The concept of duty is defined in the workplace easily enough with a tightly drafted job description. But that covers only my duty to my employer. What of my duty to society, beyond employment? Here there are no bullet-point templates. As for going beyond duty – surely an objective a good society would encourage in its citizens – what might that mean, in today’s world? The Financial Times recently ran a series of articles entitled ‘Capitalism in Crisis’.
It is easy to see why such a title, unimaginable for the pink paper just few years ago, might be deemed germane now. People are becoming sick of the excesses, and politicians are picking up on the resulting change in the zeitgeist. Ed Miliband majors on a responsible capitalism agenda. David Cameron, openly admitting that the British have lost faith in capitalism, seeks to guide the nation to a redefined moral capitalism. Whither duty to society, amid this mess?
Take the element of business that I confront regularly in my day job: the Big Energy Incumbency. This grouping consists of big-energy companies, the elements of the financial services industry that bankroll them – Conventional Capital, as I think of them – and their institutionalised supporters in politics, public service, think-tank land and academia. In all, a huge network with a deeply enculturated set of beliefs and perceived entitlements.
The core duty inherent in a modern job description across the Big Energy Incumbency boils down to this: maximise shareholder value in the near term. This is why many of these companies opt so enthusiastically for gas. The energy investor has a duty to identify the best returns in the short term. That is why so many of them flock into coal IPOs (initial public offerings).
Civil servants have a duty to the citizenry, but often steer the politicans we have elected towards agendas that plug directly into Big Energy and Conventional Capital. Foreign companies own the majority of the electricity and gas companies operating in the UK. Yet the civil service is swarming with Big Energy executives on full-time secondment to ministries. In Washington, the many inquests into the financial crash has piled accountability on Wall Street insiders. Yet today, many of these insiders occupy top posts in the Obama administration.
Such people are not guilty of neglecting their duty, according to the wording of their contracts with their immediate employers. But what about their duty to society? In particular, what are they doing to ensure that they bequeath a workable economic system, with a viable stock of natural capital assets, to the generations that will follow them? Precious little, if you ask me.
If they were to step up to the plate, agendas across the incumbency would read very differently. Executives of Big Energy companies would be scrambling to mobilise clean energy, not joining in the systematic belittling of it, as many are today. Executives in Conventional Capital would be insisting that the risk of piling carbon assets on to balance sheets and stock exchanges, in a world where many governments are committed to deep cuts in carbon emissions, should be recognised by regulators, brokers, accountants and auditors, and not discounted at zero risk of an environmental crisis ever happening. Civil servants would be busy compiling road maps to national economies capable of shrugging off oil dependency, not dreaming up new ways to entrench the power of the gas and nuclear lobbies.
What society needs is for these major players to go beyond their assigned duties, to take a few risks within their vocational ambits for the greater good. Some do, of course, otherwise there would be no hope at all. I can think of a certain Big Energy CEO who understands a lot of what I’m talking about here. But his room to manoeuvre is narrowly proscribed by a class of person who could fire him almost at will – the captains of Conventional Capital working in the City of London.
Critics like me often allege that these captains have an unwritten duty to each other: to defend a system that places the enrichment of fund managers ahead of return to investors. Much omertà is practised in defence of this duty, we say. Yet it is citizens who are often the end investors. The captains of Conventional Capital invest our pension funds, our insurance premiums, our savings. If all this is true, we should be able to fire them and replace them with people who do see a further duty to society. But it isn’t easy. Just as Big Energy’s lobbyists have made sure that it is difficult for the end users to fire the leadership of electricity and gas companies, and generate our own energy.
Very few people are going beyond their duty in the Big Energy Incumbency. And those that might want to wouldn’t last long if they did, in today’s version of capitalism. We are dealing with a deeply dysfunctional system, rotten in every corner. It really is up to us citizens to extend ourselves and take action, no matter how large the obstacles that have been erected to stop us exercising our people power.