There's a lot to like about Simon Mainwaring's We First. This former advertising executive pulls no punches. He tells his former clients that the way they do business has got to go.
Capitalism, Mainwaring points out, is flawed as a system. It leads to class rule, booms, bubbles, and busts. It promotes selfishness and greed. It sacrifices workers and their families and despoils the environment in a short-sighted grab for immediate profit. Capitalism is not sustainable, neither economically, environmentally, or ethically.
I agree with all of this, and I believe that if every reform Mainwaring proposed were put into practice, we would all be better off. Yet I finish the book profoundly dissatisfied.
This book proposes that:
- By changing their mentality, corporate capitalists will be able to make "purpose" as important as profit.
- If they won't change on their own, social media-savvy consumers will be able to compel them.
- The changes they make will create the world we want to live in (and avoid the hell we're headed toward).
But none of these is true.
1. The profit motive is not a matter of mentality. It is the engine of capitalism. Yes, it may just be possible for global corporations to swear off some of the pollution and exploitation that has given them such extraordinary profits in the last thirty years--and it would be a good thing if they did. Always, though, they will feel the pressure to grow or die. Inexorably, they will be forced to push products at the expense of people and the planet. Only a countervailing pressure will force them to put "we first."
2. Consumers on social media can embarrass corporations. We can cost them money by ruining their reputation and reducing their sales. And we should. But this is not enough to compel real change. Mainwaring himself cites the danger of "greenwashing": businesses adopting feel-good policies that don't ultimately change their environmental impact (or simply donating to good causes to buy themselves a better reputation). Corporate PR has kept many the company profitable despite its terrible labor practices. Consumers can add to, but not replace, government regulation, social activism, and labor unions. (Mainwaring never mentions unions. It is a telling silence.)
3. Even if corporations make huge changes in the direction that Mainwaring calls for--and it would be a good thing if they did--they would still be in charge. That means they'd make those changes on the schedule and in the way they find best--not what's best for the rest of us. It's not just corporate greed that's unsustainable. It's corporate power as well.
I give credit to the author for recognizing that capitalism is the problem. I fault him for his naivete in thinking capitalism can be the solution.