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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ethical Business and the Failure of Unionism

Why should we seek out a more ethical business / worker relationship? The interplay between participants in any relationship, either commercial or personal, is concerned with achieving an end goal; all relationships are in their essence, a negotiation. We seek to dominate nature, we endeavour to gain advantage for ourselves and our family over others; this striving is a natural survival strategy. Channelled positively it benefits the individual, the family and society. But its abuse has been a salient feature of human interaction for all of recorded history.

If we commodify everything, this philosophy of objectification taken to its logical extreme, enabled the Romans to view slaves as property, not dissimilar to any other object in the home. Thus one patrician punished his family by depriving them of their inheritance. He ordered the deaths of all 255 of his slaves.  If people are no more than commodities to be traded, it isn’t murder. This is why Nazi ideology revered ancient Rome.  We glorify Rome for its aesthetic while conveniently forgetting the overwhelming evil by which it survived and prospered.

Rome and Germany were extremes. So was the old Soviet empire. In between them, regimes of the Left and the Right use legislation or regulation to gain an advantage for their supporters or to scale back the advantage that their rivals enjoy.  Perhaps therefore the greatest failure of modern capitalism is that negotiation between parties is no more than a cease fire between hostilities.  A peace treaty should set out an achievable, realistic vision. That means workers having a say in the remuneration package of the main board. A partnership that not only engages but also embraces both sides without either one endeavouring to undermine the other also acts as a restraint on mutual manoeuvrability, power without leverage becomes a negotiation.

The abuse of power precludes it and therefore ‘the city’ would not be impressed. Business, we are told, must have flexibility.  So all salaries should be part tied to overall company performance and part fixed. Lower paid employees will have a greater percentage fixed and higher paid employees a higher percentage variable.   The maximum remuneration package of the highest paid should also be restricted because the distance between the Chief Executive and the cleaner has grown to a degree that one is no longer responsible for the other.   Society is not charity, nor is it unbridled greed.  If a company profits from society it has an obligation towards it.

Society is either the Roman vision or the biblical one.  In the Jewish bible land owners were instructed to leave barley (Deuteronomy 24:19) in their fields for the poor.  A strong society is a healthy society and only one that cares (for whatever reason) can continuously optimise the creative stimulus to uninterrupted growth.

At the same time, altruism is over-rated. We can want to benefit ourselves as well as to create a benefit for others but the degree to which we encourage the stranger to participate in our success voluntarily and without desiring to hurt them, this is the mark of our humanity and not our success at their expense.

This realisation is central to the failure of the union movement and the business community today.  Personal ambition and tribal greed has become the raison d’ĂȘtre for both.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Middle Classes in Crisis

One English national paper screamed from its front page “Cameron war on scroungers”. The government declared its intent to legislate to make it easier to ‘get rid of workers who failed to make the grade’.

I will declare my interest from the beginning. I am in my mid 50’s and with huge relief I recently volunteered to be made redundant, after 23 years of tireless dedication to a toxic employer. Most of that time I worked at the centre of the management structure although in terms of ambition I never rose above the ideal of doing what was right and therefore had no time for the networking that is essential for progression in the corporate world.  In BT PLC one was always on the look out for the next job. It was part of ‘strategic thinking.’  So I understand the hidden meaning behind the quotes.  It has never been about laziness.  In its misguided attempt to retain voters it is returning us to the politics of ‘us and them.’

I apologise in advance if anything I am going to say sounds bitter. It isn’t. It is no more than the cynicism born of experience. Something our political leaders know only from the vantage point of power and its abuse.

My reservations serve no political bias. When the Labour Party Prime minister, Gordon Brown accused an elderly (and lifelong) Labour supporter of making a racist statement he had not lived next to a newly refurbished house that was progressively trashed by a refugee family who had used it as a drug den and almost certainly as a whore house. When this family finally left in the middle of the night the local authority were greeted by a building they had no choice but to entirely rebuild from the inside in order to make it once again inhabitable.  The home had been trashed and, infested with rats.  Local authority responsibility began and ended with funding the lifestyle of that family. The neighbours were warned not to leave their babies unsupervised because babies have no protection against being attacked by rats. Children kept away from school were ignored and any cries for help from we, the victims of local authority benevolence was disputed as racially inspired intolerance to the multicultural flower that had blossomed amongst us.

The ethic of protecting the vulnerable should not be at variance with the contract of protection for all of us implicit in the health of any democratic society. But where its universal application clashes with every day practice it is because we have chosen to treat society’s ills by dispensing cash unconditionally.  Unlike in the USA there is no legislation to protect the neighbours of rentees. Associations set up to house the homeless have no incentive other than profitability based on management fees received.  Benefits packages often exceed the after tax wages of the middle classes that fund them.

It should not surprise anyone that the Conservative Party undertakes to protect big business from its own folly in times of austerity by facilitating high unemployment which in its turn minimises pressure on wages. It is not simply a factor of increasing materials costs contributing to inflationary pressures; inflation accelerates when business raises its prices in order to protect its profit margins.  In the UK the ‘Centre’ is theoretically represented by the Liberal Democrats and they aspire to represent the ‘true’ middle classes. The Left attacks the rich and the right attacks the poor – neither engages in serious discussion of the reasons for the increasing disparity between the two. Perhaps this is because both vie for the same voters as the Liberal Democrats. And perhaps it is best to describe the Liberal Democrats as the Party of fashionable prejudice, its ideas and ideals shaped by intellectual currents rather than by ethical principles; this protean political force attempting to transect differences by sanctimonious and tendentious political posturing that leaves them hovering indiscriminately between the two sides.

In the UK today if we exclude sociological factors we can define up to 80% of people as belonging to a ‘middle’ class which no longer is so easily defined or whose loyalties can no longer be attributed to a specific characteristic.

The traditional left wing electorate was the industrial non-management classes. But the boundaries separating the classes have become blurred by the overlapping of salary ranges. A member of the lower classes is as likely to vote Conservative as they are to vote Labour.

If the theory of democracy is correct then happiness should pull more nations into the democratic fold and away from totalitarian regimes. Those countries that are not sufficiently free will experience unrest on a scale that will either create the momentum for positive change or in the pessimistic point of view create the kind of unrest that will destroy these same middle classes. Witness the former Soviet Union and the Arab Spring.  Both have created a window of opportunity for fascism to take power (as has now occurred in Egypt).

The impetus to seek unfettered growth has been given the status of a new religion but a concomitant quality of this ‘ideal’ is the rampant individualism without which the former would not be possible.  It has created the conspicuous wealth which in its turn fosters the destructive avarice and fear that could tip the world over into a maelstrom of revolution and counter revolution. The rise of the anonymous corporatist  and monetary hegemon devoid of altruism or even the parochial will to national improvement is the stuff of nightmares feeding a perceived anti-capitalist rebellion that is itself fuelled by fascism.

Until the middle of the 20th Century a definition of class would rightly have seen the middle classes as being located between the rich and the poor. This defined itself by what we could afford in terms of cultural and educational attainment. But today, income distribution has widened to include people at both ends of society.  We exclude academic definitions and economically throw as wide a net as is practical because sociologically by labelling we create inequality.

Aspirations define us but are less tangible.   Aspirations, fed by global travel, the national loss of identity, cultural confusion and an ever present communications bombardment of ideas and visual temptations inevitably leads not to satisfaction levels that are higher than they are today, but to expectations that are difficult if not impossible for all but the wealthiest to sustain.

The availability of arable land used for growing basic food stuffs is contracting as food prices continue to rise.  The cost of providing a safety net has become prohibitive and an all pervasive feeling of insecurity already infects the no longer comfortable middle classes.  Perhaps it is insecurity and fear itself that makes economics the best determinant for class consciousness today and based on this fear, defines the new lower classes.

I provide BT as a microcosm for what afflicts society.  My first experience of ‘BT Values’ occurred in an ‘away’ training course. We were all warned that as ambassadors for BT we must behave with decorum. The senior manager leading the event had brought his secretary with him and it soon became clear that she provided other services besides typing.  On the final evening during our farewell supper the directors’ wife rang up and asked to speak to the secretary. ‘Discretion’ descended into farce as our distraught secretary drank too much and then argued with her lover in front of the other (non BT) diners. A different standard applied to this senior manager of the company.  During the next couple of decades more than two senior officers were embroiled in scandals that BT successfully hid from the public.

But BT is less generous with its workers. In its hierarchy of greed it provides its employees with a basic wage; its middle and senior management receive compensation packages that increase at an exponential rate even when as a consequence of their personal morality they are incapable of managing even the most basic inter-relational adversity with competence or compassion. The HR function elides comfortably into limiting the damage to brand that dysfunctional indifference and over exuberant mismanagement arbitrarily creates. In the largest of BT’s money earning departments turnover has reduced by 5% every quarter over at least, the last 5 years. The only way that management can increase its profit margins and therefore its payouts to its shareholders, is by reducing staff numbers, (at the same time that it increases the work load of those remaining employed). As a consequence, fear and dishonesty is encouraged rather than being kept at bay.

BT periodically sends out stress surveys. It is not because it cares that it does this but because it must demonstrate its proof of ‘preventative’ initiatives employed in order to keep lawsuits against the company to a minimum.

I am not saying that UK PLC differs in some way from elsewhere on the Globe.  BT PLC like UK PLC (and sadly the entire political spectrum is undifferentiated in this area) is incapable of defining itself in moral terms that consistently and coherently articulate a secure and a just future for all, so it takes sides; it looks after its own while it betrays any trust it is able to successfully betray without consequences to it or its followers.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Symbolism and a new start

Kfar Etzion was the site of the execution style murder of over 100 people, including an Arab family, by the Arab Legion on May 13, 1948.  The Arab Legion was British funded and commanded by British Officers so this massacre carried out the day before Israel declared its independence was a warning to “the Jews” of what awaited them and it embarrassed the British Government. Nevertheless, this momentary diplomatic discomfit failed to prevent the Arab League (on the 28th of May 1948) from ethnically cleansing the Old City of Jerusalem of its Jewish population and subsequently razing to the ground all physical evidence of Jewish life in the Old City.

History is problematic because it is inconvenient. There is very little beauty in the story of human history.  Death and dishonour has accompanied much of what has been accomplished by man. Even our myths are too often immersed in indescribable pain.  Unless that is, we deny everything, absolutely.  Power affords the opportunity to whitewash our past in order to sanitise that which we find inconvenient to remember.

In Israel, the Right will try to legislate as a reaction to this revisionist and revanchist policy. But the Left is no less guilty.   Diffidence is a short term escape from ignorance. It is instructive that the Left is so easily duped into following Arab propaganda even when it is so patently false. I say duped because the alternative is to admit that they readily embrace a lie and that they are all too comfortable with their own prejudices.

So when Arab MK Jamal Zehalke (a member of the Israeli parliament) screams at the Jewish radio host (as occurred in an interview in January 2010) that the first modern Jewish city built from scratch (on sand-dunes) is Arab property (Tel Aviv); or when as frequently occurs, Arab leaders tell us that Jerusalem has no Jewish history, we should all be able to appreciate that the Jewish reaction will be one of suspicion or outright mistrust towards those people or organisations that embrace the pornographic anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish propaganda with which we are intermittently showered.

If you deny me my past or rewrite it in your image why should I hand over trusteeship of any part of my homeland to you?

But before we become the thing we oppose most we should appreciate that we exhibit many of the traits we fear.

The Neturei Karta is a Jewish religious sect that denies the validity of Jewish statehood.  They believe that Jewish self-determination is a sin against God and that only the Messiah can bring about Jewish national self-governance. A community that actively advises the nation’s enemies in order to undermine what they see as an illegitimate national enterprise offers only contempt and hatred for those that are to them, a constant reminder of the failure of their religious aspirations. Their collaboration with Israel’s enemies (at events in the UK, the USA, in Europe and in Iran) and their contempt for those people less ‘righteous’ than they are makes them as much of a danger to Israel as the nuclear terrorist and their bomb.  Legislate to confiscate their land and property. Excommunicate the community from the Jewish nation.  If they then select to relocate to Western or Eastern Palestine that is their choice.  A nation can only have a relationship based either on fear or on mutual respect. With the Neturei Karta the latter is unrealisable which is why they will dress their children in concentration camp uniforms and call all those people with whom they disagree, Nazis.  They are no different to the Islamist who believes that their god has given them the right to dominate all other nations and will brook no argument to the contrary.  Fundamentalists of all stripes immerse themselves in intolerance and only as an expedient to protect their lifestyle do they conceal their true nature.

Nazi language precludes discussion. It is intended to provoke and to gain publicity.  It is not intended as a means of engaging in dialogue with anyone. Democracy is consensual, mutual and is predicated on an assumption of self-restraint. Those that oppose freedom manipulate this forbearance by the threat of violence.

In a number of western countries Holocaust denial is a criminal offence as is wearing clothing or displaying paraphernalia associated with the Nazis.  It is punishable by the loss of liberty.

Language and behaviour are symbols of attitude and it is how we react to it that creates the dialogue between segments of society.

So Israel can make holocaust denial a criminal offence as well as the wearing of the paraphernalia associated with the era. There should be no immunity from prosecution for Members of parliament calling their colleague a fascist because violence begins with language. The same should apply to clergymen (of any faith) who think their beliefs give them the right to assault others either verbally or physically and justify it by reference to past prophets or holy books. Clergymen given diplomatic status that abuse it by minimising the shoah or taking the side of the enemy should have their diplomatic status revoked.  Democracy is restraint even when you disagree with me. No wonder the followers of the Arab world have such contempt for democracy.  We fear their violence. To them, the ends have not only justified the means but proven their value.

Respect can only be achieved if we agree that in spite of the hostility inherent within disparate theological positions there is never an excuse in the twenty first century for bigots to use ancient texts to justify modern discrimination. We choose the battles we wish to fight.  The parlous state of western philosophy is based on too many accommodations with those to whom we can never agree.

Israel needs a constitution and a preamble that defines the Jewish foundation and Israeli character of the State. At the same time it should formally separate religion and state.

The Gettysburg Address was given by Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War in 1863. I would like to borrow liberally from it, as follows below:

“The right to self determination for the Jewish people of this land has been denied to us for many centuries.  Our persecution has been a consequence of this bigotry and we have had no safe house anywhere because of it.  There are too many, to this very day, incapable theologically or politically, of accepting our equal rights here, or anywhere else.

Three score and four years ago our fathers and mothers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal.

Even before this beginning we were engaged in a great struggle against tyranny, and it continues to test whether this nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We are compelled here to be dedicated to the great tasks remaining before us – to honour our dead and take from their sacrifice increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their lives. We here resolve that our dead shall not have died in vain- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.

Respect is not an option, it is a human right. We recognise that this state, forged in a time of great darkness and ignorance shall strive for justice for all and for peace for all people.”