Good value

Good value: choosing a better life in business
Stephen Green
Penguin, 2010, Pbk., ISBN: 9780141042428

I recently read Stephen Green’s book Good Value, an assessment of the current world order from a personal and mostly business-orientated point of view. I found it erudite and frustrating – a bit like a walk along the seafront without being able to see the sea because of lots of ornate plants blocking the view. You like some of the plants, but you came to see the sea, and you have the feeling the plants are all out of place and shouldn’t be there at all.

He starts off making what I hoped were promising critical statements such as “If…the basic structure of the world economy is built upon sand.then what is the justification for all our labours?”. He also finishes by referring to the Cross in the midst of the uncertainty of a rapidly changing world. In the middle there is quite a lot of history, mainly from an economic point of view, and a mild, gentle analysis of weaknesses and strengths within global capitalism, including what went wrong in 2008. There is also an appeal to the individual within business to personally reflect on motivations and values.

The reference to the cross of Christ is welcome, but is earlier linked to what he rather confusingly refers to as “the eternal feminine”. He fails to outline central building blocks of faith, instead writing “Millions of words have been written…however we seek to describe it theologically is of no account if it does not strike us at the centre of our being.” This is a good point, an essential one, but he does not go on to speak of redemption, atonement, or resurrection.

Similarly his criticism of the world economic system is, taken as a whole, muted and unspecific, and in fact he comes closer to justifying it than he does to recommending reform. He frequently refers to the market as a force for good, and dismisses any alternative to globalisation as either “drifting” or living in an unreal world. Instead he aims at changing individuals’ perceptions and motives through appealing to their consciences. He uses the story of Faust to make a comparison with the modern age’s preoccupation with selfish progress, but seems to imply that the way out of this on an individual basis is to cooperate in this quest unselfishly by “giving back”. He makes little attempt to address more fundamental concerns about the world economic system – he is firmly mainstream, and dismissive of attempts to live in a simpler or alternative way.

This is a real shame, as the book shows moments of insight and compassion. For example “We cannot fulfill ourselves in business through power or work or wealth.” Yet, sadly, he offers little alternative. Capitalism and the market are taken as key driving forces behind human progress – despite the fact that for hundreds of years societies have been more bound together by the common good and societal obligation than the market. I would argue that this has contributed far more to peace and prosperity than any period of free trade, and in fact is a necessary condition of it. Libraries, incidentally, I would argue, are based on the concept of shared knowledge for the common good rather than a market-based idea of selling knowledge to the highest bidder. In a way a library can be seen as an exercise in redemption – buying back what is lost or dispersed, and then making it available to everyone, but safeguarding it and making sure it retains its distinctiveness as a collection.

There are clues as to why this might be his attitude – he does not believe in the devil, for example, instead arguing that belief in the devil is a projection of human evil onto something else. He also embraces aspects of the New Age-style philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin. My major criticism of his analysis would be that he seems to confuse the quest for human “progress” and development with the building of the Kingdom of God. Of course, the two need not conflict with each other, but they sometimes do. Building Babel had nothing to do with seeking God and everything to do with demonstrating humanity’s power and independence. The profit motive is not analogous with the desire to extend the boundaries of the church, and globalisation is not the same as building the Kingdom of Heaven. Co-operation with the commercialisation of the world is not our duty, I would argue.

At one point, he says “At its best… there is no more powerful engine for development and liberation than the market.” To be fair, he also acknowledges that “At its worst, it is a dangerous moral pollutant.” I am no economist, but am I alone in thinking that the last thing we need at the moment is a call to embrace a vision of free-market globalisation, aided by technology, more wholeheartedly?

As the former CEO and Chairman of HSBC, Chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Council for Britain, and an ordained priest, Mr. Green is an influential man – and I am personally disappointed that he does not do more to help us understand how we can as individuals practically develop alternative, just, sustainable ways of being involved in the global economy.

When I started to write this, I wasn’t expecting to be quite so critical of the book – so, please don’t take my word for it – have a look for yourself, if you have time.

Contributed by: Nick Horley, BA, MSc(Econ), MCLIP, CLIS Treasurer.