Philosopher capitalists look for more

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 March, 1998, 12:00am

A NEW breed has mushroomed in the business world: men who suddenly sicken of lucre, run headlong into mid-life crises and declare that money is not everything.

These briefcase philosophers then put pen to paper, clamber on to the lecture circuit and churn out chapters on how society would be so much better if the business world was kinder and gentler.

They quote African wisdom, sprinkle their books with poems from West Indian playwright Derek Walcott, as well as snatches from United States essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, German philosopher Immanuel Kant and French political theorist Jean Jacques Rousseau.

To be fair, Charles Handy, author of The Hungry Spirit - Beyond Capitalism: A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World (Hutchinson, GBP14.99), has made a serious attempt to examine capitalism's loopholes.

He seems qualified to do so. Mr Handy has been an oil executive, a business economist and a professor at the London Business School. His latest identity is writer and broadcaster.

Mr Handy joins the likes of billionaire hedge-fund manager George Soros, who believes making money must have a grander, preferably philanthropic purpose.

'As things stand, we seem to be saying that life is essentially about economics, that money is the measure of most things and that the market is its sorting mechanism,' Mr Handy writes in a seamless read. 'There is, I believe, a hunger for something else which might be more enduring and more worthwhile.' Mr Handy's book throws up interesting ideas.

Consider, for example, that in a list of the world's 100 largest economies, 50 are corporations. General Motors' sales revenues, he writes, roughly equal to the combined gross national products of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire.

And GM is answerable to no one but itself. Mr Handy proposes the idea of a citizen company whose workers operate in a transparent environment and have a shared commitment to a common purpose.

The trouble with vision on a grand scale is that it can be spread thin in places. Mr Handy's views on education, compressed into a chapter, would be worth a separate book. He says traditional university learning - heavily skewed to individualistic analysis in the West - hardly prepares one for real life in the working world.

Regrettably, Mr Handy has space only to skim this and other issues. Can one really thrash out a substantive new vision of government in 23 pages? Mr Handy has powerful bed fellows. Mr Soros offers in The Atlantic Monthly, the following critique of capitalism's pursuit of self-interest: 'Unless it is tempered by the recognition of a commitment that ought to take precedence over particular interests, our present system is liable to break down.' Essentially, he and Mr Handy believe pure capitalism cannot create contentment.