“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
This year, as every year since its publication in 1843, people will enjoy A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ story of personal redemption and the celebration of our common humanity. They’ll read it in full or in extracts, watch a variety of versions on TV, see it at the theatre, or listen to it on the radio. There will be few people unfamiliar with the story of Scrooge’s transformation from misanthrope and miser to “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew”.
Scrooge’s conversion is not just within his personal life; it is also manifested in his business. At the beginning of the book, the firm of Scrooge & Marley (deceased) has one primary objective: profit. It achieves this by over-charging its customers and by exploiting and under-paying its staff. It has no consideration for the social role it plays, or for the world in which it exists. It operates through a Malthusian, managerialist utilitarianism, epitomized in Scrooge’s famously callous remark on the fate of the poor, “if they would rather die, they had better do so and decrease the surplus population”.
By the end of the story, those priorities are completely reversed and Scrooge and his business are the happier and the better for it. He has remembered the humanity he has in kind with everyone.
Business is what business does
Scrooge did not write a vision and mission statement. He did not develop a credo, a manifesto, a charter of aims and goals, a list of values or a brand platform, pyramid, onion or pie. He changed what he and his business actually did. He changed his behaviour, he changed his priorities and practices. He put people, all people, first.
Dickens was concerned with how profoundly human concepts, such as the Law, Education, Business, Government, became ‘systematized’ to the point where they lose touch with the very people they were there to serve, protect or support. He had personal experience of how law becomes self-serving, how business exploits labour, how debt destroys families. Such concerns find an echo and resonance today, when significant numbers of people feel ‘unrepresented’ by the ‘elites’ and the ‘system’, leading to a rising tide of populism.
Dickens was not a socialist but he was a social reformer. He was an enlightened entrepreneur. He had no problem with profit as long as it was made in the right way, creating value for people not at their cost. He did not believe that capital and labour needed to be in conflict. For every Scrooge & Marley, there was a benevolent Fezziwig. He believed that what we shared in common as people was a greater source of wealth and happiness than what we saw as different.
The danger of difference
2016 has seen our differences at their most divisive. There are the Leavers and Remainers, the Deplorables and Democrats, the nationalists and the immigrants, economic refugees and asylum seekers. We have too often focused on those differences, with a vicious and vindictive rage.
This week, the suffering of those seeking to escape from Aleppo confronts us nightly on our screens. This year, the talk of the threat and fear of migrants has dominated our national conversations. So, it is timely to remind all of us that the story of Christmas involves a refugee family forced into exile to escape certain death among the state-sanctioned slaughter of innocents. The Christmas story challenges us to think of others with care and compassion, to remember our common humanity.
It also asks us to think of a prosperous, peaceful future for everyone on the planet, of ‘goodwill to all men’. Earlier this week, I spoke to a lawyer advising ‘sinking states’, places like Maldives or Vanuatu which are literally sinking into the sea or rather the sea is rising over them, due in part to global warming. If this is true and should all these states sink, there could be an estimated 200 million homeless and stateless, environmental refugees by 2050. How would we cope with that enormous challenge to our humanity, if we struggle now to understand and deal with the challenge of only a million displaced people?
What is the business of business?
Refugees, Brexit, Trumpeteers, Global Warming, Sinking States.
What does business have to do with any of this?
We think it has everything to do with it. The desire to do business distinguishes us as human. It’s one of the ways we connect with each other, share experiences, understand each other, and achieve things. The more we trade with each other, the less we fight each other. At its best business has a transformative power for economic, social and personal good. It creates wealth, purpose and dignity.
But only if we consider mankind as our business. Only if we ensure the primary purpose of business is to solve the problems and provide for the needs of our consumers, clients, customers and the world in which they and we live. Only if we remind shareholders and investors that they stand at the end of the line. Customers and employees – respectively the source and engine of value in business – come before them. As does the wider community and the world in which we live. Purpose, People, the Planet and then Profit. In that order.
In 2017, we will have a self-proclaimed ‘good man of business’ as the leader of the free world. Mankind will certainly be his business. Let us hope that he exercises ‘charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence’. Let us hope that a man who prides himself on making great deals, heeds Marley’s words, that the ‘deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” If so, then perhaps these words which close A Christmas Carol, “God bless us, everyone,” might have true meaning. If not, then it might be better if we utter these words, “God help us, everyone”.
Have a peaceful Christmas and a purposeful, prosperous New Year.