Crossing boundaries: ethics, wealth and power

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Crossing boundaries: ethics, wealth and power

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good thinking · Tuesday 29 Mar 2022
Tags: Putinethicsnationalism
The crisis in Ukraine has placed an ironic spotlight on the persistance of national borders: ironic because the pandemic (not to mention the looming climate crisis) has only made clear their ultimate irrelevance to the natural order of things.

It’s true that borders developed to reflect fundamental aspects of our society, our sense of identity, and in a less fundamental sense our emerging economic structures. Their geographical boundaries were usually determined by natural features, such as mountains and rivers and the sea.

But identity is a malleable thing, reflecting the multiple factors determining our sense of who we are. I mostly like to call myself European, an inclination reinforced a hundredfold by Brexit. To defy the latter I’m waiting for my Irish passport, and Boris Johnson’s government makes me want to disown my Englishness, even if that’s my theoretical national identity. I could call myself British, and in other circumstances a southerner. I live in East Sussex, just over the border from Kent, and feel allegiance to both areas (I grew up in Kent, but was raised as a Catholic, which turns me back to Irishness).

A smaller, more open world?
The world has become a smaller place. That should be a good thing, making us more aware of the consequences of the often-distant connections that sustain our lifestyles, as well as bringing us to a closer understanding of what in the past might often have seemed alien cultures.

Part of the achievement of the EU has been to strip borders back to more useful levels, without threatening the diverse identities that sit within the union, a point apparently lost on the current British Conservative party. This could and should have been a continuing process.

Even in my lifetime technology and accompanying EU legislation has transformed the experience (and convenience) of “being abroad”. Money used to be tricky, news remote and delivered via expensive newspapers that were usually a day or so out of date. (This is to say nothing of the British conviction that only they had mastered the demands of clean plumbing: on camping trips with my parents we would take pills to sterilise our drinking water. Happily this myth is now forgotten.)

But these days I can sit here at my desk in France pretty much as I sit at its counterpart in England, with a fully functioning internet connection, all my usual software and communication tools and complete access to my data, not to mention all the information sites I usually use. EU legislation ensured that mobile phone calls were charged at the same rates across the union, a freedom that to some extent has survived Brexit, enabling me to communicate easily with the people I’m connected to in the UK.

Unfortunately legislative barriers that had happily seemed a thing of the past have begun to spring up again. The British might share a common cultural identity with the rest of Europe (and they do, despite the wars that have disfigured our history), but it no longer seems possible to feel part of the same community, facing the rest of the world from common ground.

Thinking globally
This shift to more porous borders had seemed a trend, and perhaps even an unstoppable one, There was a logic behind it. After all the world’s current arrangement into nation states is relatively recent, and as technology (among other things) has reshaped the economic and cultural environment change seemed likely. The question has always been how we manage that change, and it’s quite true that the particular form of globalisation we have experienced contributed to the sense of redundancy and alienation felt by many, many of whom have turned to the false gods of populism for the prospect of something better.

It didn’t have to be that way (it’s unfortunate that the enabling technology coincided with the neoliberal moment); there is still scope to set things on a better path.
On top of the technology/economic shift, the need to address the challenges of climate change through concerted global action only underlined the importance of thinking beyond national borders.

And then along came the pandemic. Since the virus had and has no respect for those borders again there was a clear need to co-ordinate a response on a global scale. Predictably though this was the point where it became clear that the world’s political leadership was simply not up to the task: instead of distributing vaccines as quickly and widely as possible too many wealthy countries hoarded them, ensuring the multiplication of variants. The pandemic has continued to wreak havoc for longer than it might have done, and could do so again. If national leaders are incapable of working this much out, there’s small hope they will get their heads around the big challenges of climate change. So they have bumbled on, leaving their successors to face unprecedented problems.

The ethical boundary
Meanwhile, as the rockets continue to fall on Ukraine, it seems to me that the problem is not fundamentally with the resurgence of national boundaries. Or at least that resurgence is the consequence of a different set of borders.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to sit in palatial luxury and calmly set in motion something which you know full well will kill thousands and destroy the lives of thousands more. I cannot imagine how it must be to think like that. For the Russians those Ukranian lives cannot even be dehumanised by the common ruse that they are “foreign”, however much Putin has tried to cast the target as some kind of Nazi cabal, a convenient and particularly nauseating fiction given that Ukraine’s president is Jewish.
But then it’s not the Russians’ war. It’s Putin’s and those like him. I don’t want to diminish his personal venality in any way, but it’s also important to see that he’s not alone in this behaviour, in this assumption that killing people to get what you want is just another aspect of statecraft.

It always has been of course, as feeble a justification as you could summon.

I don’t know whether power corrupts, or whether the kind of people who tend to seek and reach power have that corruption already in them. It’s true that wealth and power tend to go hand in hand, and it’s easier to see how wealth corrupts: wealth separates you from the ordinary concerns of the non-wealthy, and (to put it kindly) can give you different perspectives.

There’s a continuum through the kind of arrogance that led the Epstein circle, including Prince Andrew, to believe they could abuse children with impunity, through the arrogance that led the British prime minister to behave during the pandemic as if his own laws did not apply to him, and the murderousness of Putin, or any other politician/leader who launches a war.

I’m not suggesting that genocide or general mass murder is somehow how the same as sexual abuse or casual political corruption: to weigh these crimes against each other would be meaningless. But there is a continuum between them. The common thread is that all this is done by the powerful and the wealthy, as if having power and wealth places you above common ethical standards.

The myth of business ethics
There’s a version of this disassociation in business ethics (and the fact that business can claim a distinct set of ethics is itself telling, as is the existence of specialist business departments focused on corporate responsibility). It is essentially absurd that people who would probably be guided by broadly normal ethical standards in their personal behaviour will apply different standards to their business activities, discarding concern for livelihoods, environmental impact, common fairness.

It seems the reality of what you can get away with replaces more fundamental questions of what may be the right thing to do in any given circumstance.

The big smokescreen here has long been “shareholder value” and the myth that the existence of a public company must be referred to a simple idea of shareholder ownership. This isn’t even legally true in the US, (where the idea sprang from, put forward by Jack Welch of GE and since disowned by him) but is routinely used as an excuse for bad behaviour, as if it could obliterate any other responsibilities.

As I write there’s the pathetic example of Peter Hebblethwaite, CEO of P&O, claiming that there was no option for the survival of his business but to replace its crews with untrained and inadequately-paid imported labour. This would presumably be news to his competitors, and more than this, it’s simply not true. What he means is that there was no other route for him and his colleagues to make the money they wanted in the time they wanted, which is a very different thing. In the process he’s probably destroyed what was once a proud and good business.

I am not anti-business at all. I believe that business can and should be a force for good in society. My problem is that too often it is not, even though the days of “greed is good” are long past, as is the time of the dinosaur managers or financiers who cling to that idea, or at least continue to behave as if it were true. More than this, while we might argue over the origins and force of our ethics, whatever those ethics may be cannot change just because you’re a business or national leader.

Uncommon responsibility?
You might say that if you are a national leader, in place to defend the interests of “your people”, you are going to be faced with decisions that ordinary people do not have to make.

Even by that standard how is Putin serving the interests of ordinary Russians? If national leaders were actually enlightened enough to seek the best interests of “their people” they would seek to do so through deeper co-operation rather than conflict. There is no option in the long term. Climate problems are going to bring ever fiercer competition for resources. Whole populations in vulnerable areas will be displaced, and seek migration to safer areas. Sadly, for the moment at least, although global co-operation and co-ordination are the only rational ways to manage these tensions, neither our institutions nor indeed our self-serving instincts are mature enough to ensure that rationality prevails.

Perhaps the problem is that wealth and power are exclusionary forces. They create the subtler borders of disconnection, or entitlement, and behind those borders the imaginations as well as the ethical sensibilities of those with the power to shape the world become constricted. Hence our continuing failure to address even the immediate challenges of climate change; hence the stupidities of Brexit.

You could see the concept of democracy as a mechanism to address this disconnection, a mechanism to ensure that politicians’ decisions are guided by the interests of the people they are elected to govern. But for reasons too involved for the scope of this piece, it’s clear that the mechanism is currently not working very well. Putting that right will require some serious and far-reaching constitutional reform, not least in the UK through addressing the culture of mendacity which seems to have overtaken the Conservative Party and its cheerleaders in the mainstream media.

I grew up through the 1970s, a time when it was still possible to believe that whatever bumps there might be along the road our societies were maturing, and things were moving forward. The development of the EU, flawed as it has been, fitted that pattern, and significant borders came down (most dramatically with the Berlin Wall). Despite the continuing troubles in the Middle East and parts of Africa, peace came to pass in Ireland, democracy crept forward in Chile and other parts of South America, and China inched towards a greater openness.

But the history of the last twenty years has undermined my optimism. It’s particularly depressing for someone of my age that those in positions of power and wealth now largely grew up in the same period, but have been driven by the kind of narcissism, greed, and short-sightedness that in my naivety I had hoped was passing with older generations.

Some hope.

It’s possible I suppose that Putin’s aggression will refocus minds on the realities of our interdependence, though the Ukraine war is a heavy price to pay for a reassertion of the obvious. Failing that I suspect the natural world will have its say, biting back against the myopic folly of the last few decades (the problems have been looming in the public domain at least since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962). Whether our dumb leaders and influencers, secure in their little worlds, manage to improve on their performance so far is an open question. But if they don’t things for the rest of us will probably be even worse than they might have been. Like never before, we need the common nature of our humanity to break down the boundaries that facilitate high level bad behaviour, that insulate the perpetrators from any real sense of the consequences of their actions.

Not so long ago those people would probably have dismissed such an idea as impossibly Utopian. They would have said it’s not how the world works. Maybe it’s not how their world works, but there’s a much bigger world out there which is failing to work, because of them. Perhaps it’s time the rest of us got much angrier, and demanded more of our leaders. As Jarvis Cocker so succinctly put it, “c**ts are still running the world”, and that’s a luxury we can no longer afford.

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