Time to stop thinking & acting in silos

Posted on December 15, 2019


Given the current situation in the country — and in so much of the world — it seems insensitive to voice the traditional wishes for a merry festive season and a peaceful and prosperous year to come. Because wishes, in and of themselves, are, at best, futile.

To update an old Scottish proverb relating to horses and beggars: If wishes were dinners, the hungry would dine. In other words, wishes on their own are worthless. Action is required if wishes are to have any chance of fulfilment.

It’s much the same with hope which, as the great English poet, Alexander Pope noted “springs eternal in the human breast”. We may all wish that load shedding would end and hope that poverty will be eradicated in an unpolluted world of peace and plenty, but wishes and hope will not make that happen.

And individual action or the blinkered focus on a single problem can also be counter productive. Everything from job losses to plastic pollution, climate change, load shedding, poverty and corruption are merely symptoms of a single underlying cause. By focussing all our energy and attention on one or other existing symptom, we tend to ignore the cause of constant and recurrent crises.

However, there seems little awareness of the need to seriously debate the underlying cause of increasingly intractable difficulties. Instead, there now exist a plethora of campaigns and non-governmental organisations each focussing on one or two specific issues that are symptoms of a political, economic and social system in perhaps terminal decline.

This is thinking and acting in silos, each campaign separate from the next. It is probably no accident that funding for such noble efforts most often comes from various charitable foundations. These funds are the tax deductible crumbs from the tables of individuals and corporations made super rich by a system that puts profit before people.

But, those who benefit hugely from the system are, as Karl Marx once said, a “hostile band of brothers”. As such, they have their own, individual agendas, but are united only in their determination to preserve the system. So, for example, corporations benefitting from fossil fuels, may sponsor climate deniers while foundations profiting from alternative forms of energy may support campaigns about global warming and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

There is nothing new in this. When the first medical evidence began to emerge about the link between smoking and cancer, cigarette companies such as Phillip Morris financed doctors who claimed there was no link.

However, it is not just narrow financial interest that drives such funding. Within the existing competition and profit-driven system it is perfectly feasible — and desirable — to reduce plastic pollution or improve one or other aspect of the environment we all share.

But such funding causes activists to restrict their campaigning to areas agreed to by funders who wish merely to try to stabilise an economic system made unstable by the very system they support and maintain. Here there is a clear lesson for the trade union movement that holds — at least in theory — democracy to be a cardinal principle.

When trade unions are financed by the subscriptions of the membership, the members are in a much better position to exercise the democratic control, to demand transparency and to hold elected officials accountable. But when unions establish investment companies — effectively to profit from the labour of other workers — these can become the major source of union income. It is, as several officials have noted: “A good business model.”

It is also a model that helps to divorce the union leadership from the membership and encourages bribery and corruption. In fact, an example of trade unions being co-opted by the very system many rail against.

So as this year draws quite grimly to a close, perhaps there should general agreement to adhere to one festive season tradition: the new year resolution. Let us all seriously resolve to encourage everywhere a clear analysis of the underlying causes of our woes and the means to deal with them. In other words: put an end to thinking and acting in silos.