We talk a lot about the central importance of Purpose for healthy teams and organizations today.
But as Frederic Laloux argues, often all that lofty talk about “purpose” is really just a fig leaf for business as usual.
Look past the shiny motivational posters and rhetoric about “making the world a better place,” and you often find the same old underlying logic of extraction — business models based on perpetually taking more than they give back. Slowly sucking the life out of people, communities, and the planet.
Extraction sucks. And sucks. And sucks. Until there’s nothing left.
It’s become blazingly obvious what extractive capitalism is doing to our planet, and to our increasingly hollowed-out economies. But what does it do to our brains? Our collective psychology? Our souls?
Capitalism as religion
Tom Whyman in The Outline offers some interesting clues, drawing on the work of philosopher Walter Benjamin:
“‘A religion may be discerned in capitalism,’ Benjamin tells us in a 1921 fragment, Capitalism as Religion. ‘That is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers.'”
“But capitalism is, for all this, a strange religion: ‘purely cultic,” as Benjamin puts it, with ‘no specific body of dogma, no theology.’ Everything in capitalism only makes sense in relation to capitalism — to the economy — itself.”
The point of capitalist ceremony, according to Benjamin, is to ‘make guilt pervasive.’
“Indeed, capitalism is ‘probably the first instance of a religion that creates guilt’ for its own sake, not for the sake of atonement.”
“According to Benjamin, guilt under capitalism — the feeling that one is wretched, lazy, undeserving, never doing quite enough to justify one’s own existence — is so pervasive that even God himself is included in ‘the system of guilt.’”
“Under capitalism, the whole universe is in despair — and so God must feel guilty for having dared ever create it.”
The only escape or hope for transcendence becomes a cult of “Billionaire-ism,” the dream of the “self-made” man or woman able to transcend mortal bonds and create a kind of heaven on earth. But:
“The billionaire’s salvation is almost everyone else’s damnation. ‘The Christian doctrine of death and immortality,’ Adorno writes, “would be wholly void if it did not embrace humanity. The single man who hoped for immortality absolutely and for himself alone, would in such limitation only inflate to preposterous dimensions the principle of self-preservation.”
In other words: there is only ever collective salvation, collaborative salvation, or none. Solitary, “self-made” transcendence does not exist; we heal and grow in relationship, or not at all. Billionaire-ism (the belief that billionaires can save us, or that we should somehow aspire to be like them) is the last ideology of the oppressed.
Extractive capitalism makes us feel like we can never, ever measure up — no matter how fast we run on the treadmill. This creates chronic guilt and shame about our inability to keep up.
Healthy teams and human collaborations offer an antidote. When collective purpose is grounded in something real, other than just chasing a quick buck, or making a handful of billionaires richer, we find ourselves again.