Pluto in Capricorn: Purging the Professions
In 2008 Pluto moved into Capricorn and the fit and proper behaviour of professionals and appropriate use of their power has come up for scrutiny. The sign of Capricorn is associated with status and respectability which is what professions aspire to. Professions are distinguished by the requirements of training (often long), qualifications, experience and membership of a Body that sets ethical standards of practice and oversees conduct. Some professions are also regulated by statute (eg midwives). We need confidence that systems exist to ensure that our surgeon, solicitor, financial adviser and architect etc are competent and will not take advantage of us. This trust has been shaken in respect of banking, medicine, journalism, police, financial services, broadcasting and politics. What profession will be next?
The prime component of the power of professions is that they have specialist knowledge and expertise. George Bernard Shaw famously described professions as a 'conspiracy against the laity'. However, this is being slowly undermined by the information revolution signified by Uranus' and Neptune's recent journeys through Aquarius. A huge amount of information, some highly specialised has been democratised through the internet. So, for example, fewer patients are willing to accept the judgement of their doctors without question. Now, one can Google one's symptoms for a diagnosis, research one's disease and check one's medication for contra-indications and evidence of its efficacy. The outcomes are not all positive. Inaccurate self diagnoses can cause unnecessary anxiety and lead to the bullying of medical staff. This has made some doctors wary of trusting their professional judgement. Those with a reputation to defend are vulnerable in the age of Twitter and social media to both fair and unfair criticism.
Pluto does extremes and the ability of certain professions to maintain their standards, ethics and the public respect that accompanies these is under threat in a big way. It was once unthinkable that traditionally cautious and risk -averse banks could fail. Yet in 2008 Lehman Brothers collapsed and the insurance giant AIG only survived with an $85 billion credit shore up from the US Government. A crisis pushed a right wing US government into massive state intervention in business and the economy. It was shock-horror but the alternative was worse. As the 'casino style' banking of the Pluto in Sagittarius era hit the buffers, the public became disgusted with banker plutocrats who put their personal wealth accumulation gained through massive 'bonuses' before prudent and ethical care of business and the assets of customers. Banking relies on trust as no bank could sustain a run, where all its depositors came to withdraw their funds at once. This trust was severely tested in the banking crisis of 2008 and has been since as mis-selling scandals continue to rumble on. The appointment of Paul Flowers to Chair the 'ethical' Co-op bank when he had very little relevant experience baffled many and did nothing to restore the reputation of the industry.
One reason Professional Bodies came into being was to maintain public status and standards on the grounds that one bad apple can ruin the entire barrel. The UK police have been rocked by 'Plebgate' which is astonishing in the petty nature of its origins, yet ruined the career of a high ranking politician. It showed that a cabinet minister can get stitched up by the police for what could be political or purely mischievous purposes. What hope for the rest of us? For some time the police's internal disciplinary processes failed to deal with the issue. After public outcry, a criminal charge of misconduct in a public office is now being brought against one of the policemen involved. How angry and embarrassed must many honest and hard working police feel as their metier is brought into disrepute?
Plebgate was big because of a media storm. The profession of journalism has also been hitting the headlines in a bizarre form of broadsheets against the tabloids. For years, various individuals, not all celebrities, have complained against press intrusion into private lives. Stalking is illegal but not when the pursuer is a journalist with a camera. Some behaviour is not illegal but would be regarded as immoral. Children are usually seen as 'off limits'. However, J.K. Rowling was outraged when a journalist slipped a note to her requesting an interview into her daughter's school bag. Criminal charges have been brought against journalists who hacked into private phones for stories and the News of the World closed. A free press is vital to a democracy. However, when a profession fails to regulate its own members then there is call for government regulation, which feels like dangerous territory. The Leveson Inquiry looked into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal reported in 2012. It recommended a new, independent, body to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission, which would be recognised by the state through new laws. This particular political hot potato is still being kicked around. Journalists need their independence and power. One of their jobs is to scrutinise and critique the words and acts of politicians. Yet they also have to sell newspapers, which is an industry in decline and the public seem to love dirty linen being washed in public. To which party or parties does their prime professional duty lie?
The MPs' expenses scandal of 2008 brought some of those who we elect to govern us into public ridicule (remember the duck house?). Some of the expense claims were regarded as 'within the rules' but not within the spirit of what reimbursement of out of pocket payments is about. Some clearly felt this was a way of supplementing their salary and unofficially condoned. Where actual fraud was involved, criminal prosecutions followed and several MPs went to prison. Pluto exposes. Our collective outrage does the rest. Public humiliation still hurts.
This opens up the area between the law and wrongdoing. Some acts are clearly illegal; phone hacking, sex with minors, using illegal drugs, financial fraud. Dr Shipman was a serial murderer, no question. However, some activities are legal but considered morally wrong or unethical, for example 'mis- selling' of financial products, harassing vulnerable people in the press, business bribery, 'cash for questions', massaging targets and shafting your rivals.
According to an old saying ethics are what you do when no-one is looking and a useful self test on any act is to ask yourself "would I still do this if I knew my action were to become public?" Personal accountability should keep us honest and it is now harder for private acts remain private, Pluto apart. Technological surveillance, both legal and illegal by CCTV, phone/ internet tapping and satellite are more pervasive, the tapping of Angela Merkel's phone by the US being a recent highly embarrassing and worrying example. Is it OK for a Government to do in the name of national security that which would be illegal for a private individual? Pluto in Capricorn will, no doubt, continue to expose abuse of power by politicians and professional civil servants.
A professional is one who has a higher duty to his/her profession than to their employing organisation or commercial gain. This can stretch and confuse loyalty. Do you 'shop' your boss or colleague and do you stay quiet and therefore complicit? Values are concerned with what 'should' be and what is desirable. Where an individual's values are at odds with the way an organisation behaves, one phenomenon we may see is that of the 'whistleblower'. Edward Snowden justified the criminal betrayal of his employer, the National Security Agency and his country in 2013 by claiming a higher duty to the public who had a right to know the extent of government spying on its citizens. The moral ambiguity around professional spies has been the plot of books and film. The Guardian newspaper supported Snowden's goal and took the risk of publishing stolen documents which was condemned by the US as irresponsible as it put 'lives at risk'. Snowden is now holed up in Russia and a huge cache of his leaked documents could yet be published. As a damage limitation strategy, the US is currently considering offering Snowden an amnesty, presumably based on an 'end justifying the means' school of ethics.
The emergence of professions as discrete occupational disciplines, values, ethics and self regulation was a trend that emerged in the nineteenth century. Professional bodies such as the British Medical Association and the Law Council came into being to set and maintain standards of entry but also to ensure professional values are maintained. The idea was that these professional bodies could deal with the misconduct of their own. Where this has failed in recent years, the outcome has been to call for greater legal regulation and criminalise more kinds of misconduct.
How effective is regulation? The Financial Services Authority seems to be pretty powerless in the face of global financial institutions, the argument being if you make the City of London too tight then business will go abroad. As soon as rules are made people work to find ways around them. No set of rules can cover every eventuality and technological advances continue to create new crimes. GPs face more bureaucracy post Shipman but it is unlikely that more red tape will prevent another such aberration. Targets and tick box exercises are too often detrimental to professional judgement and are open to cynical manipulation.
Furthermore, are ethics relative rather than absolute? What and whose standards do we use to judge actions? Historians often suggest we should judge historical characters by the context and standards of their times. In days before sexual harassment in the workplace became both recognised and regarded as unacceptable, many a disc jockey seems to have regarded access to young female flesh a perk of the job and could never have imagined being prosecuted decades later when different attitudes prevailed. The nuns of Roscrea convent in Ireland, depicted some would say too harshly, in the recent film 'Philomena' could argue that they were helping to give single mothers a fresh start by arranging adoptions for their babies. Life for a single mother in 1950s Ireland would have been very tough indeed. However, a bonfire of written records could not erase the memories in the souls of mothers and children who were forcibly separated and many broken hearts now seek the sooth of search and reunion. It was also a profitable business for the convent, which made money from the Irish Government, the labour of the girls and the adoptive parents.
Ethical decisions are sometimes not as clear cut as choosing between right and wrong. Often it is more between right for some versus wrong for others and multiple shades of monochrome. Being 'between a rock and a hard place' is a good metaphor for times when Pluto is in Capricorn and Saturn in Scorpio. Many political decisions are agonisingly complex and beyond sound-bite delineation. Sometimes, the Benthamite principle of 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number' is used. In other words, one might have to sacrifice minority interests to the greater good. Pluto was at the end of Capricorn when Henry VIII ruthlessly broke with the Roman Catholic Church and disposed of opponents to achieve the chance of a male heir with a new wife Anne Boleyn. While his vanity and huge ego demanded a successor, the memories of the recent Wars of the Roses, essentially civil wars over the succession were only a generation away. The peace of the kingdom could be seen as more important than the lives of the few. In the end his female children each became sovereigns, so he might not have bothered. However, the power showdown between State and Church had been building through Pluto's long passage through Sagittarius and then Capricorn. An X instead of a Y chromosome was the trigger.
Pluto is utterly ruthless in exposing what is corrupt, past its sell-by date or just not functional. It also brings to the surface hidden pathology in society so that it can be seen and hopefully healed. In Capricorn, Pluto's focus is power within Government, institutions, business and professions. It is not working alone. In 2014 Pluto joins up with Jupiter in Cancer, Mars in Libra and Uranus in Aries for its task which promises to be a wild ride. If a T square stresses decision making, what will the cardinal cross bring? We may all become very aware of our own internal moral compass and what we owe to our own profession of astrology.