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Aaron Timms
Aaron Timms is a writer living in New York. You can find him on Twitter @aarontimms.

Maybe What We Need Is … More Politics?

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Aaron Timms | Longreads | February 2019 | 20 minutes (5,514 words)

Alpacas are native to South America, but to find the global center of alpaca spinning you’ll need to travel to Bradford, England. The man most responsible for this quirk of history is Titus Salt. Until the 1830s alpaca yarn was considered an unworkable material throughout Europe. Salt, a jobbing young entrepreneur from the north of England, commercialized a form of alpaca warp that made the animal’s fleece suitable for mass production. Within a decade alpaca, finer and softer than wool, had become the rage of England’s fashionable classes.

Already by the mid-19th century industrialization had begun to disfigure the English countryside with “machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled,” as Dickens put it in Bleak House. The immiseration of the working classes was under way. Troubled by the emerging horrors of the new industrial age, Salt built a model village to house the workers he employed in his textile mill. Saltaire, with its neat, spacious houses, running water, efficient sewerage, parks, schools and recreational facilities, became a symbol of what enlightened capitalism could look like. It was also a model in the truest sense, serving as the inspiration for workers’ villages built later in the 19th century by companies such as Cadbury’s and Lever Brothers, the soap manufacturer that eventually became Unilever.

According to economist Paul Collier, these Victorian capitalists instituted a tradition that survives, however precariously, today: the tradition of “business with purpose, business with a sense of obligation to a workforce and a community.” Among the modern successors of this model of compassionate capitalism, Collier has argued, are U.S. pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson and John Lewis & Partners, the British department store. In the 1940s Johnson & Johnson set out a credo stating that the company’s first responsibility was to its customers. Thanks to this credo, Johnson & Johnson’s management led a mass recall of Tylenol off supermarket and pharmacy shelves following a contamination scare in the early 1980s. Now standard practice, this type of product recall was uncommon for its time — and allowed the company to maintain goodwill with its customers. John Lewis, for its part, has prospered through difficult decades for brick-and-mortar retail largely thanks to its unusual power structure: the company is owned by a trust run in the interests of its workforce.

The thread uniting this strain of capitalism, Collier contends in his new book The Future of Capitalism: Facing The New Anxieties, is ethics. An ethics of reciprocal responsibility and care — between owners, workers, and customers — has allowed different businesses to prosper in different eras without destroying the communities and environments around them. But very few businesses are run according to these principles today. According to Collier, it is to this model of reciprocal ethics that capitalism, having lost its way over the past four decades, now must return — and reciprocity must become the principle that guides human interaction at all levels of society, not just in the firm. “Our sense of mutual regard has to be rebuilt,” he says. “Public policy needs to be complemented by a sense of purpose among firms.” “We need to meet each other.” “A new generation needs to reset social narratives.” “Norms need to change.” Prescriptivism today, the future of capitalism tomorrow. Read more…