Planetary Impalement by Stakeholder Capitalism?


Anthony Judge | Laetus in Praesens - TRANSCEND Media Service

“Stake” as a Strategic Metaphor Promoted by the World Economic Forum


30 Jan 2023 – References to “stake” are a key feature of capitalist discourse, whether explicit or implied. Most obviously the references are to some form of financial investment. Thus an equity stake is that part of a company or business owned by a shareholder. The investment, and any understanding of ownership, may however be other than financial. It can be understood as a commitment, possibly deriving from a long-standing relationship to a building valued from a heritage perspective. More intriguing is any such investment in one or more trees, a stream or river, or even a mountain. The pattern may extend to a role or to a community event, as evident in folklore celebrations.

These examples may be better understood through the extent to which people and groups share features of their environment and the processes which they evoke. Ownership and possession are then only tenuously related to conventional possibilities of their monetization. Reference to “stake” is a transformation of the process of sharing, just as with the monetization of “share” in any business initiative. Precision is then provided in quantitative terms regarding the extent to which any one party has a “stake” in the matter. This contrasts with, and denatures, the qualitative experience of sharing.

The challenges to clarification are especially evident with respect to interpersonal relationships, whether friendship, marriage, or feud. Such a relationship can be experienced and described in terms of sharing — possibly given questionable precision in contractual terms. It may be asserted that the parties each have a “stake” in the relationship — thereby potentially transforming its dynamics into static and mechanistic terms. The distinctions can be seen to play out with respect to relationships between nations, religions and disciplines.

The contrast between quantitative and qualitative engagement with the environment for any collective then highlights the questionable possibility of “holding” — whether in the case of a “shareholder” or a “stakeholder”. Given its elusive nature as a qualitative experience, it is quite unclear whether a “share” can be held in a manner which lends itself to conventional precision — whatever the claims to the contrary. Reference to shareholder then reframes possession in some quantitative material sense, as in “sharing a piece of cake”.

The question explored here is does the emphasis on “stake” in stakeholder capitalism reinforces a mechanistic understanding of relationships? In contrast, their viability may be dependent to an unexplored degree on the flexibility and resilience implied by the non-mechanistic connotations of “share”. Arguably these are however already dangerously undermined through the practices whereby it is assumed that shares may be “held” — despite their otherwise elusive nature.

The physical connotations of “stake” are especially evident through the manner in which a stake has been used to “stake a claim” in order to mark ownership of land or mineral rights. The stake may indeed be physically held during that process. “Share” cannot be used in that sense, although ownership — itself potentially an elusive notion — may indeed be shared. How the shares may be “held” in then another matter. By contrast, reference to stake, given its visible form, can therefore be recognized as a visual metaphor — known for its value in persuasive advertising. As pictorial analogy, it illustrates a comparison between what is in the visual, including its connotations and denotations with another thing and its meanings figuratively.

It is of course the case that capitalist organization has emphasized the role of “holdings” through which shares in initiatives are “held”. Although the holdings may be readily recognized as legal fictions, they reinforce a sense in which the holdings exist (even “concretely”) to a degree comparable to other features of the environment — especially when accorded a degree of corporate personhood. Through reference to shareholder and stakeholder, the argument here therefore highlights the erosion of the elusive significance of “share” basic to cooperation, the problematic reinforcement of physical connotations of “stake”, and the questionable possibility of “holding” under conditions of global chaos.

There are further implications to use of the stake metaphor where the investment is understood as a gamble or bet with the associated risks for gain or loss. This acquires further significance when the investment is understood to be “at stake”. The significance is evident when some valued initiative is “at stake”, namely when there is a risk of its damage or loss if the undertaking is not successful. Claims regarding the urgency of remedial action on climate change, and other issues have been framed in such terms (World’s Future at Stake, The Daily Star, 5 October 2022; A Future at Stake, Education Emergency, 1 November 2021; David Attenborough warns life on Earth at stake in strongest climate change warning yet, The London Economic, 18 April 2019). The role of “stakeholders” may be associated with such uses (7 Reasons Why “Future Generations” are Key Stakeholders, Sustainability Advantage, 10 March 2019).

Rather than the “future”, the urgency may be framed with respect to “civilization” as a whole or a part thereof (Konrad Adenauer, et al. Christian Civilization at Stake, 1956; Elon Musk Makes $43 Billion Bid for Twitter, Says ‘Civilization’ At Stake, Wall Street Journal, 14 April 2022; Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Civilization at Stake, Forbes, 16 March 2022; Pelosi warns: ‘Civilization as we know it today is at stake’, CNN, 5 December 2019). The nature of the challenge may be framed in terms of humanity as a whole (Prince Charles says ‘future of humanity’ at stake ahead of climate summit, The Hill, 31 October 2021).

The argument for recognition of “planetary impalement” by stakeholder capitalism concludes with reference to the extensive media coverage of the role of sex workers at the Davos Forum of 2023 and how this might relate to understandings of Freudian economics and the role of unconscious psychological forces in framing global decision-making.


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