Issues and questions for both the Church and wider society

by Terry Drummond, November 2011 (with thanks in part to Angus Anderson for the introduction)

Introduction

The issues arising from the tents set up outside St Paul's Cathedral at its simplest level are related to questions about the way that capitalism is so dominant and important for the way we live and cooperate. It may actually point to the fact that we are going through a major paradigm change in the context of politics and economics.

The present financial crisis has thrown the economic and social nature of the way we live into sharp relief, and we need to consider that the nature of the global pressures we now face. We cannot simply move back to a model of the state's role,  say at 2006 levels, from which we can somehow take a deep breath and work our ways back  to normality over the next 5 years or so.

How both personal and collective communal values and expectations come into play will be a key aspect of how (radical) new ideas evolve - leading to a very new paradigm. The changes may include a renewed perspective on our understanding of the role and contribution of financial institutions in seeking the common good.

In this context the contribution of theologians in dialogue with other intellectual streams of thought could become an important part of the analysis. A key question is how the debate is opened to the wider community and in particular local congregations.

It is important to recognise that we are not just talking about the UK this is world wide phenomenon that requires consideration and a dialogue between at the very least. The discussions can and should begin within the Churches and be rooted in the everyday lives of all citizens. The dialogue in the first instance should include a conversation between:

  • Political thinkers
  • Theologians
  • Economists

Issues for consideration

In the light of the above the following issues are those that I would identify  as being worthy of consideration:
  • What kind of society can people build together? The campers may represent a mix 'bag' of issues but the key theme in the first instance is one of the role of capitalism in everyday life. Is the creation of a fairer and more equitable society possible? Not by expecting the end of capitalism but by seeking to define financial growth that is not only based on the profit motive. The discussion is not new. In his book Capitalism against Capitalism published a number of years ago  Michel Albert offered some incisive and critical thinking on the issues that are now  at the fore-front of the debate.
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury raises1 the possibility of a 'Tobin Tax' on "this means a comparatively small rate of tax (0.05 per cent) being levied on share bond, and currency transactions and their derivatives, with the resulting funds being designated for investment in the 'real' economy, domestically and internationally".
  • The possibility is also highlighted in a Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace  document2 that notes the proposed tax  is of both national and international importance because it is unlikely that any country  would institute such a tax unilaterally.
  • In the Pontifical Council paper there is also a call for a global political authority to manage the economy and the world economic order based on ethics. (National Catholic Reporter 25 October 2011)
  • In its conclusions the report states: "Under the current uncertainties, in a society capable of mobilizing immense means but whose cultural and moral reflection is still inadequate with regard to their use in achieving the appropriate ends, we are urged to not give in. We are asked above all to build a meaningful future for the generations to come. We should not be afraid to propose new ideas, even if they destabilize pre-existing balances of power that prevail over the weakest. These ideas are seeds thrown to the ground that will sprout and hurry towards bearing fruit".
  • In The Precariat - The new dangerous class3 Guy Standing argues that across the globe there is a new group/class of people who lack an anchor or stability because they are in short term, low paid jobs that lack the security of traditional employment. The tents outside St Paul's in the first instance were intended in part to represent this group and draw attention to their plight.
  • How can we create more opportunities for young people to find full time reasonably paid employment? If we don't achieve some creative and attractive opportunities for paid employment we are at serious risk of producing a new underclass described in the The Precariat.
  • The question that needs serious consideration is what are the necessary steps required to overcome the problems both real and potential that are created by a potentially large number of people (of all ages) who are caught in a trap that means they have no investment in society.
  • Is it possible to work for and create a market economy that serves the common good?
  • The tents outside St Paul's is for some people a way of highlighting this issue and the report from the St Paul's Institute published this week Value and Values: Perceptions of Ethics  in the City Today is a valuable resource in thinking about the wider implications of ethics and finance.
  • It highlights the fact that many people believe that since the 'Big Bang' that changed the way financial services are organised and operate means that behaviour is now less ethical than it was before the deregulation of markets.
  • An important finding is that 75% of the respondents agree or agree strongly that there is too great a gap between rich and poor in this country similarly agree or strongly agree that companies should invest directly in deprived communities.
  • The reflection on the issue of ethics of those working in the financial sector and the potential for greater investment in deprived communities offers an opening for a wide ranging debate to which the Church must contribute.
  • The research also points to a majority who believe that City of London does not need  to listen more to the guidance of the Church, this is a perspective that we should challenge on an informed theological basis.
  • Is there the seeds of a new politics in any of this? (Derek Markie) The question which arises from the tent s outside St Paul's demands serious consideration and whilst the Churches will no doubt seek to stay out of the political arena we have much to offer to a thoughtful debate and discussion on the issues raised.

Conclusion

In The Precariat (page 156) Guy Standing writes:

There is a need for a new politics of paradise that is midly utopian and proudly so. The timing is apt, for a new progressive vision seems to emerge in the early years of each century. There were the radical romantics of the early nineteenth century, demanding new freedoms, and there was a rush of progressive thinkers in the early twentieth century, demanding freedom for the industrial proletariat. It is already late but the discrediting of labourism alongside the moral bankruptcy of the neo-liberal model of globalisation is a moment of hope for an emancipatory egalitarianism geared to the precariat.

The possibility of a new politics may seem too many people to be an illusion or a blind alley, though opening up a discussion could lead to some creative and practical conclusions. It will also take up the challenge of the report of the Pontifical Commission.


References

  1. Time for us to challenge the idols of high finance Rowan Williams (Financial Times 02 November 2011)
  2. Towards the international financial and monetary systems in context of the global public authority (24 October 2011) The Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace
  3. The Precariat - The new dangerous class Guy Standing (Bloomsbury 2011)

Note

Members of staff of the Contextual Theology Centre in East London is taking an active role  in contributing to the Assemblies held by the participants in the community that are linked to the tents outside St Paul's. The Centre is preparing a briefing note for Christian congregations and others to use in discussing the issues raised by the campers, with particular reference to the proposals for economic change.


Terry Drummond CA is the Bishop of Southwark's Adviser on Urban and Public Policy.