A fantasy many of us grew up hearing is that we can design, control, and live the perfect lives we imagine, or others imagined for us. What did your fantasy story sound like? The basic story usually includes doing well in grammar and high school, going to college and graduating into a good job with a high salary, and then continuing an upward trajectory of uninterrupted success like we were trains on perfectly laid rails. Your story might include successes related to whatever early talents you displayed, like sports and music or desires like wealth and status. No matter the details, our fantasies always seem to include that “upward trajectory of uninterrupted success.”
That fantasy cracked apart for me in my early 30s when an insurmountable crisis threw me off my rails. My ordered life had been fractured apart and thrown into disorder. My upward trajectory was clearly interrupted. Did my shift from order to disorder – being thrown off my rails – mean I failed? I painfully thought so because I didn’t know any other story. Survival meant having to reorder much of my life and in the process reinvent myself. In that experience I was also forced to exchange the old fantasy for a new awareness of reality: sustainable growth is a process of order–disorder–reorder. Few of us want to leave our order, much less face the likely pain of disorder and reorder, particularly when it’s not part of our plan. Take a moment to scan the big and little movements of your life. Where have you experienced order-disorder-reorder?
The order-disorder-reorder pattern applies to systems and cultures too. Our methods, processes, systems, and cultures work, until they don’t. The COVID-19 pandemic is an abrupt example of disorder on a world-wide scale. Our individual, and collective world order has moved to disorder, and we’re scrambling to figure out the reorder at every level.
Our present-day form of capitalism entered its current period of disorder several years ago. Not as abruptly or on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, but every bit as present. The fractures first appeared with regular criticisms of wage stagnation, the vanishing middle-class, stakeholder primacy, executive compensation, subsidies to corporations, wealth inequity, and other evidence of an unlevel playing field. The breadth and depth of the fractures are growing under the strain of the pandemic, even as the pandemic exposes new fractures and fragilities.
The reordering of our economy and the way we practice capitalism, much like the individual trying to reorder after being thrown from his or her rails, must be thoughtfully guided for the transition to be successful and sustained. This reordering and reinventing isn’t a task that can be left to chance, like a damaged ship drifting downstream hoping it’ll safely dock at its port of call. No! Without a plan we’ll more likely wind up with an economy further damaged if not permanently run aground. Rather, this reordering needs to be attended to intentionally and intelligently, with the goal of a stronger, more equitable form of capitalism.
Scholars have observed that capitalism has the ability to reinvent itself, and it does. By some estimations, notably former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, capitalism reinvents itself about every 50 years. We here at partnershipeconomics.com are encouraged by that insight. First because it acknowledges capitalism experiences the rhythm of order-disorder-reorder, just like individuals and other systems. Second because it appears capitalism is right on schedule. By our calculation the present-day form of capitalism was birthed by Milton Friedman and started to get traction in the early 1970s, fifty years ago. So it seems like capitalism is right on schedule for its reinvention. The danger, of course, is that capitalism could be further reinvented for the few and select rather than the many and common.
What does the best version of a reorder and reinvention of capitalism look like to us? As we advocate in our book Better Capitalism, we envision the next form of capitalism to be one based in theory and practice on what we teach is a partnership ethic. This is an improved capitalism, where people (and the entities that comprise those people) partner with each other to seek mutual benefit. This mutual benefit is created by engaging in exchanges that are profitable for our self and the other – pursuing our economic neighbor’s interest as well as our self-interest. A partnership ethic moves us from a narrow perspective of competition within a zero-sum game, into a broader perspective of collaboration that grows the pie for everyone involved.
Perhaps the most attractive part of our vision for the current reorder of capitalism, what we call Partnership Economics, is that the hardest part is simply an adjustment of our individual and collective mindset. As we learn to recognize our present fantasy and mindset of capitalism for what it is – a false narrative whose damaging flaws are now increasingly obvious – we will begin to see Partnership Economics is the correct reorder, because it resonates with both our lived reality as well as our visions for a profitable and sustainable future. We invite you further explore Partnership Economics and consider the benefits of that adjustment to your current mindset.
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