A WEEK IN ECONOMICS (13/11/13 – 19/11/13) THE INTERDEPENDENCE OF SOCIETY

, Business

Week-in-Economics

Emile Durkheim, considered to be one of the father’s of the study of society, was particularly troubled with one question. How could societies maintain its stability and coherence in the face of increasingly complex modern conditions? Prior to the industrial revolution, society was a much simpler construct tied by religious or cultural binds. Work was typically self-assumed rather than for an organisation; profit maximisation was individualistic and varied. Individuals did different things to survive, i.e they may have reared cows to sell milk as well as make their own clothes.

Modern society created a momentous upheaval. The emergence of the company, bounded by a mission statement and sustained by the labour of individuals, meant that the scope of an individual’s concerns was no longer simply bounded by nature, but also by the affairs of the company. The company became the overseers of an individual’s survival, and the individual, presumably dissatisfied with rigours of producing goods to satisfy one’s needs, subscribed to the idea of specialisation:  working in one type of job.

Durkheim deems specialisation to be one of pillars of social stability only if it’s combined with interdependence. Individuals specialise in one vocation and depend on other specialists to provide for their needs. So you can be a clothes maker, but do not worry about picking your vegetables because you can buy it from the grocers. These two pillars are held together by a mutual respect of each other’s humanity, and these shared values create solidarity in society.

The growing complexity of society has meant increasing specialisation, and it is very rare to find individuals that partake in a number of different professions. If you are lawyer, you are unlikely to be an accountant. Even if you are a lawyer, you could be a criminal lawyer or an IP lawyer, but not both. Part of the reason for this increased specialisation is the explosion of information. We are confronted with so much information about so many different things, that it impossible for there to be polymaths on different topics. You need experts.

So in society we have to be specialists and interdependence held together by mutual respect of core human values. The state oversees this harmony by the imposition of laws and regulation. So any law is typically to protect a certain value. However, there is another overseer: the company. Companies need their specialists and they need them to work together for the survival of the company. That is the core value employees have to subscribe to. Hence, we see many companies with a mission statement and a list of values.

But en masse individuals do not work for a company because they are followers of the company’s purpose. A company is not a state so there is no patriotism, and neither is it a religion, so there is there is no devotion. Rather the company targets the core human value – his or her own survival. So individuals, when once upon a time, they would expend effort to derive a return from the land, now they sell their labour for a price in order to survive. In the process, they promote the company’s purpose by the mere fact that they are working for the company and irrespective as to whether they believe in the company’s purpose or not.

A company is like an army, and the solder-employees are fighting for its cause. That cause, however, can be completely against the value system of the employee.  So you have Muslims working in conventional banks inveighing against interest although living off its fortune. Environmentalists committed to protecting nature working in restaurants that need to destroy forests to rear cows for their meat. Human rights supporters in phone companies that are mining metals that underpin civil wars in Africa.

Companies are profit maximisers; individuals are survivalists. They need the company to make enough money so they can survive, and hence they willingly or unwillingly turn a blind eye to the regrettable actions of the company.  This is hardly solidarity with the rest of society.  Society needs interconnectivity to survive, but as companies become the most important aspect of a society’s survival, the needs of the individuals in a company are rarely considered. They have chosen to enter the company to survive, and may eventually subscribe to the company’s vision in order to get promoted and generate more money. But the disconnection between an individual’s beliefs and the actions of a company become more pronounced. Without realising, they are the cogs in the wheel. The profit-maxmising company may be causing greater societal problems and the employee is implicitly enabling it to do so. The result, however, is that eventually the problems companies (and even States) are causing will knock on the door of an individual’s core human value : survival (Think Global Warming). At that point, can we sit and argue that we did not contribute to worsening situation. I think not.

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