In my role as a travelling ethicist for the past 25 years, I’ve gained perspective on many aspects of society around the world. I’ve seen both the positive and negative effects of economic liberalism and, in the past 20 years, the negative effects of subscribing to neoliberalism at all costs.
On May 28, 2020, the temperature reached 39°C in Montréal—we’ve never seen anything like it.
Since mid-March, half of humanity has been in lockdown. We’ve never seen anything like that, either.
I believe that even skeptics can no longer deny that the ever-increasing never-before-seen events we are facing are directly related to the harmful effects of the economy on nature.
But, before linking cause and effect, let’s take a brief look at the past 25 years.
Some time ago, I wrote a yet unpublished essay entitled Devenir gros [Getting Big]. In it, I disputed the very essence of neoliberalism and the globalization of markets, obsessed as they were with growth at all costs. Under this doctrine, we were led to believe that companies had to grow just to be bigger; it was growth for growth’s sake, growth at all costs, unbridled growth.
Managers liked being in charge of ever-larger business units, with more and more subordinates under them. Their prestige increased in lockstep with the number of employees they led.
During this time, many manufacturing companies forgot that they were making a product; they confused the means with the end. The value of their stocks on the markets became their product. Such companies grew in size far beyond what was necessary to reap the benefits of their often unnecessary mergers and acquisitions. They promised value creation, while their true goal was rather to capture value. Even if saying so has long been considered a heresy, we should assert the following now more than ever: It is wrong to believe that globalization has benefited everyone. Neoliberalism isn’t harmless. It leaves scars on society as a whole with its constant enriching of the richest, which inevitably impoverishes the poorest and robs society itself. The creation of value is only an illusion if the bottom line involves the created value only going to the few.
In 2020, in the age of COVID-19, who are our heroes? Investment bankers, or those who continue to operate the food supply? The 2% who have captured most of the wealth and done nothing, or so little, to assume any responsibility? Will members of this 2% have made even a small contribution to resolving the current problems, which can often be attributed to their own actions? No. The inequalities that we accepted with indifference, and the climate emergency that we discussed in our living rooms but did nothing or little about while we focussed on the mirage of infinite growth, did nothing to benefit society as a whole. Inequalities and the climate emergency have just exploded before our very eyes. Getting big has gone too far.
The many bilateral environmental agreements, the COPs and Davos Economic Forums of this world, where negotiations are so difficult that they only ensure that nothing changes, are just window dressing that give the signatories the illusion of doing something. Such agreements have resulted in insignificant and inadequate standards that many are content to comply with. In terms of agreements without substance, it’s an understatement to say that compliance will not be enough.
Compliance will not be enough to ensure that human and economic actions don’t damage the world as we know it.
Compliance will not be enough to protect us from health, environmental, social and even economic hazards.
We are now entering the post-compliance era, the era of ethics, when governments and corporations have to change the way they govern and understand that window dressing ethics and staged agreements are no longer enough. They also have to understand that complying with ineffective measures is pointless.
It has now become obvious that blind economism doesn’t work in the long term. This year, danger has taken centre stage, and we can’t pretend that we don’t see it.
This is the post-pandemic challenge that we face. To meet it, the world will need philosophers and thinkers. Diversity in boards of directors now needs to go beyond gender. Sociologists, demographers and—why not?—ethicists and young people should be included, without tokenizing them.
The cataclysms we are experiencing have proven that bankers can no longer be left alone at the helm.
“It is high time to rekindle the stars,” as Guillaume Apollinaire once wrote, and to inject a new surge of humanism into the economy and corporate governance.