I’ve always been interested in the distinctions between types of commerce – distinctions apparently not recognised by those economists who put generic ‘firms’ in their models with assumptions of equal powerlessness and other complete nonsense. I’m interested because I know that qualitative distinctions are vital. I know of companies that do great and creative things within the local communities and environments to which they belong … and I’ve seen the extractive and exploitative mega-corporate types who live far from our local life, and who do not care whether they push our environment and society to the edge. Their narrowness and short sighted view is the very reason for their lack of wisdom. Their cult of entitlement blinds them to their own connections to this world we all share, like those in the 1789 Court of Versailles.
I’m interested because the latter extractors are dominating in our world, and we have right wing governments who are effectively their lackeys. The extractive corporates now pay these parties to govern in their short-term and narrow interests, and provide them with the marketing apparatus to “manage the perception” and “manufacture the consent” of the voting public.
We have seen good governance eroded since 1984 and the rise of Neoliberalism. The ‘Lord Market’ has become the governor of all, assumed to be all knowing, benevolent and wise, and encompassing of all things – including community and the planet itself. How they could presume such scope is a reflection of both Neoliberalism’s ignorance and its fundamentalist quasi-religious arrogance.
Without the constraints we once imposed on the worst excesses of exploitative commerce, we have seen the short-term financial model of the corporate world completely replace the long-term governance model that cares for all, now and yet to be born. And with the extra wealth generated for the already powerful by the freedoms to exploit provided by the Neoliberals, we have seen the perpetuation of the trend – a positive feedback accelerating us toward the edge – of the money from the Koch Bros, the Fays, Richwhites and Gibbs of our world supporting political parties that think only in short-term markets.
Deregulate those constraints on our opportunity to abuse, and call it freedom. Privatise, and call it efficiency and wealth creation. Pillage and call it progress.
Expedience begets extraction and exploitation, begets the money to finance your favoured political party, begets expedience …
As anyone knows when studying systems, positive (i.e. self reinforcing) feedbacks are potentially very destructive – vicious cycles, racing to the edge of the abyss.
You can become rich rather quickly if that is your thing. In the short term, and if simply having more money in circulation or your own wee pocket is your aim, then exploitation of other people and the environment is ‘good’. You can cut down all the Kauri forests as quickly as possible, take your ‘hard-earned’ cash, reinvest in drift netting some other distant place in which you have no interest in living, subjugate and colonise for cheap ‘resources’ and slave labour, and retire with a degree of smugness to a palace on a hill. Cecil Rhodes’ Colonisation meets Corporate Globalisation.
It’s really good if more cash is the goal to ‘extract’ from the system, and have no regard for the continued functioning of that system once you have gone. You do not even need to recognise the system, nor any value that is not measured as a dollar. Beauty, belonging and love are not tradable commodities. Functional integrity – the qualities that keep a system working now and forever – require a breadth of view far beyond the narrow technocrat looking at a computer screen. After all, if you cannot measure them, do they really exist.
After retiring to your palace, you can even smoke a cigar and pontificate on why you are such a ‘good’ businessperson. You live outside the world, disconnected, with no sense of reverence for something bigger. This is the life of hubris, or Ozymandias, the King of Kings. And without the humility that recognises the power of Papatūānuku Mother Earth, or the power of the people once stirred, you become the tyrant of our classical myths.
I once had an argument with one of those neoliberal economic acolytes who tried to tell me “the free market provides the best environmental solution.” I explained that pillaging a forest is always better financially than attempting any for of sustainability. I couldn’t believe he was taught that nonsense. I despaired that such unintelligent and baseless beliefs were directing the policy of my own country.
There is another way.
In the long-term, if we are interested in the wellbeing of the world, local community and local economy, then our approach must be different. We can recognise the bedrocks of the good life and a ‘good’ society. We have a moral concern for others. We build and maintain the functional integrity of the environment upon which community depends, and the functional integrity of community upon which the current and future economy depends. We build legacies rather than destroy them. We create rather than extract.
This is the role of good governance: the long-term view, the building of legacies; the caring for others and for our joint future.
But particularly, good governance has to get real. It has to recognise the distinction between bad expedient commerce and good creative commerce; it has to recognise that there are those who would extract, colonise, commoditise and destroy for short-term personal financial gain. They will do it simply because it pays to do so; because it pays to pillage. Good governance must not only appreciate the nature of such commerce; it must also ensure that those Hyenas of Commerce be constrained.
This is not just the message and lessons of the ages – of our cycle of environmental, social and economic collapses into chaos – it is also the message from Adam Smith, whose ideas are used so selectively to justify their excesses.
Good governance recognises the short-term deal makers for whom they are, the destroyers of worlds. Good governance recognises and builds upon our underpinning bedrocks of environmental and social function.
Good governance recognises the value and vital need for a healthy planet, and for the hope within communities and individuals, and for love. Good governance knows that the values of local knowing and a sense of belonging cannot be measured in financiers’ spreadsheets, but are real for all that. Good governance recognises the overriding moral rudder of providing the good life for the many, not the few, and for both the future and the now.
There is another truth. Good governance is our choice. We decide. We could wait until the threshold is reached, but that is a very risky strategy. The abyss can lead us into horrors from which we may not recover.
Or we can demand the change now.
Elections are very very important. We can choose between good governance for the many and expedience for the few.
And the world has had quite enough of the tyrannical few.
Chris Perley has a background in the field, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities. He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.