Putting your money where your mouth is

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Is it unethical to keep our money with the banks? Are banks only out to make a profit regardless of the rest of us? Should we be looking for different ways to invest? Jonathan Langley argues that our current system needs to change.

copyright CarbonNYC (creative commons)

Yes, I'm a terrible person. I've been avoiding calls and emails from the Christian Socialist Movement for about a month now, and I'm still not sure if it is that that makes me the miserable worm that I am or whether it is just a symptom of my worminess. Either way, if I didn't believe in Grace, I'm pretty sure I'd be going to hell. I mean, it's one thing to avoid people who love Jesus (we've all been there), quite another to duck calls from people trying to promote justice for the poor. But rejecting calls from a combination? Not even Rob Bell thinks that's okay.

CSM have been asking me to write about moving my money from a bank to a more ethical money-house. It's a worthy cause, too. Banks are, I think, almost fundamentally flawed institutions. We've all read about the ultra-complex world of 'casino banking' and we're all feeling the effects of what a model of business without conscience or sense of consequence (raised to the status of priestly caste by Mamom-worshipping politicians of all three main parties) has done to the global economy. But just listen to almost any episode of Moneybox on Radio 4 and you get another, equally grim picture at another level: banks fighting against legal decisions that will protect ordinary people. Banks ignoring the legal judgements of regulatory authorities. Banks behaving like Somali warlords who know they control something essential to a population too weak to oppose their decisions.

But, then, that's hardly surprising. Organisations whose sole motivation is profit will do what it takes to make profit. Caring about human beings, doing the right thing, making the world a better place: these things do not please shareholders (and when we criticize banks we really must remember that while they are the priests sacrificing us all on the altar of a greedy death-cult, it is the shareholders who are their gods). Charities and public bodies are there to do good. The rest exist to make money, and damn the icebergs, as it were. This is one of the reasons why our current government's mania for disposing of public bodies in favour of privately-owned ones is so disgusting. And it is why if, as Christians, we want to avoid doing harm in our daily lives, we shop ethically.

We try to favour small or local businesses, always choose the fair-trade option if it is available and do not shop in supermarkets. We recognise that if this makes things more expensive, then we should consume less, because ending slavery also made things more expensive, but it was the right thing to do. But there is an obvious limit to what this can do. My coffee may be fairtrade and my clothes sweatshop free. But is the paint on my walls? Is the ceramic in my bathroom? And what of the steel in my car, the coltan in my phone and the hundreds of chemicals in the tins that house my sustainably-fished tuna?

And what, CSM ask, about banks? Should we really be lending our money to these megasharks of the economic world? This is where my guilt (followed by not wanting to write this article) comes in. I don't want to move my money. It's a hassle. Moving from a global megacorp to a smaller business may well result in less convenience. Reapplying for loans and accounts, learning new PINs and frankly talking to any financial institution, however ethical, sounds about as appealing as dinner with David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch and that awful blond kid from Game of Thrones. And, honestly, I don't know if I will do it.

I want to. At least, I want to want to, if you know what I mean. But whether I do or not doesn't change the fact that it is the right thing to do. The fact that I am a terrible person (Exhibit A: I avoid writing about doing the right thing because I don't want to have to do it myself, Exhibit B: I avoid CSM calls like the man in the Poe story, trying to block out the sound of the tell-tale heart) doesn't change the fact that disinvesting in banks is a good idea.

But neither does it change the fact that disinvesting is not enough. I hate to sound defeatist, but with the best will and witness in the world, we will not convince everybody to do it. If people find it tough to care enough to buy chocolate or jeggings that don't rely on slave labour, how in the name of Adam Smith and all his little wizards will we convince them to care about the stuff that's difficult to change? Like paint and steel and iPhones and banks.

People often say of Socialism that it is naïve – that it believes the best of people and that this unrealistic vision of the world is its weakness. But I am a Socialist precisely because I do not believe the best of people. I love them. I understand why, but I know that they (we) rarely choose to do the right thing voluntarily. And hey, that's fine as long as nobody gets hurt. But people are getting hurt. Millions upon millions of them. And that's why legislation is needed, not just to reform banking, but to reform our sick, unrealistic, anti-human global economy.

How I wish that absolved me of any responsibility to do something personally to help, to do the right thing even if it changes nothing. But I'm a Christian. We don't do right because it changes things. We do right because it is right, because it pleases God. It's really very inconvenient.

So, yes, fine, CSM. Fine! I'll move my money. It may not be all at once, but I will. Are you happy now? Will you stop calling? Please?

Jonathan Langley also blogs for the Huffington Post and the Narnian Socialist Review

14th May

May 14th, 2012 - Posted & Written by The Editor

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