Capitalism accelerating eco-collapse, says Pacific academic

“A Wellington-based academic from Vanuatu says that left unchecked, capitalism will continue to accelerate ecological collapse.

Pala Molisa from the School of Accounting and Commercial Law at Victoria Business School has urged people to look closely at the roots of climate change, which he links to the prevalent economic system.

Mr Molisa told Johnny Blades that climate discourse tends to be clouded by an assumption that perpetual growth is possible.”

Click here to read or listen to Pala’s interview with Johnny Blades at Radio New Zealand.

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Wellington People’s Climate March

Photo: Teresia Teaiwa

 

Kia ora koutou, kia orana, ni sa bula vinaka, Talofa lava, Fakalofalahi atu, Taloha ni, [Kam na mauri], Halo olgeta, and warm Pacific Greetings everyone.

It’s a huge honour and a privilege to be part of this Wellington People’s Climate March. [It’s a huge honour and privilege to be with everyone here today on the People’s Climate March because what we are marching, speaking out, and protesting for is the need to address the greatest, most historically unprecedented social and ecological crisis of our time.

If we look at science, the picture is clear: extreme weather events are now going to be the future norm; the sea ice is shrinking; there will be more high temperatures, droughts and fires; the glaciers are melting and permafrost is thawing; methane stores are releasing all over the globe; we are looking at an ice-free Arctic future; we are in the midst of a human-induced mass extinction; and if we do not keep under the 2 degree rise, many scientists predict that the earth will become increasingly inhospitable to life, both humanity’s and that of many other species that we share this beautiful planet with.

We’re staring at mass extinction, and an incredibly dark future for future generations – for our babies, and our babies’ babies.

This is why we’re out on the streets, this is why we’re gathering together, this is why we’re here today.]

I’m here as an academic, and as Sandra Grey has said, we believe that academics have a heavy responsibility to be at the forefront, at least intellectually, in terms of pushing the social and ecological issues that we need to confront collectively as a society. But I am also here today as a person of the Pacific, and so we also carry a certain weight and a certain sadness over the lack of action over the last twenty years particularly (although we can go further back than that) in terms of substantial, international public policy changes. And if this Paris meeting doesn’t produce anything substantive, I think we are going to have to seriously confront the next steps.

We’ve been marching for the last thirty years, and yet here we are, begging our governments again to simply listen to the people. One of the reasons that I’m out here especially is because I don’t really come from the generation of all the people who run and control and make the major decisions in our society – that’s the people before me. But I can see that the people who will really bear the brunt of climate crisis into the future will be our babies, and our babies’ babies.

So I know we have gathered here today to petition our political leaders, our parliamentarians, but today I’m going to take a different focus. I want to talk instead to us, the people, and I want to talk in particular, to you all, the young people, who are our future and who are our hopes and dreams, who will have to clean up the mess that previous generations can laid at your doorstep. I want to talk to you, first and foremost, rather than our politicians because I come from a certain tradition, a certain indigenous tradition, that holds that the power in a society always comes from below.

My mum used to call this black stone. Vatumaraga. That was because on our islands, our volcanic islands, that was the baserock. The foundation stone. If we translated that into political understandings, it actually means that ultimately power rests and abides with the people.

So our governments, our leaders, our political parties, should be for the people. If our government is not for the people, it is fundamentally illegitimate.

To be honest, I think if we were to look at how serious and grave things are, we can’t leave it up to our politicians. So what I’d like to address is not so much the politicians today, but I want to address everyone here, the people, but I especially want to address you young people. I want to address you who are going to be picking up the crap that our forebears are leaving behind and that they’re going to leave on your doorstep. And I don’t say that with any –  I say that with a lot of sadness.

But I want to address you young people, and I want to do it as a teacher. Every time I teach, I try to push students – I tell students who come to university, not just to get a qualification, you’re actually coming to learn how to die. What that means is, you come to learn to grow, because there is no growth without death. You come to learn about society, you come to learn about the deep values that your societies are based upon and also the systems that you live within, that teach critical thinking, and that takes courage.

So I’m going to leave you with some points that I think we need to keep in mind, if, after Paris, we do not get the substantive policies we need.

THE FIRST IS THAT IF WE’RE GOING TO HAVE ANY CHANCE OF ADDRESSING THE CLIMATE CRISIS, WE ARE GOING TO HAVE TO MUSTER THE COURAGE TO HONESTLY CONFRONT THE ROOTS OF THE CRISIS. Climate crisis and other forms of ecological crises and social crises, whether it is ocean acidification, topsoil loss, deepening inequality or structural poverty are not accidental consequences. They are patterned consequences that are the products of the social systems, the systems of power, we live within. The first step to addressing the climate crisis, then, is to honestly confront these systemic roots in the socioeconomic system of capitalism. This sort of honesty is always difficult because it involves challenging some of the most deeply held beliefs that our societies are based on and challenging the most powerful economic groups and political elites who are our leaders. This difficulty is why the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche calls this process of honest, critical self-reflection looking into “the molten pit”, the molten pit of human reality. And even though it’s difficult, it has to be done because that’s always the first step to addressing any problem. As James Baldwin has said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”

We’re not very good that that at the moment. Just look, for instance, at how most of political discussion addresses the issue of “the environment”: we tend to frame it as a matter of needing to balance the needs of “the economy” against the needs of “the environment”. We assume that economy and environment can be “balanced”. We never question whether or not “the economy” – capitalism – is even sustainable or not. And there are powerful reasons we need to confront that show how capitalism never has been and cannot ever be sustainable. This is a system that has origins in bloodshed – in the imperialism, dispossession and genocide against indigenous peoples – and in the ecocidal imperative of infinite growth at a rate of 3% a year. That’s compound growth. You can’t have infinite compound growth on a finite planet. This reality, however, is hard for us to face because of the concentration of corporate power that we’ve undergone over the past forty or so years that’s seen most of liberal institutions become co-opted and subject to corporate capture, and most of us are deeply invested in this culture of rampant consumerist growth.

THE SECOND IS THAT WE HAVE TO UNDERSTAND AND NEVER FORGET THE TRUE NATURE OF POWER. Frederick Douglass said it best: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” This means building social movements that are powerful enough to actually break the corporate stranglehold over the political process and that can force politicians to actually act in the public interest.

You know, we’re taught this myth in our schools that “democracy” and “capitalism” naturally go together. That’s never been true. If we look at history, the truth is that democratic culture has always been under threat from corporate culture, and at certain times, that democratic flame has actually been extinguished by the corporate concentration and consolidation of power.

That fragile democratic flame has only survived because the unions fought for them, because the women’s movement fought for them, because the civil rights movement fought for them, and right from the start, because indigenous people fought against colonisation when it came to these shores.

THIRDLY, WE CAN’T SEPARATE ECOLOGICAL CRISES LIKE THE CLIMATE CRISIS FROM SOCIAL CRISES ANY MORE. We can’t say, “Minister for the environment, please look after us,”; we can’t say, “particular leaders, please look after us,” – this is a fight that we have to carry out at every single level of our institutions, through our society. We have to reclaim that democratic culture that’s been taken away from us. And it’s been taken away from us by big business.

FINALLY, I’M GOING TO LEAVE YOU WITH THIS: IF WE DO NOT PUT AT THE FOREFRONT THOSE WHO SUFFER THE MOST, I THINK WE’LL ACTUALLY BE LOST.

We need to put at the forefront, tangata whenua; indigenous people throughout the Pacific; I came across here, Tereseia Teaiwa, and a few of our Pacific brothers and sisters over there had a placard that said “CO2 Colonialism”. And I think that’s the truth. Because climate change happened through that colonial project that saw certain people as less than human, and that also saw the land as something that was inherently exploitable. So, I’m really honoured to be here today with you all, let’s continue to fight and take things forward, but let’s also push ourselves to look at things that we have looked away from for far too long. Kia ora.

Pala Molisa

 

 

 

 

 

March against the TPPA: a talk outside parliament

Photo: Leanne Tamaki

Abridged transcription of a talk given by Pala on parliament grounds during a Wellington TPPA protest march on November 14, 2015.

Kia ora koutou kia orana, ni sa bula vinaka, Talofa lava, Fakalofalahi atu, Taloha ni, Kam na mauri, Halo olgeta, and warm Pacific Greetings everyone.

It’s a real honour and privilege to be with you all today because we are here to protest against one of the greatest corporate incursions against the fundamental democratic rights on which our society is based. Thanks to mainstream education, we tend to think that capitalism and democracy naturally go together. They don’t. History shows that democratic culture has always been threatened by corporate power. Democracy in this sense is actually a fragile flame and the corporate state has always threatened to extinguish the flame of democratic culture, and it’s only taken the blood, and the struggle and the sweat of so many men and women starting with the indigenous peoples. All our countries around the world to open up and to keep alive that democratic flame. One of the things that we do here today – it is largely symbolic – but it is an action that’s premised on the idea that democratic flame has to be fought for, if not, it will be extinguished.

If history is any guide, we get taught that we are on the path of progress, and that progress is infinite, and will go on forever. History teaches us something very, very different. It teaches us that arrogance and hubris always brings down any civilisation or culture that does not try to rectify the injustices that it is based on. The TPPA is only at the forefront of that thin, but very sharp wedge of deepening inequalities in our societies.

So, thank you very much for turning up – but I’d also like to tautoko what the other speakers have already said, which is that this is only part of a much bigger struggle, that we will have to continue to deepen, to escalate and think about strategically. if we are successful in stopping the TPPA, corporate power is still in place to control most of our democratic processes. That struggle has to be fought in all the institutions that make incremental democratic reform possible.

One of the important things that has happened, and we’ve had important nodal points in the first world war ad second world war – we’ve had all our major, liberal institutions taken over and slowly co-opted by corporate power. That has to be combated and that has to be taken seriously and we cannot lose sight of that.

On that note, I’d like to talk about one of the initiatives that I’m involved in, and then I’d like to end with a point about how we can move this struggle onwards. I’m part of a group that’s come out of the Show Us Ya Text campaign, it’s called Real Choice. It’s running an online voting platform to give us a public referendum. This government will put millions of dollars into a New Zealand flag, and it will not put anything towards giving the public real choice as to whether or not we will address child poverty, climate change, structural unemployment – and it will also not put a referendum in place to determine whether or not this agreement gets passed.

This is a chance for us as a New Zealand public to express how unpopular this TPP agreement is, and our belief in democratic culture.

A point I’d really like to end on is this idea that democracy is a living thing and it’s a fragile thing. It’s a flame that can be easily extinguished. it got extinguished in Nazi Germany, it got extinguished in the U.S. at different times including under McCarthyism and the purging of intellectuals and radicals throughout all departments and sectors. Again, we are in the process of yet another serious assault on democratic culture. If we do not fight and if we do not put at the forefront those people who are most harmed – here in Aotearoa that’s out tangata whenua brothers and sisters. Climate change, indigenous rights, the rights of kids to have food in their bellies, to be able to go to school – the rights of our old people to have a decent life after they’ve put their blood, sweat and tears into their workplaces – all these things are part of the struggle here today.

So thanks again for showing up. Thanks very much all you young people for showing up – you people are the future; thanks so much for all the older people showing up, you people are the repositories of wisdom. And I’m just honoured to be part of this event here today, kia ora.

Pala Molisa

On Peace, the Pacific, and West Papua

Transcription of a talk given by Pala Molisa after an introduction by Rodger Burt, at Pataka’s “Peace Talks”, 10 October, 2015.

Artist: Rodger Burt


It’s an honour to be here, and to be part of interventions that are aimed at reframing the way we think about some of the greatest problems we face today. War, or militarisation is one of those, and it’s so great to be within a space that attempts to reframe how we think about war and how we try to deal with war from a peace ethic, as opposed to an ethic that always accepts the sacrifice of some of the most precious and vulnerable people in our societies. When we talk about war here in New Zealand, as we talk about war in all our ‘postcolonial’ (in scare quotes) settler societies – those that we sacrifice, those on the front lines, they’re always our indigenous, native, brown and black people. So it is really nice to be here.

I would just like to share a couple of thoughts about what our indigenous traditions would say about the path to peace. I don’t want to overlook the diversity across all our native traditions, but I think there are a few commonalities that you could almost say are some of the universal truths that bind, across all our traditions.

I think, you can’t have peace if your societies are based on lies. Peace is based on truth. You also can’t have peace if you live in societies that are based on atrocities, and those atrocities are based on what Andrea Dworkin calls ‘a deep silence’. This is a culturally and socially sanctioned silence.

If you think about the situation of Pasifika peoples today – and when I say Pasifika peoples, I want to clarify that I’m talking about all our Pacific peoples outside of Aotearoa, and I am talking about our tangata whenua brothers and sisters in Aotearoa. We are all Pasifika, and when we think about our position today, we are at the bottom of all our social and economic hierarchies – whether you talk about our health indicators, our economic indicators, social inequality has been deepening in Aotearoa for the past 40 years – but we are the ones who get it in the neck. One in ten Pakeha live in poverty in New Zealand; 3 to 4 Maori and Pasifika live in poverty in New Zealand. 1 in 4 kids are in poverty in New Zealand; 3 out of 5 Maori and Pasific kids live in poverty in New Zealand.

The question you have to raise is: why are we this way? There are historical reasons for this, and I think recognising that history is important, but I also want to recognise things that we also help perpetuate as a community. I think part of that is: we accept that sanctioned and imposed silence on our communities. The second thing is: we do not seriously that teaching inside both our indigenous traditions and also in our Christian traditions, that if you want to understand the nature of reality and you want to understand the nature of society, you have to start with what Jesus called ‘the least of these’. You have to start with what the liberation theologians called the ‘crucified peoples of history’, or what Franz Fanon called the ‘wretched of the Earth’; those at the absolute bottom.

When I think about the condition of Pasifika peoples for Aotearoa, that has to be, without doubt, those are our Maori brothers and sisters. They were here when the first ships from Europe arrived, and they are the ones who have been subjected to forms of systematic dispossession, 95% land loss, the displacement of tikanga Maori as a supreme law of Aotearoa – to something that is only practiced and which reigns supreme on marae. That is only a small insight into the colonial realities that we face today in Aotearoa.

Just an example of the colonial silence is the fact that we don’t talk about colonisation anymore, as an ever-present, everyday reality. If you look at our mainstream cultural discourse, we talk about it as something that happened in the past, not something that is happening today, dictating our everyday lives.

I talk about Aotearoa rather than West Papua to begin with, because I think if we want to change things, we have to start with where we are at, today. I begin with Aotearoa because I want to make the link to West Papua in this sense: if you move outside of Aotearoa into the region, probably the place where the definition, the legal and the United Nations definition of genocide and cultural genocide is most apt, it is probably West Papua.

Because the Indonesian government has kept out the press for so many decades, direct evidence of genocide is really hard to come by. But there are some very important studies coming out of Yale, coming out of the U.N. itself that offers very strong evidence showing that this process of genocide is now taking place in West Papua.

Estimates show that 5,000 people thus far have been killed outright for political reasons. Just for flying that Morning Star flag. There is also a state policy by Indonesia at the moment, to try to displace the population: trans-migration policies. Indonesia’s approximately 250 million people, the region of West Papua is only around 4.3 million. Right now, West Papuan and indigenous people, our Melanesian brothers and sisters, they’re now 48% of the population. Indonesians are now 52% because of this policy by the Indonesian government of taking people from the mainland of Indonesia into West Papua. They are systematically breeding out – the same thing happened here in New Zealand to make Maori a minority population – but that’s what’s happening now. There are a few estimations that are coming out: by 2020, that indigenous population of West Papua will come down to 25%, from 48%. That’s in five years. And you can do the projections outward. This is a process of ‘breeding out’ – that’s the blunt term – of breeding out indigenous people.

On top of that, there are also policies of cultural assimilation. They are pushing, they are separating, they are doing the same thing that Australia did under the white Australia policy. They are separating out our babies, from their mums and dads, putting them into foster care. The other thing they’re doing is religious conversion, and also educating, through the schooling system, educating West Papuan kids in the language of Indonesia and suppressing their native dialects.

If you look at people like Moana Jackson, Ani Mikaere, and a lot of our indigenous scholars: colonisation is premised on different planks. It’s not simply premised on killing out, physically; breeding out, physically, the indigenous population, it is also trying to kill the culture. First by separating people from the land, also by killing the language, and also by killing the cultural institutions that give the indigenous people their unique identity. That’s exactly what is happening in West Papua. If you put all those things together, the term ‘cultural genocide’ is not hyperbolic. It’s not an overblown description of what is going on. I think it is a really accurate term that is able to show the truth of what is happening in West Papua.

To close, when I think about the things that we have to do here if we want to do anything about West Papua, the first is we have to think about ways of breaking the socially imposed silence – the silence that is first of all already imposed on discourse about colonisation here in Aotearoa, and also making connections, important connections, between what is happening here, to our indigenous brothers and sisters here and our Pasifika peoples here, and those happening in the wider region. But if we have to do that, one of the most important challenges to face is to rethink and challenge some of the understandings that we have internalised.

A lot of our indigenous scholars talk about the problem of internal colonisation: where you accept self-understandings that keep you in subjection. We do not have time to go through all of these, but a couple of those I think are really important are first of all, this thing that Maori and Pacific are two distinct categories. Because essentially what you’re saying is, Maori and other Pacific people aren’t family. And we know that is not true. We know that is not true. And we all know about family: I don’t like you for certain things, you don’t like me for certain things, but underneath that we are family and we have to re-weave those threads of our collective and shared whakapapa that colonialism has broken, and that has to be an ongoing project.

I’d also suggest one of the things we have to do as part of that project is to reject those categories: Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia. Who the hell gave us those categories? Those categories did not come from us. Those categories did not come from our forebears. Before those categories came along, we were people of the Pacific. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as these isolated islands, little, vulnerable islands that have no power, no agency on the stage of world history. We are part of the richest, most culturally diverse area of the earth. We started traversing up and down the South Seas long before anybody else even thought of venturing beyond the horizon that was seen in Europe to be full of deep sea monsters.

So I think one of the things we have to do to address the situation in West Papua is to think about how those people over there – our brothers and sisters, that genocide that is going on there – if we do not address that, it will come on us, and it will come on our kids. There is such a thing as the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons and daughters. I don’t think in terms of karma, I think in terms of: if our generation doesn’t deal with the injustices that are on our doorsteps today, those injustices aren’t going anywhere. They’re just going to keep on coming down, through Papua New Guinea, through Solomon islands, down through Vanuatu, down through New Zealand. And of course, we know it’s already here. So we have to build that solidarity that our forebears had in the past, and we have to do that by breaking up the self-constraining chains and categories that we have that are given to us in school.

You know – you don’t get taught Pacific history in school. Real Pacific history. From Pacific peoples, from the standpoint recognising the needs, voices and aspirations of Pasifika peoples. We get taught a Europeanised history. And part of that project of self-determination and addressing the injustices such as those in West Papua, we have to start reclaiming that history as a part of our freedom struggle today. Kia ora.

Accounting’s role in poverty, ecological and financial crisis: a spiritual reflection

This piece is an abridged transcription of a talk given at St Andrew’s on the Terrace, 18 August 2015

 

There are four main parts to this article. Firstly I’d like to offer a view of accounting in context; then, a map of how accounting is typically taught in our institutions, in our universities, and how the profession tends to portray itself. Thirdly, I want to start challenging that perception, that public portrayal of accounting. I’ll suggest here that accounting is far more problematic than we conventionally conceive it to be. I’d like to finish off by tackling some key issues: accounting and global financial crisis, accounting and global poverty. I’d like to point to some of the specific ways that the accounting practices we use are actually deeply implicated in exacerbating a lot of these problems.

 

Accounting in context

It’s important to make sense of a particular practice in context. My suggestion is, if you look at the social and ecological context, we live in pretty dire times.

One of the greatest crises we face now is the global inequality crisis. In New Zealand, over the past 30-40 years, inequality has deepened. Partly because of wider economic cycles, partly as a result of the neoliberal policies that have been embedded since the 1984 David Lange-led Labour government. Since then, the neoliberal project has pretty much been the dominant position at the level of public policy in this country. And not just in this country; pretty much around the world. The U.K. has led the way through Margaret Thatcher, and the U.S. with Reaganomics.

Oxfam has predicted that by the end of next year, the top global 1% will own over half of the world’s wealth. At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got forms of inequality that are hard to fathom. The starker realities: 1,000 people die from poverty related causes every day – hunger, preventable diseases and so forth. 50% – some 3 million people – live on less than $2.50 per day. That’s our social reality today, both here nationally, in New Zealand, and overseas.

If you think about the class inequalities, they’re also racially stratified, and they’re stratified across gender lines. Women make up a disproportionate amount of the world’s global poor. Almost 70% of the illiterate people in the world, some 780 million people, are women. Most of the global poor are located in countries of the global South, and you can see why that is the case by looking at the modern history of colonialism and the neocolonialism that is going on today.

If we look at the ecological situation, if it’s possible, it’s even more frightening. We’re currently consuming 50% over and above our biosphere’s capacity to regenerate ecologically. We’re consuming one-and-a-half planets’ worth of resources, both renewable and non-renewable. We’ve got increasing toxicity across the board. Recently, U.N. scientists released a report on the state of the world ecologically. Out of the nine planetary boundaries – which are identified as crucial for maintaining stable human presence on the planet – we have violated four. One is climate change, the second is increasing acidification of the oceans, the other is nutrient run-offs, the fourth is biodiversity loss.

Most scientists, including Bill McKibben from 350, advocate keeping our carbon emissions or carbon concentration in the atmosphere below 300 parts per million. We’re over 400, today. And the number is only increasing. You’ll be comforted to know that the current government is planning on expanding dairy, which is our biggest industrial polluter, by at least twofold, with no real plans in sight for mitigation. Of course we are looking forward to the outcome of talks in Paris, U.N. Conference at the end of December this year.

These are some of the social and ecological issues I try to keep at the forefront of my research when I think about the role that accounting and business might be playing. That’s the context that we confront, and it takes us to the next question: why is this even happening in the first place? One of the thinkers that I really admire, but whose name has pretty much been written out of the academic canon, is one of the great feminist thinkers of the second wave in the 1970s: Andrea Dworkin. I love this quote, because it points out that human atrocities are not new.

All through human history, there have been terrible, cruel wrongs. These wrongs were not committed on a small scale. These wrongs were not rarities or oddities. These wrongs have raged over the earth like wind-swept fires, maiming, destroying, leaving humans turned to ash. Slavery, rape, torture, extermination have been the substance of life for billions of human beings since the beginning of patriarchal time. Some have battened on atrocity while others have suffered from it until they died.

I also like this quote because it points out that one of the most important reasons for why these atrocities arise is that they are rooted in the social systems that we live in. When you have patterns that keep coming up – regular, routine patterns – from a sociological perspective, they are organised, they are structured in some way. So if you want to understand the root cause of those patterns, you have to look at social organisation. You can look at specific institutions, and you can look at society as a whole. Of course in our modern, academic traditions, it was sociologists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim who tried to grasp the totality of society’s social structure.

If you want to understand why we’re in the situation we’re in today, of multiple cascading crises, we have to look first of all at the structure, and secondly our ideas about the world. That’s what I mean by the ideological dimension of social systems. We have to really look deeply into the way we make sense of the world, the way we tell stories about ourselves and the type of society we live within. The next part of Dworkin’s quote I really love too, because it speaks to this ideological dimension:

Whether through indifference, ignorance, or brutality, most people, oppressor and oppressed, have apologized for atrocity, defended it, justified it, excused it, laughed at it, or ignored it.

When I put on my sociologist’s hat, I often return to this ideological dimension. Because it really brings home how the ideas we have about the world can make us overlook atrocities or downplay them in various ways – for example by using euphemistic language. Look at the public policy language we use today. Look at the terms we use. They’re incredibly sanitising. They deodorise crises. They downplay it. That’s only one example of the way in which our ideas, the stories we tell about ourselves and the world we live in, are actually fundamental to how we act and to whether or not we tolerate the atrocities that are going on or whether we recognise them and try to address them.

You can solve a problem if you can’t even see it, and we can only make sense of our problems through our ideas; our narratives; our stories.

 

Accounting: Conventional Perspectives

The reason why I wanted to spend time talking about ideology and social structure is because one of the first ideas about accounting I want to suggest to you is: accounting is a carrier of ideology. Accounting is the language of business. If you want to think about the one story in an enterprise that will inform decision-making – the ‘bottom line’, so to speak – don’t go any further than accounting; that is the bottom line. So as a story, as an ideology, it’s absolutely fundamental.

The question we need to ask though is whether accounting actually tells the truth about the realities of our world. So that’s we’re going to get into, but that’s the set-up; that’s the hypothesis: accounting is not separate from these aspects of social life. It helps organise our social structure; and fundamentally, it’s a narrative. About the nature of an organisation, a corporation; about the nature of the economy; about the nature of our society as a whole. That’s not typically taught at universities, but that’s the tradition I come out of, a research tradition I come out of – critical accounting. I’ll talk more about that towards the end.

But now, let’s get to the conventional, common-sense understanding of accounting. When you were in high school, or you were going to university Accounting 101 – my suggestion is, this is the typical view of accounting. Accountants are pretty boring, bookworms – ‘bean-counters’ is the pejorative term I believe – they slink off to their position at the back of the company headquarters, they keep to themselves, they’re socially inadequate, and they don’t have much charisma and they’re not that central to how organisations run.

I’d like to challenge that perception, and I’m going to do it in different ways. But after teaching for ten years now, that’s the perception that students carry with them when they come to accounting. If you have a look at the conventional textbook definitions, they are really dry. “Accounting is a process of recording, measuring, classifying, ordering, communicating information,” it’s about “assets”, “liabilities”, “equity” – and that’s not false, that is true, it is that. “Accounting is the process of keeping financial accounts”, “accounting is the language of business” – all that’s true.

On the other hand, the problem with these definitions, these conventional definitions, is they completely underplay the political dimensions of accounting. And I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute. But it’s very dry language, it’s very neutral, technical language. You look at it and go – where’s the moral dimension of accounting? That’s not there. Where’s the political dimension of accounting? These definitions don’t really get at it. The second thesis I’d like to convey to you is this: any social practice, not just accounting, any practice – law, health, teaching – any practice is inherently political, because we are not separate from society; we are part of it.

 

Problematising Textbook Definitions

Definitions like this do an injustice to students, because they don’t teach students those other equally important dimensions. Accounting is a technical practice, but it’s not just that. One of my favourite quotes is from an article I love by Ruth Hines. Hines is an amazing scholar who wrote some of the seminal papers in critical accounting, got sick of accounting academia and went off to write children’s books in Australia. But she was a true artist at heart and you can see it in her papers. This is one of the quotes from her that I really love:

Accountants often see themselves as engaged in an objective, value-free technical enterprise representing reality as is.

That’s all we do. We just take photographs, or to use another metaphor, accountants are just mirrors. The information provided simply mirrors the financial reality of our business organisations. That’s the view. And if you look at the Code of Ethics that accounting practice is based on, and you have a look at the professional values in that code, it reflects that idea that accountants as professionals are objective, neutral portrayers of our social world.

If we have a think about the function of accounting, accounting is a public profession. It is charged with serving the public interest. How does it serve the public interest? If you want to get your head around that idea, we have to look at the social contract model of liberal democracy that it’s based on. Under liberal political theory, if you have a look at how society’s organised – you have your economy at the bottom, that’s your economic base, and it’s a free market. It’s efficient, it allocates and distributes resources equally. That’s the economy. And all individuals who participate in the free market are what? Free and equal individuals. That’s neoclassical economics, that’s liberal political theory.

Above the economy sits civil society and the overarching institution is of course the democratic state. It’s representative of democracy, affirms the civil rights and human rights of individuals, and so, you have freedom to participate in the political process of electing our representatives and also participate in the free-market. Accounting serves the public interest by providing financial information that renders organisations more transparent. In doing so, it helps markets function more efficiently. That’s the theoretical rationale for how accounting serves the public interest. We provide information, we help the market function, the market grows social wealth, and under the utilitarian concept of wealth, that is the wider social welfare, the public interest.

But if you have a look at some of the assumptions underpinning that model, you can start to see how you might challenge some of those assumptions. For instance, one of the unstated, implicit assumptions of liberal theory, or neoliberal theory under people like Milton Friedman, is profit maximisation is actually compatible with public interest, with social welfare. That’s one of the bedrock assumptions. Others include assumptions about the nature of the individual: “free and equal”. Again, given the realities that confront us, we can see how those assumptions simply do not hold in practice. Equality – as a regulating norm, but not as a concrete reality.

If those assumptions hold, then that’s the function of accounting: it’s a social accountability tool. It helps make organisations accountable to wider society by rendering their activities more transparent.

The problem with it, though – this is my suggestion – is it’s simply not true.

One of the interesting points made by David Harvey, one of the political economists I really admire, about neoclassical economics is that, like a few other key theories of our time that inform public policy – they’re what he calls ‘just world-views’. The starting assumption is that we actually live in the best of all possible worlds. It’s a just world. Everything else hangs off that one basic assumption. The flip-side is, if that one basic assumption is wrong, all the other assumptions that hang off it are fundamentally undermined.

If we actually have a look at at our social model in a more realistic sense – when we take account of history, and we take account of actual political-economic conditions and patterns – the evidence points the other way: we don’t live in a just world, we live in a world that’s actually structured by fundamental forms of inequality. Structural inequality. A 400 year history of colonisation; the class relationship that’s at the heart of capitalism.

This is one of the truths – Marx got a lot of things wrong, but I’m pretty sure he got this one right. Capitalism is based on class. And of course, lastly, in so many different ways, we still live in deeply patriarchal societies. So our societies are organised on institutionalised forms of male dominance. These are only some of the inequalities that I would suggest are at the heart of social life.

But then if we move to accounting, and this is what I’d suggest is a more realistic, critical view of what accounting actually is – if you look at the calculations in accounting – pay close attention to them – what you’ll actually find, amongst other things, is that it actually reflects the dominant social relationships that our society is currently based on.

Take for example, class relations. In the accounting calculus, assets = liabilities + equity. Capital owners are not expenses. They’re not liabilities. They are classified as equity holders. The environment, on the other hand – what is that classified as? It’s not equity, it’s not natural capital, it’s not an asset – it’s an expense. If you as a business are going to try to protect the environment, you’re going to incur costs. The costs of doing environmental protection. So within the accounting calculus the environment itself is an expense. Now you might not have taken a business degree, but it’s common sense in our society that if you want to run a sustainable business, sustainable in the financial sense, not in the long-term ecological sense, you have to keep costs down. So you have to keep your environmental costs down. So the environment is first of all commodified, and it’s treated as an expense. Not as a capital base to protect and nurture.

Think about workers. A major expense item on the balance sheet. Again, workers can put their heart and soul into an enterprise – but are they recognised as equity? No, again, they are recognised as an expense. Again, something to be constantly minimised. So, just with those few examples I’m hoping you’re beginning to pick up just how fundamental accounting is, not just for organisation decision-making, but also for structuring how we perceive – each other. Other people. The environment. Nature. Accounting organises social relationships. And that class-capital relationship is fundamental to accounting. Accounting reflects it; accounting reinforces it.

Another aspect is the ideological dimension. By providing managers with financial information to make business decisions, it provides managers with a set of rationalisations for carrying out whatever it is they decide. Justification; financial justification. That’s accounting. But that makes accounting profoundly ideological. Because if the consequences of that project that is decided on are fundamentally environmentally destructive, on the books, it will still show you a positive outcome. Economically positive. But all the social and ecological consequences that are destructive accounting does not recognise. It classifies those consequences as ‘externalities’ that can be ignored. Accounting is an externalising machine par excellence.

Accounting is also an objectifying machine. It reduces everything to objects; commodities that can be bought and sold. Marx really pointed out that capitalism is fundamentally based on commodity production, but the language that allows commodification to take place, the basic language, is accounting.

So – what does this all mean, how does it make sense of so many of the problems we face today?

First of all, let’s think about what it means that accounting actually has a political and ideological dimension. The first thing is, if you think about the last 30 or 40 years under neoliberalism, so many fundamental changes have taken place in all our sectors of social life. Healthcare, education, superannuation, the selling off of state assets, privatisation of our prisons – these are all political and economic transformations. But in order to decide to undertake any of these things, you need financial information. That is the basic reason why accounting is centrally involved. David Harvey also makes the point that if you have a look at the consequences of so many of these neoliberal transformations, they can be seen as a consolidation of class power. And accounting shows its partisan nature by facilitating those political-economic transformations.

We can go through, you can shout out to me any public institution in New Zealand – I can point to research that’s coming out now, or even thinking on the fly, we could talk about and discuss the ways in which accounting is fundamentally involved in all these things. All of them. In universities now, I am trying to get my head around university reforms over the past 30 years. Whether governments are National-led or Labour-led, they go to accounting firms who provide evaluations for all these organisational reforms.

 

Crises Facilitated by Accounting

I want to finish off by providing some insights into particular crises and the ways in which accounting has been centrally involved.

Warwick Funnell is an amazing accounting academic based in the U.K., who looked at the role accounting has played in facilitating the processes of the Nazi holocaust. The ‘processing’ of Jews. Taking them out of their homes, confiscating their properties; their properties had to be catalogued. They had to be put on trains and cars in order to be shipped off to concentration camps. It was a huge, bureaucratic exercise – accounting. At every step of that process. Accounting facilitated the processing of the European Jews during World War Two. One of the points Funnell makes in the paper is that if you have a look at the social function of accounting, one of the most important functions of accounting is, it can hide atrocities. Take them off the books.

Of course, if you think about organisational decision-making, whatever is measured counts. Whatever is not measured, you can ignore it. It’s immaterial. It doesn’t count. And accounting played a crucial role in that. It reduced people to numbers – gave them all serial numbers, so people could more effectively distance themselves from confronting the reality of what they were actually collaborating in. Being complicit in. It’s much easier for you to manipulate numbers on a page than to actually have a picture, a name, with a story, a background, someone you actually have relationships to. Again, that’s the power of accounting that more conventional, technical definitions do not allow students to grasp.

Another really important issue we should all be thinking about is the role that accounting plays in global financial crises. And there’s different ways that accounting is implicated. You can have a look at accounting education; the type of education we now promote – if you notice, a lot of universities throughout New Zealand have been trying to trumpet themselves as amazing research institutions. Now, there is a lot of amazing research going on but if you have a close look at accounting, in so many ways, accounting research is really asleep at the wheel, because most of the research that takes place in accounting is informed by neoclassical economics. So we never bother about investigating structural problems, structural crises; what economists call ‘systemic risk’. Neoclassical economics can’t deal with it.

If you want to be able to deal with systemic risk, you have to go in to an author most of the West has been scared of the past hundred years: Karl Marx. That’s where you start learning to think more adequately and critically about systemic risk. That’s accounting education. The other two major ways accounting has been involved in our global financial crisis is: the types of financial reports we produce, and the types of consulting services that we are now still promoting.

So if you look at financial reporting, the major feature contributing to creating the preconditions for the global financial crisis is rules governing asset valuation and off-balance-sheet entities. You might remember Enron, the big fiasco – energy giant in the United States. When Enron collapsed, it was an accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, that created off-balance-sheet financing, which basically means they were able to hide the liabilities of Enron off the books. This amounts to billions of dollars. So it was completely insolvent, but accountants kept on rubber-stamping the annual accounts as they were put out.

If you have a look at what accounting firms are doing now, these are all the things they are selling to businesses. Due diligence work, tax advice on off-sheet models; assisting with securitisation of trillions of dollars of mortgage backed securities; and collateralised debt obligations, and facilitating tax avoidance. All of these financial devices are at the heart of the global financial crisis. They financialise and securitise debt; they allow debt that should actually be recognised as completely toxic to continue to circulate throughout the economy. That’s what all these highly collateralised and securitised financial devices allow companies to do. And accounting firms make their money selling to companies advice about exactly how to carry these strategies out. That’s a huge source of accounting firm profit.

Look at accounting and war. Critical research has shown that accounting plays an important role in in deepening forms of militarisation that are currently happening in our society. Edwina from Peace Movement Aotearoa is probably our foremost national expert on processes of militarisation in New Zealand. Chwastiak looks at the U.S. and U.K. context, where obviously because of the military-industrial complex, those processes are far more advanced than here, although I think we are trying to do our best to catch up.

Some of the points they make – again, accounting really helps to normalise the violence that militarisation is based on. It hides the violence off the books, it provides government departments and corporations with the language to rationalise violence. It’s a form of instrumental rationality. That’s a term from Max Weber. Basically, it means you are only concerned about achieving the institutional goals of the organisation. You’re not concerned at all about the wider social consequences of those actions. That’s instrumental rationality – it’s an incredibly truncated form of ethical reasoning. You could ask, how can you call it ethical reasoning? When social consequences, when underlying social structures aren’t part of that process. Of course, war today is big business. And again, accounting is right at the centre of profiteering off war and conflict.

Finally, if you think about accounting and poverty – there are papers that look at how accounting facilitates wealth transfer between countries, at the international level, through things like transfer pricing; International Monetary Fund initiated ‘structural adjustment programmes’ that countries, mostly from the third world, are often forced to get into when they run into debt problems. These debt problems of course have their origins in the 1970s, in the petrodollar crisis. When the Oil Cartels flooded American banks with billions of dollars of petrodollars, and the banks had to use it – the only way they thought to use it was to supply those petrodollars to third world nations, such as those in Africa at incredibly low interest rates. But of course, when the global economy tanked, interest rates spiked, and you have the historical foundations for that particular debt crisis.

 

In sum

To finish off: the subtitle of this presentation was – a spiritual reflection on the role of accounting in social and ecological crisis. The first thing I want to suggest to you: if you look at any of our spiritual traditions, our Christian traditions; Islam; Judaism; our indigenous forms of spirituality – one of the things that comes up again and again, and I think it comes up because it is absolutely foundational is: an ethical approach to life has to be based on recognising, speaking and acting on the truth. Or at least truth as far as you can find it and discern it. My suggestion to you is accounting actually precludes the truth. Nature is not a commodity. Human beings are not commodities. But that is what accounting reduces them to. So in a really fundamental sense, accounting precludes the truth.

Also, accounting masks suffering. If you look at the Gospel, it is fundamentally about basing your ethical life or practice on recognising and working with and working for the lowest of the low. Because of the process of sanitisation that accounting is able to produce, it helps us to avoid that suffering. I’m no theologian; I’m an accounting academic, but the Christian faith that I came out of – they are traditions that are grounded on Matthew 25, which says: If you are not doing for the least of these, you do not do for me. If you look closely at who accounting serves – accounting is meant to serve the public interest, but accounting actually serves the dominant groups in our society at the expense of the lowest. The least of these.

Finally, again, if you take an interfaith perspective and have a look at another common theme that comes through again and again in so many of our spiritual traditions – some of our most profound secular traditions as well – existentialism, psychoanalysis – it’s really premised on the argument that life is a balance. You have to balance certain aspects of your life if you want to live a fulfilling life. You have to take care of your inner needs, your outer needs. No side of that polarity is superior to the other; you need both to work.

There is another paper produced by Hines – it’s called The Negative Space. Ruth Hines uses these spiritual traditions to have a look at the value-hierarchy of how accounting is structured in terms of informing normative values. When you apply this idea of polarity, or yin and yang, accounting is fundamentally yang-based, or masculine. All the characteristics that are traditionally attributed to what we consider masculine traits – objectivity, hardness, linearity, rationalism; as opposed to the soft, the inner, the emotional; traits that are typically associated with the feminine – accounting represses those ‘feminine’ values. Accounting valorises and affirms those masculine values. Hines makes the point that one of the problems we have today is the world as a whole is fundamentally unbalanced. Our economy reflects those yang-based values; our political system does that; our culture, including a lot of our institutionalised religions, does that.

How can we change things? I don’t know. We do have to recognise that the way that we teach a lot of our professions, like accounting, is fundamentally problematic. We are failing our students by not equipping them to confront the problems that we face; we are also indoctrinating them. I come out of a liberal arts tradition – we should be teaching students to think critically. But now we produce systems managers for the most part. They are really bright, really innovative – but they only know how to run a dead system. We need students who can actually challenge the basic paradigms on which that system is based.

Pala Molisa

 

Stop the forced closure of Aboriginal communities: a protest march talk

To follow is a transcription of a talk given by Pala Molisa on the grounds of parliament in Wellington on May 1, 2015 in protest of the forced closure of Aboriginal communities in Australia. Speakers discussed this recent policy in the context of a longstanding white Australia policy, and Pala’s talk was proceeded by Metiria Turei’s, which pointed out that “there have been more children taken since the apology for the stolen generation, than were taken during the stolen generation”. Pala used his talk to encourage activists to continue to draw connections between historic and contemporary human rights abuses occurring in Australia, the Pacific, and globally as well as at home.

Photo: Tere Harrison

If you look at any social movement for social justice that had a significant impact in shifting and addressing some of the atrocities around the world, one of the defining features of all those social movements was first of all, an ability and a willingness to connect the dots between injustices that happen to one section of the community and injustices that are happening elsewhere within that particular country.

If you look at the country of Australia, the first atrocity that ever happened when the English set foot there was certainly the genocide of the indigenous peoples of that land; but there were also other atrocities that came along with that, including the atrocities of inequality that the class society was based on.

In fact, if you look at the history of Australia, it is not just a history defined by genocide and a white Australia policy, it is also a history largely defined by profound social struggles. Australia was the first state to ever win a 35-hour working week for its working peoples, its labourers. It has a history of standing up to imperialism; it has a history of supporting the liberal arts, liberal education institutions, freedom of the press. The problem though in Australia – as we also have had here in New Zealand, since 1984 under the David Lange-lead Labour Party government – is that those liberal institutions have been systematically rolled back.

We are still under that particular process of systematic rollback today, here in New Zealand. That’s why we have one in four children [270,000 children] in poverty, that’s why our schools are closing, that’s why our more remote communities are also closing. It’s part of the structural imperative of cost-cutting that is going on. It is an ugly reality to face, but the thing we must always muster the courage to do is to face certain realities.

One of the realities we have to start grasping is that these injustices do not come out of nowhere, they come out of underlying systems. They are a product of how our societies are organised. So I think it’s right to challenge the Australian government on what they are planning to do, to forcibly close 150 indigenous communities – that’s certainly wrong – but I think we also have to realise the ongoing policy of genocide, cultural genocide.

I understand that term is quite a strong sounding term. But look at the criteria under international law and under our conventions for the prevention and punishment of genocide: the policies that the Australian government is carrying out has and continues to meet that definition of genocide. So I do not think we are being hyperbolic when we say that what Tony Abbott is doing is genocide, and I think we also have to recognise that this has been a longstanding campaign.

Our Aboriginal brothers and sisters – I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how they do it, surviving in a country that purports to be a first world nation, that  purports to be based on all these liberal freedoms and human rights, yet most of their policies are equivalent, as John Pilger states, to apartheid South Africa. They have the highest child suicide rate in the world. They have 5-8 times the incarceration rate of the height of the de Klerk-lead South African apartheid government. And those are not realities that affect all of Australia, those are the realities that affect our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.

We need to keep paying attention to that wider context, and draw connections between what’s going on there and other injustices including here in New Zealand, and we need to continue to hold to the truth. Because we don’t have much power, and we don’t have much power when you compare the resources we have with the resources of the corporations and the corporate state that is carrying out these policies. The only thing we can hold fast to are moral imperatives: what Vaclav Havel calls the ‘power of the powerless’. It’s when we refuse to bend our principles to privilege and power, and we hold to truth and justice. I think that’s what we are doing here today and in solidarity with everyone else throughout the world and in Australia.