The Business End of Spirituality

If I could stop howling at all the amusing quips Bill Ford has made to the press, concerning the Ford Motor Company’s vision for a more virtuous future, I might actually be able to write this article.

It isn’t even supposed to be about the Ford Motor Co. Ford came up entirely by accident. You see, I looked up the website of the San Francisco-based Business for Social Responsibility, an organization dedicated to what is termed “socially responsible investing.” I learned, rather to my surprise, that the organization’s most prominent members include Starbucks, Ford Motor Co., Bank of America, Hewlett-Packard, KPMG LLP, Levi Strauss & Co., American Express, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Eddie Bauer, Liz Claiborne, McDonald’s Corporation, Providian Financial and WalMart.

But its actually not so surprising after all. The environment, as our friend Bill said somewhere, is a big seller. People like hearing terms like “environmentally friendly” thrown around. Use the term “environment” somewhere, prominently, and people will buy the product. “Oh look, honey. It’s environmental.” As our friend Bill likes to say in his amusing way, this is a really exciting development, and just might help people make the difficult decision to buy an SUV.

Now, our pal Bill is a friend of the working man and the environment, but he likes to point out that his great-granddaddy was ahead of him in this. Henry Ford tried to inculcate real values in the working man by subjecting them to country music and dance lessons, and we’re still getting that kind of fine moral leadership from the Ford family.

What links all these companies — from Ford to WalMart (and how’s that for a mind-bending stretch of the imagination?) — is the discovery that a “values-based corporate culture” is highly profitable.

This is an understandable conclusion. I mean, when I was (between the ages of 14 and 18) a potential high-school dropout, my concerned parents grimly threatened: “Do you want to work at McDonald’s for the rest of your life?” To this day when I walk by a McDonald’s and see people inside working at McDonald’s I automatically think, That person didn’t listen to his-or-her parents. The corporation has a serious problem on its hands: if the mere concept of working for them is used by parents to terrify their teenage children into obedience, imagine the state of employee morale in those franchises?

Morale is a big issue for corporations. It gets more critical with every environmental disaster, plant closure, corporate takeover and switchover to an HMO. Morale is a problem for Job at the bottom, who has to work 70 hours a week to survive, and it’s a problem for Job, Jr at the top, who has to work 70 hours a week because its in his $100,000 contract and has to golf at the same country club as his boss.

Well the corporations have found an ingenious way to boost employee morale. Starbucks, for example, is proud of its many community-building programs, and as a matter of policy encourages employees to do charity work. Some corporations take their claims of do-gooding so far that they promote the idea that the company is itself a “good cause.” My all- time favorite is Chevron’s “People Do” marketing campaign, which portrays the oil company as a conservation organization, saving America’s wetlands and wildlife.

It doesn’t worry me too much that the corporations are coopting ideas like “social responsibility” — because the idea of socially responsible business was eminently cooptable from the get-go. Essentially, the idea was that capitalism could go on and on, endlessly exploiting resources (for the new ecologically-friendly market, of course), workers (who would be paid “living wages,” of course), and third world countries (in the most helpful, charitable way, of course) and ordinary Americans, like you and me, caring people, could make oodles of easy money by investing. In fact, it’s practically a duty to invest in Green Business, and Community Business, and Businesses Run By Disadvantaged People.

What does bother me is that business, whether big or small, has succeeded to some degree in boosting morale in corporate culture. Corporate culture is the culture of cheap, crummy developments built up on toxic waste dumps; it’s the culture of solacing unfulfilling lives with imaginary needs for Technology and Stuff; it’s the culture of days wasted in labors which have no satisfying conclusion and “free time” consumed by recovering from mental and physical exhaustion; it’s the culture of fear which keeps every man and woman a “worker” instead of a self-defined person, dependent on a hated way of life, convinced of the inevitability of disappointment. That is corporate culture, no matter how many walk-a-thons and literacy drives the corporation chooses to sponsor.

But according to observers like Corinne McLaughlin, Executive Director of The Center for Visionary Leadership, American corporations are becoming not only socially responsible, but spiritual. The proofs she cites are incontestable. The World Bank, whose commitment to social responsibility is already much admired internationally, drawing excited crowds everywhere its members go, has a Spiritual Unfoldment Society with lectures on meditation and reincarnation.

This movement to bring spiritual practices into the corporations is being led by people like Christopher Walker. Not only does Chris Walker teach InnerWealthâ„¢ to corporate executives, but he was brought in by the Canadian government to instruct the Mi’kmaqs of Big Cove in real spiritual values so they would stop killing themselves.

I expect that at this point we’re all getting a little confused about why we want to kill ourselves, but let me remind the reader that amassing vast private capital from the blood, sweat and tears of the suicidally depressed formerly independent populations of formerly clean and beautiful countries with the friendly help of U.S.-funded military dictators and corporate spiritualists, is not the solution. No, dear confused reader, it is the problem. Remember: problem. Not solution. Problem. Repeat this, if necessary, daily.

I’ve tried to read Chris Walker’s teachings, which are available online at www.walkerinternational.com, but they are very creepy. I don’t recommend them to anyone who values their sanity. He knows his stuff — you can’t fight him on that level. I am reminded of a former coworker, a friendly Jehovah’s Witness, who told me that in his view, there are just four kinds of people: good, bad, wicked and evil. Well, this guy is evil. On the other hand, the members of groups like the Fellowship of Companies for Christ International are only wicked. They blithely “request that you pray as you complete the contribution form, and ask God how HE would have you support FCCI.”

And Slingshot, amen.

I’ve singled out the most evil and the most funny, but actually there are many “spiritual” corporate consultants and religious alliances of business owners. After all, there’s a huge market for what they’re peddling. Why? 1. Morale. Like the Mi’kmaq kids, we (the employees) are being told not to see our futures of continuing privation and exploitation with despair. The corporate executives want us to have a sense of optimism, a sense that things are changing, that we are living, as Chris Walker puts it, in revolutionary times. Raise morale, and people will work harder, more willingly. Their lives will still feel hard, but they will think it’s in a good cause. The members of the World Bank feel — despite all the hostility they get every time they show their faces — that they are making a positive contribution to the world. Why do you think corporations organize vision quests and higher power lunches and feng shui and yoga for their executives? Simply, the executives carry the burden of conscious responsibility. They have to believe that their actions are good, or at worst, inevitable. Belief is what keeps them going, day after day. Belief is everything.

2. Greed. Flat out greed. There seems to be profit in it for everybody. Spiritual corporate consultants can make a killing preaching the gospel of capital. Corporations can reap the benefits of improved morale and marketability — don’t forget how well social responsibility sells! Even small-fry employees seem to believe there’s a profit in it for them. Some are inspired by the gospel to start their own business. Others swear that the office feng shui brought them unanticipated windfalls of money. Managers believe that “incentives” get people to work harder, and help combat the tendency of people to hate the company they work for. Spiritual meditations help people to drive away “bad attitude” and before you know it, those gift certificates for $5 off at the company store start looking like sincere gestures of appreciation from one’s fellow inspired and loving man.

3. Piety. Many people want their lives to be infused with the sort of depth and quality which comes from living in tune with their spiritual beliefs. The trouble is that no gospel worth its salt can accept — much less endorse, accommodate and work for — the goals of capitalism. The gospel of capital depends on the assumption that the physical and metaphysical are entirely separate entities. Damaging one can be done with impunity if one simply prays and has a good heart. But the metaphysical is entwined with the physical world, and when we damage the physical, we do harm to the metaphysical at the same time. The only way to truly infuse our lives with sanctity is to approach living with faith instead of fear; to believe that if we step away from capitalism and act on our values instead, that we will find the support we need. That is true piety.

So, what can we do about it, besides make fun of Bill Ford, which is always amusing?

  • First, we need to be really really clear about what true spirituality is.
  • We need to be able to identity the gospel of capitalism when we see it, and understand why it’s bunk.
  • We need to destroy corporate morale — at every level, from the little guys to the big guys. Don’t let the World Bank’s members believe they are doing good in the world.
  • Get better at distinguishing between pleasure and greed. Live for pleasure, not for profit.
  • Know the difference between kindness and exploitation.
  • Know the difference between inner truth and bad attitude.
  • Recognize and respect the harmony of the physical and the metaphysical.
  • Don’t allow fear to prevent you from changing, growing, and acting in ways which expand freedom and joy.
  • Expose the Chris Walkers of the world.
  • Smash capitalism, smash the state, eat lunch, get more soil amendments and start thinking about a new article.