Why business is so bad at politics

Tesla’s Elon Musk © Alamy

Before the ritual self-disembowelment, Yukio Mishima had other ways of getting his message across. The point was that Japan had lost its martial soul in the post-war boom. There were too many pocket cameras and not enough swords for the great writer’s chivalrous tastes. One of his minor works, usurping the cult of the consumer, tells the story of an office idiot who pulls out a tabloid ad. What he is selling is the right to kill him. Mishima played seppuku two years later.

Fanatics, even on the right, have no business: pragmatism, lack of absolutes. Judging by Elon Musk’s faith that Russia will honor any peace deal he has in mind, instead of coming back for more, the misunderstanding is mutual.

It is often said that business people are all at sea in politics. Allow me a speculation, formed over years in and around both worlds, as to why.

They don’t understand fanaticism. They don’t believe that something as abstract as an idea can lead people to extreme acts. No, there must be earthly, negotiable grievances beneath all that mystical bluster. There must be a deal to be made. Think of it as a capitalist version of Engels’ notion of false consciousness. A wartime aggressor may invoke imperial honor and other intangibles as driving motivations. “Let’s talk about it” is what a business-minded person hears. Even Donald Trump, who knew something about the extremities of human nature, treated vehement regimes in transactional terms.

Of those I know who have Musk’s views on Ukraine, almost all of them work in business, mostly in finance. But of course they do. Their world is one of positive-sum agreements between bona fide, or at least rational, parties. There is a third party enforcement called the commercial courts if someone waives. They always encounter intransigence but never doctrinal fervor. No wonder the war cries out to them to be haggled over for a long time. This is what the French call “occupational hazard» : the tendency to see the world through the prism of what we do for a living. It’s a kind of innocence, not a kind of wickedness. And no less dangerous for that.

The refusal of businessmen to believe the fanatics in the word manifests itself in a less fatal way. Take a government’s British clown car. Much of the fiscal easing he announced to such an uproar in the market last month has been delayed in advance. Investors just couldn’t believe Liz Truss meant it. They couldn’t accept that she was an ideologue because they couldn’t accept that anyone else was. She was criticized for her inability to understand their temperament. But ignorance goes both ways.

Or take the march of the left in the corporate world. Speaking to a corporate audience over the past decade, one trend stands out. Executives increasingly denounce the politicization of the office. Some are worried. Most, to my surprise, like ‘covenant’ or whatever lingo they half-understood from their kids or more obnoxious staff that week.

Now, as someone who wants to retire without ever having led a single person, I shouldn’t claim to guide them on corporate leadership. But I will say this: CEOs, I notice, assume they can decide how far these things go. Their bet is that if you give half a loaf to the cultural left, the rest is yours to munch on as you please. That’s what happens in business, after all. But that’s politics. And the wildest edge of it, at that. So expect them to come for everything. Expect no concessions to be enough. “Marxism” is a widely used word for radicalized activists on campuses. “Leninism” is more exact. One describes a historically ordered and ultimately harmonious social order. The other insists that you have to fight for it, all the time, without quarter.

In a sense, Musk agrees with the woke CEOs he seems to define himself against. Neither can fathom the extremist ken. Because no one with a rigid, abstract mind has ever thrived in business, none can believe they thrive anywhere else. The tension between dealmaker and true believer is old and mutual. But it’s not quite symmetrical. Mishima, after all, never tried to make Nissan work.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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