excerpt from “the language of emotional intelligence.”
Emotional capitalism refers to an economic system that is geared — far more than at present — towards the fulfillment of our higher needs; among these, the needs for emotional health, self-understanding, friendship, consolation and community.
Despite all the factories, highways and logistics chains, the world economy is arguably as yet far too small and desperately underdeveloped, for it is still not focused on addressing many of the issues that undermine our well-being. Over the last two centuries, in the wealthy nations, capitalism has evolved to meet many basic material needs, for sanitation, shelter, food supply and healthcare. The larger and most successful corporations have been those that have satisfied appetites that we would categorize as belonging at the bottom of Abraham Maslow‘s famous pyramid of needs: oil and gas, mining, construction, retail, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, electronics, telecommunications, insurance and banking.
A glance at the pyramid reveals a fascinating possibility: that the future growth of business may lie in meeting the higher needs further up the pyramid, in the areas of love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Capitalists and companies are seemingly — semi-consciously — aware of this issue. The evidence lies in advertising. Advertising almost always tries to sell us goods by tugging obliquely at our longings for emotional fulfillment, authenticity, good relationships and a sense of true achievement.
However, as yet, the corporations who pay for the advertisements are not devoted to meeting the needs that their marketing people have so skillfully evoked. Advertising is always hinting at the future shape of the economy; it already trades on all the right fantasies. It’s just that there are, as yet, few of the truly right products and services to satisfy the appetites that have been aroused.
An organized response to our higher needs is not novel. Religions used to address them. Catholicism, if seen as a business, would be the second largest corporation in the world. Art galleries and museums have shared some of the character of religions and similarly have tried to address our higher needs, although their clients have tended to be governments and nations rather than individual customers.
What we call ‘a business idea’ is at heart an as-yet-unexplored need. To trace the future shape of capitalism, we only have to think of all the needs we have that are poorly understood and neglected by the commercial world. We need help in forming cohesive, interesting communities. We need help in bringing up children. We need help in calming down at key moments (the cost of our high anxiety and rage is appalling in aggregate). We require assistance in discovering our real talents in the workplace and understanding where we can best deploy them. We have unfulfilled aesthetic desires. Elegant town centres, charming high streets and sweet villages are in desperately short supply and are therefore absurdly expensive — just as, prior to Henry Ford, cars existed but were very rare and only for the very rich.
These higher needs are not trivial or minor wants — little things we could easily survive without. In many ways they are central to our lives. We have simply accepted, without really thinking about it, that there is nothing we can do to address them. Yet, to be able to structure businesses around these needs would be the commercial equivalent of the discovery of steam power or the invention of the electric light bulb. We don’t know what the businesses of the future will look like, just as no one in 1975 could describe the current corporate essence of Facebook or Google. But we know the direction in which we need to head: we need the drive and inventiveness of capitalism to tackle the higher, deeper problems of life. This will offer an exit from the failings and misery that attend capitalism today. In a nutshell, the problem is that we waste resources on unimportant things. Ultimately, we are wasteful because we lack self-knowledge; we use consumption to divert or quieten anxieties or in a vain search for status and belonging. If we could address our deeper needs more directly, our materialism would be refined and restrained, our work more meaningful and our profits more honorable.
The School of Life. “Dictionary.” Emotional Capitalism, published in 2017 by The School of Life