Let the politics of belonging and the economics of the harvest guide every decision we make

Last week in the UK the discussion was divisive, with some Moslem groups feeling targeted by new definitions of extremism and MP Diane Abbott being the subject of shockingly hateful and violent words. I have been asking myself what is missing in our politics.  In search of an answer I turned to an excellent book published six years ago by Paul Collier entitled ‘The Future of Capitalism. In the concluding chapter Collier talks about ‘The politics of belonging’. 

Distilling his entire argument to a single sentence, Collier says,

Shared identity becomes the foundation for far sighted reciprocity.

He goes on,

Societies that succeed in building such belief systems work better…Individualist societies forfeit the vast potential of public good. The revivalist ideologies are each based on hatred of some other part of society and are cul-de-sacs to conflict.

Antisemitism; Islamophobia; culture wars. It does indeed feel as though we are being taken down a cul de sac of conflict.

How do we find our way back? I would suggest by injecting new criteria into every decision we make.

One of the striking news stories of last week was the cry of despair from the Southampton head teacher who asked ‘How difficult is it to bake a potato? ‘as he apologised to parents for the terrible food his outsourced caterers were serving up. I noted that the responsibility and accountability for this school food was doubly distant from that Head’s influence. It was being delivered under a PFI contract between the public sector and MITIE; that company had then in turn outsourced the catering to a Compass subsidiary called Chartwell. Every link in the outsourcing chain distances the provider of the food a service even further from any sense of connection with the  people eating the food.

Contrast this distance between leadership and its consumers with the story (on its own website) about how the charity Chefs in Schools came into existence.

‘While writing the School Food Plan, Henry Dimbleby posted a tweet asking whether any chefs would be interested in taking over the kitchen at his children’s state school. Nicole Pisani– then Head Chef at the acclaimed Soho restaurant Nopi – decided to take the gamble of a lifetime, applied and was offered the job by the school’s then-head, Louise Nichols. Nicole retrained the school cooks using the restaurant brigade system, teaching them to cook everything from scratch and to bake bread daily. She also encouraged them to cook their favourite recipes. Nicole took charge of the cooking curriculum, teaching the children to butcher whole chickens and cook over fire pits in the playground. This work became the model for Chefs in Schools and we now work to help other schools completely transform the standards of school food and food education’. 

At Anthropy 2023 I met and was impressed by a several community pioneers. Cornishman Simon Ryan wasn’t prepared to see three empty coastguard cottages being sold to second home owners. He credits Cornwall Council for making success possible there and that has led on to more social housing projects.

There was Charlotte Hollins, whose family had been tenant farmers for generations, and organic farmers at Fordhall Farm since World War Two. Threatened with eviction by the landowners, she and her brother raised £800,000 investment in £50 shares to create England’s first community-owned farm.

The message for business is clear. Look beyond the cold financial calculation to what I have previously called Harvest Economics.

Harvest Economics means analysing economic activity in the context of human relationships and natural cycles.

The purpose of the economic activity then becomes clear to all. They could touch it, see it, smell it, hear it. There is a sense of shared involvement in the wealth creation process

People get and use a true understanding of the connectedness of the different tasks within the project just as within the harvest they know exactly the point of all those stages – sowing, growing, reaping, threshing, winnowing, storing.

Can you do the opposite of what the design of PFI contracts did to school catering? Can you cut out the middleman? Can you re-establish the link between people in the engine room of your company, and people out there in the economy for whom your products or services are actually intended?

My continuing experience as a judge on the Mark in Action awards at Unipart tells me that people in your organisation will become far more energised when you succeed in doing that. I have never forgotten the Midlands warehouse employee called Eddie, who took it on himself to write a personal note to a particular Jaguar dealer, offering individual support and troubleshooting should that dealer ever have difficulties.

The dealer was delighted; Jaguar were impressed and in time ‘Adopt A dealer’ went viral.

Commitments to ‘go the extra mile’ were not limited to customers. A Unipart manager remembered a Unipart driver who had stopped his vehicle and gone to the rescue when he saw a woman struggling to rescue a horse that was in danger of sinking into deep mud. Knowing Unipart’s culture, the driver knew he would be commended, not condemned, for taking time out to intervene.

There are many good features in our democracy and in our civic life on which we can build a politics of belonging. The UK has a vibrant Third Sector. Across the country activist groups such as Surfers Against Sewage have succeeded where public bodies like the Environment Agency have fallen short in holding water companies and farmers and other polluters of our rivers to account. 

And so, to both businesses and government I would say as part of your analysis of the of any major investment or any major policy decision, ask what are the implications of this policy for reciprocity and for shared identity. Don’t abandon sophisticated equal opportunity polices. But do look beyond them to the real human beings that they and you exist to serve.

Don’t abandon conventional economics but look beyond it to Harvest Economics’ abandon conventional decision analysis but look beyond it to human reciprocity and the politics of belonging.  

 Mark Goyder is Founder of Tomorrow’s Company and Senior Advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He is co-author, with Ong Boon Hwee, of Entrusted – stewardship for responsible capitalism. (World Scientific 2020.)

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