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The shareholders shall inherit the earth

  • 08 November 2018


So here is a question. Which are you? A customer, a shareholder, a worker, a citizen, or, well, a whole human being?

If you answered 'customer' then congratulations, you are in line with contemporary economic orthodoxy — often described as 'neoliberalism' — and boy, have we got a society for you. The pro-market ideology that has shaped most policy making of the last five decades has been predicated on the idea that anything that impedes customer value is a blow against the entire economy, not to mention the natural order of things.

For instance, the arguments for a free trade system — which, before President Trump's recent dramatic about face, has dominated policy making — are couched as incontestably superior because it benefited consumers and obeyed market forces.

If you answered 'shareholder', then I am afraid we are obliged to bow down in adoration. In the contemporary value system, shareholders are the only people who come higher than customers because capital must at all costs be protected and provided with a satisfactory return on investment.

Thus, as the Banking Royal Commission has revealed, it is perfectly acceptable to exploit customers, even dead ones, because shareholders must always come first. It is what is called in management circles 'agency theory'. The company's management are agents of the shareholders and must serve their interests at all times.

If you answered 'worker' then I am afraid you are a big problem. Workers are a burden on both customers and shareholders because they expect to be paid a wage. This at once raises the price of the product to the customers, and reduces the profits available to the shareholders. Neither is acceptable, which is why companies have felt the need to look for workers in parts of the world where they can be paid very much less. This is perfectly alright, because it benefits both customers and shareholders.

Some have alleged that there might be a relationship between what workers get paid and how much money they have to buy the company's products. They even cite the policy of Henry Ford, who deliberately paid his workers a good wage so they could afford to buy his cars.


"Human beings have often been known to get in the way of 'market forces' especially when they do not confine themselves to being just consumers or shareholders."


But that was then and this is now. Things are ever so much more complicated when there is