By Ellie Harrison, University of Dundee
18 November 2014
I am very proud to be part of the Listen to USS! organising team. When you get a wee break from work, please read on to find out why!
How the ‘them’ became ‘us’
Don’t ask me how, but I managed to survive until I was 33, before I got a ‘proper job’ in the old-fashioned sense of the word: that is a tenured ‘job for life’ that pays a regular salary. And it wasn’t until I began my new academic post on April Fools’ Day (appropriately or not) in 2013, that I first had the luxury of making regular contributions to a pension scheme. I felt pleased that I was now, finally, following the received wisdom of elders to be prudential and save now for the sake of my older, less able self in the future.
It was a few years before this, in 2007, that my research about the economic system first gave me cause to be slightly suspicious of Thatcher’s dreams of ‘popular capitalism’. Particularly the way in which ‘saving products’ – marketed to us not only as positive, but also, actually more the ‘right thing to do’ – largely involved some stocks and shares component that unwittingly made you into a passive investor in a variety of multinational corporations (producing tobacco, arms or fossil fuels) that were wreaking environmental, social and economic havoc in some other, less fortunate, part of the world. I resolved to politely decline any such enticements and this ‘friendly advice’ from these ‘financial experts’ and made a point of only banking ethically instead.
From then on, I started to take immense pleasure – whilst listening to the ‘business news’ on the establishment mouthpiece that is BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – when there was ‘bad news’ about the share price of any of the big multinationals I detested so much (particularly BP and, more recently, Tesco – who I campaigned against for the whole of 2013). Then, one morning whilst listening on my way to work, I got the most terrible shock. The reporter was discussing the impact of BP’s decision to sell its ‘Russian interests’, when he uttered the words: “anyone with a pension fund should care about BP’s share price.” Hang on a minute, I thought, that’s me! I was so disturbed by this apparent evidence of my own ‘cognitive dissonance’ that I promptly emailed Money Box to see if this flippant sounding statement could actually be true:
Dear Money Box,
… I am loath to think that in doing this [paying into the Universities Superannuation Scheme], I am supporting the oil industry and particularly such a despicable multinational company responsible for the Deep Water Horizon atrocity.
As sensible prudential people paying into pensions, we should be allowed far more control over where our money is invested. I would like to be able to ensure that my money is invested in renewal energy initiatives and not feeding the machine that is causing disastrous climate change.
When I see BP’s share price nosedive I want to be able to smile with glee, not to have to worry for fear that I will be starving in my old age as a result.
I would like you to explore this issue further on a forthcoming programme. Please keep me posted.
Needless to say, Money Box’s Paul Lewis (who interestingly describes himself as “head capitalist; heart socialist; soul anarchist”) never got back to my request 🙁 And so I took it upon myself to do the research instead.
The rise of the power of the pension funds is detailed in Adam Curtis’s 1999 documentary The Mayfair Set (essential viewing for anyone, like me, wanting to get their head round the complexities of all this!) Curtis shows how it was in the ’80s and ’90s that the pension fund managers first learnt the tricks of the ruthless ‘takeover tycoons’, and began buying up shares in old family-run businesses before ‘asset stripping’ them, running ‘efficiency saving’ measures and ‘downsizing’ operations: causing factory closures and mass redundancy. In the sole pursuit of profit for their members (whether they were aware of it or not), the pension funds had played a central role in reshaping Britain’s industrial base (see this clip from part 4). Curtis’s interview with financial journalist Tim Metz (see this clip from part 3) clearly demonstrates the cruel irony in it being the very institutions that were set up to protect the workers in old age, that were now responsible for actively causing stress and instability in so many younger workers’ lives (see how unemployment peaked in January 1993 as a result).
Whoops! It seems I had let my guard down: distracted whilst beginning my slow ascent of academia’s greasy pole. Twenty years on from Curtis’s cautionary tale, my pension provider – the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) – was continuing to invest my hard-earned cash in huge number of terrifying things: tobacco (including British American Tobacco and the Imperial Tobacco Group), arms (including BAE Systems) and fossil fuels (including Royal Dutch Shell and, alas in turns out, also BP). What was I to do? Leave the pension scheme in disgust? Or, instead, begin the fight to try to change it from within. It was then that I became interested in ‘divestment’, and quickly began to understand why it is such an important campaigning strategy (if not, the most important), in the free-market world, which, like it or not, we are all now embroiled.
This is why I am very proud to be part of the Listen to USS! organising team. It is essential that we demystify these complex financial systems and create far more mainstream awareness about where and how our savings are actually being used. We must continue to fight so that the “members’ interests” – which is the legal guiding force for all pension funds – is extended from its reductive definition in terms of profit accumulated, to include our interests to preserve a climate that remains habitable for us: our friends, families and fellow human beings in all parts of the world. For the greatest irony of all, is that they’ll be very little point ‘saving for the future’, if we have destroyed our society and the planet in the process.