for outside owners of capital. I guess if you tried that here, the American Enterprise Institute would sue you.

Long ago the Buddhists distinguished themselves from theistic religions by their "Middle Path" approach. They say: look at reality from a neutral and unbiased position, concerning yourself with the relationship between your thought, your behavior, and the consequences of both. They do not attribute human suffering to perverted causes created by a god; no hierarchical system requires your unthinking obedience to defeat evil and misfortune. Once your perverted thought is corrected, wrong behavior will end and suffering ceases.

So, if you were a bright British chemist living in Sweden and practicing Buddhism, you would have already figured out that being an ideological true believer isn't the way to go.

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