Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Convenient collectives

Hiding behind a collective flag to avoid personal accountability.

Much has been written in law and organisational theory about responsibility, accountability, and liability. While I am not an expert in the subject both in practice and theory, I cannot help concluding that for the most part we still have not got it quite right. It is the failure of the theory to insist that when someone or something is responsible for an action or event they also have to be held accountable and liable for that event or act. To the extent that when ordinary folk are confronted with at times dire consequences of the actions of others or groups of others, they are left with a deep sense of injustice.

So when Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa told the Marikana commission that there was a collective responsibility for the tragic event 2 years ago, it left one with an immediate sense that in the end no single person or even a number of individuals would, or could be held accountable. The Commission is still some distance away from compiling its final report, and it is still to be seen whether it will identify specific individuals who can be held accountable. To then establish liability will be a near impossible task.

African Bank is another recent convenient collective that comes to mind. To be sure, former CEO Leon Kirkinis, shareholders and perhaps a number of employees have suffered or may still experience financial losses. But how does this compare with the dire position many of the borrowers find themselves in or will have to face in future? In most cases, when the interests of the collective collides with that of the individual, the latter is the loser both in terms of relative loss, and also in ability and capacity to engage the collective, establish full accountability and seek retribution or compensation.

All of this should imply a strengthening of the principle of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware”. But that principle becomes sterile as collective power becomes more centralised and commands far more influential, collusive, and persuasive resources to seduce the individual into a lop sided transaction. Even more invidious are transactions backed by cartels, price fixing and uncompetitive behaviour of which we have seen many such as the bread price collusion some years ago.

Such behaviour makes more rules, regulations and government involvement inevitable, leading to an individual clamouring for greater protection, bigger government and more policing. Which then raises the question: “who watches the watcher?” There cannot be a greater impediment to trust and social cohesion in South Africa than the appalling lack of government accountability. To many the protector has become the predator; the shepherd the wolf. The lack of accountability, which should be reinforced with appropriate liability at all levels of government, is the root cause of corruption and a major contributor to the pervasive civil unrest we have been experiencing for some decades.

When collectives behave badly or even merely seemingly inappropriately, other collectives are formed to engage them. The most significant and one of the oldest is in labour which dates back to the industrial revolution in the late 18th century.

Most modern societies have come to accept labour collectives in the form of Trade Unions as essential in balancing power between employers and employees. While in one sense one could argue that they represent little more than a cartel of workers, the three main constituents of capital, labour and government, have endorsed and entrenched their existence and rights as being beneficial to all.

But this should never imply escape from accountability and liability for their actions. This is one of the most critical economic issues our time. Not only have we become known as the strike nation of the world, but labour unrest has in too many cases led to violence, deaths, wanton destruction of property and severe disruption of the lives of ordinary citizens. So far, there has been no major case where we have seen the collective, let alone individuals, being held accountable or liable for this destruction. Refuge is simply sought under a collective flag, and accountability attributed to uninvited hooligans and gangsters.

Then we have the random, smaller or communal collectives of vested interests, who similarly seem able to escape accountability and liability for acts of destruction and disruption. The latest case in point is the taxi driver protests in Cape Town, where buses have been torched and one life lost. (See eNCA report here.)

Much of this is self-evident and has been for some time. But perhaps the real root of the problem lies at a much deeper level. We have to confront the question whether we as a nation and more so than many others, have become far too tolerant of the principles of self-gain and self-interest; of the view that the world owes us a living; and of acceptance of dependence on others.

The axiom that our true value lies in our capacity to make a contribution to others applies as much to a group as it does to an individual. Business fits perfectly in this paradigm. Even a young child wanting to trade marbles discovers very quickly that in a commercial sense supply cannot exist without demand. It’s a small leap from there to understand that supply exists because it serves demand, and from there to define service as its true purpose. Rewards that flow from it within the natural laws of legitimate transaction are an affirmation of that purpose. The motives of labour and capital are actually irrelevant to that existential reality, but they clearly become counter-productive and self-destructive when they deviate from it.

The purpose of government and all in it is even more clearly defined as being service. Involvement for material self-gain is patently an abomination that cannot be countenanced.

Apart from NGO’s and service organisations, these criteria are arguably less applicable to other collectives and groups of vested interests. They are mostly formed with the specific aim of serving their participants. But when this service implies a coercive and extortive claim on others a benign activity becomes malevolent and socially destructive. Another dimension these collectives often lose sight of and do not explore enough, is that empowerment is about enabling participants to make a contribution to others, to contribute to them and not claim from them.

Collectives are simply that – a group of individuals pooling resources and efforts for a common good. When that “good” is understood to be about making a contribution to the world around them, it is both empowering and enabling. The opposite is true when that purpose is simply for self-gain and self-enrichment in the exploitation of others.

In reality, there is no such thing as “collective responsibility”. It all starts at an individual and personal level with each accepting accountability for themselves and their actions.

The question is simply are they willing and are they able?

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