And so it has come to pass. The beef that was not beef but was actually, to a very great degree, horsemeat may not – in the event – be horsemeat either. Whilst lurid tales have been recently spread by government ministers – alluding to Eastern European mafias shifting equine loot – the Independent reports tonight that we could be facing a culinary invasion of donkeys. In its astonishing report – verging on the most English of parodies in tone – the paper also reminds us (the bold is mine):
The French consumer minister, Benoît Hamon, said today that he would not hesitate to take legal action if evidence emerged that the two French companies which handled the meat had been aware of the fraud.
In passing, Mr Hamon also took a swipe at the British Government. He said that London was complaining about weak European food inspection while cutting the budget for EU food-safety checks in Brussels.
This is a revelatory sentence and explains with great clarity the behaviour of the Tories. “How perfect!” their strategists must have proclaimed on discovering that good old British beef had been contaminated by pesky European horse. No matter that in reality we could argue these things happen because hands-off neoliberal thinkers a) like to believe the market will attend in an absolutely perfect and efficient way to both its own and our needs and b) love to suggest the complex B2B transactions that now populate our globalised world are always going to be entirely beneficial.
In truth, the B2B transactions I mention don’t really have to be as complex as they are. It’s only so huge transnationals can easily reach – with their tenuous distribution channels – each and every corner and supermarket shelf of the nations that make up the developed world that we tolerate these complicated and interdependent ways of delivering food to our tables.
And so now that it turns out our meat has been properly tested for hygiene but not – it would seem – for species, what other lurid thoughts can flood our minds?
Various and varied ways of disposing of that which one would prefer to make disappear forthwith?
The Observer reports tonight on a story which will no doubt run and run (in an equine sense if no other):
Sources close to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Food Standards Agency said it appeared that the contamination of beefurgers, lasagne and other products [with horsemeat] was the result of fraud that had an “international dimension”.
Substitute some of the actors with our friends in the financial services community – even the Financial Services Authority shares the same TLA with the Food Standards Agency – and you’ll see why I’m beginning to get the feeling that horsemeat DNA on a criminal scale bears an uncanny resemblance to Libor fixing on a criminal scale. In both cases, it would seem that insiders have been stuffing outsiders – and the outsiders have been suffering the consequences, generally unknowingly. A mafia is a mafia, however genteel or besuited it may show itself to be. We are, it would appear, in the grip of such mafias.
In fact, to state – as the Observer does in its headline – that the “Horsemeat scandal [is] blamed on international fraud by mafia gangs” is just a tad disingenuous: it may be true, of course, but a) it doesn’t half let the government and the regulatory authorities off the hook of ultimate responsibility and b) it doesn’t half beg the question why whoever’s doing the blaming didn’t realise this any earlier.
The process and sequence of events is exactly the same as that which assailed us during the 2008 credit crunch. All of it essentially down to light-touch regulatory mindsets which believe stupidly in the magical powers of utterly unleashed corporate environments: environments which start out – in our hopeful and ever-optimistic politico-economic models – as virtuous circles of efficient business, only to end up being populated with dysfunctionally greedy individuals, systemic failures no one could have predicted or even – as in this case – Eastern European mafias.
The all-too-predictable result of a hands-off and responsibility-abdicating approach to the business of government and governance.
By trusting the market to run itself, by not inspecting the opportunities for greed and irresponsible behaviours, by believing that organised crime won’t care to get involved in the daily operation of customer choice, these latterday governments of ours are destroying the very integrity of our economic checks and balances.
And that their mentality should argue that customers vote freely with their purchases every day of the blessed week is appalling in the extreme: whilst we cannot take our own personal DNA testers to every prepared meal, and prick them and poke them before every purchase, we are at the mercy of those processes we should surely have every right to trust.
The Independent concludes in the following way its report on the obfuscation currently at play:
‘Bute’ aside, the unlabelled horse may indeed be safe to eat. But that’s not to say that people wanted to eat it, nor, more importantly, that anyone in the food supply system was aware of the existence of what seems to have been a massive undetected fraud.
It was just the presence of an unknown substance – prions that caused BSE (and the ensuing complacency and cover-up) – that led to a collapse in confidence in British farming.
Judging by the events and attitudes of the last few weeks, the lessons have not been learnt.
Not learnt indeed. That is all too clear.
But what’s even more clear to me tonight is that business today, whether white collar or abattoir, needs a massive kick up the backside from about as fearsome and heavy-touch legislative and inspection regimes as we can possibly manage to invent and devise.
If for no other reason than to guarantee the safety of hapless human beings in a complex and interdependent century – human beings who still don’t come complete or supplied with their own portable laboratories.
A market for cheap and easy-to-use DNA testers then?
Perhaps the need is wider than that. Maybe the market that’s really waiting to be exploited is for an algorithmic comparer of prices and products, which automatically suggests the potential presence of fraudulent behaviours in any supply chain.
For until we as consumers get far more access to information about what goes on behind the scenes in such B2B transactions, there is little we can do but to resign ourselves to further and ever-increasing fraud in banking, technology and food products various.
Does search undermine property? I don’t mean in the sense that some are arguing that Google subverts copyright to its own benefit. Paul, for example, suggests that:
Google are looking down the barrel of a fantastic opportunity here: They could end up as the world’s default collecting society – collecting a fraction of the amount that national or regional players would (from Google!) for monetising unlicenced content. Creators will only have a monopoly to turn to.
I mean, rather, in the sense that search – the physiological process, impulse and reward which makes up and motivates that short-term desire to get an immediate answer – is actually destroying our ability to even care about where these gobbets of information come from. If I’m right, it’s that not caring any more which is changing the rules – rather than Google’s latterly evil mission.
It’s not copyright infringement itself which is dismantling authors’ abilities to make a living out of their work but – at least in part – this “rising to the top” fallacy which search promotes that everything worth our attention can be found in a page of ten hyperlinks (often not even fully clicked upon) – and nothing worth our attention will be missed. In the essence of this fallacy we have a massive psychological change in readers’ behaviours. And it is that change which has prepared the ground and made it possible for the sadness of something for nothing.
There are those who would have us believe that the real enemies out there are those who promote a free and open web above all other considerations. If it were only so easy to pin down. If the enemy were as described it would be simple to excise them from the game. The truth of the matter is that it is ourselves – those of us who consume, publish, write and exchange information – who are entirely to blame for allowing Google to foist the search fallacy on us. Instead of writing for audiences of proper readers, we are shortening and slicing up our narratives to satisfy those who refuse to read more than three hundred words at a throw.
Or maybe just 140 characters.
We aren’t really pirates gratuitously searching to find something for nothing. We are, instead, Pavlovian creatures looking for our next slavering short-term fix. That is what search has turned us into. Mental drug addicts who care only for what the intermediaries can bring them.
In a world which could’ve been one of liberated producer-consumers, we have fallen in love with our pushers.
In a sense, the 20th century mafias which built empires on the back of drug dependency have been mimicked in the 21st century by companies which give short shrift to content. Whether search engines like Google, online media like Huffington Post or social websites like Facebook and Twitter, short and multi-authored is good whilst long and individually authored is bad.
Who’d have thought that the epitome of 21st century capitalism would be the very first destroyers of a true, coherent and properly woven individualism? Who’d have thought that search would destroy authorship?
It’s not capitalism which has won the Cold War but a content Stalinism in its most evil unremunerated form. And it’s not cocaine which is flooding our dreams any more – but words, stats and images which distract and headline our virtual streets.
Codes of conduct in large organisations help ensure people act in similar ways. Whether this is good, long-term, for both the creative and mental health of our societies is a different matter. But there we are: codes of conduct do – and probably must – exist.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from the piece I’ve linked to above on the subject:
In 1991, the U.S. Sentencing Commission issued the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations (FS GO), outlining the elements of an effective ethics and compliance program. As one component of this, the FS GO recognized that simply having a code was not enough. In this view, the “3P” approach – in which you “Print a code of conduct, Post it on the wall and Pray people actually read it”3 – simply did not form the basis for an effective program. As a result, the FS GO required code education for employees and other mechanisms for communicating and reinforcing organizational values.
In 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act further bolstered the importance of codes of conduct by requiring public companies to have a code of conduct for top executives (and, if they didn’t have one, to explain why). Then in 2003, both the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq required listed companies to adopt and disclose a “code of business conduct and ethics” that applies to all employees and directors. Together with these regulatory developments, having a code became practically a mandate for public companies.
The most recent step in the evolution of codes of conduct occurred in 2004 with the Revised Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which stipulated that companies must promote an organizational culture that encourages ethical conduct and commitment to compliance with the law. The impact of this change in the FS GO is that it effectively elevates a company’s code of conduct into becoming an integral part of its culture, not just a side note to employee education and communication.
The real question, of course, is what people do about these codes of conduct – and, indeed, which ones in reality are the ones which come out on top. For whilst the job description generally indicates what we must do, the glue which holds it together often tells us far more about what is really expected. There are many different kinds of codes of conduct out there: just because it’s written down and even drilled into you doesn’t mean that face-to-face contact on the day-to-day job won’t win you over to other ways of seeing and doing.
This, for example, from today’s second grilling of James Murdoch by Tom Watson on the subject of News International’s behaviours over the past decade or so.
Omertà (Italian pronunciation: [ɔmɛrˈta]) is a popular attitude and code of honor and a common definition is the “code of silence”. It is common in areas of southern Italy, such as Sicily, Apulia, Calabria, and Campania, where criminal organizations defined as Mafia such as the Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta, Sacra Corona Unita, and Camorra are strong. It also exists to a lesser extent in certain Italian-American neighbourhoods where the Italian-American Mafia has influence and other Italian ethnic enclaves in countries where there is the presence of Italian organized crime (i.e. Germany, Canada, Australia).
Omertà implies “the categorical prohibition of cooperation with state authorities or reliance on its services, even when one has been victim of a crime.” Even if somebody is convicted of a crime he has not committed, he is supposed to serve the sentence without giving the police any information about the real criminal, even if that criminal has nothing to do with the Mafia himself. Within Mafia culture, breaking omertà is punishable by death.
The code was adopted by Sicilians long before the emergence of Cosa Nostra (some observers date it to the 16th century as a way of opposing Spanish rule). It is also deeply rooted in rural Crete, Greece.
This, then, is clearly nothing more nor less than a code of conduct amongst members of a powerful organisation – a code which, in fact, makes such an organisation even more powerful than it might be.
So where does the essential difference lie between the above and – for example – a contractual relationship (of which there are many these days, in both the public and private sectors) which forbids a worker or employee from talking to, say, the press about anything company- or – indeed – societally-related?
Of course, in such circumstances, keeping quiet does not extend to us being asked to break the law – or, at least, I would hope not. On the other hand, the way big companies are built these days – designed as they are to make it impossible for almost anyone to have a full overview of their processes and procedures in order to future-proof them against damaging staff turnover in times of extreme competition – means it is only out of the small gobbets of knowledge hundreds of thousands may separately possess that full stories may ever be known.
Perhaps in such structures, then, we have a case of a systemically fashioned “omertà”: not a code of silence which requires workforces to more or less voluntarily shut up but, rather, an infrastructure of Chinese walls generated by the evermore piecemeal approach to procedures and processes which makes it literally impossible for any ordinary worker these days to tell the truth as reality might honestly recognise it.
So this isn’t a code of silence as such – but its impact on the ability of anyone to tell the whole truth is just as effective as anything the Mafia could’ve come up with.
Tom, you were sort of right when you described this as a mafia-like organisation. But, actually, you didn’t go far enough. This is far worse.