The struggle between two capitalist factions is just getting started

Don't be misled, business does not have friends

17 October 2017 - 06:40
Image: iStock

One of Jacob Zuma's potential successors, the article noted, was "business-friendly". It was a small label but it said plenty.

In South Africa, the struggle between two capitalist factions - quaintly called "the right" and "the left", as if they are somehow different - is just getting started.

Those on "the right" say that they want to own all the goodies so they can help other people earn enough money to buy some of the goodies. Those on "the left" explain that they want to own all the goodies so they can lease some of the goodies to the people. But both are, of course, united by their ambition to own all the goodies: we will yet discover that top hats and red berets are interchangeable in the final reckoning.

For now, though, the contest between the two gangs of capitalists is fierce, and labels like "business-friendly" carry a big payload.

To those capitalists on "the right", it speaks reassuringly of someone who wants to make sure the goodies stay in old and familiar bank vaults - let's call them vaults A, B, C and D.

To those on "the left", it reveals an enemy who could resist their ambitions to move all the goodies to bank vaults E, F and F...

At which point our conversation is interrupted by a mild-mannered businessperson, wondering how this all got so political and polarised and intense.

We've all heard them: calm, measuring their words, providing facts and figures and generally creating an impression that an adult has arrived to sort things out. Perhaps, we allow ourselves to wonder, businesspeople might have the solutions the politicians don't. Perhaps "business-friendly" isn't such a bad thing after all.

If you find yourself drifting in that direction, consider the radio interview I heard last week with Naspers boss Koos Bekker, in which he referred to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as "the most successful company in the history of the world", one that had "paid a dividend of 18% for 200 years".

Because that's all that matters, right? Not that the VOC benefited from 200 years of slave labour, or that it had the power to carve out its own colonies anywhere the locals didn't have guns, or that it was a monopoly that literally murdered its competitors. Your business model can be based on large-scale theft of labour and land, and helped along with corporately approved torture and executions, but you pay that 18% dividend and you're "the most successful company in the history of the world".

The thing is, he's right. It was a fantastic business. And we can say that because business is always and absolutely amoral. Corporations have never tried to deny the fact that their only duty is a fiduciary one, namely, to act in the interests of their shareholders.

It just so happens that most business models require us to be healthy and educated to perform certain tasks, but if those models - and those shareholders - required us to be sick and illiterate, they would make us sick and illiterate. If some bright young venture capitalists could find a demand for deep-fried human babies, they would give it a go and then be politely surprised when people objected.

I understand why we struggle to see the cold, hard edge of business, or why we are less suspicious of it than we are of government.

One reason is the illusion of choice: "I have no choice when it comes to paying taxes," I tell myself, "but I can choose not to buy that company's products." Maybe I can. But others can't; and when "successful businesses" collude to fix the price of bread and bricks and medicines, as has happened in recent years, the distinction between public- and private-sector predation looks rather silly.

There are many moral businesspeople and there is nothing wrong, in theory, with making and selling a product or service. But we harm our chances of repairing this country if we allow ourselves to be seduced into believing that business cares about anything other than business.

And when we hear that a certain candidate is "business-friendly", we would do well to remember that business does not have friends. It's not personal. It's just business.

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