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Mark Moody-Stuart Response

Idolatry of the Invisible Hand

 

A Response to Mark Moody-Stuart, Chairman of Anglo American plc, former Chairman of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Chairman of Business Action for Sustainable Development

 

Published in Green Christian, Issue 53, November 2003, pp. 11 - 12

 

By Alastair McIntosh

  

This article was written as an invited response to Mark Moody-Stuart’s interview in the same issue, pp. 8 – 11, entitled “A Year after Johannesburg: Dialogue for Redefinition”.

 

 

They say that “Power denied is power abused”, and so, whenever I read an account such as that of Mark Moody-Stuart’s of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), I do so wearing power-tinted spectacles. I ask:

 

  • “Who is this person serving?”

  • “What are their values?”

  • “Does the writer confess their own power?”

Let me say that I have never had to walk in the moccasins of Mark Moody-Stuart. Anything that I say using my hereby-confessed power as a critic will embody caricature and half-truth. And so, Mr Moody-Stuart (if I might engage direct address): from that fundamental position of confession and the underlying respect it implies, let me raise four key points.

 

1. You say that “Business is just one such group – no more no less”, in terms of the nine “Major Groups” recognised by the UN. I think this denies power. It presumes symmetry where, actually, there is gross asymmetry. Corporations, unlike most of the other 8 UN Major Groups, have the means to finance political parties and hire teams of lobbyists.

 

The driving principle of neo-Conservative politics since the seventies has been to “get Government off our backs”. Unfortunately, this has merely cleared the way for business to piggy-back on social and natural “capital”. The sin of usury (Luke 6:34-35 etc.) – the driving engine of capitalism – has been canonised. Limited liability status allows corporations a degree of ultimate limited responsibility such as few other forms of social organisation can entertain.

 

We have been persuaded, by all the psychodynamic tools that mass persuasion can throw at us, that “business is good for you” and that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the Market has now replaced God’s “invisible hand” of Providence. This is idolatry – the acceptance of Mammon as pivotal to life. We see it when corporations claim to have “human rights” as has happened in several recent European lawsuits. As such, business is more than “just one such group” amongst equals at the UN. It is, rather, a group that has stolen the show and now wishes to wash its hands clean – using, of course, globally privatised waterTM.

 

2. You repeat the Shibboleth (Judges 12:6) that, “We cannot address long term questions of sustainable development, including poverty, without helping economies and employment opportunities to grow. Business has a key contribution to make …”

 

Embedded in this construct is the “catching up” model of poverty. It also overlooks the mathematical impossibility of sustained exponential economic growth. You say nothing about curbing the profligacy of the rich; only an implied shift towards aping of their mores.

 

Material economic growth can only relieve poverty in a sustainable manner if it is paid for by a reduction in the material consumption of the rich, so that all converge towards the Earth’s carrying capacity. The rich must shift from quantitative material consumption to qualitative inner fulfilment in seeking to enhance their quality of life. It means turning around Erich Fromm’s maxim that “To have is to be.”

 

3. You say, “We also have to meet the needs of our customers for economically-priced energy.”

 

But why do you ignore energy obviation? I think this gets to the nub of the wider problem. Business forgets that corporations have cultivated consumer culture. If you re-read a key text such as Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957), you’ll see how energy companies set out to push consumption by “hooking” deep motivational triggers rooted in peoples’ self-identity. “In buying a gasoline you get played back to you who you are,” a leading market research agency chief told Packard. “Basically,” concurred Pierre Martineau, the “High Apostle” of 1950’s image building, “what you are trying to do is create an illogical situation. You want the customer to fall in love with your product…”

 

Judeo-Christian theology has much to say about this: “You were in Eden, the garden of God,” said Ezekiel (in chapter 28 - making it quite clear that “Eden” is a metaphor). “You were on the holy mountain of God and walked among the precious stones... But in the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned.”

 

4. Finally, you conclude by calling for “sound governance mechanisms”. It disappoints me, however, that your WBCSD pushes for this not by hard sanction of legislation, but by soft sanction of the voluntary principle.  A case in point is the recent WBCSD report, subtitled: “How Could Voluntary Action Move Mining Towards Sustainable Development”. This is not about democratic governance where everybody’s voice is equal. Rather, it is trying to bring a semblance of respectability to corporate plutocracy where the driving principle is “one share one vote”.

 

I conclude by asking you to consider four remedies:

 

  1. Block business from using its resources to buy political influence (so that corporate donations can no longer win elections).

  2. Shift business from competitive models of economic growth towards co-operative models of mutuality (where competition is acceptable only inasmuch as it serves co-operation).

  3. Educate about motivational manipulation in marketing and support banning advertising that purely stimulates consumerism (like with the recent British tobacco advertising ban).

  4. Support the strengthening of governance through statutory regulation rather than voluntarism (so as to raise the level of the “level playing field”).

 

I accept that no single corporation can go all the way at once in advancing these policies. I also accept that corporations are partly an emergent property of our own consumer choices projected outwards. Corporate reform is therefore both a political and a personal process; an incremental shifting towards fair and sustainable trade. At the bottom line, however, we have to ask which side of the political watershed we come down on. Are we aiding or abetting the needed transformation? Are we for God, or Mammon?

 

Mr Moody-Stuart – some of us push the corporations whilst others pull. We may be working on a long front, yet some pay whilst others get paid. I have been critical of your position, and perhaps all too ungracious of its strengths.

 

But let us trust that on the watershed test our tributaries converge.

 

 

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23 March 2004

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