Bath Business and Society

Research, analysis and comment on the role of business in society from Bath's School of Management

Tagged: trust

Public reasoning and the public intellectual

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📥  Brexit, Business and society, Education, Uncategorised

 

In our post-truth times, we are in need, more than ever, of public intellectuals. Sadly, we recently lost one of our own most spirited and courageous free thinkers in the business and society field, Malcolm McIntosh, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the School of Management. Malcolm passed away on 7th June 2017 after a long battle with cancer. In this extract from his forthcoming book, In Search of the Good Society, he speaks of the need for elites such as academics and other experts to reengage meaningfully with society in order to address the world's most pressing social and environmental problems. We shall greatly miss not having Malcolm with us on that journey, but his words shall remain a touchstone. 

We have challenges that must be considered carefully and tackled with quiet and earnest intent: reforming the global financial system to bring it back within our control; developing economies that nurture, rather that destroy our natural capital; managing the development of biotechnology such that it provides solutions, and does not create problems; keeping control of AI, such that, as with the development of writing and printing, we know where we are going and have some control; and, turning our media tech companies into responsible publishers so that they are subject to the sort of social controls that govern our print media and daily libel and slander laws. If democracy is to work, and be more of a viable option for the 50% who don’t currently have it, it must be based on what Edmund Burke, and more recently Amartya Sen, call ‘public reasoning’. Burke said that ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ - and in this time fake news and ‘alternative facts’.

This requires the empowerment of what Pierre Bourdieu, and more recently Edward Said, call ‘the public intellectual’ who through clear public engagement restore the role of the expert and dispel the propagandists that populated the Nazi regime and drive the Trump administration and the Brexiteers. Those who voted nihilistically against those they thought to be the elite, who were the elite, must be engaged so that they can see the wholeness of society, both locally and globally, or we are doomed. Rather than coasting on our laurels we must reengage with everyone, everywhere. We must win the argument with reason.

This ‘high-opportunity, high-risk’ society is open to everyone, but also only those who have access to education and free information. As Antony Giddens says: ‘knowledge and innovation always cut both ways’. The future does not lie with nativism or isolationism. Indeed such moves defy the tide of history, the interdependent nature of all our lives, what we now know about the science of the planet, and what Karl Jung called our collective unconscious which holds the soul of humanity. At the heart of the good society should be an understanding of what Jung called instinct, for these aspects are central to what it means to be human: hunger, sexuality, activity, reflection, and creativity. And I count both art and science as forms of creativity.

Globalisation, like trade and capitalism its bedfellows, is not dead, it just needs reforming. This is not a binary, it has to be nuanced. A balance must be found on a global basis to forge what Sen calls a ‘democratic global state’ through public reasoning. The forces of financialisation, social media and consumption are out of control and have formed a model of AI such that we are beholden to their algorithmic vicissitudes. As Angus Deaton, 2016 Nobel prize winning economist, has said: ‘I don’t think globalisation is anywhere near the threat that robots are . . . globalisation for me seems to be not first-order harm and I find it very hard not to think about the billion people who have been pulled out of poverty as a result’. Deaton and his wife Anne Case have explained through enormously useful and detailed megadata trawling both the Brexit and the Trump votes: the ruling elites have been completely out of touch with white working class people. For instance, Deaton and Case highlighted the fact that the only demographic group to decline over the last fifteen years in America, because of ‘deaths of despair’, were white, poorly educated, working class men.

This is the same group that in the UK and the US have not only seen zero social mobility, but where the bottom 10% have gone backwards – they are poorer now than they were before. In the US they are now in the same position as the African-American population have always been. Just as it took the Babbage Report in the village of Haworth in Yorkshire a hundred years ago to highlight the appalling toll of poor sewage and the need for clean water so this may be a time for the elites, that’s you and me, to take a look at what really matters for everyone – at the top and the bottom of society. China and parts of Africa continue to pull people up over the poverty line, while the UK, the USA and India continue to oppress working people. Japan and most of Scandinavia have virtually eliminated extreme poverty, while parts of Europe, such as the UK, seem to lack empathy for those who suffer most. In the UK this group voted for Brexit, and in the USA for Trump. In both cases fear and ignorance triumphed. The answer is not xenophobia led by elitists (Trump and the Brexit leadership - Gove, Johnson and Farage – all of whom are rich with elite backgrounds). And the groups that voted for Trump and Brexit shot themselves in the foot, like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

It is not too late. All the statistics prove that globally we have made good progress over the last seventy years and we will look back and see that 2016 was a moment to take a deep breath and ask what went wrong, and then move forward again. The megalomaniacs, the greedy, those lacking in empathy and many corporate interests will always try to take over, but just as meerkats and bonobos run on cooperation so the best of humanity has been when we collaborate and cooperate. We must work for a feminised future not an avaricious masculine past. The future is liberal, collective and progressive but it requires us not to walk past on the other side or hide in a dark room listening to Beethoven with our headphones on until the world blows over. Art may be the best way forward, for it is through artistic expression in different dimensions that we can see the world afresh.

 

This is an excerpt from In Search of the Good Society by Malcolm McIntosh, which will be published by Routledge on 26th October 2017.

We need a new voice in the debate about business and society

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📥  Business and society

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Veronica Hope Hailey, Dean of the School of Management, and Andrew Crane, Director of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society

In our increasingly polarised times, there is fervent debate over whether business is a force for good or bad in our societies. We believe it is high time that university researchers took a more active role in this debate, providing much needed evidence to inform popular opinion. To do so, we need to speak in a new voice.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So starts Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities, a book which describes in stark comparison the cities of Paris and London at the time of the French Revolution. Today, we too live in divided times. We are divided politically, geographically, culturally, into the skilled and unskilled, the 99% and the 1%. Is your daily working life about Sports Direct or Goldman Sachs? About desperate migration or upward economic mobility? About zero hours contracts or business class flights?

Capitalism is over - you want it

Capitalism is over - you want it, photo by Anne Roth

Your answer to these questions will also undoubtedly inform your opinion about whether globalisation is a good thing or not and about whether business is largely to blame for many of the ills of the world. It will also colour your views on whether “sustainable business” is simply a hopelessly optimistic oxymoron or a genuinely realistic prospect in the coming decades. But these are not just matters of opinion. Behind the answers to these questions lie important empirical facts that can meaningfully shape the path we take.

What is clear, however, is that in times of uncertainty, trust becomes more important. But in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and never-ending corporate and political scandals, public confidence has been profoundly destabilised. The result has been a breakdown in trust in government, business, and so-called experts more generally - and a seeming turn to a “post-truth” society where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Irrespective of whether you believe we are really heading down a post-truth path, the message for those of us who might claim some degree of expert knowledge in the debate about business and society is clear. We cannot simply expect to be a trusted source of knowledge. And, to inform opinion, we need to do things differently from how we have in the past.

Most of us in the academic world are in our comfort zone when doing our research and speaking about it to our fellow scholars. A lot of our research is impenetrable to even an informed layperson. Even when it is not, our publications are usually locked behind the paywalls of academic publishers.

Too rarely do we actively bring our knowledge out to the world in a way that truly engages with non-academic audiences. And when we do, the results are sometimes catastrophic. As one recent article put it, “business schools play a significant role in reproducing the values, skills and mindset of much of what is wrong with contemporary capitalism, such as opportunism, greed, a focus on shareholder maximisation, and economic short-termism.”

Things are beginning to change. Our research suggests that the movement to embed sustainability in business school teaching and research is making progress. The Conversation is leading the way in bringing journalistic style to academic research. But in terms of accessible research specifically on business and society, we still have a long way to go. There remains a clear need for a trustworthy source of credible research to inform decisions about how business can best contribute to a sustainable society.

With the launch of the Bath Business and Society blog, we want to bring a new voice to this debate. In fact, we believe that the Bath School of Management is uniquely positioned to bring not just one new voice but a whole range of new voices. Our aim is to inform the conversation in a variety of ways through a variety of lenses. A focus on business and society is a core value of our school and nearly one third of our faculty do remarkable, world-class research addressing this theme.  Our students too, inspired and informed by our research, are impassioned, future leaders, looking to make a difference in the world.

Over the coming months, then, our faculty and students will be drawing on their unique vantage points to bring fresh insight and new knowledge to the debate about business and society. Whether it is climate change, fair trade, inequality, modern slavery, boardroom diversity, food waste, or employee wellbeing, they will have something novel, interesting, and informed to say.  And if they say it in enough different ways, maybe at least something will stick with our post-truth audience out there. Time will tell.