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Occupy Wall Street protesters rally in a small park on Canal Street in New York, Nov. 15, 2011. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Occupy Wall Street protesters rally in a small park on Canal Street in New York, Nov. 15, 2011. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Talking Management

Transcript: Should capitalism survive? Add to ...

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, with Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to USC’s Paul Adler [a professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.]

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So Paul, the theme of the conference here at the Academy [of Management] is Capitalism in Question, in fact you are the one that came up with that. Why did you choose that theme and why is it important in today’s world?

PAUL ADLER – The theme was an exciting one to develop, I wasn’t quite sure if my colleagues would be on board with that formulation of the question, but it was motivated by more or less the sense that we should be the ones questioning capitalism.

It is our sense that capitalism has been put into question by the events around us and so our task, as management scholars, is to understand what are these changes in the world around us, what are these protest movements speaking about, what do these financial crises mean, what does it mean when we see this growing inequality and anxiety in general about the frustration of economic aspirations in so many places around the world (North America, Europe, and developing countries around the world).

It does seem like many people have put capitalism into question. Whether that is a particular form of capitalism that they are exposed to or, indeed, whether there is some alternative to capitalism that they would like to put on the agenda. So it is less our desire to put capitalism into question, that is motivating this theme for the meeting, as the sense that there are some changes afoot in the world around us that we need to come to grips with as management scholars.

KARL MOORE – So it begs the question, Paul, since the conference is questioning capitalism. What is your perspective? Do you think capitalism is screwed up and we need new forms of capitalism or where do you think we should go?

PAUL ADLER – I think it is a fascinating question. It’s not obvious to me that capitalism as a form of economic organization is the best that humanity can do for itself.

If you look at the grand sweep of history, capitalism is a relatively recent form of social economical organization. It has enormous benefits, as compared to pre-capitalist forms of social organization, but obviously it’s coming with some pretty serious problems too. It seems, honestly, implausible to me that 500 or a thousand years from now people are going to still be living in a form of society where we have economic cycles of boom and bust, people thrown into unemployment and loosing their homes as financial crises unfurl themselves every decade or so.

It seems unlikely to me that people will tolerate coming to work in an organization where they are told what to do by a boss where as in their political life their make their own choices and participate in a democratic form of government. So it seems to me that there are some pretty deep tensions within the capitalist form of organization that perhaps one day might be resolved through the formation of a new form of society.

I have no idea what that would look like but I am intrigued to look at the tensions we see today through that broader historical lens and ask myself: Is this what sorts of adjustments are needed? Or perhaps it is a more radical reformation of the basic structure of society that might be eventually be needed to solve these enduring problems.

The temporary problems we can deal with; there are obviously many improvements we can make to the way capitalism is working today, but I am not sure how we so easily overcome some of the downsides, risks, the costs, of its more fundamental features.

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