The mantra of ‘business knows best’

Mantras are not usually popular in Baptist circles. But there is a mantra accepted by far too many Christians and non-Christians alike, a mantra whose chanted rhythms are becoming more pervasive by the day. It says: ‘Big business knows best,’ and it’s been echoing for decades throughout the western world. A recent amplification came from Tony Blair and it has found something of a devotee – no, a Swami in David Cameron (with side-kick Fakir assistance from Nick Clegg). If (to extend the metaphor), during the years of New Labour, Westminster became something of a flower-power teen’s bedroom of tentative occasional chanting, the Con-Dem government has turned it into an Ashram.

Everywhere, in almost every decision our new government takes, one hears it and variations on it: ‘Big business knows best.’ ‘Profits mean progress.’ ‘The private sector is our salvation.’ Businessmen are appointed to oversee restructuring of public departments and business principles deployed in spending public money. Indeed, big businesses will soon be running much of what used to be publicly owned. The chanting of the mantra has become so loud, so ubiquitous, that ordinarily balanced people, even economic ‘atheists’ seem to have got religion, at least in terms of believing in the mantra.

Even when discussing the war in Afghanistan, NATO last week complained that all the positive stories are missed by a negative media. Examples given on the radio included building projects and economic recovery. So much of the proverbial Kool-aid has been imbibed that we are really willing to see the destruction of homes and infrastructure (with the loss of life that entails) as a positive thing, because it is good for the business of reconstruction.

But let’s not be unfair. Big business does know best about some things. Making a profit, mostly. And if a profit is what you want, the big business world has some pretty good ideas to offer. But most of those ideas involve charging as much as possible for what you provide, cutting jobs or paying people the very minimum you can get away with to cut costs and focusing every decision about quality on whether it will, in the end, make more money.

This is all perfectly respectable within the narrow world of commerce. One would not run a family that way, though. Asking little toddler Jimmy how he has contributed to the family bottom line and regretfully informing him his services will no longer be required is something most parents would prefer to avoid. When a mother becomes pregnant a second time we don’t immediately commiserate because her costs have gone up. The very idea of applying big business principles to the family (at least exclusively) is obviously ridiculous. And yet, there are many in our government who believe that big business knows best for public services and parts of government. Their faith in the infallibility of big business is amazing. After all, the economic crisis was caused by big business, and their network, the markets. The oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico? A business called BP.

The high-priests of this mantra would have us believe that we have to choose between a world in which everything is run by big business or a totalitarian state. This is not true. Many things work better without business and don’t result in us becoming North Korea. The police are not privatised, ambulance and rescue services are not expected to make profits and making the fire department a business would obviously return us to a world where only those with money would receive help when they needed it most. It’s unthinkable in terms of burning houses. But when it comes to the lives of those who rely on public services most, we seem pretty open to it. I wonder if that’s the fault of the mantra, or just because we’re selfish and indifferent to change that is unlikely to threaten ourselves. Either way, as the Beatles eventually lost faith in the Maharishi, a little skepticism might be healthy about now.

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Asda and arms-dealers

From Greenpeace.org.uk

From Greenpeace.org.uk

ASDA nearly killed me last week. True story. I was driving to work, listening to Radio 4, when an Asda representative ‘revealed’ that he suspected that people didn’t seem to trust big businesses anymore. I laughed so hard I nearly drove into the Thames. Really, mister British representative of one of the most reviled and hated corporations in the world? You think?

Asda’s parent company in America, Walmart, came third in Corporate Accountability International’s Corporate Hall of Shame list of most irresponsible businesses in the world last year (just behind mercenary corporation Blackwater and the world’s leading rainforest destroyer). When a corporation rated less ethical than Nestle by consumers starts talking about restoring trust, that is sort of like the Conservative Party bemoaning the demise of Trades Unions.

The thing is, while supermarkets are particularly damaging to society (their size and structure drive down wages and make it very hard to compete with them if you are an independent store, as the Competition Commission amusingly ruled last week) it is not because the people running them are evil. It is not even, despite what my Marxist agitator friends might say, because the people who own them are evil. It’s because their structure and the category of organisation they fit into carries inside it the potential for great evil. Because they are corporations.

Walmart wants your soulThey exist to make profits. Their priority is growth, even if that growth is environmentally unrealistic or damaging to society, because corporations do not worship Jesus and they don’t worship Satan, they worship Mammon.

In pursuit of lower costs, they will cut wages and pollute the earth, because neither people nor the environment show up on their balance sheets. They will even break the law, as we saw last week as BAE systems was facing fines of up to £1bn for paying bribes to support their business around the world. Such a fine is to be welcomed, but it is only the first step.

Corporations play a massive role in our society and it is only a severely idealistic leftist who believes that can change any time soon. But if they are so inherent to our society then they must be brought back under our control.

A ‘corporate person‘ (for that is what corporations are, under law) that commits crimes again and again should not just be fined any more than human recidivists should be allowed to simply buy their way out of justice. It should be incarcerated, its assets nationalised or handed over to competitors on the understanding that if they break the law (and laws must be made with ordinary citizens, not corporate bottom lines, in mind), they too will be ‘executed’.

Of course, the huge, putrefying dead elephant in the room during discussions of this story is that BAE, the UK’s largest manufacturer, is an arms-manufacturer. They make weapons. To kill people.

The British government is blessed to live in a world so hypocritical that Libya (not even in the top 20 of arms exporters) faces a righteous campaign for restitution from the victims of its weapons, while Britain (the world’s seventh largest arms exporter) does not. Christians need to speak out when businesses harm people (and applaud strong judgements against them). But we also need sometimes to evaluate what those businesses do, even when they are not breaking the law, and speak out prophetically against that too.

Here’s a trailer for a movie about Asda’s parent company. You should really also watch The Corporation, tho.

Paranoid vs prophetic

burro‘Sometimes paranoia’s just having all the facts,’ William S Burroughs said. Of course, that’s what a paranoid person would say. But I think it’s true in the case of a view I happen to hold.

The view, expressed many times by politicians, charities and justice campaigners over the least few decades, is that corporate wealth and power dominates and distorts the democratic process.

It’s called paranoid (usually by fans of the status quo, Conservative politicians and those working for wealthy, powerful corporations), but last week’s news highlighted its veracity.

In a discussion with Alistair Darling over whether G20 finance heads should radically limit potential bonuses in The City, the central question was the influence banks and bankers wield. If we threaten to crack down on banks and bankers too hard, won’t banks and bankers leave Britain? This is something that clearly frightened the Chancellor. Jim Naughtie rightly asked the question: ‘Do financial institutions in this country have too much influence?’

photo from Guardiian

photo from Guardian

When we consider that the public, to whom a democratic government is responsible, is being ignored in its desire to see banks and bankers brought in line, in favour of keeping banks and their shareholders happy (as we’ve seen so many times before when the subject of taxing large corporates has cropped up); then the answer to Naughtie’s question is clearly: ‘Yes.’

What kind of mafioso-style hold does the banking sector have over Westminster, that it can fail catastrophically, threatening the entire society with collapse, and the response of a supposedly left-leaning government is to allow those responsible not only to retain their liberty and profits, but also control of the economy?

If the nation’s citizens have saved these banks, why are they still effectively privately owned? Why, indeed, are they oriented towards making profits at all, if their most important function to the UK is providing employment and safeguarding savings? Surely a large nationalised bank (or ‘banks’ for those who still believe in the illusory ‘power of competition’), operating in the interests of ordinary citizens, its clients, rather than making profits for shareholders or bonus-huffing City glory-boys would be a better idea? Surely it would be a more democratic idea?bankybags

But that’s not how our society rolls. All three of our major parties still campaign for economic growth while pretending to care about the climate change that is the necessary result of that devotion to growth. All three parties fear and cow-tow to large financial institutions and rich individuals while professing a belief in democracy, which sees no difference between the rich and the poor citizen. Despite the opportunity for radical change afforded by the obvious failure at a practical level of the system of capitalism (which was always defended as being practically valuable if morally suspect), all three parties have done nothing since the crisis began but try to tinker with a machine that is not just fundamentally broken, but actually dangerous when functioning correctly.

Calls are often made for Christians to get involved in politics at a party level. I have made them myself. But I want to say that if Christian politicians are not speaking out like Amos against this ‘shadow cast on society by big business’ (as John Dewey described the mammon-worshipping politics of the 20th Century) and making every effort to oppose it, then they needn’t bother. They are part of the problem. It’s not a conspiracy, just a failure to be prophetic.

Frankly pwned (I wish I’d said that)

The video above is of a gay, Jewish American Congressman called Barney Frank, being accused of being part of a group of people who are pretty close to being Nazis. What heinous crimes against humanity are they plotting? To bring more and cheaper access to medical care for the poor.

Leaving aside the obvious ‘but he’s gay and Jewish, you moron!’ point, the fact is that many ordinary Americans seem to have been duped by this sort of ridiculous rhetoric. The sad thing for me is that many of those duped are Christians.

Yes, I know. It’s not like Christians have an amazing record for not being pulled in by the frankly dubious logic of various political movements (“Apartheid is God’s will, honest!”; “Hunting witches is perfectly compatible with loving our neighbours!”; “Don’t worry about the Inquisition! Nobody is ever going to remember this stuff and hold it against us!” ; “The KKK did not take your baby away.” etc). But gosh-flipping-darn-it-all-to-heck (please excuse my strong language, but it does upset me), when are we going to wise up?

I can sort of understand a wholesale rejection of one of the few systems of government that has ever sought, in theory at least, to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount and the Prophets’ concern for the poor and the needy on the basis that it was also aggressively atheist. And given the way that philosophy (just so we’re clear: I’m talking about Communism, my reformed/fundamentalist chum, not the Church of Rome) was interpreted by the state that claimed to believe in it, that was probably a good call.

But to reject something just because it carries a similar name? Seriously? You fear Socialism on such a strong point of principle that you cannot see that this outwroking of it would be an expression of mercy and love?

You value your own wealth so much, Christian socialised-healthcare-skeptic, that you would choose holding onto it rather than easing the suffering of another human being? Are you familiar with the name ‘Mammon’?

You believe, ideologically capitalist Christian, that if we see someone suffering, we should help them ourselves, but you balk, kick and scream at the idea of that money being administered by a state who may see more of the need than you yourself can? Why? You seem perfectly willing to let the government (who you claim represents the people and is gloriously democratic) act on your behalf to kill people in other countries through your armed forces and use lethal force to protect you at home through the police. Why are you suddenly so uncomfortable at the idea of it doing kind things in your name (and using your money) as well?

Do you really care about the politics, the economics, the principles? I like to think you’re just reacting out of habit. The alternative is that you really care more for yourself than others and you refuse to submit to any suggestion that you should not do that.

And I have to say: if you are uncomfortable submitting to that sort of command, you’re probably in the wrong religion.

Personally, I think those Christians (and, dash-it-all, the non-Christians too) who are trying to bring what is, let’s face it, not exactly radical change to American healthcare, need our prayers. They are being opposed with many lies. And these lies are aimed specifically at preventing grace and mercy in favour of a malthusian ‘survival of the fittest’ doctrine (it’s odd to me how many Christians currently spouting this sort of language about society find it repugnant when discussing evolution).

Lies aimed at opposing grace are, more than others to my mind, satanic (sorry if that’s a bit, well, Christian).

We should pray against them. And we should applaud people like Barney Frank for combating them in a more fleshly, but very funny way.

Kalle Lasn interview!

Kalle Lasn: I don't even feel lame about calling him a hero

Kalle Lasn: I don't even feel lame about calling him a hero

At last! My interview with legendary Adbusters founder and all-round nice guy, Kalle Lasn, is up.

You can read it here.

It’s the full interview, and in it Kalle discusses the links between political injustice, environmental degradation and the psychological damage wrought by consumerism (obviously). He also discusses religion’s place in his ideal world, what makes him feel depressed and.. er… my wife (one hopes less obviously).

So click, read through and enjoy the way the man’s mind works. He’s an inspiring guy. Oh an dsubscribe to Adbusters!

Goodwin, bad fail

From failblog.org

From failblog.org

FAIL.’ If Royal Bank of Scotland was a YouTube video, posted by its former head, Fred Goodwin, that’s what most people would write in the comments section. Broadly, it means: ‘you’re rubbish’, and it can be amusingly augmented to emphasise perceived uselessness.

Fred ‘Epic Fail’ Goodwin was most famous for overseeing Britain’s greatest single banking disaster (so far), but last week he became more notorious for refusing to refuse a massively undeserved pension. That pension(following ‘early retirement’ – perhaps that, too, should become an internet epithet), will give him £693,000 a year, for life.

Newspapers went mad about it in a way that made me think that mobs can sometimes be right and Goodwin was lucky he wasn’t also a Muslim cleric (or indeed an Ethiopian with a ticket to an ‘unsuitable’ country), or he’d probably be dead.

From thisismoney.co.uk

From thisismoney.co.uk

Yet, some commentators defended Sir Fred’s right to keep the loot. It was in his contract, they said, and as such is inalienable. Such is the one-sided ‘logic’ of capitalism. The RBS workers whose jobs are at risk or already gone, the deposit-holders or pension-contributors who stand to lose out, the taxpayers whose money will prop this and many banks up for goodness knows how long: they need to accept that life is sometimes just tough. Those at the top earning more money than any person could morally spend, should have their expectations protected by cast-iron contracts. This logic may currently be legal, but it is not just.

From privatised train companies wailing and gnashing teeth about not being able to continue to increase prices for no reason other than greed, to ghoulish Royal Mail head, Adam Crozier, speaking glibly of partly privatising Royal Mail in order to ‘save it’ from the downward spiral he himself was paid £3million last year alone to oversee – that ‘logic’ is ubiquitous. The public, the taxpayer, the lowest paid workers, social spending projects, anyone, in fact, except top executives and private shareholders, should bear the brunt of economic hardship.

In amongst all this, a ‘charity initiative’ called the Fortune Foundation, which aims to get the super-rich to give more to charity by offering them massive tax-cuts, admitted on the BBC last week that the only way the very wealthy will part with their wealth is if there’s something in it for them.

Fred ‘Fail-machine’ Goodwin is not the problem. His bonus is obscene, but it would be obscene whether he failed or not.

From Willamettereds.blogspot.com

From Willamettereds.blogspot.com

The problem is a philosophy that not only allows but ensures and relies upon the majority of people being paid the minimum they’d be willing to accept to survive, and those who have the power to take risky decisions affecting all of our lives (from public services to the global market) being motivated by obscene amounts of money. Huge incentives do not guarantee good or responsible business any more than the mere existence of massive wealth in our society means it magically ‘trickles down’ to the poor.

Capitalism is not a Godly system. It does not even work. And as that fact gets clearer and clearer we need the courage to resist the lies that those with vested interests will use to stop us and make major, not cosmetic, changes to repair and redress the damage of the past. We can start with Fred Goodwin, but if we stop there it will be an epic fail.

Why I support the postal strike

I’m going to have to write to my mum. And send back those DVDs to the online rental place. Yup, annoyingly, the postal strike is over. At least that’s what newspapers were telling me last week. Royal Mail bosses and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) have decided to actually talk to each other for a while. It’s good news for millions of people whose businesses and lives have been disrupted by the various actions of the postal strike, but what about the rest of us? If you can’t use the strike as an excuse for not bothering to pop down to the post office, what can you use? Soon you may be able to say: ‘so sorry that cheque is late, it’s just that the local post office has been closed and I’m at rather a loose-end as to what to do.’

Why is that likely to be a better excuse? Because the Managing Director of Royal Mail, Alan Cook, is apparently in line to receive a bonus of £1million if he pushes through the closure of 2,500 post offices on time. That is quite an incentive. Now, because I have at times been accused of being too political in the views I express here, let me quote from last week’s Socialist Worker newspaper: ‘[Mr Cook] will be entitled to a bonus of 80 per cent of his £250,000 salary every year until 2011’ and ‘receives at least £50,000 a year as a “lump sum” in lieu of pension, because his pension is already so large.’ Obviously none of that is excessive. After all, how can a man be expected to live on £250,000 a year without such bonuses? Do you know how much caviar, gold-plated toilets and half-naked Filipino house-boys cost these days? More than they used to. Which is possibly why Adam Crozier, Royal Mail’s Chief Executive, needed to be paid a £370,000 bonus on top of his £615,000 salary last year. And why Royal Mail Chairman Alan Leighton was, in 2004, given a £2.2 million bonus on top of his £814,244 salary.

You can picture them, huddled close to the fire in the shack they share, struggling to keep their malnourished fingers warm and saying to one another, like they did in the film Zulu: ‘what’s that humming sound? Is it bees?’ Well, it’s probably not UN planes dropping food aid. Perhaps it’s the angry voices of postal workers who discovered that the plans to close 2,500 post offices are accompanied by the threat of 40,000 job-losses.
 

Or perhaps the angry mob is made up of journalists and members of the public who are annoyed about the fact that, amidst claims that workers pay increases cannot be higher because there’s no money, Royal Mail is refusing to publish its already delayed financial reports. MPs have complained. The Times last week suggested it was an attempt to ‘avoid controversy over executive bonuses or hide the fact that [Royal Mail’s] financial performance is better than expected.’ It’s certainly an interesting coincidence.

I don’t support all strikes. But whenever a large employer claims they cannot meet the wage increase requests of their lowest-paid workers because the company can’t afford it, I always have the urge to spank them until they turn out their pockets. Often one finds senior management earning sums that are obscene anyway, but in the context of cries of poverty, are immoral. The loss of one’s second Jag (or limited ability to buy the latest one) does not measure up to the loss of a breadwinner’s job in a working-class family. I believe that’s a Christian principle. And I don’t care if you complain that I’m too political. As long as you write it in a letter.