Generous, thoughtful, sensitive people are often drawn to the view that we shouldn’t expect economies to ‘grow’. After all, the earth and its resources are limited, so why keep asking for GDP to expand? We don’t need more commercial activity or more businesses. We are destroying the planet fast enough as it is.
According to the environmental story, capitalism pillages the planet for the sake of producing vast quantities of material possessions, many of which we do not really need and only crave because we are duped by relentless advertising.
The implication is that we need to wind back consumerism in order to improve society and lead better lives.
It’s understandable if this opinion is widespread. But perhaps the good future depends not on minimising capitalism but on radically extending it.
At its best, capitalism should address the full range of needs of mankind as efficiently and effectively as possible. This is not currently happening: despite all the factories, the concrete, the highways and the logistics chains, the economy is as yet far too small and desperately undeveloped.
Over the last two centuries, in the wealthy nations, capitalism has evolved to meet many basic material needs, for sanitation, shelter, food supply and health care. The largest and most successful corporations have been those that satisfied appetites that we would categorise as belonging at the bottom of Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs: oil and gas, mining, construction, retail, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, electronics, telecommunications, insurance and banking.
The briefest glance at the pyramid reveals a fascinating possibility: that the future growth of business will lie in an assault on a vast array of needs further up the pyramid, in the areas of love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation.
Capitalists and companies are seemingly – semi-consciously – aware of this issue. The evidence lies in advertising. Advertising almost always tries to sell us stuff with an appeal to our higher needs, by tugging obliquely at our longings for emotional fulfilment, authenticity, good relationships and a sense of true achievement.
But, as yet, the corporations who pay for the adverts are not actually devoted to meeting the needs that their marketing people have so skilfully evoked. We get promised friendship or love and end up with a 4×4 or a new barbecue set. Advertising is always hinting at the future shape of the economy; it already trades on all the right fantasies. It’s just that there are as yet very few of the truly right products and services out there.
For example, only in the last five minutes of our history have we realised that there are very big business opportunities to be found in friendship. And yet Facebook is still making only a rudimentary contribution to the ideal development of this activity.
An organised response to our higher needs is not novel. Religions used to address them. Catholicism, if seen as a business, would be the second largest corporation in the world, bigger than Ford or BP or Samsung. Art galleries and museums shared some of the character of religions and similarly tried to address our higher needs, although their clients tended to be governments and nations rather than individual customers.
What we call ‘a business idea’ is at heart just an as yet unexplored need. To trace the future shape of capitalism, we only have to think of all the needs we have that are, currently, poorly understood and neglected by the commercial world.
There’s no shortage: we need help in forming cohesive, interesting communities. We need help in bringing up children. We need help in calming down at key moments (the cost of our high anxiety and rage is appalling in aggregate). We require immense assistance in discovering our real talents in the workplace and understanding where we can best deploy them (a service in this area would matter a great deal more to us than pizza delivery). We have unfulfilled aesthetic desires. Elegant town centres, charming high streets and sweet villages are in desperately short supply and are therefore absurdly expensive – just as, prior to Henry Ford, cars existed but were very rare and only for the very rich.
These higher needs are not trivial or minor wants, little things we could easily survive without. They are, in many ways, absolutely central to our lives. We have simply accepted, without really thinking about it, that there is nothing we can do to address them. And yet to be able to structure businesses around these needs would be the commercial equivalent of the discovery of steam power or the invention of the electric light bulb.
We don’t know, today, quite what the businesses of the future will look like. Just as in 1975, no one could describe the current corporate essence of Facebook or Google. But we know the direction we need to head to: we need the drive and inventiveness of capitalism to tackle the higher, deeper problems of life. This will offer an exit from the failings and misery that attend capitalism today. In a nutshell, the problem is that we waste resources on unimportant things. And we are wasteful, ultimately, because we lack self-knowledge, because we are using consumption merely to divert or quieten anxieties or in a vain search for status and belonging.
If we could just address our deeper needs more directly, our materialism would be refined and restrained, our work would be more meaningful and our profits would be more honourable.
That’s the ideal future of capitalism - and for the brands who operate within in.
This text is an edited version of a talk that Alain de Botton gave at Business Wise, a conference put on by The School of Life, in partnership with Leo Burnett and with support from Creative Brief.