Global business and its discontents

Some of the greatest expressions of human creativity come from entrepreneurs. Building even a small business requires acts of ingenuity. Creating a large business is a marvel. I thought that before I got to Harvard, and I think it moreso now, roughly halfway through the Entrepreneurship and Global Capitalism course I’m auditing at Harvard Business School.  The course offers a thrilling tour of modern global capitalism, starting with the men who invented the first wave of global capitalism back in the mid-19th century. (And yes, they’re all men — name me a woman who was a global entrepreneur before World War II and I’ll write about her.)

While we celebrate the achievements of these early global capitalists, the course is tinged with darkness. The narrative arc is clear — these men often built great and enduring enterprises. Some of them encouraged solid institutions and better living standards where they operated. But many of them also created squalor and oppression.  We see people who might have provided the inspiration for Dickens’ Bounderby or the malevolent barons of “The Jungle.” Unable, or unwilling, to look beyond the balance sheet, they made capitalism a dirty word in much of the world.

The truth is that these businessmen, many of them creative geniuses on a par with a Shakespeare or a Mahler, also fomented the rise of socialism, the World Wars, the Cold War, the abject poverty of a quarter of the world’s population and a business-blunting distrust of markets. This narrative is clear-cut (and is reinforced by the Cultural Economics course I’m taking).

What amazes me is that halfway through the class, a vocal contingent of students continue to insist that businesses operate in isolation. They advocate profits, and profits alone, as the sole responsibility of a business.  I don’t want these people anywhere near my water supply, and I really don’t want them near the banking system. Fortunately, most of the class seems to get the challenges that face them in the business world. Indeed, some of these students make remarkable comments. Maybe in the not-so-distant future I’ll be writing about their remaking of capitalism.

Leave a Reply