The grand vacuum

By Ann Pettifor
September 21, 2010

We here in the UK have had blanket coverage of the Pope’s visit, which has apparently been global. On the whole the coverage irritated me, because, as always, the trivial dominated public debate. ‘Pope’s battle to save Christmas’ was a typical headline. ‘Pope: don’t let the PC brigade wreck Christmas’ – screamed Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. These headlines derive from the Pope’s speech at Westminster where he was quoted as saying that “there are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.”

All of which I believe, misses the point. It is true that Christmas is being wrecked. But not by the PC brigade, despite the Sun’s attempt to discredit efforts to end discrimination. Instead Christmas is increasingly wrecked by capitalism’s ruthless exploitation of its values and sentiments, and by the unrestrained consumption unleashed by the finance sector’s interests and values. That is what the Pope should have attacked, explicitly. He could have taken a leaf out of the book of that admirable campaign, Operation Noah (and here I declare an interest) which has attacked the super-consumption associated with Christmas, and campaigns to ‘Reclaim Christmas’.

Instead, the Pope’s attack diverted attention from the meaning of Christmas, gave succour to the prejudices of readers of the Sun, and focused instead on those who would defend a faith, Islam, currently under attack from all sides. (For a rebuttal to some of the anti-Muslim feeling, do watch Michael Moore on the New York Mosque: how all Muslims are often painted with the terrorist brush, and his defence: “I went to Catholic mass yesterday, but that does not make me a paedophile”.)

Which is why I was so struck by a letter in today’s Guardian, from Simon Clarke of Lewes, East Sussex, which is not, I believe, available online, so here it is reproduced it in full:

“While the Vatican presents itself as a champion of moral values, the abuse scandal and the prejudicial doctrines towards women, homosexuality and birth control leave me marvelling at the hypocrisy. But then I can’t but agree with the pope’s analysis of where secularism has got us, which incidentally matches radical Islam’s view of the decadence and immorality of the materialism of the west.

“Fifty odd years of unrestrained consumption and declining moral values have exposed to a large degree the failure of secularism to put in place an alternative morality. This failure I think can be directly linked to the resurgence of conservative religion as people become ever-increasing victims of unrestrained capitalism and the dominance of markets.

“Moral leadership is essential to us all, and if no one else will step forward with the message then we should not be surprised when religion does. We are in desperate need of a secular morality that puts human beings ahead of the bottom line and that’s where the “aggressive” secularists fail miserably, as they attack religion for all its obvious flaws but offer nothing in its place.”

So there we have it: a vacuum of moral leadership: a vacuum hollowed out by finance capital. While the pope cited the global financial crisis as an example of what happened when pragmatic solutions were applied in the absence of ethical considerations, that did not come across to me as an attack on unethical capitalism, and support for its victims, the millions rendered unemployed or impoverished by the reckless gambles of the finance sector.

We, as a society, battered and beat by the financial crisis, are searching for moral leadership (from faith or political leaders) that elevates the values and ethics of human security and well-being above the capital gains of a a few greedy gamblers. A moral leadership that would chase the moneylenders out of the temple that is our democracy; that would limit and restrain finance capitalism, and once again render it servant, not master of society and the economy. Despite the pope’s efforts to instil moral leadership, we still yearn for that grand vacuum to be filled.


© Ann Pettifor is a political economist, author and analyst of the global financial system. She writes regularly at - from which this budget response is adapted with grateful acknowledgements. Her Ekklesia blog is here: Ann is co-author of the Green New Deal ( She predicted an Anglo-American debt-deflationary crisis back in 2003, and is known for her work on sovereign debt and international finance, including Jubilee 2000. Ann is currently a fellow of the New Economics Foundation (, director of Advocacy International (, and campaigns director of Christian climate change campaign Operation Noah (

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