A question of integrity

By Joel Wallenberg

It seems that much of the world has come to a consensus over the last few years: the banking industry has made some rotten decisions, and somehow it’s managed to muck up a whole lot of our personal finances in the process. But surprisingly, there has been very little activity on the part of ordinary mucked-up individuals to protest the situation, and it’s been unclear what would be a helpful response to the situation. Naturally, as a Friend, I’ve been asking myself: is there a faith-based response that would help? After a long while, I am relieved to say that the Spirit is beginning to lead me to a course of action: choke off their funds.

A general concern about my personal pocketbook has been growing in me for some time, and I can summarise the fruit it has borne so far in the following way. I need to be proactive in making sure that I use my money to support our Testmonies, and not use my money to oppose them.

As you will see below, for me this includes the sort of risky financial practices that led to our current recession as well as investment in causes that Friends more obviously oppose, such as the arms trade and sweatshop labour. The thing that these issues have in common is the active support of large banks. Large banks are able to drive the world economy in ways they choose and support causes in a way that individuals cannot, in part because they are able to manipulate so much of the money of individuals. In short, with our individual accounts, we support them in supporting whatever enterprises they choose. For this reason, I have decided to move my personal finances out of banks that engage in highly risky lending or invest in things I feel are immoral, such as cluster bombs. (Note that regarding the latter, the historically Quaker banks Barclays and Lloyds are the worst offenders of all British banks: see www.waronwant.org/attachments/Banking%20on%20Bloodshed.pdf).

My concern began after first reading the Journal of John Woolman, a well-known 18th century Friend who refused to wear clothes made by slave labour. This got me thinking about my own clothes, and whether various things I bought supported causes I liked, or causes that specifically inspired spiritual unrest, such as sweatshop labour. I began to try to consume less in general, reuse things I had already (for example I patch my own clothes), and see if I could limit my consumption as best I could to products that don’t hurt anyone. Not long after I started to become serious about this, some friends of mine opened my eyes to the issue of ethical banking and investment. A question that formed starkly in my mind, and began to affect my soul, was, “If I am not willing to buy a pair of shoes made in a sweatshop, why would I invest £1,000 in the same business?” And even if I don’t make that investment myself, my bank will do it for me if I bank with any of the British high street banks (aside from the Co-op, who have a strict ethical investment policy).

The issue of slavery, which Woolman dealt with, is an important precedent for me. The campaign against the slave trade in Britain, in many ways the first modern, non-violent, direct-action campaign in history, had to deal with the challenge that the benefits of the trade were all visible locally, while the oppression was remote and happened far away from the investors who controlled it. It occurred to me while reading Adam Hochschild’s excellent book on the campaign, “Bury the Chains”, that many types of economic oppression are maintained in the same way as the slave trade. For instance, the people (in countries Britain the and US) who invest in sweatshops and underpaid labour see benefits of these arrangements locally (for example cheap shoes and cheap food), and the truly disgusting side of the oppression is hidden from them because it happens far away. In fact, some of the oppression is local but hidden: the cheap food and clothes allow local companies to underpay local workers as well, but this is not obvious to the workers themselves. Then, much of the investment is hidden once again, since it is the banks who invest very large sums of money, and none of the individual account holders are aware of the horror that they are supporting.

In a very similar way, risky lending by large banks benefits people locally, because some people can get home loans that they could not otherwise afford. Then the debt is packaged, sold, re-packaged, re-sold and so on, until it is no longer recognisable. Then, the oppression happens in a way that is hidden from the locals who benefitted from the loans: the bubble bursts, and governments bail out the banks, passing the debt on to taxpayers (such as the US, the UK, and Ireland did). Since the debt has been repackaged and redistributed, the oppression is somewhat hidden, though we all feel it.

The only way to deal with such a system is to help the local “investors” realise what is going on, much like the campaign to abolish slavery did so effectively, and then give them a course of action: leaving the banks for better banking alternatives. Over the course of the next year, I will be trying to start a campaign in the Society of Friends for us as individuals and as Meetings (including BYM) to move our money out of banks which engage in all of the above activities, and into banks which do not (or non-banks, such as mutual societies and credit unions). Perhaps we can even create a UK organisation along the lines of the American EQAT to further disrupt the money flow to causes against our Testimonies, as discussed in the earlier article posted on this blog, www.nayler.org/?p=606. (I personally favour the name “SQAT”, for “Second Quaker Action Team”, though I am open to suggestions.)

In doing so, we can become part of an international movement, joining organisations such as Move Your Money UK, which gives excellent advice on how to move one’s finances and where to move them to http://www.moveyourmoney.org.uk/. I have already moved my current account to a mutual building society, and my savings will follow soon. I feel it is imperative for all Friends to take a hard look at their finances and ask, “What am I supporting? How many bombs have I accidentally bought?”

Part of the British queen's face from a bank note, showing her eyes.

PhotoGraham flickr/cc

Leave a Reply