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2013 Winter Issue 8 (March 8, 2013)

Divestment, Guilt and Social Action

March 10, 2013
By Griffin Johnson

We do a lot of theorizing at Carleton, and I understand that sometimes that theorizing gets extremely tiresome. The standard seminar format is to bombard us with conflicting views on an issue, whether it’s literary theory or sociology, and expect us to spontaneously generate our own conclusions about it. This is a flawed, frustrating methodology, and I think inevitably we all start to wonder, if we all agree that there are seemingly insurmountable problems facing our society, why we don’t get over all the theory once in a while and do something.

However, this zero-sum idea, that we’re either thinking or doing, is obviously a simplistic point of view, and in practice it generates simplistic applications. I think that’s at the heart of this divestment issue.

The responsible investment people who wrote to the Carletonian last week make some good points, in particular that 1. Carleton’s investments in companies like Coca-Cola, however sizable, don’t actually make us influential, and 2. we don’t even know where most of our money is invested at all, so it doesn’t matter what kind of influence we have in the first place. As they write, “surely ‘influence’ begins with knowing your business partner.” I can’t argue with that; I can’t think of a reason why we shouldn’t know who our college invests in.

As for the first point, though, this is where I start to lose the thread, because as little influence as Carleton has in a company like Coca-Cola, to divest is, basically by definition, to sell that influence to somebody else. I reiterate that we shouldn’t even be saying “divest,” we should be saying “sell,” because the language in the letter to the editor from last week bears out the plug metaphor: the writers describe us “pulling out our funds” from Nestle or Wal-Mart, as if we can somehow keep those funds in stasis. We already own shares in Wal-Mart; those shares are paying dividends, subsidizing our tuitions. If we were to divest, we would simply be selling those shares to somebody else, maybe making a profit and maybe not, and investing our remaining funds somewhere else, maybe in a company like Patagonia. In economic terms, that’s what it means to say “divest.”

Of course, the letter isn’t only concerned with “economic terms;” it also writes that “the power of divestment lies in the culture it helps create.” Now, I’m not positive that I’m glossing this correctly, but the idea seems to be that if we divest, it might start an avalanche; maybe every liberal arts college in the country, every university, would divest as well, and we would have a mass movement on our hands. But here’s the question that raises: what then? What do we do after we create a culture of ethical investment? What happens when all of us have divested and re-invested in other companies? First, unless this wave of sales somehow trashes Nike’s stock, we’ve simply sold all our shares to a new cadre of people who are either unaware or untroubled that they own stock in a company that works children 18 hours a day. Second, we’re now invested in, for example, alternative energy companies, which have thinner profit margins and don’t pay as many dividends, so our endowment suffers, which means that we can’t pay dining hall staff, faculty and staff as much and not as many low-income students can come to Carleton. If you want to change the system, you have to be in it.

That, I think, is the core issue here, the core of the “culture” argument—it’s recognized that something about the capitalist economy is just irredeemably evil. No matter where you turn, you seem to be condoning some kind of violence, some kind of oppression. The only option is to get out entirely, to divest and focus on culture instead, which is the arena where we literate, educated, politically engaged students still have the upper hand. If we create a culture of respect, of humane treatment, if we stigmatize union busting and human trafficking from the top down, then we can impose social change without having to poison ourselves with economics.

My problem is that this retreat from economics, from the dirty statistics of American life, seems more often than not to mask an unwillingness to sully our hands. Like thinking vs. doing, it’s a zero-sum game: we either stay invested in Starbucks and are absolutely guilty, or we divest, absolve ourselves, and continue the fight from a region of purer vapors. It’s like there’s some kind of profound, cosmic, primordial guilt that we get on our hands from capitalism, and we’ve got to wash it off before we do anything else.

There’s a word for this type of guilt—it’s “sin.” Can we call a spade a spade? When we get into with-us-or-against-us morality like this, we are talking about sin. To invest in Wal-Mart is to sin; to divest is to atone. “Culture” is monasticism, a retreat from the material world in exchange for a garden into which we will admit only the good. When you say “stop thinking and do something,” the rub is that more often than not the something you do is nothing.

If Carleton is truly prepared to make positive a difference in the world, then it has to accept its role as a participant in capitalist society, which is to say it has to participate. It has to engage in the specifics of capitalism. Pushing for transparency in investments would be a start. Organizing an ethical-investment lobby would be progress. Divestment would be a vow of silence.

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