[OPINION] What lives on long after corporations are gone

Von Katindoy
[OPINION] What lives on long after corporations are gone

Illustration by Guia Abogado

'[F]rom the vantage point of the lifeworld, [corporate employees] are more than the means for increasing the bottom line'

All corporations, whether local or multinational, rely on what the German philosopher Juergen Habermas calls “strategic action,” the action which utilizes the most efficient means to achieve targeted ends.

For instance, to increase its revenues, a corporation may decide to pour more resources into some markets and pull out of others. It is, in fact, in this sense that strategic action sustains the state and the economy, which together comprise what Habermas refers to as “the system.” Hence, the economy uses the medium of money to facilitate the exchange of goods and services just as the state uses the medium of power to secure mass loyalty.

Curiously, the reactions that flooded a number of social media accounts and messaging apps, in the wake of recent developments in a multinational corporation, do not fall under strategic action. Neither do they directly concern the state nor the economy. Rather, they range from expressions of gratitude and appreciation, to notes of sadness and nostalgia, by various stakeholders.

Case in point, when I share about how these reactions made me feel more grateful and appreciative of the leaders and colleagues I’ve had the privilege of working with, I rely on the medium of language to come to a mutual understanding with those who happen to read this commentary. Habermas refers to this as “communicative action,” the action that we engage in within our everyday life, known as “the lifeworld.” 

In the lifeworld, you and I relate to one another as human beings instead of parties to a transaction. It is here where those who are affected by life events beyond their control chat with their families or discuss their options with their friends, with no other agenda than to arrive at mutual understanding.

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Such is the case with a friend who was forced to look for another job because his company, a local corporation, was adversely affected by the pandemic. Demotivated by the non-response of the job market since late last year, he has been drawing the strength to forge on from his siblings and friends.

To be sure, Habermas originally introduced the twin constructs of the system and the lifeworld to call attention to what he calls “the colonization of the lifeworld.” This happens when the state “politicizes” cultural values to neutralize dissent, or when a corporation “monetizes” relationships to generate profit. Coincidentally, the twin constructs of the system and the lifeworld also allow us to grasp the complexity of working in corporations in today’s VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world.

From the vantage point of the system, it could be said that corporate employees are no different from other employees. They are human capital who are compensated to achieve performance targets. As such, they conduct themselves based on organizational frameworks and job descriptions.

Yet, from the vantage point of the lifeworld, they are more than the means for increasing the bottom line. To those who are given the opportunity to work with them, they are women and men capable of deep personal relationships and friendships that endure the passage of time. They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters who come to work each day for a mission they believe in and for dreams they find inspiration in. Most of all, they are human beings like you and me.

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From some of them, I personally learned that striving for autonomy is the path to solidarity. From others, I realized through their personal testimony that Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”) is inextricably linked to Matthew 6:26 (“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”) From many of them I discovered that, even if most corporations are measured in terms of increasing  shareholder value, in the end it is not what you take but what you personally give that matters.

Indeed, in the context of the personal, corporate employees, whether local or multinational, can always count on an exclamatory awareness of  something true and good that transcends and outlasts strategic action. I suspect that it is this exclamatory awareness that allows our stories and memories to live on long after corporations are gone. – 

Von Katindoy teaches at Ateneo and studies at UP Diliman.