Capitalists: Savor This Moment Once upon a time, to make one's living in commerce was considered vulgar, greedy, or worse. Today, as never before, business reigns supreme. So watch out.
By Geoffrey Colvin

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I've just had dinner at Windsor Castle. Two weeks earlier, it was at the Palace of Versailles. Last fall I had dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. A few years ago I even had dinner at the most sacred and revered venue of any I have been privileged to visit--yes, the Alamo, in San Antonio.

Until not so long ago, you dined in such places mostly by being friends (which I'm not) with assorted Presidents and Princes. But through my association with this magazine, I'm allowed to tag along at high-powered business conferences, which were the occasions for these memorable evenings. The point being: Such things didn't used to happen. When President Jacques Chirac spoke to the FORTUNE Global Forum at Versailles, it was the first time the French President had addressed any group at that place.

These things happen now because around the world, governments and royals put business at the top of their agendas, reflecting a historic trend: The business culture is triumphant. Not just for those in authority but for most of society, business is at the center, and that's pretty much okay with everybody. It doesn't feel remarkable to us for the same reason fish don't notice water; we live in it. But step outside the moment and look at commerce's role in the culture. It's unprecedented.

For most of history, of course, what we think of as business just wasn't the main thing. As Robert L. Heilbroner has explained (in The Acquisitive Urge), "In a day when wealth was conceived in terms of dynastic glory, military plunder, or the vast exactions of peasant crops and forced labor, [the money-oriented man's] own wealth-acquiring efforts must have been trivial by comparison, and his social status far from exalted." The raiders everybody talked about weren't corporate.

After thousands of years, this state changed in the West with the Renaissance and the rise of great commercial family empires. Business had more power than ever but remained far from respected. Aristocrats and royals still owned the top of the food chain, and their contempt for business--for "trade," as they sneeringly called it--was near total. Business was what most people did, but the court was the center of the world.

The ascent of the middle classes in the 19th century changed that perspective, but business couldn't get a break: Millions now embraced Marx's view that businessmen were not just vulgar and greedy, but wicked oppressors as well. Even in the 20th century and even in America, land of commerce, business remained faintly distasteful in the popular view. When the '20s roared, Babbitt was a bestseller. As the economy swelled in the placid '50s, David Riesman reported in The Lonely Crowd, college students considered business "dull and disagreeable as well as morally suspect." They found it just plain evil in the '60s and '70s, and the '80s somehow became known as the Decade of Greed, though exactly how it was greedier than any other decade remains a mystery.

But now, at long last, all that has changed. After millenniums of marginalization and disrespect, business has set itself down smack-dab in the middle of the culture. Instead of disdaining, pitying, or hating business people, college students obsess over internships and drop-dead resumes. Aristocrats no longer sneer at companies; they run them. The proletariat has given up storming factories in favor of CNBC and day trading. "Entrepreneur," which used to mean "flimflam man" or "unemployed," is now the station to which millions of young people worldwide aspire.

On business matters, Democrats sound like Republicans and Liberals sound like Tories, and all invite business people into their palaces and parliaments. Communists scarcely exist. There isn't any robust critique of capitalism. Seattle? The protesters were fighting a rear-guard action, trying to fend off a new level of globalism but implicitly accepting the legitimacy of business.

This is it, gang--the business culture close to its apex. What's next, I don't know. A violent antibusiness reaction? I doubt it. A rise of spirituality? Could be. A return to growing government? Politicians will be tempted. The important point is that cultures don't sit still. And one thing history shows for sure is that whatever triumphs is in peril.