How to change the world
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I have stolen the beginning of a tale of two cities from Dickens because it is more appropriate now than ever. I shall also be stealing the concern that Dickens had for social reform. We often look back on the Victorian era as being a dark and oppressive time. This is partly due to looking at it through the work of writers like Dickens. Ironically it is also partially due to the spotlight on the failings of society provided by his work that led to this era being massively progressive. There was a massive amount of change during the 19th century as prisons were reformed, working conditions were reformed and the law in general began to recognise a respect for human life.
It is a constant theme throughout history that change will always upset the people it affects. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen even more change than the 19th due to the explosion of modern manufacturing techniques. In many ways now is indeed the best of times, but as my opening line suggests it is also the worst of times in many ways. We are technologically more advanced than at any other time in history but this has been at a cost.
The business techniques that have allowed us to have such massive growth are focussed on growth. The corporations grew up as a solution to how such large scale projects as national railways could be completed when they were so far beyond the financial strength of the average business person. Within the legislation that supports the setting up of corporations is a statutory mandate to seek profit and the benefit of the shareholders. Despite recent attempts to mitigate this primary directive through concern for broader societal impacts, the dependence that corporations have had on legislative backing to aid their main aim has led to anything other than legal rules being ignored where this aim is not supported. As a result it has been recognised for some time that humanity is beginning to learn the Gordon Gekko mantra, “Greed is good.”
Although there is much to be said on the failing of ethics in modern business, this is not my intention with this post. I think that by now the vast majority of intelligent people are well aware of the ethical tightrope walking that is practised by company boards. Even those who are not intelligent or are not regular readers of the daily news must recognise the precarious positions they are being placed in by the way in which these large companies are affecting their lives. Jobs are disappearing, wages are dropping, land is being eaten up, towns are dying. Even those who might be lucky enough to live in wild countryside paradises may have been able to see that there are fewer insects than there once were, and fewer birds. Even stranded in the middle of the Pacific ocean it is hard to miss the effects of a failing business model when you are surrounded by a floating pack of discarded rubbish the size of a country.
My intention is to talk about a solution to all these problems. One thing is certain, our politicians have failed us. With each successive government we see them ever more bowing to the wishes of the corporations. Every government is so afraid that trade will leave their shores and instead give their wealth to international neighbours that they will allow the companies to get away with almost anything. In addition to this a disaffected and disillusioned public is given little choice in the politicians who may next be given control. Largely homogenous groups of MPs parade through parliament trying to make things better rapidly enough to prove they are the ones for the job before the next election date. Unfortunately they have little power over companies big enough to buy their own countries so the focus of the legislative posturing is the behaviour of the people. Even more unfortunately the behaviour of the people is a result of the interaction the people have with the companies. In essence, the companies are creating changes that are producing negative effects amongst the populace. The governments are treating the symptoms, not the causes, and the result is the deterioration of life for individuals.
We may be gaining massive benefits from the progress of technological development but at the same time we are losing freedoms that have been enshrined in British law since the Magna Carta; that go back almost as far as time immemorial. Politicians even wish to knock back positive gains in human rights that have only been gained in the last 50 years. If changes are holding back the agenda of profit then they are changes that are slated for reversal.
The majority of people feel helpless against the behemoth that is politics, law and business. This is with good reason; the last millennium has been a lesson in the futility of standing up against them. There have been gains in the past. The revolutions of England, France and America wrought massive change. There are even some who speak of revolution now. Such a course of action is unlikely in the conventional sense. Despite the hardships we have to face we are supplied with the things we need to keep us docile. Television, the drug of the nation keeps many people far too busy to protest. Where this is not effective we are beginning to see growing legalisation of marijuana across the United States. I wonder if it can be just coincidence that this sedating substance, so very much favoured by many protestors I have met, is being made available to them at just such a time as it seems vigilance and energy are more important than ever. Social engineering is often looked upon as a technique of conmen and hackers but it is also the tool of governments and corporations to keep populations on side and to make their own brands appear to be of value.
Despite the failing of democracy and the futility of revolt there is a way that is open to us to effect change. The arrival of computers and the internet mean that direct action of the sort advocated by green peace or more darkly, anonymous, are not necessary. All the actions that are carried out by the companies are in a manner of speaking truly democratic. The big corporations are only there because we, the people, have allowed them to be. It is us who have provided them with their wealth. It is us who have observed their business models and decided that purchasing their products is something that we wish to do. It is us who have said that the way in which they conduct business is acceptable. It is us who can stop paying them if we decide that the way in which they conduct business is not acceptable.
In our traditional conception of democracy we might have made our vote for a better world by voting for certain politicians but the politicians themselves feel powerless to change the world when they have to bow to corporate demands. That traditional conception was developed in a world before the internet and before instant communications. We could not have known the details about what we were voting for. We simply voted for someone we trusted to get the job done and then hoped that they had the inside knowledge to get the job done. The internet now allows us to uncover the information for ourselves. The only way that we can really change things for the better with greatest rapidity is to start doing this and to start voting with our money.
There was recently a worldwide protest against capitalism that swept across the globe through many capital cities. The most that a lot of people heard about this was a paragraph on the BBC news website. When it comes to the drama of public protest there is a tendency by the media to ignore it these days. There is so much protest that there is lower news value in publicising anything that isn’t truly spectacular. There may also be other reasons behind the scenes why it might suit news corporations to keep the protests quiet. Protestors are portrayed as trouble makers, hippies, punks, anarchists, anonymous. All the negative buzzwords are used to show protestors up as being something other than normal people. Normal people therefore wish to distance themselves from these groups. This does not mean that normal people do not share the same concerns. The way in which the normal people can make their wishes known is to reward the companies when they get it right. Shop politically.
I do not like the idea of boycotts. They are a lot of effort for a start and can endanger the welfare of all those who rely on that particular company’s trade. I do think that it is possible to make a change for the better in the world just by making slightly different choices when in the supermarket. This is largely achieved already as people avoid the GM crops and buy more of the organic or whatever their concern is at the time. The problem is the lack of transparency around the activities of the companies. It is a shame that the newspapers are so wrapped up with other important issues like Chantelle’s latest diet because it is here where reportage is of greatest importance. Companies would soon change their behaviour if they found that it was ceasing to be profitable. They are like the genie in the bottle; they will give us what we wish but we must be careful what we wish for.
With that said, I am now going to go and find out whose products I should be buying and whose I shouldn’t if I am to bring my kids up in a world where they have a chance of a healthy and happy life.