Friday, 29 March 2013

What's in a name?

At Britain Yearly Meeting this year, we are being asked to consider 'trusting in Quaker Trusteeship'. We are told that because we are a charity we have certain legal obligations and we must have trustees who must do things in certain ways.
Before the Enlightenment, people believed, as they still do in many parts of the world, that to find the right name for something was to be able to control it. Names had visceral power, and naming and cursing were dangerous activities. In our sophisticated civilisation we think that we are rational and know that names are mere labels. But we are mistaken. Research reported by CommonCause shows that the way we name things subconsciously 'frames' the way we think about them and value them (or otherwise). A report here illustrates this with the use of economic language – the differences that happen, tested in controlled experiments where only the names are chnged. For instance when we call people 'consumers' rather than 'citizens', positive emotions tend to be associated with materialistic values, such as wealth, image and success.
Calling people 'trustees' has unwittingly trapped us in certain modes of thinking. We have 'framed' our thoughts and don't realise that there is a whole world outside the frame. I believe that this has also happened in our meeting here in Sheffield. Rather than the more normal 'Premises and Finance' committee, we have a 'Management' committee, and rather than employ a 'warden' we employ a 'manager'. This has trapped us in hierarchical and controlling ways of working despite our testimony to equality. I wish that our meeting house business was a workers cooperative and we got rid of special roles for 'management', This is especially so when my wife, Chriss, who works at our meeting house, arrives home frustrated and sometimes angry.
Many people I talk to say we should not be a charity because charity law imposes structures on us that are against our testimony. In fact, in financial matters and care of resources our Quaker integrity makes demands on us beyond any law: we should not be conforming to the law, we should be surpassing it, and, where needed, demanding changes to the law, as we have done for gay marriage. Instead we seem to cow before the law, and fear the Charity Commissioners and feel that we have to conform to secular ways to satisfy them. The truth is that the work that 'trustees' do in the most part still needs to be done somewhere by someone. Where has our testimony to integrity gone and why aren’t we trusting the spirit?
What being a charity and calling a group of us 'trustees' has done, in my view, is to expose the ever creeping instrumentalism in Quaker work and organisation. The adoption of 'management speak', of ever more 'framing' in economic terms, of the veneration of 'experts'. We think that because we are Quakers we will not be infected by the ways of the world, but we have a 'Framework for Action', which many people, myself included, have found highly problematic. So we think that we can now tell where the spirit comes from?
We do need to explore how to be effective and use our resources wisely. We have to keep the name 'trustees' if we are going to remain a charity. But working out what 'Quaker Trusteeship' might be is fraught with problems, not just because 'Quaker' can mean just about anything, but because 'Quaker' refers to our values and relationships rather than to our organisation. I suggest that we explore 'Cooperative Trusteeship', to reinforce modes of association that are non-hierarchical and lead to equality rather than control. This is a debate that also needs to happen in the cooperative movement, since many co-operatives are or want to be charities, and vice-versa, so we can find common cause with like minded people, which will strengthen our analysis.
As for where we place our trust: we trust the spirit, that spirit that informs our testimonies to integrity and equality – we need to believe in people, not structures and names.
I hope that the debate about 'Trusteeship' will be a wake up call for our society. We are constantly at the mercy of the Zeitgeist. In the 19th century we fell for evangelicalism, in the 20th century for idealism, and now in the 21st century for managerialism.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8, KJV

Monday, 11 March 2013

The New Priesthood.

The Quaker way is to discover the truth from within; that any external authority, be it priest, church, scripture, is not sufficient without inner convincement. This is our distinct witness, that is shown in the way we live our lives and organise our society. This is my convincement, discovered by revelation in December 1988, nine months before entering a Quaker Meeting House for the first time.

At Britain Yearly Meeting this year, we are to consider 'Trust In The Spirit' and 'Trust in Quaker Trusteeship'. Now 'Trust In The Spirit' I can understand: this is what we mean by inner convincement coming before any external authority: we trust 'the spirit' to show us the truth or otherwise of any authority or power put before us. Our discernment processes: Meeting for Worship for Business, Threshing, Clearness, Worship Sharing, have all been developed over the centuries to aid us in hearing the voice of the spirit.

But what does it mean to 'Trust in Quaker Trusteeship'? What is the difference between 'Quaker Trusteeship' and the normal secular sort found in charities that many of us are or have been trustees of?

The demands of the Quaker Way are profound – it is not a way for the faint hearted. Through the centuries, we have, as a society, failed in the challenge to discern and follow the 'leadings of the spirit', daunted by the sheer complexity and hard work of it all. In the eighteenth century all that persecution in the century before was just too much and we just became 'quiet'. In the nineteenth century, along with many other churches, we became evangelical and started to trust the scriptures – the infallible Word Of God or so they said. In the twentieth century we followed the trend of liberal idealism, to follow an ideal rather than work out what concrete action is required of us in our day-to-day lives.

And now, in the twenty-first century we seem to be overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of modern life and look to experts and managers to show us the way. In a technocratic society, the managers and experts become our priests – we trust their pronouncements rather than the wisdom of our own hearts gleaned from practical experience in the world. We are even told in The Friend by Tom Jackson (8th Jan. 2010) “I have come to the conclusion that the Quaker Business Method applied to the subject of finance is not appropriate”. So we are left with no alternative but to "Trust in Quaker Trusteeship" to sort out our finances and other complex problems of our relationship with society at large.

It was in just such a context, back in December 1988, when I realised from within myself that the authority of so-called experts was a sham. In the face of protests about an airport right next to our community, we were told that we needed to trust them to work out the complex economic problems of a large city like Sheffield, and that they would look after us, and that we would all benefit from increased employment and wealth. They have been proved wrong.
“There is a curious idea abroad that only specialists and experts are capable of answering the fundamental questions at issue in modern society. This is the reverse of the truth. The expert and the specialist, the highly trained and highly cultivated individual may be useful and essential for solving technical problems about the means by which the general solution can be carried into practical effect, but they are positively disqualified for deciding what the general purposes should be. There is nothing paradoxical in this." (John Macmurray, “The Creative Society” 1935; SCM Press, pp 167-8)
George Fox discovered  from within himself that “to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a [person] to be a minister of Christ" (Journal, 1647, qfp 19.02). So it is – or should be – with trustees: they are not fit to tell us what we should or should not do. John Macmurray, the Quaker philosopher, knew this too. They may advise us, but there is only one place for trust – and that is in the spirit, the inward light, as discerned in the gathered meeting, not by any individual, call themselves "minister" or "pope" or "manager" or "trustee", or in any group of such people.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Is Fair Trade Fair?
Since we are in the middle of this year's Fairtrade fortnight, it might be worth asking the question: Is Fairtrade fair? There is a lot of criticism out there, almost invariably from economists, which are dutifully picked up by newspapers and magazines during events like Fairtrade Fortnight. One prominent essay on the subject is by Peter Griffiths, which gets straight to the point by arguing that not only is Fairtrade not fair, it is unethical (Ethical Objections to Fairtrade, 2011). This essay has just been signposted here in Sheffield through Now Then magazine, in an article by Cassie Kill to mark the fortnight.
Now Peter Griffiths, like most good economists, posits a Utilitarian ethic, and basically concludes, after highlighting several problems with Fairtrade, some of which are picked up in the Now Then article, that the best way to support Third World producers is to pay the minimum price possible and give the money you save to charity. If you are a Utilitarian this is the end of the argument and you may as well stop reading this now.
There are many critiques of the Griffiths essay, and others like it, but at the end of the day is is probably fair to say that nothing is perfect in this complex world, and Faitrade has problems like anything else. A better way to look at this is to get beyond the problems or otherwise of Fairtrade marketing and look at fairness itself. And rather than struggling to understand the economics of remote countries, to look at fairness right here where we live and work and do our shopping. The minimum wage is regularly posited by economists as creating a 'market distortion' that leads to unforeseen unfairness, often around increased unemployment. We should instead, economists argue, allow wages to find their own level and so keep prices low so we can all afford goods and services and all (supposedly) find work.
The problem with this sort of utilitarian argument is that it assumes that the market works for all of us, and we are all on a 'level playing field' and all 'in it together'. In fact, what happens is that most companies are only interested in supplying goods and services and providing employment in order to make a profit for their shareholders, who are often not the same people who are buying these goods and services. This is called 'maximising shareholder value' and companies will do everything they can within the law (and sometimes a little bit outside it) to achieve this, including lobbying to get laws changed in their favour, avoiding paying taxes, and not checking supply lines. For them, the minimum wage and fairtrade agreements undermine opportunities to maximise shareholder value.
One of the key ways to maximise shareholder value is to 'externalise costs' , that is, to avoid paying the real price for anything if you can get away with it. Two key areas for externalising costs is firstly to pay the lowest wages possible and hope someone else will feed, clothe and house people who get paid so little that they cannot afford such basics, and secondly to trash the environment and hope that someone else will clean it up.
So if you seek the cheapest price for goods and services, in half decent countries like the UK you will find yourself paying increased taxes to support benefit payments and cleaning up the environment. When you see destitute people from the Third World on the telly you can always give some of the money you have saved to Oxfam.
But whether people are in East Sheffield or East Africa, they don't want charity, they want fairness and justice. The minimum wage is not enough, we should pay a living wage. People don't want aid, they want to sell their produce at a price they can live on and be able to send their children to school and afford health care.
If you pay the lowest price that you can find, someone somewhere, along with their environment, will almost certainly be being trashed whilst already wealthy shareholders pocket even more. These shareholders and their agents, the bonus seeking chief executives on obscenely high salaries, backed by their lawyers, will stop at nothing: they tried to convince us that it was safer not to wear seatbelts, that asbestos and tobacco do not kill you, and finally that climate change is not caused by their rampant overexploitation of the planet.
In Now Then Cassie Kill rather weakly say that she does not have all the answers and suggest that we should do a little bit of research, though she does say that she buys faitrtrade when she can afford it, how ever often that turns out to be.
So here are some pointers:
Firstly, get it straight in your head that the vast majority of big companies are in it for profit for shareholder value and nothing else despite all the nice things they say in their adverts and promotional literature. And secondly, see through the shortcomings of Utilitarianism. You can use utilitarian ethics to justify slavery – do you really want to go there?
So you want to buy something and you don't want to make people dependent on benefits or aid, and you don't want their environment to be trashed.
The most important criteria is provenance.
Do you know where it came form? Who grew it or made it? What their lives are like? What labour laws and other rights they have? If you don't, then either don't buy it or find out. If you cannot find out, either the supplier does not care, seeking only the lowest price, or knows something they don't want you to find out. If you had done this with your frozen beefburgers, you would not now be feeling sick at the thought of what you were eating last month.
The next step is to buy from a co-operative or small trader wherever you can. Shop at the Co-op and join and, if you want, influence policy. Buy from John Lewis and Waitrose. Buy from the very person who owns the business and get to know them and ask about their suppliers. Don't buy Cadbury's Fairtrade dairy milk, buy the Co-op's. Half the world's population benefits from cooperatives, including over a billion members, 100 million workers and over a trillion dollars of trade. You can help freeze out the already stupidly rich shareholders and build up the cooperative movement. Find out about Sheffield Co-ops here: Find out about co-operatives worldwide here:
You can help pay the £6.9 million salary of Tesco's CEO or you can help people like yourself. You choose.
The next step is to buy from countries that have established labour rights and decent welfare systems. Despite the efforts of our own country to the contrary, the EU has established and maintained comprehensive labour and welfare legislation. If you shop for food in season there is virtually no reason to buy food from outside the EU. And stuff like coffee, tea, chocolate and bananas can easily be bought fairtrade through cooperative suppliers or directly from known cooperatives.
And finally, yes it often costs more. After all you are making sure that growers and workers are getting a decent living, but the pursuit of shareholder value is so endemic that even cutting out the middle people and dealing with cooperatives still makes it more expensive. So what are you going to do, give in and go to Tesco's? Remember, one day they will come for you, and there will be no one left to help you.
Instead, why not spend twice as much on half as much? You are no worse off, you can learn to make do and mend and even end up recycling less. OK, you still need to eat, but do you really need to eat that expensive protein every single day? Fill up on fruit and vegetables and really enjoy that treat knowing that you are taking one small step to making the world a better place - and you will be healthier as well.