Corporate Growth and 19th Century Degeneration

In the era of corporate social responsibility, the public has become more aware of the ethical standards of corporations, threatening boycott if they fail to do so. More individuals are arguing corporations cannot exist just for the sake of profits, but their practices must be sustainable and respect human rights. However, the endless pursuit of profit is not the only issue that many have with corporations, there is also the constant need for growth. Not only do corporations have to keep earning money, the profits they bring in must increase annually. Is continuous growth sustainable? And does the growth of a company often come at the expense of its employees? The sustainability of continuous growth is a question that has been asked since the late 19th Century, when the theory of degeneration was introduced.

Known by many names in different countries, many contemporaries that lived in Europe and North America saw the turn of the 19th Century as a period of wealth and progress. In France, this interval was known as La Belle Époque (Beautiful Age), where despite its recent defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, French city life thrived with new public and cultural works. The same period was known as the Wilhelmine Era in Germany under the rule of Emperor William II. The German economy boomed and the government invested heavily in modernising its military, while nationalism was rampant among its people, confident that Germany would eventually build an empire that rivalled Britain. In the United States, it was known as the Gilded Age. as numerous individuals found incredible riches following the discovery of oil. In Britain it was the Edwardian Era, its colonial power unchallenged and at its greatest extent in history.

But despite optimistic aura that the western world would continue to prosper in the 20th Century, many also feared that the period would also lead to the downfall of society. Health officials at that time commented on the increase of people experiencing fatigue from extended work hours. In his book Degeneration, German physician Max Nordau commented that maybe people were not ready to live in a society that was industrialising too quickly, which encouraged unhealthy competition and consumption. These sentiments of a tiring society did little to change the perspectives of governments, who continued to encourage city-dwellers to continue working. The French government began promoting physical education programmes, believing that if people were more fit they would be able to work better and longer hours. The phenomenon spread to other countries and spurred the eugenics movement, where governments introduced policies to build a strong ‘national race,’ since if their peoples were not en par with the rest of the world, they would eventually be conquered either militarily, economically, or culturally.

The concerns of fatigue and societal degeneration can arguably be traced back to the intense competition between countries. At that time, even though there was a dearth of armed conflict, European great powers actively fought for influence, colonies, and resources. Would the population of each European nation endure less fatigue if everyone did not push growth that aggressively? And if competition died down, tensions might have also died down on the state of international relations in Europe.

Fast forward these ideas to the modern day, where many corporations are actively pursuing unsustainable rates of growth. Their methods have included the desertification of forests for physical space, or abusing workers in developing countries in order to cut costs. The culture of continued growth has also hurt businesses that focus on slow growth with long-term gains, as many of their backers demand instant profits. New jobs, such as the ‘growth hacker’ are being created so emerging companies can accelerate their growth as fast as possible. Before the world reaches another state of global panic like in 19th Century, corporations need to start realising that not only is just seeking profits problematic, but the notion of fast and continued growth.


Above Photo: The Kaiserplatz in Frankfurt am Main in 1899.

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