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Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists

By Charles Leadbeater

Capitalism is not a candidate in the race to become US President. Yet it is certainly central to a contest now driven by what were until recently the mad fringes of US politics. Donald Trump stokes the fears of those who feel marooned and exposed by globalisation. Bernie Sanders represents those who feel let down by capitalism, fearful that education, hard work and saving will not secure a decent family life in an economy run by the elite for themselves.

The free market economy that provided affluence for millions of working people in the second half of the 20th century, before then lifting many millions more out of poverty in the developing world, is now unloved. Why has capitalism fallen into such disrepute and where might it be headed?

The reasons are deep seated. They go back long before the 2008 crash and will stay with us despite the subsequent recovery. Growth is slowing; inequality rising; innovation quickening. Many people on median incomes find themselves in a whirlpool in which everything moves faster, nothing seems to last for long, people are working harder and yet incomes remain stubbornly stuck. People were prepared to tolerate the inequalities of capitalism if they were moderate; the result of merit and risk taking and the economy grew so everyone felt better off. Now many people feel inequality is extreme, the result of inherited and self-reinforcing advantage and growth has slowed to a trickle.

All of that is raising profound questions about what shape the economy should take, questions which will be unavoidable for leaders in politics and business.

What is the future of jobs, incomes and so taxes in a world in which intelligent machines will be better able to do most routine jobs better than most people? Every trip in a London black cab has become a journey into existential angst: that will be true of many more professions.

What is the future of the company if the narrow and relentless pursuit of shareholder value ends up in being socially destructive and morally questionable? (It is not just the banks: think Enron and Volkswagen) Should companies only be accountable to their shareholders and if not then to what and to whom do they owe allegiance?

Why have capitalists so conspicuously lost their faith in the future of capitalism, when so many large companies sit on vast piles of cash rather than investing it in the industries of the future? Most large companies now prefer to sit on their cash rather than take the risk of shaping the future. How will this cash be put to productive use in a world which desperately needs new approaches to energy, water, food, housing and mobility?

What is the future of the free market economy when industries seems to be dominated by a handful of companies, with Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple leading the pack? Nor is this confined to tech companies. One result of the 2008 crash is that there are fewer, larger banks and they are even more interconnected.

Will globalisation, which at the extreme leads to big companies choosing where to be taxed and how much to pay, eventually kill off the power of national governments? It was long assumed that capitalism and democracy would go hand in hand, extending the freedom of the individual. Now it seems that globalisation might render democracy largely impotent. The alternative is no more attractive: democracy might only be saved by a reassertion of ugly nationalism, which leads to more walls, barriers, compounds and humiliation for migrants most of them simply seeking a better life for their families.

And we face all these challenges at the time when we need to remake our economies so they create wealth without scorching the planet.

Who knows where all of this might be headed but a couple of things are clear.

First, if these crises come together – rising insecurity combined with a financial meltdown, a large migration of people towards the developed world and an environmental crisis – it could be calamitous, especially if we find our political apparatus in the hands of inexperienced populists who only know how to inflame opinion.

Second, answering these questions will be the task of new generations of transformational leaders in business as much as in politics. Those leaders will need to be alert to how small changes could have a big impact; agile enough to be able to pivot in response and bold enough to take on these questions rather than hide from them.

People are not inspired by Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton not because the answers they are giving are not right but because they are not prepared to ask the big questions that people see affecting their own lives: what will become of my job, my company, my country, even my planet? Effective, credible leaders must start by be being prepared to address the big doubts and fears that now animate people everyday lives. Unless they are prepared to do that they will not be in the game.

Charles Leadbeater is working on his next book about hope and leadership in an age of anxiety and existential crisis.