One of the things that struck us on our retirement trip was the value of values. Values are what you share with your loved ones and friends, what bind you together in your views and attitudes, in your sense of humour and in who you trust. Values are fundamental to who we are and how we act and behave in life. They influence the choices we make, the jobs we do and the friends we make. They guide us through the pitfalls and challenges of life. They are also the backbone of the societies we belong to, and when those values seem to shift or be under attack, it’s a worrying time.
Which is why we’ve given some thought to the forces of change in the US and Europe. We’re feeling uncomfortable because the values that seem to be prevailing don’t gel with ours. We understand where the anger and resentment come from – but we worry about the direction being taken in response.
So here are our thoughts.
There’s hope in knowing there are people in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe who worry and care about their country, its values and about the effect a Trump presidency or a Brexit may have on world security.
For citizens of other countries, we must not stand by, give up in despair or think that it couldn’t happen here – we should speak out and be vigilant about human rights and values. Because, this is a global issue.
What we are seeing ironically with President elect Donald Trump and Brexit are reactions to a culture that has steadily grown and prevailed over the past twenty or so years – placing economic values above moral, ethical, social and human values. Instead of sharing the benefits of globalisation, governments have failed to see the impact on the middle and lower income groups and instead been dazzled by the lights of corporate growth and power. In its simplest terms, what western society has bowed to is the dangerous precept that if it makes money, it is right and good. Economic values have ‘trumped’ our sense of what is morally and socially right. Governments have failed to govern for the greater good.
Ironically, while Trump and the Brexiteers understood and tapped into the social malaise of middle and low income earners who’ve been disadvantaged by globalisation and the connivance between governments and mega-corporations, they are not the answer. They have promised change but will struggle to deliver on their promises and are likely to make matters worse, because their culture is fundamentally no different: it’s all about money.
The problem with a society that is governed solely by economic rather than social and economic values is that profit is ‘values neutral’, the ends justify the means. The demand for profit doesn’t care how it is made. Profit doesn’t care whether employees are paid enough, whether people can feed their families or whether they lose their jobs; profit doesn’t care whether they have health cover or holidays, whether they are happy or miserable. Profit doesn’t feel a responsibility to pay taxes, clean up the environment or support the society in which it operates. Profit doesn’t ‘see’ these things, except in so far as they are numbers on a spreadsheet that improve or reduce profitability.
Profit is not unlike evolution, ironically, in that it is opportunistic and pragmatic. If something works for the survival of the organism, it succeeds and thrives; if it doesn’t, it adapts or dies. But that cannot be the basis for managing a complex human society. We have learnt that representation and justice, social rights and responsibilities, health and education, co-operation and altruism, shared values and infrastructure, respect and opportunity are fundamental to a humane and successful society. We have also learnt the hard way that the “trickle down” theory of shared wealth is a lie. The money does not trickle down. The rich become richer, the less well-off become poorer.
Governments must provide checks and balances and have a vision for society that embraces everyone, that invests in the future of society, that sees beyond the short term, self-interested pragmatism of profitability.
Because where profit and making money are the chief and guiding criteria for managing society, we encourage an anti-social philosophy that supports cutting back services, avoiding social responsibility, not paying taxes, not paying award wages, polluting the environment, using off-shore tax havens, increasing costs for quick dividends and generally a short-term, individualistic, survivalist mentality that is at odds with socially responsible behaviour.
We have to affirm and assert our belief in the fundamental human and moral values that underpin a fair and truly democratic society, one that balances economic benefits with the needs of the wider society, one that is just and honourable, that is based on a shared vision of who we are, the world we want to live in and a stable future. That way lies hope for our species’ survival. We can have societies that are governed by fear, greed and self-interest (better known as dictatorships), ruled by a clique of the rich, the ruthless and the powerful; or we can hold onto our belief in an enlightened society, that governs and works for the majority.
You’d have thought that the two and half thousand year journey of Western civilisation would have taught us that.
For those that say disruptive forces are important factors for change, let’s please distinguish between positive and negative disruption. Agriculture, the invention of writing, mathematics, legal systems, democracy, the compass, the printing press, the observation by Galileo that the earth orbits around the sun, the steam engine, electricity, antibiotics and the emancipation of women have all had incalculable benefits for human development and society.
Gunpowder, religion, tribalism, Gengis Khan, the East India Trading Company, opium, nuclear energy – have brought a mixed bag of pluses and minuses.
Genocide, overwhelming greed, lust for power, the machine gun, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, ISIS, chemical warfare, fundamentalist beliefs and ideologies have all been destructive and not just for individuals and societies; they have often taken us backwards as a species, wiping out races, cultures, knowledge, evolved systems of social behaviour and scientific and medical advancement.
All disruption is not equal in its effects – it can be a catalyst for important change, but it can also be catastrophic, sweeping away decades or centuries of progress and human development. Sometimes, the sole beneficiaries of disruption are the disruptors.
We must hold fast to the principles of a society in which those that govern see it as their responsibility to balance business, profit and development with a just and fair allocation of resources for everyone, to provide health, education, welfare, hope and protection for everyone; that does not just look after the rich and privileged; a political system that everyone feels they belong to and can trust; a legal system that is without fear or favour and that everyone can trust to guard the values of the society which we belong to and cherish.
As Edmund Burke, the 18th century Anglo-Irish politician who expressed concern about the dangers of ‘mob rule’ during the French revolution wisely wrote:
· The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
· All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.
· Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.
We are now at a critical point. The values we adhere to, how we choose to go forward and with whom, will affect our lives, our children’s lives and potentially, global stability.