books business consumerism wealth

The Hungry Spirit, by Charles Handy

hungry spiritCharles Handy is a business management ‘guru’, and not the kind of author I’d normally read. However, in John Naish’s book Enough, he interviews Handy. He and his wife worked out how much they needed to live on, and how much they needed to work to earn that much, and then only work that amount. Between that idea, and this book title – The Hungry Spirit: Beyond Capitalism, a quest for purpose in the modern world – I thought it was worth a try.

Handy’s starting point in The Hungry Spirit is a capitalist system that is delivering less than it promises. “Many of us are are, confused by the world we have created for ourselves in the West ” he writes. “We are confused by the consequences of capitalism, whose contribution to our well-being cannot be questioned, but which divides rich from poor, consumes so much of the energies of those who work in it, and does not, it seems, always lead to a more contented world.”

Handy then offers a tour of capitalism, of how markets work and where their limits lie, before turning to the question of whether or not capitalism “can be made more decent and its instrument, business, work more obviously for the good of all, everywhere?”

It’s a good question. It doesn’t look like capitalism is going anywhere anytime soon. Unfortunately, having pondered the shortcomings of market economics, Handy takes a sharp left into self-help. We must grow, we must find ourselves by reaching outside of ourselves. All well and good, but really just Abraham Maslow with a new hat. Worst of all, Handy’s principle answer is what he calls ‘proper selfishness’. This is the theory that in order to truly be ourselves, we need to serve others. If we realised, both personally and in business, that investing in others was as important as investing in ourselves, a lot of good could be done alongside the money-making.

Modern psychology and ancient wisdom alike agree that we find purpose and satisfaction when we give ourselves to a cause greater than ourselves, and that those that care for others are happier. But there’s a name for that care and concern when it is genuine – love. It is by nature selfless. I’m not convinced that true generosity can come from selfishness, and that Handy has it backwards. Perhaps it is reassuring to capitalists, or those reluctant to use a word most associated with romance and emotion, but to me ‘proper selfishness’ seems like a very poor and postmodern substitute for love.

Having said that, I don’t usually finish and review bad books, and I did finish The Hungry Spirit. Handy is easy to read and has lots of interesting ideas along the way. There is plenty of thought provoking material, not least the short section on ‘enough’ that I mentioned at the beginning. The chapter on citizenship contains some valuable insights. In the end, The Hungry Spirit is a product of its late 90s time, when capitalism was truly triumphant, albeit shaken by the Asian recession. I doubt such an unquestioning book could be written today.


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