This is what financial institutions view their clients as? I’ve seen bad customer service but this is beyond that, it is utter disregard for a customer’s well-being and pathetic disrespect for them. I suppose the whole scenario presents the perfect example of the “principal-agent problem“. This problem was pointed out much later than when Adam Smith theorised about the “invisible hand”. The basic idea is that when two independent economic agents interact, their exclusive desires lead to a mutually beneficial outcome. In the simplistic models designed and studied by economists of yore, it’s true. More important perhaps, more than complexity, is the fact that Adam Smith had based his assumptions on the productive economy, the section of the economy that employs the resources available to produce physical goods or tangible services and not on FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) that has been derided by previous economists as “unproductive”.
Goldman Sachs referred to clients as “muppets” and staff would brag about how much they squeezed out of the clients regardless of whether the client was being benefited or not. In most cases, the clients were not benefited (foreclosure storm, economic crisis…still need to be told more?) although the banks came through unscathed (mostly and they were/are reaping insanely huge profits). This is very symptomic of the culture that has been fostered in the developed countries and is being imported to the less developed ones with a huge impact on the way people have regard for and of each other. Attempts to modify foreign ideas, a necessary requirement as the contexts are different, are met with vehement opposition from the “blind believing” regardless of whichever side holds whatever water regarding the argument.
So how did this even come about? Hard to put a finger on it but it seems to me the result of a confluence of the philosophies that emerged in the time of the European Enlightenment (late 17th – mid 19th century). Two of them stand out in particular, the economic doctrine started off by Adam Smith (which was to do with real economics later perverted to financial economics) and the philosophy of existence (self) espoused by almost all the thinkers of that time.
Let’s take Smith’s theories first: Essentially that man is an economic agent who cares only about his well-being. This viewpoint does not necessarily affect the well-being of others negatively, rather leads to a result that is mutually beneficial to all. Theories showing Smith wrong are present and have been proved right over the course of time, yet it has been Smith’s ideas that hold to this day and are followed widely. To cut short a really long story, his basic premise is that humans, or any economic agent, are selfish.
Enter the philosophy regarding the self. The most common view is a person-centric one. The rights of a person are inviolable (within certain boundaries that differ on what you happen to believe in). There is little emphasis on the rights of the community; note that I am not saying they are absent, merely that the rights of the community are superseded by the rights of a person (that again is a highly debatable point depending on what you believe in).
Let me be as clear as possible here, no rights of any one entity are ranked higher than the rights of the individual, not country, not community, not society, nothing (not in this world atleast >.>). So the rights of an individual are ranked the highest and alongwith an economic doctrine that disregards the concerns of any else other than the economic agent being studied, we witness the gathering of seemingly different ideas that eventually lead to generations of people believing they are always right and always of the highest priority. The ideas of these thinkers did not just jump into the minds of the general people, the ideas first took root in the halls of universities and in the minds of “ivory tower” intellectuals and their students. Greater economic betterment of the people allowed more time to be devoted to studying and propagating these theories. This resulted in a huge demographic shift, where previously the future generation who had to contribute economically to a household could now devote their time to getting an education. Education and social customs that were heavily influenced by the thoughts emerging at the time. This led to generations believing in the same and culminated in the “American Dream” – anything is yours if you are willing to work hard for it. This dream was then spread to the world as America rose to be the world’s superpower and remained so.
The dream is not entirely true. There are things one simply cannot foresee (not just “acts of God”). They lead to situations where a single person is powerless, even a lot of people are powerless, however, a lot of people can come to salvage something in the face of great adversity. That requires empathy, feeling for the people that seems somewhat lacking (not entirely nor by any large measure). Simple example –
Here in Bangladesh, and in many countries of South Asia, there are tricycles that carry two passengers (more if you improvise) at a time and are driven/pulled by a person. In Bangladesh, they are known as “rickshaw” (রিকশা). The rickshaw-pullers come from the lowest economic strata there is in this country. Many are malnourished, too young, hit by the worst circumstances (met one who had done upto second year at college!!!) or just old and are doing it for getting some food on the table. Set them all aside and consider the last lot – elderly doing work that even a youthful one would find exhausting. Ever been annoyed that they drive/pull the rickshaw so slowly? That shows a lack of empathy. Very few, if any, of them willingly chose the situations that led to this.
This is a simple example of how many of us (I included) fail to empathise with those who struggle, and struggle not out of choice rather out of necessity.
This general feeling of empathising less with others is a consequence of the focus on the individual’s and less focus on the community’s rights during the Enlightenment Period. It was championed, talked about and spread on. Initially in the academic circles (universities, schools) the idea caught on quickly as the free right to education was slowly developing (it was not a popular concept yet). Greater economic freedom allowed the faster spread of this idea as it allowed children to devote more time to study and lesser to working, many of who went on to learn or were influenced by the same ideas that were in circulation at that time.
So these ideas, picked up in a certain generation, were passed onto the next, and the next, and so on. So they came to represent certain core beliefs about the way what it meant to be part of that particular group. The ethnic identity. Since these ideas formed a large portion of European thinking, they transcended race and established themselves as cultural ideas (ethnicity) which anyone could subscribe to regardless of their background or the colour of their skin. As nations defined themselves, the ideas survived the changes. Thus Western philosophy came to be identified with certain notions that spread as their culture was adopted around the world.
By themselves, these ideas are seemingly harmless. Though their emergence, and subsequent popularisation, at the same time led to individual entities being very self-centred and looking after their own well-being, others being damned. Result is that the entire culture came to celebrate individuality, even as the community suffered.
The rise of socialism did impact thought but it was mainly an economic principle that left most of the other, equally important, ideologies in place. Socialism did not fail simply because it was flawed; it failed, as I see it, as it was being practised in the wrong social setup, that which highlights individuality over the community. There is nothing wrong with it, just that at some point, the needs of the community gain a level of importance that simply cannot be ignored or overlooked. With the focus turned solely towards the individual, the end result is that the community needs are written off and come into consideration much later than it should as the focus is more oriented towards the individual’s needs.
The culture then grew to champion individuality, which exhibited itself as nation states were formed, that then led to the citizenry adopting the same ideologies as those were the only ones they were exposed to. As the economic condition of the West advanced, modes of production evolved, with one constant – that of the individual’s rights being placed above and over everything else. In some ways, it was a good thing. Minimum wage, environmental protection, workplace risk reduction, these were things that came as a result of the push to recognise the rights of individual workers. The push for recognition of individual rights was also extended to corporations, who were deemed to be legally identified as “people” in the United States eventually.
So corporations were made to take on the the characteristics of the people. Benefit maximising, own interest, selfishness – all of them were identified as characteristic of people and corporations adopted them as well. Combined with the philosophy of then, one that focusses on the individual and less on the group, we see what has come to be known as “corporate culture”, companies demanding, and extracting, thanks to legal recognition of their personhood, that their workers give in completely. For almost two centuries, worker right was trampled by the economically superior corporations. The end was clear to see as workers’ rights were eventually re-established in the face of corporate attack.
But the philosophy highlighting individuality remained, leading to the “free in chains” claim. There has been a call to extend some lee-way to people, particularly with the onset of the economic crisis (that can be traced back to the same ideologies I refer here; who says recursion is only the computer programmer’s nightmare?). So we currently see a roll-back of the ideologies that came to define Western thought. A limited roll-back was already in motion as corporations realised that worker morale mattered and tweaked their policies to reflect the changing times.
So we see the recognition of human rights in various forms throughout history, abolition of slavery, labour rights, and others rights culminating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, which was then used as a base for demanding rights for other fringe groups.
These ideas were spread worldwide, that of valuing the individual over all else and the notion that “economic agents” acted selfishly. Both seem to focus on the individual. They seem very complementary, even the same, and at a certain level they both reinforce each other. The focus on individual rights; with the community ones being optional, even debatable; fits in perfectly well with the concept of striving to improve one’s own economic condition; with the community regarded as optional in this case as well.
So what’s wrong with these? Worked out perfectly for them didn’t it? – Yes it mostly did.
So it will work here too. Just that it’s being applied wrongly. – No it most likely won’t.
To see why I said that, rewind back in time. All the way back to circa. 8th century AD. It was during this time that saw the expansion of Islam and its teachings into Asia. That is almost 800 years before the Enlightenment came about in Europe. Now Islamic teaching focusses on both the individual and society in general, it does not explicitly favour one over the other. So we have a society that already has strong community attachments, attachments that grew over time fanned by the beliefs held by the people. Into this comes an ideology that regards individuality over everything else. The “alien” ideology also happened to spend very little time in the region compared to the already existing ones and was enforced from the top rather than having grown spontaneously amongst the masses (as was the case for Europe). There was royal backing at times back home but royal backing did not mean that royalty would force these thoughts onto the population, as was the case where Europe colonised, just that scholarly pursuits could be made without worrying about the little things (sometimes even the big things).
So the same theories that shaped thinking and attitude elsewhere did not have the same effect here, with the eventual result being something rather difficult to accept and spawning talk about “what went wrong”. Nothing went wrong, it is just the application of the ideologies to a different setting, that’s all. The community had a larger significance than the ideologies were built on. In Europe, these ideas supplanted the dominant manner that one regarded one’s community by. Elsewhere, these were made to form a layer on top of the existing thoughts (the result of those in power having forced these ideas on the population).
Now, the social structures set up by the colonial rulers were not really modified, even the laws continued to be applied after they left with little revision. So the economic setup largely mirrored what became popular then (the market system). Noam Chomsky, in an interview published in Counterpunch, puts it perfectly, saying,
Markets also have a very bad psychological effect. They drive people to a conception of themselves and society in which you’re only after your own good, not the good of others and that’s extremely harmful.
He is saying this after almost four centuries, a period during which different situations arose that changed the sole aim of a market. The same evolution did not occur in most other places as the changes occurred after the colonists had left. The changes were reflected in the subsequent ways that workers were given rights, accommodated, and treated by those who owned corporations. The rollback was limited in scope though, as the mechanisms that underlay the complicated relationships took too long to be understood (the debate still rages on). Thus the predominant thinking that shaped society in the Western world had a distinctive individualistic tilt to it. The same evolution of the theories did not occur elsewhere, nor were they suitably modified.
As a result, corporate culture (company first; profit above all) that was based on the social structures and workings of another society, presented the social working (community is valued equally as the individual) in most other place with a source of discord. The corporations have the upper hand – poor, lacking employment opportunities and economically struggling people who make up most of their workers – as they are able to grant (some of) their workers a certain degree of economic freedom. These corporations come, for the most part, with a hangover of the ideologies that were developed during the European Enlightenment. The change did not occur overnight, the corporations rewarded the few who benefited them and seeing the few, more tried harder to get the same rewards (nothing wrong right there, just human nature). This was the lesson passed on to the future generations, that you had to excel and prove your worth (which is fine but don’t get so happy, the rub follows). Historically, community and family ties were strong and this meant that those who progressed economically were expected to contribute to the community (not monetary all the time). This caused a rift for most as community and corporation called, sometimes for the same moment. Initially, the attitude was so-and-so-got-rich-and-stopped-caring, then it gradually changed to work-eats-up-all-of-the-poor-fellow’s-time-but-look-the-rewards as the effects of “hard-work” became very apparent to everyone. This shift in attitudes towards the employed was, fortunately or unfortunately, not matched by a similar shift in the attitudes towards the employed’s role in society. While people understood and sympathised with the employed person who had to give it all for the person’s job, the same level of understanding was absent when they were called to make the decisions regarding people who worked under them (not always and not everyone, but many times and many people).
Thus came about the strange, uneasy co-existence of the two cultures.
The unease is seen clearly when most companies are less empathic to their workers’ plight. Most people nod their head saying “It’s just bad luck” or side with the company’s decision, setting it in positive tones if needed. The same attitude is not seen when dealing with the same people in a community-setting though. From the impatience shown to the feelings of superiority over the unfortunate (instead of being grateful you weren’t put in that position). [Contrast this with what Chomsky said of markets] This is what, I suppose, is meant by the previous generation saying that people are not the same anymore.
The focus on personal gain is often justified with the reason that that is the only way to ensure a comfortable, secure life for all in a family (nuclear atleast). In itself, not a bad thing. Against a background of limited opportunities, seeing one’s closest lose (negative impact, but seeing others succeed can have a negative or positive impact depending on one’s outlook) can be a very strong driver of wanting to “succeed” at all costs. This is where the problems come in, the definition of success then becomes – get rich, get the degree, get shorty (ok not that one, just a movie title). But if the definition of success becomes intrinsically attached to getting more, then getting more is the only way in which one values one’s own self and others. Without due emphasis on what the role of a person should be in group settings (remember, the “me-first” ideology that was imported), this is a sure recipe for disaster as community attachments weakened, if not were broken entirely, and the meaning of success changed. All of a sudden, the previous generations find a vast schism with the newer generations as they focus more on what they can additionally achieve and the previous generations are left with nothing but memories. This shift in mentality was not uniform, remnants of the previous generation’s thoughts and dreams can still be seen in the next generation even today, but one encounters less of it as one sees succeeding generations.
The end result is that the introduction of corporate culture, one that was imported from outside and enforced, became a cancerous growth within the ethnic/national identity. It did not come from the ground-up, hence the usual deterrents that evolved to deal with abnormal situations did not come about. The situation, now, has truly become one where everyone tries to gain more, even at cost to others. I guess it is not so uncommon to see corruption eating away at everyone and those who can put a stop to this giving their support to it, actively or passively. The fix to this is not simply to reform the corporate culture based on the local customs; there is still the cancer to deal with first. Like any cancer, the treatment requires external intervention. For that, the laws have to be redrawn and strictly enforced. In the current circumstances, who will do this? Or even dare to do it?