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07 April 2021

Hold the hair shirt

There are classes of men in the world who bear more the same relation to society at large, that the wheels do to a coach: and are just as indispensable’

Last week, Anthony (Lipmann) seemed ready to hand out hair shirts to all of us involved in the metal trade, as a penance to expiate the sins of our forefathers in the business, some of whose practices were undoubtedly lacking in human sympathy or what we would generally call decency. Those practices enabled many to amass large fortunes, to create massive mining and/or trading conglomerates and to pass the benefits down through the generations. 

Well, we can’t really argue with the facts. Yes, mining and trading methods in previous centuries were very different, and not in a good way; raw materials and resources dragged from the soil in far-flung parts of the Earth put big numbers of dollars in a small number of very fortunate pockets and powerful dynasties were established. That much is clear.

Is that it, though, or should we look a bit further? Peter Mandelson is not someone with whom I would normally agree - about pretty much anything - but I do recall when he spoke at the LME Dinner a number of years ago that he centred his speech around the very pertinent fact that the metals business is pretty much the basic underpinning of our whole modern, industrial society. Without metals, it can’t exist. Without endorsing the somewhat pernicious doctrine that the end justifies the means, it seems to me that there is a balance to be considered here. Andrew Carnegie may well not have been a very nice man, and he was not necessarily particularly concerned with workers’ rights, but he was a man of his time, and, importantly in this discussion, he created a steel industry which has overall been of tremendous benefit, both to the USA and more widely. How should we weigh this up? The modern-day puritans would have him excised from history, a name never to be mentioned; but where does that get us?

Reality isn’t always nice, and history is worth nothing if it is sanitised. I agree with Anthony that the bulk of metal-generated fortunes were built on cruelty and greed; how can one not accept that fact? But what is the alternative? To replace the individual greed with state-sponsored action? Pesky reality bites us again here, because the state enterprises have not in general been markedly superior in moral tone; and definitely not better in economic outcome, with very few exceptions. Progress comes at a cost, and Carnegie’s empire was probably more beneficial  - in a global sense - than state-owned BSC, for example.

I suppose the trite comment would be that not all sociopaths are successful - in economic terms - but all who are so successful demonstrate something that looks a little sociopathic.

But as a (former?) metal trader, I’m not going to don a hair shirt to atone for King Leopold II/Carnegie/Rhodes/Rich et al. Those garments should be for the people who are indifferent to what is happening today in the Congo, and elsewhere.

The quotation at the head of this piece is by Herman Melville; there are certain things the world needs - they may not all be very nice.     

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