“The business of business is business.” Oh. You’ve heard it before. In which case you’ll know it was the American Milton Friedman, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for economics, who bequeathed us that wisdom. And, when he died, the Economist described him as “the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th Century.”

The second bit is probably as important as the first because it places him in a time when business, and most particularly industry, was seen as a good thing. Particularly in America. It had won them the war. It had won all of us the war. In so doing, it had also rescued millions of Americans from the miseries of the Depression and given them a level of prosperity the displaced masses of Europe, the flattened cities of Japan and the cowering serfs of the Soviet empire could only envy.

And therein laid another opportunity for economic and cultural hegemony. Gentlemen, business could rebuild it. It had the technology. A six million dollar man and more for global recovery. Most of it powered by American money to buy American goods from Kodak to Cadillac, Caterpillar to Colgate. And, hey Ivan, look at them Levi’s and weep. 

Back home, “what was good for General Motors was good for America”, Eisenhower’s Defence Secretary Charles Wilson had once said. By the Sixties it was Ford’s original whizkid and company president, Robert McNamara, who was doing the same job for Kennedy. 

In other words, business had proven it could do what the state wanted to but better. To get motoring, call the Motor City. All enterprise needed was a free hand. Its business was business and what it required from government was deregulation, privatisation, floating exchange rates and a level of taxation that incentivised innovation, investment, employment and, above all, consumption. Everyone’s a winner. Cor! Someone mention all that to Jeremy Hunt

But the difficulty with capitalism red in tooth and claw is that it doesn’t always behave very well. The business of Britain’s dark satanic mills was business. The nationalised business of coal was the business of Aberfan. Union Carbide in Bhopal was in business. Krupps, Siemens, Mercedes, Hugo Boss and the panoply of German industry that put itself at the service of the Reich were only doing business and that’s before we get to VW’s emissions or cross back across the Atlantic to look at Lehman’s business or the place sweat shops enjoyed in Nike’s business. 

It really is a complicated business is business.

All of which contributes to a moustache-twirling caricature of capitalism, which, like most clichés, has a truth somewhere at its core but rather overlooks necessity, nuance, the genuinely representative and the honourable exceptions.  

It’s a caricature many are eager to exploit. An extrapolation of the specific to the general.  Sometimes with good reason but, as often, simply because they don’t like Mammon and its representative on earth, business, very much.

The corporate response down the years has been to marshal its forces behind Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a moveable feast of ‘ethical behaviour’ encompassing everything from Fairtrade to the definition-defying practice of ‘giving something back’ by letting staff work once a month at a local shelter or some such. Presumably though, this is harder now nobody actually goes into the office to start with. 

Of course it’s selective and imbued with necessary contradictions. Banks continue to advertise themselves as ‘on our side’ and cornerstones of people-based communities while shutting branches and cash machines. Supermarkets continue to move in on local businesses while chirpily patting their back pockets or getting avuncular Stephen Fry to voice homely recipe suggestions. Happy families gaze from the windows of their eco-SUV at rolling green fields far from the lithium mines. Big but little but big.

But one can be too cynical. Some CSR is genuinely held conviction and, at worst, it’s often not much more wily than enlightened self-interest. It gets ahead of or helps inform regulation – which is rarely a victimless crime. It winks at the premium on organic or artisanal. It makes an energy and staff cost saving on those hotel towels it asks you to hang up unless you really, really want them washed. And, best of all, notionally at least, it keeps the legions of lobbyists from their door and lets a business get on with quoting Milton Friedman.

Some would say, cynically, that it’s also relieved industry of the wearisome task of making a case for what it actually does. What it used to be regarded as. Progress. Modernity. Employment. Prosperity. It has constructed a players tunnel it can run through without the spit and bottles of ‘profit’, ‘exploitation’, ‘catastrophe capitalism’ and ‘vulgar libertarianism’ raining down as it takes the field of play. We do not, after all, live in a nuanced age.

But what it has taken to doing is a neat reversal. Instead of being backed into the corner by the swinging fists of moral outrage. It has come out fighting and started to tell us what to do. Its staff. Its customers. Our elected politicians. All are no longer safe from the ‘great telling off’ with which our corporations have suddenly joined in. 

It has forgotten its boundaries. Spilled beyond contractual hours into the lives of its employees to dictate what they may or may not say or do being, as they apparently are, the extension at all times of ‘corporate values’. It pushes its aggressive interpretation of diversity and inclusion at us, as though business itself was a pioneer of equal opportunities employment law and it is throwing off an imaginary world where no person of colour has been allowed to work in baked goods and lesbians banned from the household and non-food aisles.   

It pre-empts our crossness at its piss-poor AI evasions of customer service to tell us ‘it will not tolerate abuse’ – whatever that may mean – and floods into politics with HSBC giving us less-than-subtle lectures on the wickedness of borders – handy if you do a lot of work in China – while Ben & Jerry’s, manufacturers of high fat, high sugar gloop under the auspices of a troubled multinational – send ‘to do’ lists to the Home Secretary. In case you didn’t know, Ben & Jerry’s schtick is that it is not a mass market ice cream producer but an expression of alternative hippy rebellion.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve all had enough. Once, the customer was always right. Now the customer must always be right on. 

Recent research undertaken for the Policy Exchange think tank by Matt Goodwin at the University of Kent found that Britons were both ‘cynical’ – that word again – and ‘tired’ of the great corporate lecture.

Some highlights. Goodwin’s team found that only 16 per cent agree that companies should be able to demand employees declare their gender pronouns and only 12% thought companies should fire people for legal and legitimate views posted on social media while off the company clock.

Moreover, one in five voters think companies should be able to refuse to do business with customers who hold beliefs they disagree with and a paltry 10% buy the notion that companies express views they actually believe in. 

Those same companies will doubtless tell you that their Damascene conversion to the God of Woke invites millions more to a happy and harmonious world of ice cream buying while preventing the mass desertion of PayPal by customers who don’t approve of them servicing the Free Speech Union.

There’s no evidence of it. Less still that it calms a righteously angry work force. The over 50s won’t go back and the young, who in certain businesses do seem to exercise a disproportionate influence over management, are only having the joys of office politics further poisoned by introducing new toxic seepages of ways to be wrong. 

Workplace politics in all forms always has the same effect. It demotivates. It distracts. It diverts. And, worse, it allows the over-motivated to prevail at the expense of those who just want to get on with it. 

All of which brings us neatly back to Milton Friedman. Corporate world, there ain’t nobody buying. The business of business really is business. Get back to it.

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