The failure of our governing elite is technical and political, for sure. But it is also moral. They have short-changed the public for so long that they don’t know any different.

So writes Aditya Chakrabortty in a recent article in the Guardian, arguing that ministers act in their own financial interests rather than the interests of the country. This post asks what kind of moral failure we’re seeing.

Chakrabortty’s context is Brexit. He cites various pieces of evidence. One is a recent book Reckless Opportunists by the sociologist Aeron Davis. Studying people at the top of Westminster and Whitehall, big business, the media and the City, Davis finds common trends:

they reach the top far sooner, stay in post for far less time, before rushing through the revolving doors to the next gig.

This has produced a generation of leaders who are ‘precarious, rootless and increasingly self-serving’.

They grab whatever they can – be that cheap headlines or fast money – and then crash out, even while loosening the very foundations of the institutions entrusted to them.

Chakrabortty comments:

There is no heroism here, just moneyed nihilism. There are no ideas, just reheated Thatcherism about low taxes and burning red tape. These people say little about national interest, but their ears prick up when it comes to compound interest.

What kind of morality?

So:

  • • What kind of morality, or amorality, or immorality is it?
  • • How has it arisen?
  • • Do we have better alternatives?

Government supporters will disagree with his examples, but power has certainly shifted from elected governments to ultra-rich individuals committed to enriching themselves.

To see it as immoral is to say it breaks the moral rules. I doubt whether the people concerned think they are breaking moral rules. Rather, they do not accept the kinds of rules that would disapprove of their actions.

To see it as amoral is to say they act without any sense of moral judgement on their actions. In other words, they would reject the idea that their actions are morally significant.

To see it as moral is to say they do have moral standards, and their actions are in accordance with them: so what they are doing is morally right.

Chakrabortty reflects on the immediate context. I find it helps to take a longer view. Over the centuries, one set of moral standards was replaced by a different set. The different set had its own inherent weaknesses. One of its weaknesses was that it made itself unnecessary. As a result, a generation who believed in it as morally right has prepared the way for a later generation who just do it without regard for moral implications.

Since we are talking about western capitalism its intellectual roots lie in Christian culture and the secularism that grew out of it.

Christianity began in the ancient Roman Empire. Roman emperors were typical of ruling classes who had not begun any moral reflection on government. They benefited themselves as much as they could at the expense of everybody else.

The first Christians opposed them by appealing to moral standards grounded in a god who designed the world to provide for everybody. For everybody to be well-fed and free from political oppression was, to early Christians, a moral requirement.

Because this moral requirement hinders the self-enrichment of rulers, rulers who agree with it in principle tend to water it down over time.

This tension between the self-interest of rulers and the egalitarianism of the ruled also occurs in other traditions. Where Christianity is unique is in the breakdown of the moral presuppositions. After the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the search for peace produced a separation. From then on financial matters were to be for governments, spiritual matters for churches.

So God became irrelevant to questions of power and money. The study of economics had until then been a branch of ethics, a question of how God wanted resources to be allocated. In the eighteenth century it was turned into a science.

From then on the main question was not how to allocate limited resources but how to increase the total amount of resources.

This change reflects the interests of the ruling classes. As long as it is believed that resources are limited, any attempt to help the destitute must be at the expense of somebody else. To hoard money while others are in need is immoral.

Once it is believed that total resources can be increased, the ruling classes can then believe their wealth is not held at the expense of the poor. Morally, this is the green light permitting them to seek personal enrichment without any qualms.

The idea could be strengthened if it could be shown that, when the rich got richer, the poor would benefit too. So arose the theory of the ‘trickle-down effect’. Of course it is the reverse of what normally happens, but it is what ruling classes have wanted to believe since the eighteenth century.

Thus arose an alternative morality, the opposite of the older Christian morality.

What Chakrabortty describes is the final step. It is the easiest step. It needs no theory. It just happens, when people don’t think about theories.

A generation of rich people have been brought up to believe that the way to benefit society is by increasing their own individual wealth. It is described as a morally good thing to do.

But they have, in any case, been brought up to want more and more wealth, without limit. Treating their self-enrichment as a moral imperative adds nothing. It is just the candle on the cake, inedible. They may appeal to it for advertising purposes, but as a motivator it adds nothing to what they wanted to do anyway. So why not just forget that morality talk, and do what you wanted to do anyway?

Which is what Chakrabortty says is happening now. It is also what the emperors of ancient Rome were doing.

When Chakrabortty complains about the declining commitment to serving the nation, he is perceiving something that has been coming for a long time.

Ruling classes are always tempted to misuse their power to benefit themselves. Healthy societies make sure the temptation is checked – by laws expressing moral values committed to the common good. We need to reaffirm the values of the common good.