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Well, nothing like the reality of a Trump presidency to get one writing again.

In times such as this blogging is a small comfort, something to help one sift through the fog. And so, in order to kick it in gear after a long hiatus, I’m planning to share a few block quotes from some of 2016’s best reads.

I’ll start with Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. Mason certainly isn’t right about everything, but I think he is spot on when it comes to the future of work and how technology or the “network society” is undermining the price system and so, ultimately, capitalism itself.

According to Mason, we are in a state of transition. Further,

It can be a shock to find out capitalism has not always existed. Economists present ‘the market’ as the natural state of humanity. TV documentaries re-create in fantastic detail the Egyptian pyramids or Beijing under the emperors, but gloss over the totally different economic systems that built them. ‘They were just like us,’ dads confidently tell their kids as they wander around the Herculaneum exhibition in the British Museum – until confronted by the statue of Pan raping a goat, or the wall painting of a couple having a threesome with their slave.

When you realize that capitalism once, did not exist – either as an economy or a value system – a more shocking thought arises: it might not last for ever. If so, we have to get our heads around the concept of transitions, asking: what constitutes an economic system and how does one give way to another (217)?

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E.F.

From the great heterodox economist and Catholic Social thinker, E.F. Schumacher:

Above anything else there is a need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something “decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul” [Pixus XI]. Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundations of society. If the foundations are unsound, how could society be sound? And if society is sick, how could it fail to be a danger to peace?

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 38.

According to several news outlets, yesterday marked a historic day for Seattle. Labor leaders, business leaders and city officials reached a deal to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, as announced by Mayor Ed Murray.

In speaking about yesterday’s decision, Murray, regarded as a “social gospel Catholic,” quoted Pope Francis on social justice and income inequality.

Although the measure’s outcome is uncertain, it still is very interesting to note that Pope Francis’s rejection of market ideology has found some real world traction.

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us (Evangelii Gaudium).

Pope Francis Pursues Sinner Across Vatican City Rooftops - The Onion

Pope Francis Pursues Sinner Across Vatican City Rooftops – The Onion

America, left and right, remains in thrall to what Veblen called the “business metaphysic.” The market is not an impersonal, fallible mechanism for distributing resources. It’s a source of spiritual values, and it’s never wrong. The invisible hand distributes virtue and honor along with wealth. God wants you to be rich. But rich or poor, you have what you deserve. Such is their message in this time of despair. Which proves that orthodoxy in the service of business, and business armed with religious purpose, cannot be killed by ideas alone.

John Summers, “The Cult of the Boss: Why Do Americans Admire Businessmen?

Gigorio

From Peppe Savà’s 2012 interview with Giorgio Agamben:

In order to understand what is taking place, we have to interpret Walter Benjamin’s idea that capitalism is really a religion literally, the most fierce, implacable and irrational religion that has ever existed because it recognizes neither truces nor redemption. A permanent worship is celebrated in its name, a worship whose liturgy is labor and its object, money. God did not die; he was transformed into money. The Bank—with its faceless drones and its experts—has taken the place of the church with its priests, and by its command over credit (even loans to the state, which has so blithely abdicated its sovereignty), manipulates and manages the faith—the scarce and uncertain faith—that still remains to it in our time. Furthermore, the claim that today’s capitalism is a religion is most effectively demonstrated by the headline that appeared on the front page of a major national newspaper a few days ago: “Save the Euro Regardless of the Cost”. Well, “salvation” is a religious concept, but what does “regardless of the cost” mean? Even at the cost of sacrificing human lives? Only within a religious perspective (or, more correctly, a pseudo-religious perspective) could one make such plainly absurd and inhuman statements.

Tawney 2

A few gems  from one of the great 20th century Anglican social and economic scholars, R.H. Tawney.

On the medieval era:

The significance of its contribution consists, not in its particular theories as to prices and interest, which recur in all ages, whenever the circumstances of the economic environment expose consumer and borrower to extortion, but in its insistence that society is a spiritual organism, not an economic machine, and that economic activity, which is one subordinate element within a vast and complex unity, requires to be controlled and repressed by reference to moral ends for which it supplies the material means. So merciless is the tyranny of economic appetites, so prone to self-aggrandizement the empire of economic interests, that a doctrine which confines them to their proper sphere, as the servant, not the master, of civilization, may reasonable be regarded as among the pregnant truisms which are a permanent element in any sane philosophy (“The Ideal and The Reality”).

On self-interest:

A religious theory of society necessarily regards with suspicion all doctrines which claim a large space for the unfettered play of economic self-interest (“The Land Question”).

On the economic reformation in England:

In their view of religion as embracing all sides of life, and in their theory of the particular social obligations which religion involved, the most representative thinkers of the Church of England had no intention of breaking with traditional doctrines. In the rooted suspicion of economic motives which caused them to damn each fresh manifestation of the spirit of economic enterprise as a new form of the sin of covetousness, as in their insistence that the criteria of economic relations and of the social order were to be sought, not in practical expediency, but in truths of which the Church was the guardian and the exponent, the utterances of men of religion, in the reign of Elizabeth, in spite of the revolution which had intervened, had more affinity with the doctrines of the Schoolmen than with those which were to be fashionable after the Restoration (“Religious Theory and Social Policy”).

Quotes taken from Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

Mercy-cropped

From Pope Francis’s recently released Evangelii Gaudium:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us…

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule…

Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside of the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

 

RH Tawney

The revolt of ordinary men against Capitalism has had its source neither in its obvious deficiencies as an economic engine, nor in the conviction that it represents a stage in social evolution now outgrown, but in the straightforward hatred of a system which stunts personality and corrupts human relations by permitting the use of man by man as an instrument of pecuniary gain.

-R.H. Tawney, quoted in Rachel Reeves’s speech at the Christian Socialist Movement’s Annual Tawney Dialogue, 2012.

What money

How’s this for an ending?

At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good. 

And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, 203.

As the Rt Revd Peter Selby noted, Sandel is offering secular vision of an orthodox Christian truth.

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