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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.

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