This post is part of a series summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.
Here I focus on wealth.
Just over 40 years ago I studied a course in economics. One of the debates between economists was about economic growth.
After the Second World War, the returning soldiers had to be matched up with the repairs to all the destruction and the provision of basic necessities. Success meant people had more money to spend, and the economy grew.
Reasons for economic growth
Beyond that, was there any need for economic growth? Once there was enough of everything to go round, why create more?
The real reason for persisting with economic growth was political. If there was enough to go round, but it needed redistributing so that the poor had more, did that mean the rich would have some of their wealth taken away? The rich were politically powerful and could resist. So economic growth would enable the poor to get richer without taking from the rich.
It’s the stupid, economy
This conclusion is now presupposed. Anyone who thinks otherwise is now presented as an extremist. Every general election is dominated by arguments about who can manage the economy most successfully to produce economic growth. The catchphrase ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, usually attributed to Bill Clinton, illustrates the dominant assumption about what will sway people’s votes. We are expected to think of ourselves and our money before all else, and imagine that we will have more money if we are governed by people whose top priority is managing the economy.
The economy is the god of secular capitalism. In an earlier post (see also here ) I described how the ancient Babylonians thought their gods treated humanity instrumentally. For society to survive it had to carry out its duties to the gods. The priests knew which sacrifices had to be performed. As long as these duties were performed human life would continue, but there was no reason to expect a pleasant life. Individuals were dispensable.
Today the whole idea seems so absurd that we wonder how a whole society could have been taken in by it.
Yet we are doing the same today. We just use different language about it: instead of talking about what the gods demand, we talk about what the economy demands.
Just as in ancient Babylon, we are told there is a threat of chaos which society as a whole must avert by making sacrifices.
Just as in ancient Babylon, there is an élite of experts who know which sacrifices we must make and promise a better future if we make them.
Just as in ancient Babylon, the sacrifices are to be made by other people; the experts, and their social class, are the real beneficiaries.
Just as in ancient Babylon, the promise of a better future is rarely fulfilled; but society is persuaded that even though the experts get it wrong sometimes, they still know more than the rest of us.
Over time, but especially since 2010, governments have loosened employment regulations to allow wages and pensions to drop. As wages dropped for the low paid, welfare benefits came to seem proportionately generous. George Osborne exploited the situation with his ‘workers and shirkers’ rhetoric to divide the poor against each other. An intolerant public mood was generated, where workers with deteriorating conditions blamed the unemployed for their lot – instead of blaming the real cause, government policy.
So one of the richest countries in the world can apparently afford less and less. Wages are reduced, public services are cut and ever-increasing numbers are starving or homeless, all in the name of The Economy. We are like frogs in slowly warming water: year after year we get used to the latest deterioration and forget that things could be any different.
The public has grown used to political discourse treating the economy as god, especially at election time. In a thousand different ways we are told, in effect, that the purpose of human beings is to maximise The Economy. People who don’t take part in this communal activity are treated as a burden on the rest of us. Their conditions of life are made worse, to incentivise them to get a job and contribute to The Economy.
So we are once again on an endless treadmill, constantly needing to make more sacrifices to avert the threats from the false god we worship.
The idea of improving the living conditions of the worst off is not altogether forgotten, but is postponed to an ever-receding future when we have got the economy the way we want it. That future will of course never arrive.
So whereas economic growth once seemed the most effective way to improve the lot of the poor, now the poor need to be made poorer in order to promote economic growth.
Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God: a society doing things God’s way. God provides everything we need – food, materials, sunshine and rain, our muscles and brains. Because God cares for us and is generous, we don’t need grand projects of productivity or growth. We don’t need to enslave each other. We don’t need to force each other to work harder.
What we should be doing is to make sure the resources we’ve already got are shared round so that everybody’s needs are met. Once we’ve done that, all that remains to be done will be to give thanks, celebrate, and make sure everybody can be included. The only thing that stops us voting for it is our neo-Babylonian myth.