I have accounts with HSBC, and I’m not feeling too comfortable about it right now. In the last week or so, there have been a couple of stories that don’t exact leave my bank looking squeaky clean. To be fair, as far as the Daily Telegraph business goes, I’m far more concerned about the newspaper’s actions – I expect advertisers to try and get coverage that suits them, and journalists should be fighting against this. But then that’s a point I shall pick up on. I’m going to refer directly to this case, but most of my points with be general and highly theoretical, as I don’t know the specifics. I’m a philosopher, not an economist or lawyer.
Of course this is all a bit ridiculous, as it’s hardly a secret that a corporation like HSBC has been involved in ethically questionable stuff for years. It’d be nice to think that when a company we buy from, or use the services of, does something wrong, we could immediately decide to stop using them. And to an extent, that is possible. But it’s complicated by a whole bunch of factors. For a start, not buying from a particular shop, say, is a lot easier than cutting off a long-term relationship. And then there’s always the matter of finding somewhere else that isn’t up to the same stuff. Which in many sectors is easier said than done. Linking these is how much difficulty it’s going to be for me, balanced against the effect it will have on the companies in question. I would like to see change, but want to avoid just cutting off my nose to spite my face.
What to do and when?
So, I guess the first point is deciding when it’s time to do something. I guess this is one of the biggest hurdles, built of inertia and cynicism. Disengagement with capitalism tout court is just not really viable, at least not without a like-minded community around you, but it feels odd to single out a single company without picking on, say, an arms manufacturer, or a chemical company that is directly poisoning the water supply. But then that’s the point, I’m not saying I want to get out of HSBC because of one evil thing they’ve done; it’s the whole shebang, amoral at best. To be fair, against that is the other side of the inertia coin: it’s not like they’ve been great to me. If I’d made a fortune, it wouldn’t make their behaviour acceptable, but it would at least provide a personal, selfish reason to stay with them.
Anyway, so let’s take it that their crimes are significant enough to outweigh any good they’ve done me. What then? I could go into HSBC tomorrow (well maybe not tomorrow, as I’m in the wrong country, but soon) and ask to close my accounts, and I hope it happen pretty quickly. But then what? For all sorts of reasons, I can’t really see myself living without a bank at all, at least not for the foreseeable future. So I need to find a suitable alternative. A little while back, the obvious place to start would be something like the Cooperative, but they’ve been tainted too. Still, I’m not sure if they’re beyond redemption, so I need to do some research. Failing that, I need to do more research to find somebody else.
Obviously, when I say research, it’ll largely be looking at websites that discuss these things, and balancing them against my practicalities, including how much inconvenience I’m prepared to put up with. The latter is something I came across when trying not to use Amazon any more. It was fine when in the UK, but getting English language academic literature at short notice in the Netherlands is more difficult. So I don’t think I’m going to be able to commit to that until I return home to London. Unfortunately, lecturers aren’t that forgiving of failure to get the texts, however principled the reason is. And I’m obviously not yet prepared to bugger up my studies.
On the plus side, boycotting Amazon is an established thing, so I’d be adding my action to that of others. Of course there’s the fact that these others haven’t yet achieved their aims, but somebody has to be the one who pushes things over the limit. And we know that these things can have an effect – you don’t kill the company off, but you can make them change their policies. On my return to London, I am going to take a little time to look at where I shop, and commit to being a bit more selective. It’s a small thing, but I hope a good one. And, of course, there are various other forms of pressure one can get involved in putting on.
Another factor that feeds the inertia is that most companies are only doing what we expect of them. We might think of small companies as being, or trying to be, ethical, but once they’re big enough to hire professional managers, that goes out of the window. In fact, as I understand it, such managers and directors were legally compelled to behave as they do: they could be found negligent or fined if they failed to act in their company’s best interests (which sounds reasonable), in terms of maximising stock price. While there are certainly issues around this – social responsibility – it can work in the long term. But it all started to go horribly wrong as the view got ever shorter and shorter – directors running a company in a way that will kill it in 5 years, in order to maximise for the current financial year. Even very pro-capital types have seen that this is untenable.
In the HSBC/Telegraph case, the accusation is two-fold: first, that HSBC is using its financial clout, through advertising in the paper, to affect the editorial position; and second that the Telegraph is accepting this, and modifying its behaviour in line with the client’s expectations. Of course the Telegraph denies that this is the case, but how this pans out remains to be seen. Anyway, there are broadly three ways we can view this apparent transaction: either as a straight up trade for a service, as something more informal akin to a gratuity, or as a bribe (the implication from the coverage being that it looks closest to the latter.
If HSBC is simply paying for favourable coverage, then the transaction would be legitimate, and our concerns, from a social point of view, directed at the system that allows this. The more laissez-faire position might be simply to complain about the price and the openness – it’s not that either party is doing anything inherently wrong, it’s just that they’re getting a lot of benefit for not much outlay, and they’re doing it in an underhand fashion. From this point of view, the system is damaged rather than irreparably broken. Some form of regulation may be needed, but the issue is with this specific case (and possibly many others), rather than with the concept.
At the other extreme, there will be people who look at it as a straight-up bribe. In this case, there is a clear need for legal action, which will no doubt be messy and expensive, but is entirely justified. However, the Telegraph is not a public body, so this looks untenable. We may not like it, but there’s no reason in principle why it should be treated this way. Notwithstanding the legal details of the particular transaction, it’s hard to say, as things stand, that a private business shouldn’t be able to sell its credibility if it chooses to do so (and its shareholders support the move).
So it looks like we’re somewhere in the middle ground, where you might consider the advertising payments like some form of gratuity. There’s no formal expectation of return for the money – other than the actual advertising space – but an unspoken, um, thing. It seems entirely natural that a company should act slightly favourably towards its best customers, if it can be done without breaking the law. I guess this is because ‘everybody does it’. So why is this case unacceptable? The easy solution would be to push it towards one of the prior positions: either to completely legitimise the transaction (thereby opening it to regulation), or to ban it completely. But I don’t really see either happening. It suits too many people to have something like this, in that grey area.
So, who’s done wrong?
I think most people will agree that, if this situation pans out in line with the accusations, that the Telegraph had certainly acted in an undesirable fashion, if not an illegal one. Readers of that particular organ, as well as society at large, see the value of a free press. Of course, like free speech and the free market, this is always going to have some limits, but freedom of the press is at least something to aspire to. But this is the ‘easy’ part. How to solve the problem is much less so, but at least having some parameter makes it viable in principle.
More complicated is the matter of the advertiser, and this is where the problem of low expectation kicks in. We expect our newspapers to be free-ish, or at least open about their influences. It’s ‘fine’ that each paper tends to have a party affiliation, as long as we know about it. And of course we tend to choose our reading material on that basis. Our expectations of another type of company, especially a financial one, are equally simple: that it do whatever it can – within the law – to maximise its profits. As long as the wider capitalist system works, this seems fine, as a company’s takings and profits should be broadly derived from two factors: whether it provides the right service, demanded by *the public*, and how efficiently it does so. This is how the private sector is supposed to work, and is the basic argument for its superiority over the public. The problem is when we have two conflicting sets of expectations. We expect a company to behave as specified, but we also expect it to behave with some degree of social responsibility.
And this gets us to how we act to get a result that we want. The straight-forward way we should act, the way within the capital-based system, is that we withdraw our custom. If enough of us do so, any well-managed company will modify its behaviour. After all, the customer is always right. And we know that this works to an extent. McDonalds didn’t start sourcing their meat more rigorously, and selling salads, out of the kindness of their hearts. But it is also extremely limited.
The alternative is a wholesale rearrangement of our social system. I have no idea how to do this, but I reckon its got to be worth looking into. We don’t have to accept the status quo just because it’s been like that a long time. Let’s not make what is essentially the naturalistic fallacy writ large.
I’m not entirely sure I want to tear down capitalism in toto. It’s a massively flawed system, and often does a huge amount of harm, but it also allows for much good, if properly regulated. A lot would argue that it’s not that capitalism is bad, just the particular form of it we seem to have evolved of late. I’m not entirely convinced by this.
At the very least, some consideration of what to put in its place is needed. A lot of people will shout for communism, but I can’t help recalling how that worked out last time. Which is not to say it should be ruled out, but at the very least the vanguard business needs to be sorted. Leaders are too easily convinced of their own importance and necessity to not be corrupted. If we are going to make anything else work, it needs to be built from the ground up.