Are Sacred Cows Blocking Human Evolution?

Why Aren’t We Getting to Where We Want to Go?

Ervin Laszlo with commentary from Dawna Jones re: Business Evolution of Consciousness

Photo Contribution, Credit and Copyright: Peter Engberg

We hear more and more about global awakening and healing ourselves and our world, and not just from young people. There is a movement getting under way for recognizing our responsibilities and bringing up the empathy and even the love we need to thrive on this planet. More and more people seem ready to embrace the values and behaviors of a better future. At the same time the world is full of inequality and injustice, poverty and deprivation, violence and war, with scarce attention to the continuing degradation of the environment. What has gone wrong — why aren’t we getting to where we want to go?

Young people and concerned people of all ages seem to be on target toward a better world, but they are blocked by interests that go contrary to their aspirations. There are sacred cows in the way.

A sacred cow in India is simply a living cow that is not to be touched: all cows have this privileged status. But unlike real cows, the sacred cows that stand in our way today are man-made. They are values and beliefs, and operating structures and institutions based on the values and beliefs, that became obsolete but are still revered and are not to be touched. In the case of the sacred cows discussed here, this is a big mistake. These cows are not truly sacred, even if they are regarded as such, and they are very influential. They need to be recognized for what they are, and ushered out of the way.

The sacred cow of the public sector: the sovereign nation-state

When we speak of the nation-state and calling it the sacred cow of the public sector, we are not talking about nation-states as such. We are only talking about one particular kind of nation-state, the kind that not only claims to be sovereign, but also acts as if it were.

What’s wrong with sovereignty — why does claiming it make the nation-state (or any economic, political or social institution for that matter) a sacred cow?

The idea of sovereign nation-states was hailed as one of the greatest accomplishments in history, the same as the idea of national independence. Sovereign states were, and in some quarters still are, revered and considered untouchable. But this quasi-sacred ideal became obsolete, the same as the ideal of their independence.

To be sovereign means to be free from interference from the outside: the sovereign nation-state is independent; nobody is permitted to interfere with its affairs and decisions. This has become unrealistic and even counter-productive. There is no real independence in an interdependent world, and in consequence there is no real sovereignty. Any attempt to ensure independence for a nation-state means cutting the ties that link it with other nation-states, and with actors and entities below as well as above nation-states. Cutting such ties may seem like an attractive option — liberating oneself from external interference and influence — but in practice it is a painful operation, as the British found in the aftermath of their Brexit from the European Union.

Why did nationalism and independence under the banner of sovereignty shift from a noble to an illusory and then negative aspiration? What caused the transformation from a high ideal to a roadblock? The answer is, new technologies. These are the technologies of information, communication, and transportation. They expanded the boundaries of contemporary societies and brought distant people and countries into contact. They have shrunk the world into a global village.

This is not a temporary and reversible development. “Structure follows function” as systems scientists well know. Flows of information, communication, and of goods and people bring together previously separate groups and lead to structural relations among them. This has been the case in all parts of the world. A good example is the European Union. It started with the European Steel and Coal Community, a functional structure dedicated to facilitating the flow of these resources. Then the flows created tighter and more formal structures, first a Federation, and then a Union. They made the sovereignty of the member states an illusion, and insistence on it a path to isolation.

Similar alliances, federations and unions are, or would be, happening in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Their effective functioning is blocked, or at least reduced and delayed by the sacred cow of the public sector, the sovereignty-claiming nation-state. Such a state puts itself first, and believes that it can “go it alone,” not needing others to succeed. Better independence than dependence on others. This does not work in today’s world. Functional relations on all levels, from the local to the global, became a basic requirement for the wellbeing and even the existence of organizations and states in the contemporary world.

At a time of an impending crisis, insightful politicians who realize that this is the case and act on it are difficult to come by. People’s mood swings widely, and public sentiment looks to those who shout the loudest and offer the fastest and most radical solution to their problems. The solutions they offer tend to be of the “my country first and never mind the others” sovereignty-pretending kind. The consequences bear out Adlai Stevenson’s oft-quoted pronouncement that anyone who manages to get elected, doesn’t really deserve to serve.

The sacred cow of the private sector: the shareholder-serving company

The sovereign nation-state has a counterpart in the private sector: it is the traditional variety of privately owned and commercially managed business company. Not the presence of such companies in the world is the problem, but the presence of one particular variety: the company strongly focused on, and dedicated to, making money for its owners. Doing so is the credo of mainstream companies, following the famous (and now infamous) declaration of business-guru Milton Friedman in 1970. Any executive, he wrote, who pursues a goal other than making money is an unwitting puppet of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society. In that society the managers are the employees of the owners of the business: the shareholders. Making money for them is the only legitimate purpose the managers could follow.

The privately owned business company has become an untouchable sacred cow in market-oriented economies. Its growth from the local to the national, then to the regional and ultimately to the global scale is a historical and very likely irreversible phenomenon. But the values, aims and philosophy of the business company are not engraved in stone. The company need not be uniquely dedicated to making money for its owners: it could be, or could become, an agent of social, and even of world benefit, as Case Western Reserve University’s Fowler Center “of business as an agent of world benefit” declares. There are alternatives to pursuing the shareholder strategy. Management guru David Cooperrider noted that business companies could create wellbeing and even flourishing at every level. As his collaborator Chris Laszlo pointed out, this includes true cost accounting and regenerative agriculture, supply chains designed for a circular economy, and financial market incentives for long-term value rather than fractional trading. The bottom line is that, as the English magazine The Economist declared, it is entirely possible for a company to do well, and to do good.

However, if they are to focus on doing good, and not only well, managers and shareholders need to give up some comforting assumptions. For example, that an invisible hand distributes benefits in the marketplace, and a rising tide lifts all boats. Happy automatisms such as these absolved managers from the responsibility of caring for anything beyond their own company. Unhappily, in today’s world, these self-correcting dynamics are out of commission. Income and living-standard inequality remains rampant, the gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps growing. The poor are sinking further into a vicious cycle where poverty generates deprivation and deprivation reduces the ability of the poor to compete in the marketplace. The invisible hand turns into a more and more visible foot that kicks the poor and the powerless. And the rising tide, wherever it still occurs, fails to lift all boats. Many leak and just sink to the bottom. The evidence is getting clearer by the day. Millions are pressed below the threshold of physical existence and leave their homeland in search of a place to survive, flooding countries and areas that seem to offer the chances of a new life.

The shareholder-oriented business company competes without regard for other companies, for the host societies, and for the environment. What happens to these is of little concern to the managers. Their objective is to make money, and that means competing with other players — and winning. In an emerging global village this strategy creates inequality and injustice, the same as the self-centered strategy of sovereignty-pretending nation-states.

The sacred cow of the multicultural community: the fundamentalist sect

Fundamentalist sects consider themselves even more sacred than sovereign nation-states and shareholder-oriented business companies. They maintain that there is only one truth in the world and that is theirs, and just one just cause in the world and that is likewise theirs.

Like traditional nation-states and mainstream business companies, fundamentalists put themselves first. They add a further element to their self-declared priority: serving their own interests is not only their right, but their holy duty. For fundamentalist sects, people who follow other beliefs, have strayed off the true path. They need to be brought back, by force if necessary. That is the essence of the “jihadh” of Muslims, and of the goals, even if less violent, of other fundamentalist cultures.

Fundamentalists reduce humanity’s multicultural community to opposing groups of true-believers and non-believers. They break apart the integrality required of flourishing in the world, the same as the sovereignty-oriented nation-state and the shareholder-oriented business company.

There are other sacred cows in the contemporary world, but the sovereignty-claiming nation-state, the shareholder-dedicated business company, and the exclusive truth-possessing fundamentalist sect are the clearest instances of the violation of an imperative that is important, but is seldom taken into account. It is a physical imperative applying to all complex systems and, as we shall see in Part Two, it must be respected if we are to get to where we want to go.

Part Two follows in the Huffington Post on April 20, 2017

Ervin Laszlo is Director of the Laszlo Institute of New Paradigm Research (Italy), Founder and President of The Club of Budapest, and Editor of the international periodical World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research amongst other appointments. He is the recipient of the Goi Peace Prize (2002), the International Mandir of Peace Prize (2005), the Conacreis Holistic Culture Prize (2009), the Ethics Prize of Milano (2014) and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and 2005. Laszlo has Honorary PhD’s from the United States, Canada, Finland, and Hungary and is the author or co-author of fifty-four books translated into twenty-four languages. He lives in Tuscany.

Dawna Jones consults for innovative and early majority companies on decision-making and leading in complexity. Unless leaders keep pace with technological and social innovation, overwhelm and fatigue can replace vibrant contribution. Dawna’ work spans systems seeing to reconnecting with macro and meta skills for conscious leadership. She is a digital nomad, Canadian, and has contributed a chapter on the new purpose of business to Ervin’s next book scheduled for release in October, 2017.

Originally published on the Huffington Post Great Workplace Cultures March 30, 2017



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Dawna Jones

Collectively designing a better world through conscious decision-making leadership. Adaptive Decision-making, Strategic Insights, Inspirational Insights Podcast