The Idea That’s Killing Mission-Driven Companies

If profit isn’t your only goal, congratulations. You’re now at odds with neoliberalism, the economic consensus of the last three decades.

Margaret Thatcher said of neoliberalism, “There is no alternative.” Photo: BBC/CC

A mission-driven company names a goal and says, “This is why we’re here.” Sure, profit is great, and profit powers a mission, but it’s not the point.

This simple principle puts the whole mission-driven movement on a potential collision course with the most deeply held and widely shared assumptions that have driven the global economy for the last quarter century. Today, neoliberalism — the school of economic thought that promotes market competition and small government — is facing challenges on multiple fronts: Its gospel of austerity hasn’t restored the economies that bought into it. Even the International Monetary Fund’s own researchers are questioning its premises. Popular movements on both right and left are threatening to blow up long-negotiated free-trade pacts. And a lot of the rest of us are hoping to get something more fulfilling out of our work than an “I made more money than you” certificate.

But don’t expect neoliberalism to just slink off into the dustbin of history. Its central tenet — that everyone should be free to maximize profits and everything else will take care of itself — has held the world in its mesmerizing gaze for far too long. And its ideology is likely to keep booby-trapping the missions that many companies are on, unless we are willing to understand and come to terms with its power and appeal.

Of all the “isms” floating in our cultural soup, neoliberalism may be the most confusing. As Noam Chomsky points out, it’s hardly new — its roots go back centuries — and it isn’t “liberal,” either, not in the American vernacular, “do-good,” “bleeding heart” sense.

“Neoliberalism” describes a set of assumptions — rooted in the theories of Friedrich Hayek and popularized by Milton Friedman — that have ruled our political-economic conversation for decades: Markets tend to be a force for good. Unrestricted trade lifts everyone’s boats. Governments should spend less money. And private-sector solutions beat public interventions and regulations.

Beginning in the age of Thatcher and Reagan, through the fall of the Soviet Union and the accelerating globalization that followed, policy elites in the West came to view these assumptions less as ideology than as a kind of ineluctable natural law. Capitalism won; game over! As Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no alternative.” The financial crisis of 2007–8 wounded this worldview but failed to dislodge it. In 2016, to a certain unavoidable extent, neoliberalism remains — in the David Foster Wallace sense — the water in which we obliviously swim.

The problem today is that, if the neoliberals are right, then the very idea of a mission-driven company is misguided and unnecessary. In neoliberal-land, all companies have the same mission — maximize shareholder profit. Competition — if we laissez it faire — will deliver the optimal social outcome. If monopolies emerge, not to worry; they will vanish in the next wave of market disruption.

If you work for a mission-driven company today, you probably think of yourself as a force for some kind of world-changing good. The critics of neoliberalism are going to sit you down and ask you, earnestly, whether you’re just telling yourself a feel-good story. To some extent, where you land on that idealism/cynicism spectrum comes down to a matter of temperament. (Startup founders tend to be idealists; journalists veer to the cynical.) But whichever way you lean, you can learn a lot from coming to grips with why “neoliberalism” has become a powerful put-down around the world — even as it remains, here in the U.S., largely invisible.

“Across most of the planet, ‘neoliberalism’ is a household word,” wrote anthropologist David Graeber in a 2009 essay. “In the United States, no one has ever heard of it. Mention the word to almost anyone but an academic or international affairs correspondent, and you are likely to be met with empty stares.”

As Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5000 Years and intellectual godfather of the Occupy movement, lays it out, Americans prefer to describe the same ideas using positively loaded words like “free trade” and “free markets,” or terms like “globalization” that imply inevitability. Or they defensively dismiss objections raised by people in other countries as “anti-Americanism.” When you instead give this bundle of unexamined beliefs the impersonal name “neoliberalism,” it’s like casting a “see invisibility” spell over an entire weltanschauung: the thing becomes just one competing ideology among many, something we can analyze and criticize.

Among progressive social critics, belief in the usefulness of this framework isn’t universal. Here’s Astra Taylor’s explanation of why she shunned the term “neoliberalism” in writing The People’s Platform, her analysis of crowdfunding and the digital economy’s difficulties for creative artists:

…The signaling that that language makes is so specific and insider and academic that I didn’t want to use it. This was a very conscious effort on my part because I wanted the book to be adopted at various levels — by schools, by activists, by all sorts of people — and partly because I think these stock phrases sometimes aren’t as useful as we think. “Neoliberalism,” in particular, has problems because it’s not a word anyone invokes positively. No one says: “As a neoliberal…” It’s a concept only critics use, which means it never pierces the target, because you’re not attacking an identity anyone credibly holds.

Still, in the years since the high-water mark of the Occupy movement in 2011–12, as the notion of “the 99 percent” settled into the popular imagination and inequality became an acceptable topic in mainstream U.S. politics, the word “neoliberalism” began to make its way from the wider world into American dialogue. It’s a part of Naomi Klein’s argument in This Changes Everything about fossil-fuel multinationals’ resistance to climate reforms. It surfaces regularly in critiques of the gentrification of San Francisco and the corporate enclosure of the digital realm by writers like Rebecca Solnit and Douglas Rushkoff. “You may think you’re changing the world for the better,” these voices say. “Think again.”

Today, an entire generation of companies, founders and employees, acting on their lived experience of neoliberalism’s practical failures, is in a good position to question the whole game. For one thing, neoliberalism is simply not inspiring enough to keep people at the grindstone every day. For another, we have too much evidence — in the form of inequality statistics, sluggish growth, and chronic social problems — that it simply doesn’t deliver on its promises.

But a simple disavowal of the neoliberal credo may not be enough to change anything, as long as neoliberal thought remains embedded in the mechanics of the products and platforms we’re building. Graeber describes the “ultimate project” of neoliberalism as “to subject every aspect of life to the logic of the market.” It’s almost painfully precise how exactly that description maps to the world our networks and apps will shape for us if we let them. Facebook quantifies our attention in “likes” and sends us forth to compete for them with one another. Tinder and other dating/mating apps turn pairing off into a giant trading pit. Our exercise and health, our food and transportation, our education and leisure — software gives us powerful tools for quantifying and marketizing anything and everything.

That’s just dandy if you’re content with life as a cycle of perpetual competition. But not everyone wants to experience existence that way — as “selfish isolated and suspicious creatures who constantly monitor and strategize against each other” (in the words of documentarian Adam Curtis). Sure, there are situations in business and life where it makes sense to play gladiators in the marketplace ring. But there are also times when we want to think of ourselves as participants in a drama, authors of a story, members of a group, or builders of a future.

Does your company leave customers and users the space to do that? Is your platform one where people can collaborate, or only compete? Are you really empowering individuals, or just pitting them more efficiently against one another while you consolidate economic power? In other words: Are you really changing the world, or just giving neoliberalism a shiny, tech-colored paint job?

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