In ‘The Way of the World’ (1963), Nicolas Bouvier, a Genevan writer, recounts his rich experience when traveling in a convertible FIAT Topolino from Switzerland to Pakistan in the ’50s at the age of 23. The book tells of the many people he meets and their cultures – a fantastic adventure at a time when globalization was not even a word, and the earth counted less than half of the people than it does today.
As I re-read this book in recent weeks, its stories spoke to me a lot more than when I first discovered them in my teenage years. Paradoxically, it seems like the older I get, the closer I feel to history: The iron curtain was there only yesterday, with vivid memories of Thatcher, Reagan, Kohl, Gorbachev, and Mitterrand. The Berlin wall fell this morning. And a wild acceleration of globalization occurred just a couple of minutes later, emboldened by a victorious capitalistic system.
Capitalism did well at first and managed to power through the dot.com bubble, Enron, and WorldCom. But it was mortally wounded by the Great Financial Crisis to be saved in extremis by the central banks. In the end, COVID-19 got the better of it. As the health crisis hit, non-market forces took over and are now launching exceptional fiscal measures to cement their position as great caretakers.
Today, many appear to be comfortable with a more prominent government role in the economy.* While a self-proclaimed capitalist, I sympathize with this trend as expressed in ‘1968’. Capitalism must be saved from itself.
But it would not be wise to contribute to capitalism’s reformation without remembering Europe’s post-war history – even if it appears to originate from a distant millennium to the younger generations. In that respect, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 commencement speech at Harvard is a valuable reference. It provides a scathing criticism of the Western capitalistic system: ‘The constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression […]. Active and tense competition permeates all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.’ (more below). But the great Russian writer also reminds his audience that ‘socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.’
None of these considerations will prevent the pendulum from swinging hard towards more government in the coming years. This movement will almost certainly overshoot before the pendulum swings back again in a couple of decades. I can anticipate that future as if it were tomorrow.
This trend creates a pressing matter for leadership teams. The existing literature and surveys suggest that many companies are not ready to engage with governments as part of a well-crafted external affairs strategy. Their ability to integrate and align the reality of potential government actions into their activities through a full understanding of policies and politics appears limited. Combining a formal ‘Political and Legal Affair’ function operating with the ESG dimensions represents a possible avenue to rectify such a situation.
In this day and age, a new emphasis on external affairs will most definitely translate into a significant competitive advantage. And perhaps even to a more balanced and sustainable world.
* Today, the government spending to GDP ratio varies from about 33% for Switzerland, 38% for the United States, 41% for the United Kingdom, 45% for Germany, to about 50% for Italy and the Nordic Countries. France is an outlier with 56%.
Decline of courage
The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite […].
Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad.
I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society.
Direction of freedom
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of p*rnography, crime and horror.
Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many hasty, immature, superficial and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification.
Under the slogan: “everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.
In-depth analysis of a problem is anathema to the press. It stops at sensational formulas.
Fashion in thinking
Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges.
· There is a dangerous tendency to form a herd, shutting off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people’s minds.
I hope that no one present will suspect me of offering my personal criticism of the Western system to present socialism as an alternative. Having experienced applied socialism in a country where the alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.
But should someone ask me whether I would indicate the West such as it is today as a model to my country, frankly I would have to answer negatively. No, I could not recommend your society in its present state as an ideal for the transformation of ours.
A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger. Six decades for our people and three decades for the people of Eastern Europe; during that time we have been through a spiritual training far in advance of Western experience. Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being. Therefore if our society were to be transformed into yours, it would mean an improvement in certain aspects, but also a change for the worse on some particularly significant scores.
There are meaningful warnings that history gives a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, the decadence of art, or a lack of great statesmen. There are open and evident warnings, too. The center of your democracy and of your culture is left without electric power for a few hours only, and all of a sudden crowds of American citizens start looting and creating havoc. The smooth surface film must be very thin, then, the social system quite unstable and unhealthy.
In spite of the abundance of information, or maybe because of it, the West has difficulties in understanding reality such as it is.
Loss of willpower
To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time and betrayal.
Humanism and Consequences
How did the West decline from its triumphal march to its present sickness? Have there been fatal turns and losses of direction in its development? It does not seem so. The West kept advancing socially in accordance with its proclaimed intentions, with the help of brilliant technological progress. And all of a sudden it found itself in its present state of weakness.