Rock or sand, economy or people

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York

Boom! Even before it is published, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu’s new book On Rock or Sand? is causing a stir.

According to the Independent it says

the Christian values of solidarity and selflessness have been discarded in favour of “every person for themselves” with “rampant consumerism and individualism” dominating politics since the 1980s.

One contributor is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Independent summarises

He criticises the “general social assumption” that the economy “has the power to dictate what is and is not possible for human beings”… “We believe that if we can fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will automatically follow,” he says. “That is a lie. It is a lie because it is a narrative that casts money, rather than humanity, as the protagonist of God’s story”… “Our human journey is not a journey of individuals, it is a journey held in common, and no individual can safely be left behind.” “The principle of the common good and human flourishing finds its foundation here. We really are all in it together.”

The book quotes Marx’s ‘From each, according to his resources, to each, according to his need.’ Sentamu adds:

That sounds extremely left wing doesn’t it? The truth is it is the theology of where I am coming from… If God has created us unique, [and] all of us have got his image and likeness, is it ever right that I should have more when somebody else has nothing?

There is a similar report in the Daily Telegraph , which also compares it with the 1985 Faith in the City Report and tells us that the Prime Minister has ‘pledged to do more to help poor families’. The Guardian reports on the book and offers quotes from it. I particularly like this quote from Sentamu. After citing Archbishop William Temple’s saying, in the 1940s, that the art of government was ‘the art of so ordering life that self-interest prompts what justice demands’ he added:

This marrying of justice and self-interest is deeply unfashionable in a political scene where parties rush to outdo each other in enticing and beguiling the swing vote of middle England not with a vision of justice but with appeals to individual preference, interest and consumer choice. But if we are to build firmly for the future, we need to embrace the kind of wide and generous vision which Temple and Beveridge conceived.

More detail is provided by Pat Ashworth’s report in the Church Times . Andrew Brown offers a good commentary .

What comes across strongly is the complaint that political commitments to national economic aims is happening at the expense of the poor, and more generally at the expense of people outside the south-east of England.

They are right. Over the decades the role of the economy has gradually changed. Time was, especially just after the Second World War, when it made sense for governments to foster economic growth as a way to help people provide for each other’s needs. For a long time the economy grew and grew. We produced more each year, we consumed more each year, we threw away more each year. We reached the stage where most of us had so much that, left to our own devices, we would have been content with our physical assets and developed our lives in other, less consumerist ways. I’m not sure, but I think this would have been round about the later 1970s, though the 1960s hippie movement was a foretaste. Unfortunately, by then the political establishment were of one mind that the success of governments was to be judged by economic growth. From then on, governments have tried every trick in the book to get people to earn more, spend more and consume more.

Economic growth is measured by adding up everything everybody has spent and been paid. Because this is the measure, what rich people do matters more than what poor people do. If one person spends as much on one lunch as a family elsewhere spends on food for a week, the two count as equal contributors to the economy. Hunger doesn’t get measured.

So the cult of the economy has become bad for the people. Those of us who have enough physical things are under constant pressure to work harder, earn more and buy more. Spiritually, we would be far better off slowing down and developing other, richer dimensions of life. Meanwhile those of us who do not have enough physical things are unable to make much contribution to the economy – so those people cease to matter.

The archbishops will no doubt be accused of being politically motivated. However they are basing their appeals on principles which precede modern political and economic debate by thousands of years and extend well beyond the developed capitalist world. Current political debate speaks the language of a small and contracting world; their motivation is a moral and spiritual source well transcending what the politicians of today say and do.

Some European political parties have policies that echo what the archbishops are saying. The best known are Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Italy. In the UK, the closest match must be the Green Party. Twenty years ago it would have been the Labour Party. Now, sadly, it is divided along the lines the archbishops describe. On Tuesday the Labour Party in the House of Commons voted in favour of the Charter for Budget Responsibility , which was all about managing the economy and accepting many of the targets imposed by the current Government. The following day the Labour Party councillors in Liverpool unanimously voted for a very different motion, which included the following:

  • Freezing gas and electricity bills until 2017,
  • Building 200,000 homes a year by 2020 and giving tenants a fair deal with longer, more predictable tenancies and a ban on rip-off lending fees,
  • Giving working parents 25 hours of free childcare a week for three and four year olds,
  • Raising the minimum wage and giving tax breaks to companies that sign up to pay a living wage,
  • Cutting income tax for 24 million people by bringing back the 10p tax rate,
  • Supporting small businesses by cutting business rates for 1.5m small firms,
  • Guaranteeing a job for every young person who has been out of work for more than a year and access to training to develop the skills they need, and
  • Scrapping the bedroom tax.

There is of course no need for Liverpool councillors to agree with MPs just because they belong to the same party. It is good for democracy if the disagreements are out in the open. However these two votes are an excellent illustration of the tension running across political debate.

The idea that ‘managing the economy’ is the most important task of governments remains popular. Increasingly, people are realising that it is a false aim. In the past, in specific situations, it was useful. Now it is only a means for some to benefit themselves at the expense of those less well off.

We need a change of priorities. The economy was made for the people, not people for the economy.

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