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Magical Capitalism

I recently read an article on how magic is alive and well in Western culture - I'll define magic as using ritual words and actions to mitigate against the anxiety of uncertainty. By that definition, superstition and religion are examples of magic in our society, but so are the tactics of advertising, gambling or the stock market.

The Rituals of Capital

So, yes, we're no different than anybody else. But what the article left me wondering was: so what? So what if capitalism has its rituals? So what? I was disappointed because the article didn't dig deep and expose something actually interesting about the society we live in, a truth about what we do - in other words, it didn't offer up an understanding of who we are which would enable people to then change or improve things.

But it did get me thinking, so that's something I suppose. Obviously, given what I do, I wondered if thinking about magical capitalism could give me some insight into employee engagement and why it so often fails.

Magical Capitalism and Employee Engagement

At the heart of engagement is the fact that work is something we have to do. A friend of mine has been posing this question: which would you prefer - to work 8 hours a day in a job you love, or, for the same money, to work 1 hour a day at a job you hate?

There are two things coupled here. First of all, employers need workers. They often need workers to do jobs that are far from glamorous. Related to the first point, most people work because they have to, not because they want to. Employers can use either the carrot or the stick to get people to work: in the past, it might have been the promise of a job for life. Or before the welfare system was in place, the fear of having to keep the wolf from the door might have been enough.

Because we now live in a society here in the UK that at least tries to protect workers (a 35 hour working week; laws against child labour; the Equality Act; etc), even if it's not perfect (the gig economy; zero-hour contracts; the precariat; etc), there is a basic level of decent treatment that we expect from our employers, and we can go elsewhere or to court if we don't get it.

And that means that employers have to entice most of us to work for them.

In today's workplace in the West, that is employee engagement: how can we convince you to come in and work for us (rather than someone else) for 8 hours a day?

I think this is where magical capitalism comes in, to some degree. The best form of engagement a company can offer is some sort of mitigation of the uncertainty of our lives. Companies can no longer offer a job for life, but they can mitigate with short-term wins - you want table tennis? Spa vouchers? Office drinks? Dress-down Friday? - as well as the promise of long-term gains: what else is a pension, redundancy payouts, or healthcare if not a promise of long-term gain?

We sign these pieces of paper, processed through unseen systems, which we hope will allow us some control over our future. This is why people outside of HR are often so confused as to what HR personnel actually do all day. In magical capitalism, HR's function is to write the spells (our contracts, terms and conditions, pensions, insurance, and so on) that mitigate against uncertainty.

Mitigating against Uncertainty

There's a quote I always come back to, written by an anthropologist called Clifford Geertz. In his book, The Interpretation of Cultures, he writes:

"The strange opacity of certain empirical events, the dumb senselessness of intense or inexorable pain, and the enigmatic unaccountability of gross iniquity all raise the uncomfortable suspicion that perhaps the world, and hence man's life in the world, has no genuine order at all--no empirical regularity, no emotional form, no moral coherence... The effort is not to deny the undeniable--that there are unexplained events, that life hurts, or that rain falls upon the just--but to deny that there are inexplicable events, that life is unendurable, and that justice is a mirage."

Business is no different. Our society is no different. We are just trying our hardest to live the best lives possible, to make life endurable, and we'll take whatever assurance we can take - call it insurance or magic - it boils down to the same thing.

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