In an amusing speech to the Oxford Union the late Gerard Hoffnung advised foreign tourists in London to ignore all left and right signs, “they are merely political symbols”.
I recalled this whilst reading a challenging book by Paul Mills and Michael Schluter, After Capitalism: Rethinking Economic Relationships. Their thesis is that whilst capitalism frees people to trade and do business without control by politicians and bureaucrats, as in a centrally planned socialist economy, it departs from biblical teaching in ways that damage people and nations.
Enthusiasm for centrally planned socialist economics died in the 1980’s, except amongst Marxist zealots, with the fall of Russian communism and Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. Even in China liberal economic policies are now fashionable. The temptation to conclude that capitalism had won the ideological argument has been dented by recent history of bank failures, credit crises and the possibility that national economies, such as Greece, might implode.
Socialism and capitalism were creatures of the 18th century ‘enlightenment’. They both embody important values. The socialist concern for social and economic justice for the poorest is important in any biblically-based worldview. The same is true of the freedom to choose and create wealth, and the dispersion of power, that capitalism promises. The problem with both economic models and the regimes they birth is that they fail in various ways to adequately match the humanness made in God’s image. Both systems make a few prosperous and privileged but many relatively or absolutely poor and powerless. Even worse from a biblical perspective, they make money an idol.
The current state of the British economy, the contribution the banks have played in causing this and the parallel experiences across Europe, the USA and other developed economies will open us all to ask where we go from here. Important lessons have to be learnt about the behaviour of the banks and their ethics, the regulation of our financial institutions, governmental management of the economy and the wisdom of making excessive use of credit to finance our lifestyles. That is widely agreed but the analysis and reflection needs to go much deeper, to ask questions that may not be welcome.
As recent economic history demonstrates, the current model of capitalism depends heavily on using credit and creating debt that is contrary to the biblical injunction not to charge interest and to remit debts every seven years. Today the priority is how to revive the economy and grow our GDP but should it be to live more simply so that those in low income economies might simply live? The focus is rightly on the material poverty of the unemployed but who cares about the relational poverty of families whose parents work all hours they can simply to keep the loan sharks at bay. These are just three examples of questions that need to be considered. Those left and right slogans are irrelevant now and fresh thinking is needed that takes our humanness and relationships seriously.