The Culture of Enterprise

It’s high time we understood profit as an instrument of creativity, not as an end in itself

Václav Havel on a state visit to Egypt while President of Czechoslovakia, December, 1991. / Photograph by Tomki Nemec

Because of the materialistic, atheistic, and science-based nature of modern civilization, culture is now viewed primarily as just another of the many different spheres of human activity. It has been taken out of context, robbed of its broader and deeper meaning, downgraded to a derivative of what is truly essential, and reduced to merely a pleasant, decorative aspect of more serious matters such as the economy, business, breadwinning, and consuming. It’s almost as though culture were no more significant than the soothing background music in restaurants. We sometimes refer to culture as “the spice of life” – in other words, as something that, while making life more agreeable, in the end is dispensable. Marxists degrade culture perhaps most clearly when they define it as a part of the so-called superstructure.

There was a time when culture was scarcely ever mentioned as a separate sphere of human activity. The reason for this was simple: culture was a part of daily life. It belonged to the essence of life. These were times in which everything one did naturally contributed to culture. A man living in the Gothic period, for instance, may not have been able to read and write, let alone share in “cultural” activity, and yet the nail he forged was a Gothic nail. Style was a part of the natural world; you didn’t have to think about it, because it was just there. That is one reason why, today, we find it hard to apply standards of “good taste” and “bad taste” to the works of past epochs. At the very most, we can say that such works express great originality, or that they are derivative. The categories of taste, good or bad, and kitsch, are all products of the modern age.

We all know that we can’t return to the past, and few of us believe that the movement of modern history is exclusively toward decline and fall. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good idea to attempt – against the backdrop of a renewed spirituality – to revive other, broader and truly all-encompassing notions of culture. Rather than seeing culture as something that merely adds spice to life, it should, once again, be perceived as the air we breathe. And investment in culture, whether from government or private sources, should not be perceived as some kind of worthy effort to make life more pleasant, or even as the search for more and better ways to kill time and overcome boredom, but rather, as a way of enhancing everything that seeks to give meaning to our lives.

If we gave culture a far broader significance than it usually has today, what would this mean for the area of enterprise, and for the economy in general?

In the first place, it’s worth stressing that entrepreneurship is above all about the creation of values, not about the accumulation of wealth. Of course, material gain – profit – is the force that drives the market economy, but it should be understood to a far greater extent as an essential instrument of human creativity, not as an end in itself. By far the best way for an entrepreneur to support culture is by shaping the culture of his or her own enterprise, its quality and its significance. The human and social measures of success, common sense, humility before the mysteries of nature and the world, consideration for future generations, a well-developed conscience – all of these things have to enter into the creation of the culture of entrepreneurship.

It is no less important for entrepreneurship to have and respect its own rules, both written and unwritten. The more evolved the understanding of “decency,” and the more social stigma comes from transgressing that standard, the more cultured a business can be, the closer it can come to being an enterprise that contributes to the creation of culture, and in the end, the more productive it becomes. Business should always have its own firm, yet simple and understandable order, or propriety, the disruption of which should never be tolerated.

Finally, the more cultured and the more useful to humanity entrepreneurship becomes, the more firmly it becomes a part of civil society. And here the government can play an irreplaceable role. Governments should support this notion of entrepreneurship and create a truly broad space to accommodate a plurality of means to distribute wealth. I am certain that the more money that flows directly from the profit-making sphere into other beneficial activities, from education to stewardship of the environment and historical sites to the health-care system, without first passing through the coffers of the state, the better. A government can never measure the general or local needs as well as individual for-profit enterprises can; assistance flowing directly from the source to its object is always greater, because it needn’t pay great “travel expenses” for the journey. The whole social system is thereby made more stable, because decentralizing the distribution of such assistance helps to limit the accumulation of too much power in a single centre, which always brings with it considerable dangers.

As you can probably guess, I’m referring mostly to business spending on matters like advertising or sponsoring arrangements in exchange for various types of tax relief, tax allocation or tax write-offs. Governments in general don’t like to give up any of their powers, but in this case, it is in their essential interests to do so. And of course, it is also in the interests of the for-profit enterprises themselves, and of the individual entrepreneurs, who will not only strengthen their authority in their own sphere but will contribute to the creation of precisely that variegated and richly diverse civic environment that is one of the best ways of protecting their investments.

Culture in the broadest sense is not only the sum of cultural creations, nor is it merely the culture of how humans associate or interact, it is also the culture of entrepreneurship understood as the creation of values that have, and aim at having, a meaning – the culture of how businesses run themselves, and ultimately, the culture of economics as an organic part of civic society, a society that is infused with that ethos, and strengthened by it.

Václav Havel