Quakers & Business Group Event, Friends House 4th November 2011
“The business of Business is business” has been the commercial world’s slogan since the mid 20th Century, courtesy of Milton Friedman, claiming markets are amoral and companies exist only to further the ends of their creators and shareholding owners. After all, by law, Company Boards exist to maximise returns on shareholders’ funds. “Shareholder Value” became the winning battle cry of the 1990s. This was when the Quakers & Business Group was born, so remnant Quaker business people could find each other, form a community again and rediscover their voice. ‘Good Business Ethics at Work: Advices & Queries on Personal Standards of Conduct at Work’ was written, drawn from our Testimonies.
In New Labour’s years, a new Companies Act evolved, (as did the Combined Code of Conduct for Directors, itself rooted in the Quaker led Cadbury Report,) requiring Boards to pay attention to other stakeholders, but Business saw to it that little more was added. ‘Aligning’ Directors’ and shareholders’ interests is still done via: Directors paying themselves bonuses for ‘maximising returns’; avoiding tax; moving jobs to where labour is cheapest; borrowing money from their banker friends to buy other companies; swapping out the purchased firm’s money content for debt to enrich themselves and their friends; using their new money to raise more debt (which is a promise to pay an assured income stream) to borrow yet more money from their friends; - and do it all again. As we all know only too well, debt mountains grew everywhere: some so big they fell over; multi-generational joblessness in some families and towns became a common social blight; and the gap between rich and poor grew inexorably. Where was our witness? What can love say now?
Q&B gathered twenty Quakers and sympathisers with varied business backgrounds to imagine beyond current approaches to business. Friends, it needs doing. The present tools and ways will perpetuate the present mess. Quakers know change must be sought in love, to replace in right ordering present immoral, selfish arrangements with new structures and ways which mitigate human frailty and encourage firm, loving concern for each other. The market must serve, not be served: that’s moral. That of God must be sought in those in business motivated by selfishness and greed , so all may flourish: that’s ethical.
We voiced many passionately held proposed causes and cures. We examined chances for change via alterations within existing corporate and financial ways. We sensed radical change via replacing our 19th Century joint stock company form, possibly with one holding assets in trust so all may work for both self and the common good; and via replacing the ethics of today’s commercial markets with “an economics as if people matter” (to quote Schumacher), so markets allocate resource to social need, and labour may come to employ capital. “Don’t waste a good crisis” is a useful call to action! We noted present consultations and energies in society, to which we can contribute the Quaker voice. The Friend is expressing, and Friends in Meetings for Worship are discerning, the energy for radical change. There is much to be done, but at least now business minded Friends have a vehicle and a voice to discern unity and seek to mend the world. Can “The business of Business be Peace” ie: human and planetary flourishing? The group is pursuing actions and meets again to move the work forward.
Eoin McCarthy, Timothy Phillips, Hilary Pinder, Simon Western