Blog #8: Schwegmann’s Warrior Nature Redux – Business with a Conscience

In the long-lost Germanic Jute dialect, “schweg” meant axe, as in battleaxe—one of the most fearsome weapons of the Dark and Middle Ages. The person who wielded this awesome weapon was a “schweg-man,” a soldier, a warrior serving a community, whose solemn duty was to protect and defend when enemies threatened and to go on the offense when war was called for. In both cases, these martial acts of resistance and attack were legitimized by appeals to higher ideals, as soldiers operated within the contours of a moral philosophy that justified violence and ennobled self-sacrifice.

In transposing the old warrior ethos to contemporary times, the field of battle has mostly shifted from the solidity and fluidity of geography to the gas and plasma of economics. On this abstract plain, John Schwegmann took the metaphorical high road, as he strove to integrate medieval conceptions of soldierly loyalty within a modern relativistic moral matrix. In other words, he tried to combine business with a conscience.

This is a difficult path, trod by few. One was the free-trade visionary, the granddaddy of capitalism, Adam Smith, who wrote his first book on combining economics with “moral sentiments.” Another was the most innovative and influential retailer of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: department store magnate John Wannamaker of Philadelphia. According to William Leach in Land of Desire, a revelatory book on the birth of consumer society, Wannamaker was an intensely religious man who felt extremely uncomfortable with his rich merchant success.

The seemingly impossible quest to combine business with ethical principles was embraced enthusiastically by John Schwegmann, who did his best to reconcile profit seeking with the common good. His white-knight battles were fought against special interests and monopoly powers. Against these principalities he seemed to say: Though our mutual goal is riches, this goal must be tempered by a sense of responsibility to both community and humanity. Greed must be balanced by need. In the end, we should seek only to slake the universal desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In a series of quotes criticizing the accumulation of riches for riches’ sake, John Schwegmann expresses the essence of how his ancient warrior spirit plays out in a modern economic context.

  • “You can’t love money so much you can’t part with it for a fight.”

  • “As long as we all live, we have to fight for principle. Now that’s not the easy road….”

  • “The richer people are, the less they want to fight, especially if in business…they are scared to fight…afraid somebody’s gonna come after ‘em.”

  • “I’ve never been afraid to do battle against the powerful political and economic interests that seek to reap monopoly profits at the expense of the consuming public.”

Yet lest anyone derive from these quotes that he was secretly a warmonger, consider that in the political sphere John Schwegmann was far from being an interventionist or imperialist. Regarding the Vietnam War, he was mostly against it, primarily confining his advocacy of warfare to the quantum terrain of economics. Along with his mentor, the great Swiss retailer Gottlieb Dutweiller of Migros fame, Schwegmann believed:

"There is no point in fighting Communism by pamphlets, leaflets, or speeches. The place to fight is in the kitchen."

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