The future of activism

March 22, 2008

activism / business / politics

For some time, it has been clear to me that business is the future of activism. I want to say that again: business is the future of activism. It’s a shocking statement, if you really think about it.

Many people throughout the 20th century (and before) on all sides of the political spectrum believed, and still believe, that governments are the drive behind large scale activism. It has been a common belief that large-scale societal change cannot happen without government intervention.

We can see evidence of this in the rise of the Moral Majority, in which fundamentalist Christianity tried to achieve its various goals through achieving influence in government. Essentially, it failed in this. Lasting change that reaches beyond superficiality (and meets their goals) did not occur in society, and instead of influencing the Republican Party, conservative Christianity has spent the last several decades in blind acceptance of the Republican Party.

The political left also shows examples of this kind of thinking. Movements have tried to influence government for a great number of things in recent years, from nuclear disarmament to climate change. Essentially, it also has failed.

The interesting question that should arise from my statement is why business would want to be a catalyst for large-scale social change. The goal of business, at its core, is to make money. Business doesn’t exist to make the world a better place. Governments certainly don’t either, but it can be argued that they should do so better than businesses do.

I’m not entirely sure how to answer the question about why business would want to do this, but there is significant evidence that it does. Businesses of all sizes are finding it very desirable to put their resources behind causes that will not, at least in the immediate future, bring them a financial return. Issues from poverty to the environment to fair trade are being drastically changed by businesses.

Businesses are devoting their resources to causes from Kiva, where they can help other businesses in developing countries, to the Millenium Promise, where they can help end extreme poverty in the poorest of poor countries. Businesses of all sizes have the skills to achieve these goals. They know how to organize, they know how to get people behind something, and they know how to get passionate about an idea. Once these things happen, there isn’t a government on earth that will choose to accomplish the same things that are possible with these businesses.

I say all these things to mark a shift that has occurred, especially in the last decade or so. The business world endured a shock with scandals like Enron, and it was unclear if there could be a fast recovery of any kind. Businesses of all kinds, though, have begun to cause that recovery. Google has, Steve Jobs wrote about a greener Apple, Microsoft has, among other things, made possible the Gates Foundation, and all kinds of companies have launched endeavors like Coke’s Corporate Responsibility strategy.

I have no interest in white-washing large business. Certainly there are horrible things that continue to go on, and many businesses that don’t care at all about social responsibility, but the fact is that it is becoming a part of the business world to an extent that it never has. It’s a great thing to watch.