Seeking to build a just economy

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
15 Oct 2008

The current global economic crisis is not just a squeeze on lenders, borrowers and spenders. It is also crunch time for the politicians. In the public eye, the scale of the problem demands cooperation rather than bickering. But political leaders still need to accentuate their differences, because they are also continuing to limber up for a general election that will be held on or before May 2010.

How to square this circle? The prime minister’s approach is to stress the economic experience and probity of his administration (something opinion polls suggest the voters are taking seriously), while simultaneously shaping a more broadly based emergency committee and policy to respond to the financial crisis.

Kitchen cynics, whose Westminster presence looms larger when the going gets especially tricky, say this is both a prudent strategy and a cunning ploy. It enables blame to be shared as well as responsibility to be delineated. Gordon Brown is offering leadership, but he is also emphasising that this is not a made-in-Britain crisis: it is a ‘bust’ unrelated to his ‘boom’-free ‘endogenous growth strategy’.

The PM now seems to be having a global impact with his initiatives, in spite of his domestic political woes. But how far do bailouts and stabilisation packages really go in addressing the deeper issues?

While the language of ‘wartime spirit’ in confronting crises is less prevalent than it was some years ago, it still lurks in the public subconscious. That may be what lay behind the thinking of those in the polling organisations and the media who wanted to float the idea of a ‘government of national unity’ earlier this month (October 2008).

What is interesting about this proposition is not just its lack of viability, but what it says about who calls the shots. It is not world poverty affecting millions or the threat of environmental degradation that produces the loudest calls for common political purpose, but a crisis revolving around bankers and billionaires – albeit one with devastating wider consequences for ‘ordinary people’.

Many would suggest that serious political thinking about the economy is not harmed by divergence but by too cosy a consensus, formed around the comforting pieties of ubiquitous pro-market rhetoric. It is these apparent verities that are questioned by the speculation-driven crunch and the amazing banner headline in The Times on 13 September 2008: ‘Banks nationalised’. Anyone who had predicted that three months ago would have been committed to an asylum.

But is all this global financial chaos mere happenstance? Or is it symptomatic of deeper problems built into the kind of money-driven global system we have evolved over the past sixty years? Beyond their well-crafted rhetorical flourishes, few elected politicians will countenance the latter possibility, not least because they continue to aver that ‘there is no alternative’ beyond adjustment and bailout.

That, depressingly, seemed to be the core message of the Rev Dr Alan Billings on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day recently. An academic, 1985 Archbishops’ Commission ‘Faith in the City’ adviser, ex-Sheffield Labour councillor and longstanding advocate of ‘Christian realism’ (the conviction that a naked Gospel is essentially impractical and needs to be re-clothed in ‘common sense’ worldly garb), Billings’ free market enthusiasms have shown themselves to be far less durable than he had supposed when he was summarily dismissing their ecclesial critics.

But in spite of the recent shockwaves, Billings says, liberal capitalism remains the only sustainable show in town. And while capitalism without ethics is unseemly, ethics without capitalism is ineffectual. (So much for Jesus and his naïve pre-industrial mindset, then.)

The problem with this kind of thinking is that, in addition to the danger of not being sufficiently Christian, it accepts a form of realism that is too conditioned by the immediate and not open enough to what Dom Helder Camara called ‘a future not our own’ – the lure of God’s fully relational economy pressing us towards continual reappraisals of the insufficiency of our own.

Certainly, no one in their right mind believes in the resuscitation of ‘command economy’ statist policies or simple full-throttle Keynesianism. But the means to achieve the social, human, monetary and environmental equilibrium that a more ‘just economics’ would require still remains opaque to markets dominated by corporate interests, vast concentrations of capital and speculative finance disconnected from actual productivity and need. The fact that there is no macro-alternative of the polar opposite kind does not mean that the dominant models we have now are working. They clearly are not, as many of the world’s poor have been trying to say for some time.

Markets per se are not the issue here. The greedy, one-sided and shortsighted assumptions and systems that markets are often embedded in are the problem. And those can be changed. Fatalism about this is not, despite its pretensions, realism. And reality is more intriguing, open and multivalent than many self-styled ‘realists’ allow. It’s always worth asking, “which kind of realism are you seeing as contradicting a radical (to-the-roots) Christian hope, and does its version of ‘reality’ include the transformation wrought by the Gospel?" Or is this something the church has simply filtered out in its attempts to appear ‘credible’ to those who dismiss its message?

In political terms, the challenge, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann acutely pointed out some years ago in his book The Future of Creation, is that a qualitatively different social and economic order cannot be imagined purely on the basis of the one that now exists. It requires a stretching of our current capacities and therefore has to be critically envisioned, spiritually dared, and practically edged towards from a position of faithful agnosis. We see darkly, but we still press forward.

Central to all this is personal and social conversion. Seeking societal justice without people who have themselves been turned towards (and schooled) in just living is an illusion. That is why metanoia is at the heart of the Gospel message. This, too, is a threat to an emaciated version of 'Christian realism', which assumes that living differently is just too hard and so cannot be used in public policy making. There is much evidence for this pessimism, but none of it flows from the New Testament, which offers a different picture of what is possible, based on God's incarnational initiative not our own unaided strength.

For these purposes, it is important to realise that even in the face of a distorted and centrifugal economic neo-liberalism (of the kind that is failing even the rich so monumentally at the moment), there are alternatives. But those currently on offer are relatively small-scale, local, zonal and experimental. They range from cooperatives and non-monetary trade and exchange schemes, through to credit unions, ethical investment, fair trade initiatives, levies on speculation, non-usury based interest, microfinance for development (the excellent Oikocredit - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6584), and proposals for monetary reform.

These are all worth investing in and expanding – both as a matter of economic prudence and Christian responsibility. That is the message that should be heard by the Church of England (with its £5 billion worth of assets) and other churches right now. Moralising is not helpful. What we need is practical morality. On that, Alan Billings and I are in complete agreement.

Can those caught up in the existing structures develop the imagination and daring to see in these and other emerging mechanisms the signs of a people-driven economic future? That is part of the huge political and theological challenge framed by tumbling shares, dashed hopes, troubled spirits and mounting fears. Let’s try being the alternative for a change, rather than simply advocating it or dismissing it.

This article has been considerably expanded and developed from a Westminster Watch column appearing in the October 2008 issue of Third Way, the magazine of Christian social ethics and cultural comment.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. He is author of 'Is God bankrupt?' (http://ekklesia.co.uk/research/280205prosperity), which examines market economics from a theological perspective. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard.

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