Syriza, Podemos, Le Pen, Brexit, now Trump. What’s happening? As long as the debates are conducted in black and white, each side too angry too understand the other, we will not find a satisfactory way forward.
This post describes some historical causes with theological significance.
The nature of the crisis
For around 40 years the cult of economic growth has dominated political discourse across the capitalist West. It has been telling us that human well-being depends on economic growth. The details vary from country to country, but until 2008 most years we were told that the economy was growing so we were better off.
But people can judge for themselves their own quality of life. Despite being told it is getting better, it has been getting worse for most. Especially for the poorest.
In reality economic growth only means that the amount we all spend and receive is going up. Governments usually calculate it on a national level. It says nothing about how the wealth is distributed or what it is used for. When bankers get bonuses worth millions, it helps the economy. When low-paid employees get pay rises it may be a greater help in human terms but the economy is not helped as much. Sales of computer games help the economy; so do car accidents.
The disadvantaged are now seeing that the wool has been pulled over their eyes. When people realise they were taken in by it for such a long time, they become all the angrier.
The rebellion was bound to happen eventually. Desperate for a change of direction, the rebels are using the only power they have: the vote. In this sense the ‘liberal elite’ are indeed to blame for Trump’s victory. For too long they have ignored the many suffering from their policies.
Unfortunately these dissenting votes, for both Brexit and Trump, are likely to make things worse for the rebels themselves. The most disadvantaged usually depend for their information on the mass media. Newspapers and television programmes are provided by the very ‘liberal elite’ against which they are rebelling, and promote its values. To work out how to change things for the better, the rebels need alternative resources. Most do not have them. Gone are the days of Trotskyist groups arguing through the night about political analysis. Only Greece produced a government of the left, and even that was disempowered by the European Union’s economic ‘orthodoxy’. Elsewhere the rebels have expressed their anger by supporting public figures who echo their gut feelings. Leaders who emerge in this way – like Farage and Trump – are nearly always beneficiaries of the very system their supporters are repudiating. Leaders like this have no intention to bite the hand that feeds them. They always disappoint.
In order to see our way through to a better future we need to appreciate what is wrong with the present setup. I shall describe two flaws. Both are derived from an anti-Christian turn in public values.
One is the tradition of liberal economics, especially in its current neo-liberal guise.
The word ‘liberal’ can mean different things. Theological liberalism, as espoused by Modern Church, is the opposite of dogmatism: it tells us that individuals and groups should be free to judge for themselves what is true, on religious matters just as we do on other matters. It has some connection with political liberalism, in that it stresses the value of individual humans as free agents.
Individualism was a contribution of Christianity to the ancient Roman Empire. The logic was that every person is made and loved by God and therefore matters supremely. While every person’s individuality is expressed in community, every individual’s value is incomparably greater than the contribution they make to society.
Similarly they saw freedom as a gift from God. It brings both opportunities and responsibility. When you care for someone in need, it really is you doing it, not some predetermined cause in your genes or the laws of nature. The corollary is that when you don’t care, it really is you who isn’t caring.
This is why the medieval Catholic Church laid down rules about just prices and wages. It decreed that giving to beggars was a moral duty. It told those with incomes that if they earned more than they should for their status in life, they should give the excess to the poor. So both individualism and freedom were contextualised – given for godly purposes, not just for their own sakes.
Capitalism began as a reaction against this Catholic teaching. Merchants and bankers argued that if they could increase the overall wealth of the country, everybody would benefit. Eventually economic theories were developed in support of the idea. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand of Providence’ was supposed to ensure what has come to be called ‘the trickle-down effect’.
Of course, there is no such thing. The result was to create a moral vacuum. Liberating the economically powerful from their moral responsibilities has permitted them to pursue their own interests without regard for the effects on other people.
Secularism reinforces the change by altering the presuppositions of morality. The point of secularism is that, as far as public matters are concerned, religious affiliations are irrelevant. This means that there is no moral authority above the individual human. When the highest moral authority is the individual human, all right and wrong are to be derived from whatever the individual wants. Everyone should therefore be free to pursue whatever objectives he or she chooses.
This changes the way we think of ourselves. Our individualism and freedom get stripped of their social context. Instead of being given for moral purposes they become absolute principles, to be defended for their own sakes. Whatever the individual wants becomes right by definition. Hence the moral vacuum.
Now for one more turn of the screw. The more recent neo-liberal economic theory, as expressed most influentially by Friedrich Hayek, tells us that government redistribution of wealth from rich to poor is an abuse of power. It imposes government preferences on individuals who should be left free. It is therefore immoral. A recent article by George Monbiot describes Hayek’s theory and its effects.
So the Christian obligation for the rich to give to the poor was first rendered morally neutral and later declared immoral. Until the 1970s the gap between rich and poor was first defended on the practical ground that it would benefit the poor as well as the rich. Today it is defended as a moral principle, regardless of how many are driven to homelessness and starvation.
The other flaw in the system is about productivity. How much stuff do we need to produce, and for what purpose? How hard do we need to work?
Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, describes the world as created by God to be good for us. The first chapter of Genesis stresses that everything God has made is good. God provides the wealth we need. However, because we are given freedom to choose between good and evil, the powerful take more than they need and leave others without. Today many parts of the world suffer from starvation while others suffer from record-breaking obesity levels.
Again, secularism changes the presuppositions of morality. When we leave God out of the picture we tell ourselves that the resources available to us were not deliberately created, let alone created to be good for us. They just happen to be there, products of unthinking laws of nature. They provide for some of our needs, but not as well as we would like. We should be able to do better. We learn to blame nature for everything that goes wrong, and set about making improvements.
Hence the cult of productivity. This is the communitarian imperative, the very opposite of liberal individualism. To meet everybody’s needs we must produce more. To produce more we need a growing economy. We need everybody to work harder. Humanity against nature. Human life must be artificialised. There is a lot to be done. Those who do not work hard are a burden on the economy. They must be incentivised to work harder, by having their benefits reduced – as happened in Britain one more time last Monday. If they do not get jobs and work hard, we would be better off without them.
Of course much else is going on as well, but here are two causes of our present crisis. In both cases an older moral norm, inherited from Christianity, was stripped of its religious elements in the name of secularism and later reinterpreted to produce very different imperatives. These imperatives – a free hand for the wealthy to do whatever they like with their money, and the drive to produce and artificialise more and more – are unsustainable. Their day is over. Economic growth, increased productivity and a rising stock market can sometimes be appropriate for a few years for particular reasons, but they cannot go on for ever.
Both neo-liberal economics and the growth agenda began as theories designed to excuse the rich from the moral obligation to share their wealth with the poor. Both have done immeasurable damage.
So at a critical time like this it won’t do for each side to demonise the other, as though all the right was on one side and all the wrong on the other. There is much wrong on both sides, including some of the things they have in common.
We need deeper, radical thinking. We need to ask ourselves all over again: what are we trying to achieve? Why? What makes us value our preferred lifestyles, and is it achievable without doing harm to others? Which lifestyles are sustainable? Which are consistent with the well-being of others, and future generations? What do we need to give up, so that others can have a better life?
As always, the future is open. We may end up with another Hitler and World War 3. Or we may find more sustainable, egalitarian, respectful, peaceful ways to share this planet with each other.
To find better answers, and act on them, is a moral task. The ideologies of the recent past have been telling us that technique can replace morality. They have offered us salvation by economic, political and technological expertise. By now it should be clear that they are wrong. No technique, no expert skill, can replace the moral requirement to care about the effects of our actions. No class of people, however rich or powerful, should be exempted from moral decencies. We need societies, and governments, who care.