Neoliberal Pieties and Business School Empathy Aren’t Getting Us Out of This Mess ‹Literary Hub

It’s one of the most absurd ironies of our neoliberal age. Having looted the public realm over the last half century in the name of the free-market, we are suddenly discovering that the last refuge of public virtue is — yes, you guessed it — the private company. The only thing we “trust,” these days, we are told, are supposedly public-spirited corporations like Microsoft.

This moral ponzi scheme, then, is repackaging private enterprise as public virtue. It’s a fittingly tragicomic final act to the twilight years of our neoliberal age.

Business schools, the seminaries of neoliberalism, have been teaching this nonsense for years. And it’s the seminarians of these organizations — the writers of self-help books about “leadership,” “trust,” “empathy,” and “authenticity” which, of course, are consumed by the millions of us with bullshit jobs — who are now marketing this ponzi scheme to the broader public. Sure, these people sometimes mean well. But I suspect they are mostly unaware of the ironic absurdity of their message.

We Keen On Lit Hub Radio podcast certainly isn’t immune from this virus. Last week, the bestselling writer Stephen MR Covey, appeared on Keen On to talk about his new book Trust and Inspire. For all Covey’s profound personal decency, his message was profoundly indecent. Trust is in crisis, he told me, particularly in terms of the crisis of trust in political parties and institutions. But we do still trust businesses, particularly their leaders. Thus the fix to this crisis of trust, he argued, can be found in private enterprise.

I asked Covey for an example of a leader of a private company able to inspire public trust. “Satya Nadella,” he answered, the CEO of Microsoft, a private technology company worth over two trillion dollars, whose market value is still rooted in its neo-monopolistic control of clunky computer software programs. At least, I guess, he didn’t reply with the names of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk. Although ten or even five years ago, he might have thrown these now discredited tech titans too as model rebuilders of public trust.

The looting of the public sphere in the name of the free market has turned out to be a much more tragic than comic affair.

But it’s not just multi-trillion dollar companies that are being fetishized. Earlier this week, Jon Alexander, a former advertising executive, appeared on Keen On to talk about his new book, Citizens: Why the Key To Fixing Everything Is All Of Us. Alexander argues that the public values, particularly of citizenship, are being reinvented by “innovative” new businesses like the funky British craft beer company BrewDog. The problem, however, is that BrewDog, which Alexander annoyingly eulogizes in Citizensis guilty of uber-funky morality which resulted in its paranoid CEO allegedly hiring private investigators to smear critics of the craft beer company.

No, never trust the funky. Or the innovative or the empathetic. And certainly never trust anyone who ever utters that most inauthentic of A words— “authenticity.” Come to think of it, don’t trust anyone who writes about “trust” because they will probably turn out to be untrustworthy. You see, these business school seminarians are very good — or, more accurately, very bad—With language. And they’ve appropriated the funkiest (ie: most ill-defined) words of free market culture for what they claim to be the public good.

Yesterday, Susan MacKenty Brady, the CEO of the Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership, came on Keen On to talk about her new book, Arrive & Thrive: 7 Impactful Practices for Women Navigating Leadership. Brady argued that male political leaders — especially Putin and his neo-authoritarian brethren — could learn something from the “impactful,” “empathetic,” and “authentic” language of her B-school sisterhood. Putin certainly requires an education — ideally conducted from within a high security jail — but not from neoliberal seminarians, female or otherwise.

I referred earlier, half-jokingly, to the “tragicomic final act of neoliberalism.” But the truth is that the looting of the public sphere in the name of the free market has turned out to be a much more tragic than a comic affair. Take, for example, the tragedy of Tony Hsieh, the iconic CEO of the online shoe retailer Zappos which he sold for over a billion dollars to Amazon in 2009, and the author of the bestselling entrepreneurial autobiography Delivering Happiness. Hsieh, like so many other idealistic Silicon Valley types, believed that he could, like a neatly reengineered Zappos shoe box, repackage private enterprise as public virtue.

But, as Katherine Sayre told me when she appeared on Keen On this week to discuss her new Hsieh biography Happy At Any Cost, Hsieh failed. He failed in his utopian endeavors to innovate “holacratic” organizational practices at Zappos which would have supposedly finally done away with corporate hierarchies. He failed in his attempts to create business utopias in downtown Las Vegas and Park City (UT), which would rejuvenate public space with private money. And he failed as a human being too, dying alone in a November 2020 fire, a Howard Hughes-like reclusive drug addict and alcoholic. And so Tony Hsieh ended up as Silicon Valley’s saddest evangelist of happiness: a private victim, rather than a public architect of history.

Tony Hsieh was not alone in these contradictions. Greedy for virtue and community, he died a dismal, lonely death. But the tragedy of the Hsieh story — of its spiritual vacuity and empty promise of public “social capitalism” —is being played out, with paradoxical results, on the wider economic stage. As the UC Berkeley sociologist, Carolyn Chen, told me when she appeared on Keen On last week to discuss her excellent new book, Work Pray Code, Silicon Valley companies are transforming work into religion. And that’s not some sort of evil Dave Eggers-style plot to hijack the minds of tech labor, Chen argues, but rather a result of the spiritual atomization of the Silicon Valley worker who, in our neoliberal age, longs for meaning.

As we know from Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Origins of Capitalism, capitalism and religion have always been entangled with unintentional intimacy. Chen’s Work Pray Code is, therefore, much more prescient than the B-school seminarians of social capitalism, with their doomed, Tony Hsieh-style faith in the public virtue of the private company. Our 21st-century capitalist economy might be reformable. But only if the neoliberal fetishization of the free market is reformed with a capitalism that is governed by a public realm independent of and superior to the market itself.

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