Charles Handy believes there is nothing more exciting than to lose oneself in a cause, but the cause must be one in which all involved take pride.
In a recent, week-long survey of the downsizing phenomenon in the US, the New York Times discovered that there was what it called a new 'mantra' in corporations. 'We are no longer able or willing to guarantee your future,' the mantra goes. 'You are responsible for your own career and your own destiny. We will provide you with opportunities to develop your skills and your experience, but employability not employment is the best we can offer.' We are, in effect, all mercenaries now, on hire whatever the cause, useful as long as, and only as long as, we can perform.
'In such a world, it is wise and prudent not to make long-term plans or invest in the distant future; not to get tied down too firmly to any particular place, group or cause, even an image of oneself, because one might find oneself not just unanchored and drifting but without an anchor altogether; it is prudent to be guided in today's choices not by the wish to control the future, but by the reluctance to mortgage it. In other words, "to be provident" means now, more often than not, to avoid commitment. To be free to move when opportunity knocks. To be free to leave when it stops knocking.'
The words are not mine. They come from Zygmunt Bauman, one of the world's most distinguished philosophers, in Alone Again: Ethics After Certainty (published by Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4 at £6.95). It is a small book, booklet even, of 46 pages, but I am increasingly a fan of small books, provided always that they are readable and talk sense. This one certainly does. It is an essay for our times.
Bauman is worried by the privatisation of society: not the vogue for turning every state activity into a business, although that is part of it, but the fact that we now increasingly belong to, or are committed to, nothing besides ourselves. Even the family can often turn out to be a relationship of convenience, to be discontinued if it doesn't suit. At work, our loyalty and responsibility is first to ourselves and our future, secondly to our current group or project, and only lastly, and minimally, to the organisation.
Without commitment, however, there is no sense of responsibility for others, and without responsibility there is no need for morality - anything goes, or at least anything which is legal, if it's what you want. To be a citizen seems to mean nothing much more than to be a customer, to let others take decisions which you can then take or leave, or take and then complain about. 'I pay my taxes, don't I?' was the response of one chairman when asked what responsibility he felt for the thousands whom he had just declared redundant. Taxes, in fact, are now seen as the way we discharge our responsibilities to the rest of the community, and understandably we wish to pay as few of those as possible, and leave it to others to decide how to spend them while we get on with our own lives.
It may all be a rational response to a chaotic world, one where the future is there to be invented, not to be predicted and certaintly not to be controlled; but it makes for a lonely world, one in which the neighbourhood is a jungle to be warily watched, the stranger a beast to hide from and our home a privatised prison. Bauman quotes Max Frisch: 'We can now do what we want, and the only question is what do we want? At the end of our progress we stand where Adam and Eve once stood; and all we are faced with now is the moral question.' Life does not have to be like this, and Bauman argues for a return to something like the Greek polis which combined individual autonomy with a shared responsibility for decisions which affected all in the community. Individuality and togetherness need each other for either to work.
I am hesitant about communities, which seem increasingly to be more like ghettoes than the mixed villages of yesteryear, but more hopeful of some businesses if they changed their mantra. There is nothing more exciting than losing oneself in a cause that is bigger than oneself, something which makes self-denial worthwhile and where success is shared, not hugged to oneself in secret. For that to happen, however, the business, in its turn, has to have a cause that is bigger than itself, a cause in which all concerned can take pride, and for which they have passion because they can all, individually, make a difference to something that matters and to which, in turn, they matter.
For that to happen, those people, or a sensible proportion of them, must be citizens in the true sense, not mercenaries; citizens who have a shared responsibility for the future of the organisation, who are not mere instruments doing the bidding of the board, and who know that their citizenship will not be revoked when times get hard. Citizenship for life, however, will not be on offer in many businesses. The times are too uncertain for that. But fixed-term citizenship is possible, a total commitment, both ways, for limited periods of, maybe, 10 to 15 years.
Total commitment for limited time is better, we shall come to realise, than no commitment for unspecified time.
'Cause', 'pride', 'passion' and 'commitment' may be unusual words to apply to business, but they are the words which are often missing from our privatised world. In an age where uncertainty is a condition of life, we will have to find some way of restoring meaning and morality, if we don't like the thought of living in a human jungle. Ironically, perhaps, it could be business that shows the way, if the mantra changes.