Neoliberalism- what comes next?

capitalismrocks

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have written a lot about the political-economic status quo- if indeed there is such a thing in these times of economic turmoil. Some of this has been about challenging some of the ‘common sense’ truisms that we have become so used to that we hardly question. Some of too has been my way of expressing frustration and protest in the face of manifest injustice – a system in which the rich get richer, live longer, are better educated etc etc, whilst the poor are blamed as feckless and ‘skyvers’.

Throughout I have also felt this constant desire to see an alternative- a better way to organise our commercial fiscal and tax system. I can catch glimpses of this, in small things between individuals and groups, but the system will tell us that what we have, beyond a bit of tweaking, is as good as it can get.

It is this kind of thinking that allows those of us that call ourselves followers of Jesus to also accept greed, avarice, unjust economic relationships and exploitation as somehow morally justifiable, even necessary components of our society.

Egalitarianism, redistributive taxation and collectivised centrally controlled economies- these have been proved to be bankrupt ideas (we are told) which stultify and stagnate entrepreneurialism and innovation. We only have to look at the failure of communism, and the spectre of British industry circa 1976.

I came across an article in a journal called Soundings, which is a left wing journal interested in a new kind of politics. They are publishing a book online, a chapter a month, called After Neoliberalism? The Kelburn Manifesto.

The first chapter is available here– and sets the scene with some analysis of where we are now. It makes as much sense as anything I have read for some time. Here are a few extracts;

Every social settlement, in order to establish itself, is crucially founded on embedding as common sense a whole bundle of beliefs – ideas beyond question, assumptions so deep that the very fact that they are assumptions is only rarely brought to light. In the case of neoliberalism this bundle of ideas revolves around the supposed naturalness of ‘the market’, the primacy of the competitive individual, the superiority of the private over the public. It is as a result of the hegemony of this bundle of ideas – their being the ruling common sense – that the settlement as a whole is commonly called ‘neoliberal’…

Ideology plays a key role in disseminating, legitimising and re-invigorating a regime
of power, profit and privilege. Neoliberal ideas seem to have sedimented into the
western imaginary and become embedded in popular ‘common sense’. They set the
parameters – provide the ‘taken-for-granteds’ – of public discussion, media debate
and popular calculation.

One key strand in neoliberalism’s ideological armoury is neoliberal economic
theory itself. So ‘naturalised’ have its nostrums become that policies can claim
to be implemented with popular consent, though they are manifestly partial and
limited. Opening public areas for potential profit-making is accepted because it
appears to be ‘just economic common sense’. The ethos of the ‘free market’ is taken
to licence an increasing disregard for moral standards, and even for the law itself.
Commercialisation has cultivated an ethos of corruption and evasiveness. Banks,
once beacons of probity, rig interest rates, mis-sell products, launder drug money,
flout international embargoes, hide away fortunes in safe havens. They settle their
‘misdemeanours’ for huge sums that hardly dent their balance sheets. Similarly,
when private firms that have been publicly contracted fail to meet targets they are
allowed to continue. Graduates stacking supermarket shelves are told they don’t
need to be paid because they are ‘getting work experience’. Commercialisation
permeates everywhere, trumps everything. Once the imperatives of a ‘market
culture’ become entrenched, anything goes. Such is the power of the hegemonic
common sense.

All this strikes me as a good analysis of the heart of our culture- one that has been shaped by the ‘common sense’ that we have been given. It is really hard to challenge this kind of hegemony – even in our selves, our own understanding, our own lifestyle, let alone that of other people.

What is needed is a new kind of ‘common sense’. A new kind of way of understanding the world that we live in, and the economic relationships we have with one another.

Christians already have this of course- what I would term the common sense of the New Kingdom. This kind of common sense values people before profit, seeks to form relationships of love and service. Quite how Christianity became so intertwined with Capitalist Colonialism I have no idea. Other than at some point we decided that being like Jesus was simply impracticable- against common sense.

It will be interesting to watch the unfolding to the Kelburn Manifesto to see if the left might yet have something to teach Christians…

What makes a ‘good’ country?

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Michaela and I have spent quite a few hours sitting looking morosely into cups of tea, talking about the state of our country, and in particular, our government.

For those reading this outside the UK we currently have a concoction of two different parties governing our country, but the ‘crisis culture’ that has been bred by all the economic doom and gloom has allowed the Conservative party to bring about sweeping changes to our benefits system, or health system and our education system, whilst cutting taxation for people earning over £150,000 per annum by 5%. Much of what they have done has a direct impact on the poorest section of our population, and feels to some of us like an abomination.

For example, people who live in social housing, supported by housing benefit (which includes a high proportion of people who are disabled, sick, have mental health problems, or single parent families) will now be faced with losing money, or being forced to move home. If tenants are deemed to have one spare room, the amount of rent eligible for housing benefit will be cut by 14%. If they have two or more spare rooms, the cut will be 25%. Leaving aside the negative effect this will have on all sorts of aspect of peoples lives, the simple fact is that there are no one bedroom flats to move in to for many people!  Unfair, unjust changes like this are justified by this government by two things- a tabloid-like blame-the-poor attitude, and a constant reference to global ecnonomics.

All of which takes me back to the point of this piece- what sort of country would you want to live in?

I started making a list of the things I would NOT want to see in my country;

1. A large (and widening) gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’- enforced by law, tradition and the use of power.

In the UK, we have a remarkably stable upper echelon. People with money and power tend to be the children of other people with money and power. There appears to be evidence that this was reducing somewhat- at least in part because since WWII we had 40-50 years of political hegemony around the issue of equality- of opportunity, of health care of access to education. Power was taken by working people in the form of organised unions, and greater access to higher education gave people from poor backgrounds knowledge and skills they had never had before.

However, the UK egalitarian experiment was in many ways a very British one- it was not revolution, it was bureaucratic evolution. Progress was statistical, and statistics are always open to manipulation.

Along the way, we all became middle class consumers. The working class disappeared with the shipyards and the coal mines, leaving behind a broken underclass who were seen only as a threat, a burden, an expensive waste of resources.

And at the same time, the overarching idealistic imperative towards equality was allowed to slip away. We no longer talk about it. And many of the key elements of it are starting to killed one by one. Universal non-stigmatising benefits? All but gone. Free education, supported by a fair grant system to support people through universities? Gone. Universal health care from the cradle to the grave? Under threat from privatisation. Etc.

We may (and often do) argue about the nuts and bolts of all this- but the central over arching question- is our society becoming more equal, or more divided- has slipped off the agenda almost entirely.

 

2. A society where the rule of law is manipulated or ignored by the people in power, for their own ends, either at home or abroad.

Our comfort with this one in the UK seems to ebb and flow.  In many ways, we might see our justice system, and our sense of ‘fair play’ as essentially British. The fact that we are outraged when fairness is transcended is a sign of this.

However, many would argue that the assumption of British fair play has always been a canard. The Empire was not a selfless project to civilise the world with cricket and people wearing wigs- it was a means to exploit, to subjugate, to enslave even.

At home, the interplay between power and the law is a complex one, and something that requires constant scrutiny at the same time as people in power would keep secrets.

For which you need a free press, and open government.

So, a mixed bag this- we have some movements towards open government, at the same time as the press shoot themselves in the foot with all sorts of bad practices.

There have been some changes too to the way our system works- talk of jury-less trials, and the removal of legal aid from other aspects of law (for example, benefits appeals.) These things need to be resisted.

 

3. Individual citizens are not of equal value- most are expendable in the interests of those who are in power.

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

All sorts of things can be used to excuse this kind of thinking- ideology, religion, economics, war against a common enemy (real or conjured up.)

At some points of our history, the UK has seen its citizens as cannon fodder, or an industrial resource. Currently it is not possible to do this openly thank God.

However, I have heard it said that the measure of a good society should be how we treat our prisoners, our poor people, our elderly, sick and infirm. This should be the first job of government- to govern on behalf of the weak, not the strong. The strong can look after themselves, the weak need to be empowered so that they can do the same.

If this is true, the UK has been doing poorly recently.

 

4. Freedom is waved like a flag, but defined against others, not inclusive of them.

I do not want to be part of a country still caught up in empire lust. However, even without military expansion, nuclear weapons and invasion of other countries, empire can still be a weight upon our nationhood.

We talk about freedom as some kind of inalienable human right- usually hand in hand with democracy and capitalism. Freedom is understood as ‘the right to live in the way that we are living’ with as little interference as possible in the form of taxation, regulation, or imposition by others.

However, this kind of freedom requires examination- particularly when it comes at huge cost to others- when it is based on unsustainable, inequitable trade relationships with poor countries, where it is destroying our environment.

Freedom-to also equally becomes freedom-from. We are free because we are not like you. Perhaps this is sometimes true- there are some despotic places out there. However, when this kind of freedom starts to exclude people in terms of colour, origin, religion, gender, sex- then it is no freedom at all.

 

5. Patriotism becomes nationalism becomes excluisivism, and it ticks like a historical time bomb.

I can think of nothing good that ever came out of nationalism- measured in terms of human dignity and grace. I say this as an outsider living in a country that is considering full independence from the wider UK. Perhaps this might be the project that proves me wrong but I see warning signs to the contrary- the easy negative stereotyping of the other, the co-opting of war stories that justify us against you, the distortion of history to cast ourselves as victims/heroes and the other as oppressors/villains.

In this kind of soil poisonous things grow.

The Bible struggles with all of this- it can be read as the story of a succession of empires as they rise and fall- eventually to be challenged by a totally different kind of Empire, called ‘the Kingdom of God’, in which the the rules are turned upside down- the first become the last, the poor are our conscience and love is our currency.

Patriotism belongs to empire- it has no place in the Kingdom of God.

 

I am British- somewhere inside. I find this difficult to define- as an English/Irishman living in Scotland. I am grateful for the gentle green climate of these beautiful islands, and for the slow pragmatic evolution of our welfare state.

But (in the words of many a school report) we could be doing better…

 

Economic lie number 4; inequality is good for the system…

The whole Capitalist system is dependent on aspiration, or so we are told. Our Chancellor of the Exchequer has just heralded his 2013 budget as something for an ‘aspiration nation’- seeking to help those who want to help themselves- those who want to own their own houses.

Without the wealth creators (business entrepreneurs) there can be no long term prosperity. All that you will have is stagnation- look what happened in the old soviet bloc countries.

Without greed we have bad cars, cabbage soup and bureaucrats in stone washed denim.

Except that the rich are getting richer, even WITHIN our western economies. This from The Telegraph;

The world’s rich are getting richer. The Forbes billionaire list was published this morning (there are now 1,426 of them globally in dollar terms, with 210 new entrants in the last year), and collectively they are $800bn richer than they were a year ago. Each billionaire is, on average, $100m richer than in 2011, with an average wealth of $3.7bn.

And the poor poorer; The Institute of Fiscal Studies forecasts that, as a result of UK tax and benefit policies, there will be significant increases in child poverty in the coming years. In Scotland alone forecast trends would suggest between 50,000 and 100,000 more children being pushed into poverty by 2020. (See here.)

And what is more, the argument can be questioned even by people on the inside;

There is the opposite argument too- that the more equal societies are in terms of income, the better its citizens seem to do. This from here;

In The Spirit Level Wilkinson and Pickett base their analysis on data from 23 rich countries as well as data from the 50 American states. They say that in the main this shows that the following problems are much more pronounced in countries with higher levels of income inequality.

Health inequalities: At the end of the 1990s there was an average gap of 7.3 years in mortality between rich and poor people in unequal societies. This can rise to as much as 28 years in some American states. They argue that research shows these differences cannot simply be explained by differences in health behaviours.
Mental illness: They argue that ‘inequality is  causally related to mental illness’; that rates of mental illness are five times higher in the most unequal societies compared to the least unequal.  Illegal drug taking is also higher.
Obesity: Unequal societies are more likely to have higher levels of obesity, with poor people most at risk, partly because of the attractions of ‘comfort eating’.  Indeed the rate of obesity is six times higher in the most unequal, compared to the least unequal, societies.
Divorce rates: There have been larger rises in more unequal societies. This then creates more stress for children.
Teenage pregnancy: This is more prevalent in unequal societies. Indeed in the USA the rate of teenage pregnancy is four times the EU average.
Violence: Wilkinson and Pickett argue that the strongest evidence or the negative effects of inequality is violence figures. The reasons for this are explored below.
Imprisonment: Unequal societies are more punitive. People are five times more likely to be imprisoned in the most unequal societies than the least unequal.
Social mobility: Inequality leads to less social mobility. Inequality ‘solidifies the social structure’ and also depresses educational attainment for the poor.
Women’s position: In general women are less likely to be in higher status jobs in unequal societies and they also have worse health than women in more equal societies.

Wilkinson and Pickett argue that the problem of inequality is not just for poor people: everyone suffers. The life expectancy figures even for rich people is lower in unequal societies than more equal ones. The reason they advance for this is that unequal societies have lower levels of trust than more equal societies. This lack of trust leads to more hostility, fear and lower levels of community participation. In this way everyone suffers.

In the data they present the societies which are most unequal, and have the biggest health inequalities and social problems, are the USA, the UK, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand. The least unequal are the Scandinavian countries and Japan.

 

Christianity and Capitalism- to resist or to accommodate?

I have been dwelling on economics over the past few weeks. One of the things that has often troubled me has been the role that Christianity has had to play in developing a culture of enforced inequality, both locally and globally. At best we have become guilty by association, at worst we provided the moral justification for the whole shebang and then enshrined it in liturgy.

I have written about this before- if you are interested you might like to check out these posts;

Capitalism; a conspiracy against the common good?

Capitalism and Durkheim

capitalismrocks

Jason Clark has an interesting piece on his blog about the relationship between Evangelicalism and Capitalism, particularly in the US. It is a tough read, but basically, he contrasts two potential kinds of analysis which he characterises as ‘Cultural dispisers’ and ‘Cultural accomodators’.

Firstly the dispisers;

William Connolly, in his 2008 work Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, sets out firstly to diagnose how the ‘capitalist project’ has been perverted and warped by its resonant relationship with conservative right-wing Christian religious beliefs.[1]

Connolly describes how this relationship between an Evangelical right-wing ethos and capitalism is best understood through ‘assemblages’ of media, churches, cultural consciousness, and a ‘spiral of resonances’ that produce the Evangelical capitalist resonance machine.[4]

Connolly’s response to this contention and diagnosis is to suggest that it is within an alternative and ‘counter political movement’,[6] a democratic and left-wing visualisation of a new ethos, that capitalism might be redeemed.[7]

Now for the accommodators;

Pete Ward, in his 2002 work Liquid Church, offers an account of the relationship with Evangelicalism to capitalism that contrasts starkly with those of Milbank and Connolly.

Where Milbank would warn us of the complicity of the Evangelical Church in conforming to the practices of capitalism, and Connolly of the pathologies of the Christian ethos that shapes those practices, Ward critiques the Church for failing to embrace commodification as a spiritual practice and suggests that the Church should be engaged with it even more. For ‘rather than condemn the shopper as materialist Liquid Church would take shopping seriously as a spiritual exercise.’[17] Where the underwriting of commodification by ecclesial practice is inherently evil for Milbank, according to Ward it is a vital and theologically necessary ecclesial practice to the Church.

I have not read Connolly’s book, but I have read Pete Ward’s Liquid Church- which is a great book, although I do not think the points made by Jason do it full justice. What Ward was seeking to do was to get the church to engage fully with the culture we are part of- to flow in its veins. He reckons that it is only by doing this that we understand, that we become relevant, that we can become part of the mission of God for our times. I am not sure that this is the same thing as ‘accommodation’.

Ward uses the example of advertising as a case in point- he suggested that rather than dismissing all such commercialism as ‘of the world’ and therefore having no spiritual significance for the followers of Jesus, rather we can learn so much about the collective spiritual yearnings of our age from advertising. Is this accommodation, or is it being engaged as thoughtful critics?

I am much more convinced by Mike Frost’s book Exiles, in which he compares Christians living in our post-modern, post-Chistendom world to the Jews exiled in Babylon. It is simply not possible to live lives of isolation- neither is it our calling. Rather we have to learn to live as engaged, loving, active agents of the Kingdom of God. This might involve the celebration of aspects of culture, or it might also require us to resist other elements- injustice, prejudice, the power of the strong over the weak. This also brings us into contact with the language of sin and evil- the ways of living that tear into each other and destroy us.

The other polarity that Jason proposes in his piece is that of the dispisers. This is not a word I would have chosen to apply to myself in relation to Capitalism- more because I do not think it would be honest. At the same time as asking my intellectual and theological questions about Capitalism I am very conscious that my whole lifestyle is wrapped up in it.

Back to the direct relationship between Christianity (particularly Evangelical Christianity) and Capitalism. How might we characterise the ways that faith has accommodated? I started making a list;

  1. By emphasising personal, individual salvation above all else. The only useful purpose of mission is to save people from hell after they die.
  2. By embracing success culture. We use the same corporate structures, we reward our religious successes as we would our CEO’s, we value hard measurable outcomes, we construct programmes.
  3. We make mission a kind of hostile take over. Business success involves out performing the opposition, and rejoicing in their bankruptcy. So it is that we see any form of religion not our own as our economic enemies.
  4. Christianity is a lifestyle choice that requires no change to the way we live our economic lives. Yes, I know there is the old ‘tithing’ argument around Evangelical churches, but we drive the same cars, live in the same houses, take the same holidays, fill our lives with the same gadgets- or (and here is the sting) even if we do not have these things, we aspire to them.
  5. We bought into lives characterised by individualism over the collective. The model given to us by the life of Jesus and the early church was all about the collective- how we live for one another, how we hold things in common, how we find ways of including the poor, the weak. Yet these things are not really part of our DNA.
  6. We failed to demonstrate any kind of radical alternative. The best that we have been able to offer is how to live as better Capitalists- more sensible, more responsible, with greater probity.
  7. We did not see injustice, inequality, poverty, unfair taxation, usury, over consumption, environmental destruction, as any of our business. Which relates to point 1.
  8. And where there was visible discomfort with Capitalism, we lacked any coherance, we lacked leadership, we did not become a critical movement. Rather we splintered and focused on totemic side shows live homosexuality and women bishops- all of which is destroying our credibility anyway.
  9. Our mission to the poor was conditional on redeeming them to become like us. Difficult one this, but stay with me. There is lots of wonderful Christian history of engagement with the poor from the Salvation Army right through to local soup kitchens. These activities clean up the edges of Capitalism- but also justify the dominant ethos. It encourages us to lift people back into becoming productive consumers. Like us. It does not suggest that the problem might be in any way systemic.
  10. We forgot that the Church exists not to give us a better life, but to serve the lost and the least. If we are serving the lost and the least, how can we have convinced ourselves that our unsustainable greedy lifestyles are God-given rewards for our moral superiority- which we Brits built an Empire on, and then passed the baton to the USA?

So, the question at the head of this piece- to resist, or to accommodate?

I think we need to resist what should be resisted, and to where there are seeds of justice, of beauty, of grace- there we should plant ourselves alongside and accommodate for all we are worth.

And what would church look like if we took each of these 10 points above and reversed them?

 

RSA animation’s take on the failure of Capitalism…

I may have posted this before, but given my recent posts thought it worth posting again. It crams so many ideas and concepts into such a short video. The bottom line however is that something ain’t working!

It was done in the early days of the ‘credit crunch’ in an attempt to grapple with what went wrong- what caused this current economic crisis.

Trickle down economics; economic lie number one…

The first of a little mini series about Capitalism that has been nagging at me for a while…

trickle down economics

There was an article in out local paper last week- Argyll and Bute council, like most of our councils, has to make significant cuts to the budget. Despite our large geographical area, Argyll has a low density of population and services are already stretched tight. The article listed the sordid detail of the cuts- older peoples care, youth rehab, road schemes, outsourcing services to the private sector who will do the support of our most vulnerable more cheaply etc etc.

And what is all this about? Why is money suddenly so tight? Why do we all buy into the collective idea that ‘times are hard’ and so ‘we all have to tighten our belts?’

The fact is that not all of us do tighten our belts. Many people are doing very well out of the crisis. This from the Guardian;

The super-rich – the top 1% of earners – now pocket 10p in every pound of income paid in Britain, while the poorest half of the population take home only 18p of every pound between them, according to a report published this week by the Resolution Foundation thinktank, which reveals the widening gap between those at the very top and the rest of society.

Inequality has grown sharply over the past 15 years, according to Resolution’s analysis: the top 1% of earners have seen their slice of the pie increase from 7% in the mid-1990s to 10% today, while the bottom half have seen their share drop from 19% to 18%.

And then there are those right at the bottom- the Strivers who are forced to become Scyvers, or the Skyvers who have lost hope, or those who never had a fair crack of the whip in the first place. Have you noticed that when the economy takes a dip, they always take a hit? They become the problem– the scapegoats.

So we see all these regressive punative policy decisions being pursued by our current government- lower benefits to fewer people, changes to housing benefit to force people to leave their homes if they have an extra bedroom. All this in the context of reductions in care provision, and less funding for voluntary bodies and charities. Our current government is doing things that even Thatcher at her most strident would have baulked at.

But again- why? Where does all this come from?

What the neo-liberal economists will tell us is that the problem is caused by natural adjustments made by a self regulating economic system. That the job of us all is to get out of the way and let it all sort itself out like some kind of higher intelligent life form. The problem, they would say, is an over inflated public sector, whose interference in the natural order of things by public spending, taxation and welfare provision means that the economy fails to self regulate.

This kind of economic thinking has become so pervasive, so wrapped up in the political system, so much in service of powerful self interests, that we all wriggle on its hook. We are compliant because we have bought in to some of the lies that the system has sold to us- perhaps the biggest one is this one- Trickle down theory.

In a nu­tshell, trickle-down theory is based on the premise that within an economy, giving tax cutsto the top earners makes them more likely to earn more. Top earners invest that extra money in productive economic activities or spend more of their time at the high-paying trade they do best (whether that be creating inventions or performing heart surgeries). Either way, these activities will be productive, reinvigorate economic growth and, in the end, generate more tax revenue from these earners and the people they’ve helped. According to the theory, this boost in growth will ultimately help those in lower income brackets as well.

So, the argument is, if we have lots of rich people, and they are encouraged to become super rich, then our country, and our economy, will benefit- right down to the roots.

This analysis does not regard the wealth of the few as contingent upon the poverty of many- in this country and even more crucially in the poor countries around the world whose raw materials and cheap labour we are entirely dependent upon.

It also does not conform with the facts, as the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

As the worlds resources are over consumed by the few and our environment continues to be damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

As austerity plans are still touted as ‘good housekeeping’, as if the UK economy could be compared to a household budget.

So, what is the alternative? Fairer, more progressive tax systems? This might be a start- but I think the problem is the system- and we are all part of the system aren’t we? It is really hard to get out of it- the mortgages, the gadgets, the foreign holidays and the dependency on technology to deliver distraction, entertainment and connection.

Where is the Kingdom of God in all of this? What are we, the agents of this Kingdom , to put our energy towards? I am convinced that we need to be engaged critics of injustice wherever we see it- particularly towards the poor and the marginalised.

And the beginning of how we can do this is to take a look at the system through a different set of lenses…