Politicians cynically bemoaning a loss of social values has become all too common, from Gordon Brown’s appeal to nationalist sentiments in talking of a return to ‘British values’, to David Cameron’s shallow suggestion that the riots were a result of the loss of family values. And yet a proper discussion of our values is sorely needed, because all too often one value has been a dominant organising feature of our society: financial value. Whether in the guise of profit, efficiency, cost-cutting or value-for money, finances have come to be a key factor driving the way most organisations and social actors work today.
This doesn’t apply just to profiteering corporations, where directors are legally obliged to put profit above all else. It also applies to NGOs whose activity often becomes dominated by the need to chase funding: not only does this take away from their other activities, but it also means their priorities are determined by the agendas of the state or of those with wealth. And money is dominant in the minds of the public too: whether as consumers whose purchases are driven by whatever is cheapest, or as employees enslaved on the nine to five in order to pay rent, pensions, mortgages, and other necessities. Society wide the skewing of priorities by financial considerations is seen in our failure so far to take serious action against climate change, and also in recent austerity policies: not just corporate but also state behaviour is driven by cost-cutting, and not by any evidence of what is best for individuals, businesses, societies or the economy.
This is worth pondering, because money creation is ostensibly controlled by the state, although in practice much is created by banks as credit (see positivemoney.org.uk for an explanation). Money is a social construct par excellence – it has no intrinsic value or use, and as bank runs and currency crises show, its ‘value’ only lasts so long as confidence in this ‘value’ remains. Money is not serving the interests of society, and even the state is bound by the logic of its own creation – rather than remaining a means, money has become an end.
But money is not a universal feature of human civilisation, it is a historically specific one – before the rise of industrial capitalism, distribution through gifts and mutual obligations were far more common. As a society we must begin the discussion of where financial mechanisms are appropriate, and of what the alternatives are – and organisations must ensure that finances, and institutional preservation, do not become their raison d’etre.
There are two recent examples in our small corner of Edinburgh of this institutional myopia – despite some attempts at change. The first was when the trustee board of EUSA, an organisation whose sole reason for existence is student democracy, overturned the decision of a quorate referendum to boycott brewer SABMiller on financial grounds.
The second case is the ongoing scandal of the university’s investment portfolio, which reads like a roll call of dirty industries. Despite the university’s status as a non-profit public research and educational institution educational and support for fair trade and sustainability on campus, there is little evidence that the university’s values are being applied in the management of its £230 million. Campaigns against arms and tobacco have had some success in the, but investments remain in Ultra Electronics Holdings, which manufactures military drones – currently being used by the US in in contravention of international law, and causing civilian deaths and serious psychological trauma to civilian populations.
Meanwhile a significant proportion of the investment portfolio is in fossil fuels, despite the proven need for at least 80% of oil reserves to be left in the ground for catastrophic climate change to be avoided. In its failure to even balance environmental and financial considerations, the investment committee has so far failed to implement the university’s own policies on sustainability – and has ignored the financial risk associated it with fossil fuel investment, the many other industries which are creating socially useful investment, and the possibility of investing positively in student services and the university’s own estate, which could reap both social and financial rewards. Change is needed, and it can start right here on our doorstep.
This is the longer version of an article that was originally published in abridged form in the Student Newspaper.
For more on the Responsible Investment campaign at the University of Edinburgh, check out the blog at investethically.wordpress.com.