Old Capitalism and Individualism: The New Economy and the New Collective

Last night on the BBC news, there was an item about the people who are ‘occupying’ the grounds in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. They are a very creative bunch. There has been a law passed to say that they are not allowed to ‘demonstrate’ in certain areas. So they have instituted ‘Walking Tours’ of the main sites of capitalism within London. They can’t be arrested for that.


This protest has been a difficult one for the Church. It has cost the Dean of London his job. Here was a person that looked like he was caught between the Chapter of the Cathedral (what ever their view was), a natural sympathy for the Protesters, an inexperience in dealing with the media looking for blood in the waster, and the fact that the people against whom the protesters were demonstrating supply large amounts of money to St. Paul’s.  The issues that have not been dealt with over the years, which have deep roots in what it means to be a follower of Jesus, have been brought light by this protest.


There has been a lot of ‘What would Jesus Do?’ going around. It is clear. Jesus would be with the protesters. Do you remember the stories he told? “If someone takes your cloak at court, then embarrass them greatly by giving them your shirt too, and go out of the court naked!’ “If a roman soldier exercises his right as an oppressor to make you carry his pack one mile, then make his life difficult, by exposing him to punishment, and carry it two!”.  “If the police stop you from protesting the excesses of capitalism, then hold walking tours instead!”


The protest is not a problem. It is the excesses of Capitalism that have caused the financial crisis Europe is now in. Even the ministers of State in countries like Germany are saying “We need an economy that serves the people, not people to serve the economy”. The idea of a social contract is more grounded in Europe than it is in England or America or Australia for that matter. In those places, the ‘Economic Rationalism’ that began in the 1980s took a greater hold and gave rise to the phrases ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ and ‘Regan-omics’


But as Sir Humphrey Appleby said in ‘Yes Minister’. “The Church of England is primarily a social organization, not a religious one….It’s part of the rich social fabric of this country. So bishops need to be the sorts of chaps who speak properly and know which knife and fork to use. The sort of people one can look up to.” It is that kind of a connection between society at large, and trying at the same time to be a disciple of Jesus that captured the Dean of St. Paul’s. (So much for the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury. Those days are long gone).


So I don’t think that there is much question about where Jesus would be. After all, he was crucified.


But the other uncomfortable fact is that we are all implicated in some kind of economic system or another. Those of us who are retired, depend upon it for our incomes. The question is what kind of an economic system are we going to have that respects the environment (the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Environment), guarantees moderate incomes and provides for the poor.? There are ideas around, but they are drowned out by the multitude of voices from America and Britain that worship the kind of system that lead to the current financial crisis. Germany and Fr5ance are trying to come up with ways to save the Euro-Zone, while Britain complains that these measures will disadvantage ‘The City’.


So there is a mess. On Swiss radio on Tuesday night, one of the speakers in a debate I was listening to described us as being at the beginning of the ‘third World War’ which in this case is an economic war, not a ‘fighting war’.


Well, here’s my take on it.


It strikes me that we are in a period like the end of the 19th Century. Then too was a great depression of the 1990s and the ‘West’ was coming to the end of a great period of industrialization, but also of great poverty and injustice and individualism. But it was also this poverty and injustice that gave rise, not only to Charles Dickens’ novels, but to Frederick Engels’ ‘The Condition of the Working Classes in England’ and the works of Karl Marx on society and economy of 1844. This time gave rise to the trade union movement. It gave rise to other collective movements like Rotary and youth movements like the Scouts.


So after a while of prosperity (following 2 world wars and a great depression) we get a bit complacent. We take for granted the social networks that keep us together and responsible for and to one another, and the greed of the capitalists takes over. Individualism is on the rise again. (Remember the ‘Me’ generation of the late 1070’s?) This is the rise of the time when workers wages are being driven down y the cry of ‘international competitiveness’ while at the same time CEOs wages are pushed up to ridiculous levels by7 the same cry. It is the time of increasing freedom for the movement of capital around the world, and increasing restriction of movement of people!


So now what is happening. The costs of such greed and individualism are becoming too high. Governments are looking for ways to reign in the excesses of Capitalism. The youth who are not able to find employment are protesting at the inhumanity of the system of which they are a part. There is an increasing number of Non -government Organisations set up by young people aimed at supporting those who are suffering.


So after a period of forgetfulness and individualism, the power of collective action and a remembering of ‘the social’ is returning. I’m sorry Mrs. Thatcher, but there is such a thing as society. This has come at the expense of the established ‘collective’ groups. Rotary, and the Lions, and ‘The Masons’ and so on, like the Churches are on the decline as expressions of collective action. New expressions of this same movement are springing up with a new generation. This is the bind that St. Paul’s found itself in. The older disciples of Jesus running headlong into the newer ones!


What is missing at this moment is a thorough social and economic critique of the order of Karl Marx’s . As I said, these voices are there (in the form of speeches such as ‘prosperity without growth’ and others) but they have not achieved the same traction as those of Marx as yet.


The Church (and here!) needs also to find ways of allowing a younger generation to find their religious voice. To study the scriptures and celebrate the Eucharist in ways that give expression to their desire to find answers to the question ‘What would Jesus do?” Our task, as the parishioner of St. Andrew’s in Zurich said to me at a seminar ‘is to finance the next movement, and create space for its development. This is especially true if we want to avoid the same kind of bind that the Dean of St. Paul’s experienced. His experience is not just his. It is an expression of our times.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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