Capitalism; a conspiracy against the common good?

Interesting interview with the current Bish of Durham in the Guardian.

Justin Welby, who is apparently one of the favourites to become the next Archbishop, has an interesting background at the centre of UK establishment- Eton school, Cambridge University, The City of London as an oil executive, along with stints working in the oil fields of Nigeria.

All of which would suggest that his perspective on economic ethics would be rather right of centre. Not so however- this on the Occupy Movement;

“Occupy reflects a deep-seated sense that there is something wrong, and we need to think very hard about what’s wrong.” I press him on this, just to make sure I am hearing him right: “Were Occupy right that something is wrong?” He doesn’t hesitate in any careful, diplomatic Anglican way. “Of course they were right. Absolutely. And everything we are hearing now says that.”

His time as an oil executive in the centre of the City must give him a particular perspective on Capitalism, red in tooth and claw. The interviewer asked him if it all was not just one great, big conspiracy against the common good; profits privatised, losses socialised, to which he had this to say;

“When one group corners a source of human flourishing, it is deeply wicked. It applies to the City, to commodities traders, and to churches who say only this way is right.” This is pretty strong stuff. He continues: “The City is unspeakably powerful. The longer I go on, the more I am aware of the power of finance.”

Talk of the common good is exactly where Bishop Welby is at, ethically. He cites Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 letter Rerum Novarum as the greatest influence over his moral thinking. In this letter, a response to the exploitation of workers in industrial societies, the Pope sets out that the job of the state is to provide for the benefit of all, not least the most dispossessed. Though it rejects socialism, the theology it advocates lays out what later came to be called a preferential option for the poor: “The interests of all, whether high or low, are equal. The members of the working classes are citizens by nature and by the same right as the rich; they are real parts, living the life which makes up, through the family, the body of the commonwealth … therefore the public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes; otherwise, that law of justice will be violated which ordains that each man shall have his due.”

There is also an interesting discussion about how Christianity is intertwined with capitalism- how the cultural inheritance of Christianity made us who we are, including our greed and excess;

(He quotes a) letter from the economist John Maynard Keynes to Virginia Woolf. The Bishop tries to recite the quote from memory: “We are the lucky generation, we have inherited the benefits of our father’s faith but don’t have the moral obligations. The next generation will be lost in their lust like dogs. We have destroyed Christianity, they will reap the cost of that.” In other words, Welby suggests we are living off and running down the cultural capital of Christianity. I point out to him that Stephen Green (Rev’d Stephen Green, now Lord Green, trade minister and author of Good Value, a book about ethics and finance) ran HSBC when it was laundering Mexican drug money, and Roman Catholic John Varley was CEO of Barclays. Christianity may offer little mitigation against City wrongdoing or morally significant mistakes.

Can Christianity, through the voice of people like Justin Welby, really start to become the faithful, engaged critics of our generation? Can we propose or model a real live alternative? This is my hope, although what this alternative may be is still so hard to visualise, so entwined are we with the culture we have both spawned and feed from.