I was pleasantly surprised by a recent episode of the Dutch TV programme VPRO Tegenlicht, which was devoted to the so-called purpose economy. This name is given (by Aaron Hurst) to a new form of economy which radically differs from the market economy and is taking root in a bottom-up way all over the planet, especially after the financial crisis of 2008. Under this heading, corporations and companies practice a completely new way of doing business. Their first focus is not so much on financial profit but on the increase of well-being: of people, of the community and in a larger context also of planet earth. They start with a problem and create their business to try and solve it, from a deep sense of responsibility. The connection to the community and to the wider environment is the only reason for these companies to exist. The importance of financial benefit has not disappeared completely, but has been reduced to one relatively small factor among others.
The power of openness, trust and care
In the documentary Kees Klomp, a Dutch business advisor, calls it a new paradigm of doing business. The examples that are shown or mentioned – The Mobile Factory, Tony’s Chocolonely, Landlife, Greyston Bakery, and a good few others – beautifully illustrate that businesses can actually operate very successfully on a basis of openness, trust and care. The passion of the people running these businesses is a real pleasure to watch, and also very encouraging. It is just a big relief to know that you don’t have to be self-interested and continually focused on squeezing a maximum financial benefit out of every activity – in other words, that you don’t have to be a nasty, distrustful person – to be economically successful.
Healing criminal behaviour
At some point in the documentary there is an interesting issue related to criminal law. An ex-delinquent is interviewed who had been given a job at a company called Greyston Bakery which makes brownies (for Ben & Jerry’s). For new employees the company has a policy of ‘open hiring’, which means that the people who want to work there just have to put their name on a list, and are given jobs purely on that basis. The fact that there are no background checks made it possible for this ex-delinquent to get a job there. More importantly, the continual practice of mutual care among the workers in this company had transformed him from a tough but lonely criminal – who for many years had sold drugs on the streets – into a happy, caring and connected person. He thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere where everybody was always helping one another – so radically different from his former disconnected life of crime, which he never wanted to go back to.
The thin dividing line
I think the relevance for criminal law goes even much further than this. If a mentality of openness, trust and care can heal the wounds of crime, then we may wonder whether it can help to prevent crime as well. For this, we first have to get a clear view of the opposite, of the relationship between the market mentality and crime. As I have argued in a previous blog (and in a (Dutch) article), the world view of homo economicus can be linked to the world view of the criminal – both being focused primarily on taking as much as possible from others, maximizing individual profits in the process. The criminal is only practising it in a more extreme form, completely ignoring the needs of the other, their victim. In this respect we have seen what happens when bankers collectively practise this homo economicus mentality on a global scale: the financial crisis has shown repeatedly how thin the dividing line between legality and crime really is. The recent revelations in the Panama papers – of the large scale tax evasions among the financially rich, including some politicians – demonstrate something similar. Although it seems that most of the exposed tax evasion activities were legally permitted, I think the mentality of the people responsible for this – who like the bankers are continually bent on carefully weighing what is still legally allowed and what is not – can no longer be clearly distinguished from the criminal mentality.
Building a new society
It is clear that the people who believe in creating a purpose economy do not have that mentality. It conflicts directly with their sense of connection to the community and the planet. And they cherish this sense so much because they know our troubled society needs it more than ever at this point in history. The people in their companies will also take their feelings of trust and care back home with them after work, spreading it even further in their community. This is where the element of crime prevention comes into the story. In a society with an increased sense of connection, of stronger mutual bonds – with more openness, trust and care – people are simply less likely to commit crimes.
Are these mere utopian dreams? Well, the people running these new businesses are convinced that they are not just building a successful company, but that they are also helping to create meaningful lives and to build a sustainable society – the kind of world we all want to live in, if we look deep into our hearts.