The long-term goals of businesses

Businesses don’t seem to have any long–term goals apart from staying in business. They no doubt provide benefits to their shareholders and executives during their lifetime but why they aim at persisting in their existence with little reflection devoted to the “why?” of it is far from obvious. There is a clear analogy here with people and groups of people who – as we know from experience – persist in their endeavors without often much of a justification for why.

An analogy can be drawn here with a particular form of kinship structure which the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explained in a 1961 paper called « The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion » (*). In that paper, Sahlins described the segmentary lineage, a type of kinship structure often encountered in African traditional societies, where the lineage’s head strategy consists in invading the environment with his progeny of which he tries to maximize the number. As the paper’s subtitle made clear, Sahlins labeled the segmentary lineage, “an organization of predatory expansion.” The choice of the term “predatory” was however infelicitous as – although there is no accompanying social organization in these cases – this type of strategy is resorted to by animal populations which the field of “population dynamics” characterizes with the less dramatic and more adequate phrase of “colonizing behavior.”

Colonizing behavior is perfectly adapted to relatively unpopulated environments and it allows in particular a speedy expansion of life-forms. The African environments that Sahlins had in mind – I can testify to this – fitted that description and the label “colonizing” was much more apt therefore than the excessive “predatory” that Sahlins used instead.

Things change radically though once the environment which was the theater of such “colonizing” strategies becomes more densely populated. Just as with segmentary lineages, businesses within the capitalist system have no other long-term aim than their survival for an unlimited period of time. With lineages, the expansion strategy covers an ever increasing part of the environment and the resources it holds. The same with businesses, measuring the success of their strategy in terms of “market share.” With the segmentary lineage, the beneficiaries are its family members, its chiefs in particular. Similarly with businesses: the beneficiaries are their shareholders and even more so, their executives.

Within densely populated environments, the widening influence of a lineage over a territory or of a business over a market share allows that group to crowd out competition and to trend towards the optimal power balance in its view: that of a monopoly situation where the relationship with counterparties knows no constraint and the terms when dealing with them can properly be “dictated.”

A “colonizing” policy as I said allows life-forms to spread in no time within relatively unoccupied environments. However it first grows inadequate then plainly detrimental as the population’s density increases. Indeed, in crowded surroundings, the sole long-term goal shared by both segmentary lineages and businesses of ensuring their unlimited survival in time, end up in an unfettered war of all against all.

Ensuring one’s unlimited survival in time is the typical aim that nature left to its own devices assigns by default to every type of population. In reverse, within a nature which Man has domesticated to render it less harsh to his own fate, such aim needs to be reexamined due to its disposition to end up in disaster in environments which have ceased benefiting from further efforts at colonization. This conclusion applies no doubt to segmentary lineages but even more so to businesses. The time has come for them to assign themselves humanly significant aims to supplant the by now dysfunctional one which nature had assigned it by default.

(*) Sahlins, Marshall D., “The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion,” American Anthropologist, April 1961, Vol. 63(2): 322-344.

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