The elephant in the room…..

For once the House of Commons was united, with MP’s falling over each other to articulate the same message, namely that SIr Philip Green, the former owner of the defunct British Home Stores, was a disgarce to all righteous capitalists, and deserved to have his unearned knighthood removed from him, for having raised questions about an economic system that allows predatory manipulators like him to have power over people’s lives, not to mention an honours systems that licks their backsides for having done so. All the hot air expended did not produce one single proposal that the state should reimburse the many former employees of  BHS whose pension fund was looted by Mr. Green.img_0137

Meanwhile, the EU, which likes to see itself as a democratic counterweight to the USA, is struggling against popular opposition to approve a free trade deal with Canada, which amongst other things makes it more difficult for governments to oppose the might of international corporations. Free trade apparently means freedom for successful capitalists to throw their weight around.

In Britain and the USA liberally minded people ask themselves where the visceral anger that fuels support for Brexit or Trump has come from. Commentators point to the decline of the formerly powerful industrial working class in both countries. The same anger, however, and the same support for nationalistic demagoguery is evident throughout Europe, and is not altogether different from the anger of extreme Islamic groups. It seems reasonable to ask if there is not some common factor in these expressions of communal rage.

The power of capital to provide a very pleasant lifestyle for its senior and middle range employees while exploiting  vast numbers of low grade employees, trashing the earth and marginalising its critics, seems to me to be the obvious answer to that question. If people are made to feel, that they or their whole communities are simply a pool of unskilled labour to be used or cast aside on the discovery of other suckers who will work for even less, rage seems a reasonable response, even if the political expression of that rage is utterly unreasonable, in the form of hatred of foreigners, homosexual people, women,   Muslims, Christians, politicians, or indeed anyone different enough to be blamed.

Decent people who are disturbed by public anger and hatred need to notice the animal which is in the room and is so big there’s not much space for anyone else. Would it be too much to recognise it as an elephant and to think of ways in which either it or us can be got outside. img_0138


Because I have no idea how it can be abolished, I find myself searching for ways of controlling it.

Christianity used to be a powerful controlling factor. Until the late middle ages the  church’s ban on usury – the lending of money at interest- although it permitted all kinds of hypocritical exceptions – acted as a restraint on capitalist development. Islam also has had its own forms of restraint, through sharia law.

Socialism, throughout its history, especially in its encouragement of Trades Unions, has invented a variety of restraints on capitalist emterprise. State provision and enterprise whether in the US New Deal, or the British Welfare State or the Northern European Social Democracy have at least balanced the power of international capital. (Communist states abolished it, but at the cost of democratic rights)

Democratic restraints depended on public recognition of the destructive power of unchecked capitalism. The elephant had to be noticed and named. Our present manifestations of rage happen in societies where it is neither noticed nor named. Even Jeremy Corbyn for all his applauded radicalism hardly ever refers to capitalism and has certainly made no proposal to control its power. Bernie Sanders in the US made an honourable attempt to name the beast, and went so far as to advocate socialist means of controlling it. In so doing he gained unexpected popular support.

The Christian Church in Scotland is declining in numbers and influence, and its leadership may well feel that sustained opposition to capitalism would be suicidal. My own conviction is that it might just be its salvation. Yes, I know that’s a religious term and that it’s supposed to come through Jesus. Quite so. I think allegiance to Jesus involves opposition to capitalism as idolatry, and the forging of creative alliances with other groups that also oppose it. This should be done from both pastoral and theological points of view. The church is under command of Jesus to attend to the needs of the least important brothers and sister, whose lives are gravely affected by capitalist economic policies; and to recognise when some demonic power is placing the mark of the beast on its devotees.

img_0139Such opposition should be patient, peaceful and popular, encouraging people to see the source of their discontents and to channel their anger into building effective restraints upon its power. In this work, the church would not be alone. The Scottish Green Party in its conference this week, showed a grasp of economic truth and a willingness to devise policies that would limit the destructive powers of capitalism. At least they sounded as if they were living in the same world as me. And there would be other allies also. It’s time the church put its shoulder to the wheel.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent challenge for the church, perhaps its most significant mission in the world of today. It is discouraging to see the pews of most churches filled with people who are committed to the idolatrous exaltation of capitalism that has prevailed in the West for over a century. They are good people, and they are certainly not slow to lend a hand to the needy – but only so long as the illusion of safety in the capitalist wagon is not questioned. The young, on the other hand, who might be more open to challenging the status quo, have turned their backs to the church and focus their energies elsewhere. Yet, I share your conviction that the church needs to lead the way, whatever it takes. It is faithfulness to Jesus Christ that demands a genuine theological and spiritual critique of capitalism!


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