Sunday, 5 December 2010

Slow down for Christmas

Magnificat Dec. 2010
As Christmas approaches, time seems to rush by faster and faster. There is not enough time to do all that needs to be done. Many people find it the most frantic time of year. Yet a holyday was originally supposed to be a time of leisure, a period of contemplation. This loss of leisure is a symptom of modernity. Not that people in previous ages never got in a rush, but it seems pretty clear that the effect of modern communications, personal mobility and consumerism is to multiply the things we can do do and the places we can go, not to mention the people we can talk to. Our life span may have increased, but not our time (and not just because a large number of our extra years are spent in front of the television). There is a rebellion against this in the form of the Slow Food Movement, the Slow Cities and even the Slow Book Movement. The idea of these movements, now spreading around the world, is to slow us down and encourage us to focus on the quality and appreciation of life. For a believer, setting some time aside for prayer and meditation each day, no matter how busy we are, is always beneficial. The monthly Magnificat is designed to help with this. Distributed in the UK by The Catholic Herald, it contains prayers and readings for each day of the Church year, with spiritual reading from great writers and mystics. That's one way to prepare for Christmas, which is all about God's coming into a world that was almost too busy to find a place for Him.

The Localism Bill laid before the British Parliament on 13 December is intended by the Coalition Government to help build the Big Society by putting an end to the hoarding of power within central government and top-down control of communities, and allowing local people the freedom to run their lives and neighbourhoods in their own way. The Bill contains a radical package of reforms that will devolve greater power and freedoms to councils and neighbourhoods, establish powerful new rights for communities, revolutionise the planning system, and give communities control over housing decisions. The legislation will transform relationships between central government, local government, communities and individuals. It comes right after a series of massive cuts to public spending necessitated by the recent economic crisis. For the Government summary of the legislation see here. No doubt there will be opportunities for Distributists and others to assess the reforms and their implications in the coming months.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The secret of life

Goya, "The French Penalty", c. 1824
One of the important themes in Pope Benedict's social encyclical is the so-called "right to life", which has become a bone of contention in modern society. "When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man's true good" (28). The reason is simple. Man is not "merely the fruit of either chance or necessity" (as the Pope puts it in the section of the right to religious freedom, 29). He is made in God's image, and his life belongs to God. We must not treat it as something over which we have dominion, either to manufacture or destroy, as he discusses in Chapter 6 on technology. Both abortion and euthanasia are fostered by a "materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life" (75).

Yet the pressures towards both cannot be overestimated. As we have seen with recent changes in sexual ethics, without a firm understanding of why these things are wrong, they soon become socially acceptable and then commonplace. Chesterton once joked that one might overcome the need for birth control by letting all the babies be born and then killing those one didn't like. He was attempting a reductio ad absurdum, but today influential philosophers are advocating infanticide in all seriousness.

So, what is intrinsically wrong with abortion and the "mercy killing" of human beings? We cannot understand this without some appreciation of the notion

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

What's Wrong with the World?

A hundred years ago, in 1910, G.K. Chesterton published a book with this title – probably one of his most important, certainly on Distributism. It contained a critique of modernity, with a focus on imperialism, feminism, education and economics. 

It is, in fact, quite tempting and easy to discourse on what is wrong with the world. Let me have a go right now. (I apologise in advance for spoiling anyone's day.)

Around the globe our democratic political systems are either corrupt, or if not corrupt then blinkered by short-termism, since many of our politicians are only interested in the next term of office, and so can’t deal with profound long-term or systemic problems. The alternatives to democracy, however, are far worse.

Our economic system is inherently unstable, being based on an ideal of

Friday, 8 October 2010

Gratuity in the Market

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict tells us that “if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well. Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function” (35). That trust has today been severely undermined. He adds that “in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity” (36). So what do we make of the market, and of the Pope's warning?

There is a kind of flow, or exchange, making the world go round. This is the flow of self-gift, sometimes called love. It is what creates the world, and keeps it going. But it is reflected or echoed within creation in many different ways, and as far as human organization is concerned it is reflected in two main ways. There are two ways in which to exchange or share tangible goods: it may be done either as a gift, or as a transaction. In a transaction – corresponding to contract-style relationships in law involving commodities – one thing is given in return for another. This may be a kind of barter, where I give you my sheep in return for your goats, or it may involve money. Money was invented for situations where I don’t happen to want your goats, or anything else that you have at the moment, but I might want something later. We establish currency as a medium of exchange. Money is therefore a symbol of the spirit of love within the market: it connects everything together and enables it to flow. That explains why it can so easily become a false god.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Rights-in-relation: need for an anthropology

Cardinal Angelo Scola, speaking in Venice recently, discussed the phenomenon of the expansion of the notion of 'rights' in the context of modern political discourse without any agreed philosophy underpinning them.
We are faced with a paradox: a hitherto unprecedented circulation and expansion of rights in tandem with a degree of vagueness about their content... Looked at from one side, any catalogue of rights has formidable economic and social implications, but in truth it is itself the product of a certain view of man which is always I-in-relation. To recover the true face of rights it is indispensable to engage with their anthropological and social dimensions: an objective on which the various sciences and disciplines converge, each with its own specificity but in a perspective which increasingly requires a transdisciplinary dimension.
It seems to me that the Cardinal is getting at the following. Human rights can only be based on (a) the inherent or intrinsic value of the person, existing in relation to God, cosmos, environment, and fellow human beings, and (b) the actual needs (rather than wants) of that person in that situation if he is not just to survive but to flourish. This requires that we know at least roughly what a human being is and what causes him to flourish - in other words, we need an adequate anthropology. Without that, we are whistling in the dark.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Good relations

Pope Benedict writes in Caritas in Veritate that "a new trajectory of thinking is needed in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family;" adding that "interaction among the peoples of the world calls us to embark upon this new trajectory, so that integration can signify solidarity rather than marginalization." This is the task we have set ourselves for our meeting in Oxford (see last post). The Pope continues:
Thinking of this kind requires a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation. This is a task that cannot be undertaken by the social sciences alone, insofar as the contribution of disciplines such as metaphysics and theology is needed if man's transcendent dignity is to be properly understood. As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God. Hence these relations take on fundamental importance (53).
This is the foundation of solidarity - the fact that we are relational creatures, not isolated units. Here we immediately run into a difficulty. Belief in God is not universal among us, and it may be a stumbling block for the secular environmentalists. Yet we can surely agree that we are "relations", even if not all of us locate the source of that relationality in God, in the Trinity of relations we call "Persons". Through biology and physics, I am related to and entangled with everything else on earth, especially the things that live and breathe. But more than that, my own sense of identity is bound up with these natural relations. They are not simply traces of my historical descent or effects of my actions. I have to live these relations (as the Pope says) in order to reach a mature identity.

What does that mean? Surely that in order to be true to myself, I must be receptive to the truth, goodness and beauty that reveals itself to me through these relationships. They impose upon me a responsibility, which I cannot shirk without diminishing my own humanity.

Picture: Port Meadow by Rose-Marie Caldecott

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Natural solidarity

Then I heard all the living things in creation—everything that lives in the air, and on the ground, and under the ground, and in the sea, crying, "To the One who is sitting on the throne and to the Lamb, be all praise, honour, glory and power, for ever and ever" - Rev 5:13.
On 18 October in Oxford our Association is organizing an event that may be of interest. Hosted by Blackfriars it is a lecture and roundtable discussion about humanity's relationship to nature and the environment. It is an opportunity to hear and meet Dr Pablo Martinez from Madrid, a member of CL and a professional ecological economist working in world development. We want to develop a new, non-ideological approach to ecology and the natural world, in response to the challenge of secular environmentalism. If things go well we may start to plan a conference in the next year or so. At the very least it is an interesting and worthwhile experiment. I have posted some more information about "Environmental Solidarity" in our EVENTS section on the main site. 
The ecological crisis offers an historic opportunity to develop a common plan of action aimed at orienting the model of global development towards greater respect for creation and for an integral human development inspired by the values proper to charity in truth. I would advocate the adoption of a model of development based on the centrality of the human person, on the promotion and sharing of the common good, on responsibility, on a realization of our need for a changed life-style, and on prudence, the virtue which tells us what needs to be done today in view of what might happen tomorrow. -- Benedict XVI
Photo of Truffle courtesy of Rose-Marie Caldecott

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

New Guilds

The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire announced that it has established a series of medieval-style Catholic guilds that will enable its students to gain skills and experience from master craftsmen in areas such as woodworking, sacred art, music, and baking.

Thomas More College’s guilds will take their spirit from the associations of men and women who advanced their trades and responded to the needs of their local communities in the Medieval Age. Read more...

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Imaginative Conservatism

A new and rather impressive blog has made its appearance. The Imaginative Conservative seems to be the main forum right now for intelligent discussion of social and cultural issues from the vantage-point of the cultural or "paleo"-conservatives Russell Kirk and Christopher Dawson. It is American, so English and other non-US readers may need a glossary to decode the language sometimes. As I have remarked before, words like "conservative" (and liberal, and libertarian) have several meanings, depending on context. I am convinced that the next step for the conservative movement is to find common cause with conservationists, but that is a step that many are still resisting. However, if you want to conserve Western civilization, this conversation is worth joining.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Rural co-operatives

 If we want to develop "fraternity in the economy" we need guidance, inspiration, examples of good practice. One very helpful agency in this regard is the Plunkett Foundation, which exists in the UK to support social enterprises and particularly rural co-operatives. It provides very effective finance and advice for groups wanting to save local shops, reconnect people with the land, build community in practical ways. It was established in 1919 by Sir Horace Plunkett, the pioneer of agricultural co-operation in Ireland - the aim being "Better Farming, Better Business, Better Living". It has an online information centre and a vast database of case studies.

Sunday, 20 June 2010


Recent calls for a 21st century Enlightenment (the new strapline for the Royal Society of Arts) go roughly like this. The Enlightenment legacy of Individualism, Universalism and Humanism needs to be reinterpreted and relaunched. Our society is prone to violence and selfishness, so we need a revival of ethics. Scientific research that shows morality and communitarianism to be rooted in biology strengthens the hope that such a revival is possible. In my view this risks being a feeble argument, unless it takes into account the spiritual as well as the material nature of man. The Enlightenment led to a privatization of faith that allowed an agressive materialism to flourish and dominate. What we need is a new kind of secularity based on a broader concept of reason. The Summer 2010 issue of RSA Journal itself contains a plea by Prof. Cecile Laborde of University College, London:
Secularism properly understood – as a political philosophy – need not be anti-religious. The secular state is not a state committed to substantive atheism or to the marginalization of religion from public and social life. It is, rather, a state in which citizens share a language – a secular language – for discussing political matters.
Prof. Laborde's view is that “religion has a legitimate place in the secular state”, and not merely as a cultural curiosity. She distinguishes Reformation secularism, which aimed at protecting the conscience of all citizens, from

Friday, 18 June 2010

Four principles

Pope Benedict says somewhere“The four fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching: dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity…offer a framework for viewing and addressing the imperatives facing mankind at the dawn of the 21st century…The heart of the matter is how solidarity and subsidiarity can work together in the pursuit of the common good in a way that not only respects human dignity, but allows it to flourish.” In my introduction to this blog, I also tried to reduce the principles of Catholic social teaching to four, and came up with a slightly different list: personality, solidarity, subsidiarity and sustainability. There is a nice completeness about this division of social teaching into four dimensions. You begin with a point, which represents the human person, extended into a line (x), which represents solidarity or the intrinsic relationship of self to neighbour. You then add the vertical dimension (y) to represent subsidiarity or the way in which authority is organised, and finally the dimension of time (z), which shows that we have a responsibility both to the past and to the future. All in all, CST is a very comprehensive system, which can be unpacked and applied in many ways.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Religion and Ecology

HRH the Prince of Wales was in Oxford this week to give a speech on Islam and the Environment. The whole speech can be viewed or read on his web-site, but here is an extract:
I would like you to consider very seriously today whether a big part of the solution to all of our worldwide “crises” does not lie simply in more and better technology, but in the recovery of the soul to the mainstream of our thinking. Our science and technology cannot do this. Only sacred traditions have the capacity to help this happen.

In general, we live within a culture that does not believe very much in the soul anymore – or if it does, won’t admit to it publicly for fear of being thought old fashioned, out of step with “modern imperatives” or “anti-scientific.” The empirical view of the world, which measures it and tests it, has become the only view to

Sunday, 30 May 2010


 Talking of the "right use of creation", here's an example - Prince Charles' home and garden at Highgrove. Far from the hobby of a self-indulgent eccentric, this is actually a test-bed for agricultural techniques that should be applied on a wider scale, and with any luck a sign of things to come. Geoffrey Lean writes in the Telegraph:
Organic cultivation, the heart of the estate, has long been viewed as irrelevant, a throwback to the bad old days of "muck and magic" farming, before the liberating arrival of agricultural chemicals. But – quite apart from the popularity of chemical-free food, dented but not destroyed by the recession – there are good reasons for thinking that it is going back to the future.
Agriculture is going to have to be more sustainable... as population growth, resource constraints and climate change combine to cause shortages of food, water and energy... A recent report by Andersons, the farm business consultants, reckons it will become more profitable than conventional agriculture when the oil price reaches $200 a barrel, which is predicted within a decade.
 I am beginning to plan a special issue of our journal Second Spring next year on the theme of gardening, and I expect Highgrove will get a mention.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Right use of creation?

Catholic social teaching develops over time, and one of the newer elements that has emerged during the last two pontificates is certainly an emphasis on ecology. The recent oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico is possibly one of the worst man-made environmental disasters to date, and the consequences for the surrounding ecosytem, not to mention the way of life of thousands of families around the Gulf, will be incalculable. Maybe it will wake us up to the unacceptable risks of this kind of dependence on oil and the vast centralized corporations that make it available. Markets are all very well, but the real environmental and social costs of what we buy are rarely incorporated in the price. If they were, the world would quickly become a very different place.

This Pope asks us to rethink our lifestyle in a very radical way, not only because of the risks, but because it is the right thing to do:
We can free our life and the world from the poisons and contaminations that could destroy the present and the future. We can uncover the sources of creation and keep them unsullied, and in this way we can make a right use of creation, which comes to us as a gift, according to its intrinsic requirements and ultimate purpose. This makes sense even if outwardly we achieve nothing or seem powerless in the face of overwhelming hostile forces.  (Spe Salvi 35).
This is not an appeal we should ignore. Every year we see more reasons to make it a priority for Catholic action. For example, 2010 is the UN-designated "Year of Biodiversity". There is a useful briefing here by my brother, and an article by Geoffrey Lean titled "We're Losing the Riches of the World" tries to summarize the situation:
Species are now going extinct at between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate: by some estimates, half of the 13 million or so forms of life on the planet will disappear by the end of the century. That would be the greatest extinction since the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, from which life took millions of years to recover....Forty per cent of the world's forests – which absorb rainwater, releasing it gradually rather than letting it run straight off to cause floods – have been felled in the last three centuries. A third of its coral reefs – the most vital breeding grounds for fish – have been seriously damaged. And every year a staggering 25 billion tons of precious topsoil is eroded away.
The Pope believes that Christianity offers the right balance between the value of the human person and the value of nature as God's creation. Yet he adds that environmentalists have had good reason to reject believers as potential allies – for “modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task” (Spe Salvi 25). This restriction of Christianity to the individual level is what we need to overcome. As Christians we have been too hasty to “limit the horizon of our hope”, so that hope has indeed become a feeble-minded excuse for inaction.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Disunited Kingdom

An interesting moment in British politics. David Cameron was criticized from within his own party for not winning a sufficient majority to create a strong Conservative government, by people who wanted a return to Thatcherism rather than vague talk of a "big society". It seems to me he would have done considerably worse if he had taken that line. The election shows a kingdom divided and fragmented against itself - Phillip Blond's analysis of how we got to this position is spot on, and his ideas for reviving civil society (what the Pope calls "breaking the hegemony of market-plus-state") are surely pointing in the right direction. (See preceding post for more on this.) It may be that the coalition government has a better chance of moving us from a "market state" to a "social state" than the Tories would have on their own. Prolifers, by the way, seem pleased by the results of the election, although as John Smeaton points out the overall tenor of the main parties is hardly congenial to optimism.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Colour Purple

G.K. Chesterton once joked that "the business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."  When one sees billboards around the country proclaiming "Vote for change: vote Conservative", one knows that the old Right is dead and buried. Conservatism ought to mean something like keeping things the same, but now there is nothing much left anyone wants to keep. It has all been broken and messed around, and all that is left to do is change it further. That, at least, is how many in England feel when they contemplate the schools, the NHS, the army, the Church of England, and Parliament. Everyone wants change, and the only question is what sort of change and who will deliver it.

The most radical kind of change we might hope for is one that cuts deeper than both Right and Left. There is an important strand of modern thought that identifies both our main political movements as manifestations of the same phenomenon - "Liberalism". This is a

Monday, 19 April 2010

Dorothy Day in Houston

I was recently lucky enough to spend a few hours with Mark and Louise Zwick, who run the Catholic Worker house inspired by Dorothy Day in Houston. Casa Juan Diego is a remarkable operation, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in December. Serving many of the poorest and most needy in the Houston area, especially immigrants, Mark and Louise have ten houses in all, housing forty men and several dozen women and their children, many of them ill or severely abused when they arrive. They offer not only shelter and food but medical and dental attention in clinics staffed by volunteer medics. Approximately 800 families are served with take-home food, and along with a wider community all are helped to negotiate the intricacies of state and government programs that the Zwicks know inside out. This is Catholic social teaching in practice.

It started back in 1980 when the Zwicks, coming back from an inspiring few years in El Salvador determined to become saints, spent a couple of hundred dollars buying and converting a house that soon burned down. Undaunted they continued to acquire cheap property and open their doors to those in need. Volunteers came forward to help, and somehow they always had just enough money to keep going. They do not go out asking for money (they’re much too busy, and perhaps a bit too shy), but the Casa does have non-profit status, and I can assure you that any donations would be put to excellent use. Visit their website to find out more about them and to explore their resources on Catholic social teaching. 

Sunday, 4 April 2010


Surely for all people of goodwill, and for Christians especially, the growing gap between the rich and the poor is a scandal that screams out for justice.  We are presented, as Benedict XVI has said in Caritas in Veritate, “with choices that cannot be postponed concerning nothing less than the destiny of man” (n. 21). The gap between the rich and poor is not an act of nature, like the weather, something we can complain about, but cannot effectively change.  Our DNA does not include a rich or poor gene.  Wealth and poverty are created by human actions and structures; they reflect the choices we make, as individuals and collectively as citizens, and the choices made by those who came before us, the results of which we simply inherit.

However, it is not merely “the cries of the poor” that call out for God’s justice.  Equally troublesome is the excesses of consumerism and the “overabundance” of the affluent; the modern-day idolatry that drives markets and motivates individuals and businesses, blinding them to the suffering of the poor and to their own spiritual suffering.  Consumerism is a futile attempt to fill our natural longing for the infinite with an infinite amount of what is finite.  We substitute fast cars, expensive clothing and large houses for a deep relationship with God.  As physical beings we have natural needs which are satisfied by natural things: thirst (water); hunger (food); protection from the elements (shelter).  All of these needs are easily satiated.  What we perceive as a longing for more things, more money, more of everything, is really our longing for God displaced onto the material world.  

[Based on an extract from the booklet Rich and Poor, by Charles Clark and Sr Helen Alford, the latest in the Catholic Social Teaching series from CTS.]

Friday, 19 March 2010

A Third Way

I am not sure how helpful it is to speak of a "third way" between capitalism and socialism. Certainly there is a broad ground between the extremes of individualistic capitalism (where persons are all in competition with each other) and collectivistic socialism (where personal initiative is suppressed in favour of the social unit). That middle ground is something to do with cooperation and subsidiarity, but this is not enough to define a clear alternative between the two great ideologies, since the milder forms of capitalism and socialism could both lay claim to that territory (especially in England, where the Anglicans have a longstanding tradition known as "Christian socialism" that is hardly recognized in America).

The Distributism of Chesterton and Belloc has been called a form of

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Choosing the Common Good

My previous post attracted some interesting comments and challenges which will be addressed shortly. In the meantime, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have released a summary of Catholic social teaching as it applies to Britain in the approach to the General Election. It is an important document and available for download here. Here is a key passage:
In place of virtue we have seen an expansion of regulation. A society that is held together just by compliance to rules is inherently fragile, open to further abuses which will be met by a further expansion of regulation. This cannot be enough. The virtues are not about what one is allowed to do but who one is formed to be. They strengthen us to become moral agents, the source of our own actions. The classical virtues form us as people who are prudent, just, temperate and courageous. The Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity root our human growth in the gifts of God and form us for our ultimate happiness: friendship with God.
The Bishops then go on to say: "Our society will rediscover its capacity to trust by the recovery of the practice of virtue, and through an ethically founded reform of many of our social and economic institutions. This will itself begin to restore the economy to a path that is both sustainable and just. In this way trust will be
re-established. We believe that this is what the vast majority of ordinary British people instinctively want."
This prediction seems rather optimistic to me. But of course what it implies is the urgency of evangelization.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Beyond Binary Economics

The continuing economic crisis of our times is only in part about finance. It is true that a near-collapse of the financial system, triggered by a crash in the US property market, brought global capitalism to its knees. Nor does it seem likely that a problem caused in the first place by imprudent lending by banks and mortgage-lenders can have been solved by the injection of billions of notional dollars imprudently borrowed by governments. But this financial crisis, serious though it is, is part of something larger. The more worrying question is whether liberal capitalism itself is inherently unstable and unsustainable, being based on the artificial stimulation of human desire for material goods. An economy that must continually grow or else collapse completely, and in which the true long-term costs of production are hidden or postponed, is surely an unsustainable economy.

Of course, to suggest this in our highly polarized society is to invite the accusation that one is a “Socialist” or at least “on the Left”. If, like me, one rejects Socialist solutions to the crisis, one is then accused of simply being na├»ve, impractical and some kind of romantic. Chesterton was of course accused of all these things, and not entirely unjustly, despite the profundity of his intuitions. But finding

Friday, 19 February 2010

A Greater Justice

After reflecting last time on Plato's study of justice in The Republic, it seems appropriate to refer now to Pope Benedict's reflections on justice, which form his message for the beginning of Lent 2010. There he begins:
I want to consider the meaning of the term “justice,” which in common usage implies “to render to every man his due,” according to the famous expression of Ulpian, a Roman jurist of the third century. In reality, however, this classical definition does not specify what “due” is to be rendered to each person. What man needs most cannot be guaranteed to him by law. In order to live life to the full, something more intimate is necessary that can be granted only as a gift: we could say that man lives by that love which only God can communicate since He created the human person in His image and likeness. Material goods are certainly useful and required – indeed Jesus Himself was concerned to heal the sick, feed the crowds that followed Him and surely condemns the indifference that even today forces hundreds of millions into death through lack of food, water and medicine – yet “distributive” justice does not render to the human being the totality of his “due.” Just as man needs bread, so does man have even more need of God. Saint Augustine notes: if “justice is that virtue which gives every one his due ... where, then, is the justice of man, when he deserts the true God?” (De civitate Dei, XIX, 21).

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Plato's Republic

I tend to write from within the Christian Platonist tradition. Plato himself, however, I have never studied as deeply as I would have liked. The Republic I have read mainly for its teachings on epistemology and education, but I still do not quite know how to take the whole political discussion, in which Socrates seems to advocate that wives and children should be held in common - in other words, he proposes the destruction of the family for the sake of good government. Christians sympathetic to Plato's other views tend to shy away from this rather central theme in The Republic, and focus more on the very different prescriptions and arguments in his later dialogue, The Laws. So was Plato a totalitarian or communist thinker, as Karl Popper and others have alleged? Or is there some

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

More on Money

"And I believe in Mammon, the Lord, the Giver of Life; who proceeds from the CEO and the Bank Manager. With them together he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the profits...."

Philip Goodchild’s reference to the “religion of money” prompted me to this thought about moral ambiguity. Could one argue that money is a secular analogy to the Holy Spirit?  It is a medium of exchange - it makes much of social life possible. It is founded on trust. The word is derived from the goddess Juno Moneta in Rome - Juno was one of the Roman Trinity of Jupiter, Athena and Juno, and she was also the "mother of the muses", responsible for divine protection of the arts and sciences. "In some sense, money represents everything we could desire. It is the thing that gives us potential access to what we want. Like language, money is one of the two ways we have to communicate" (Keith Hart). In this sense language is like the Word (second person of the Trinity), and money like the Spirit. Does that account for the ease with which we turn it into an idol?

Thursday, 7 January 2010

The Religion of Money

Modern society is based on the idea of economic growth, a continually expanding cycle of expectation (which supplies the motivation to drive the economy forward), trade leading to income, income leading to consumption and investment. This expansion is made possible by improvements in technology making possible cheaper production (machines replacing slaves and eventually workers) and virtually unlimited natural resources (because natural energies are released by advancing technology). But can growth continue forever? The answer will help to determine our response to the present global economic crisis.

The assumption that growth can be unlimited has been criticized in books such as Richard Douthwaite’s The Growth Illusion, summarized online here. He thinks that our society is wearing “a pair of spectacles which give short term economic issues such prominence that they obscure our vision of the future”. Douthwaite see money as the root of the problem, for “under our current debt-based monetary system, no country has the option of foregoing growth because, without growth, it will fall into serious economic decline.” Another critic of growth is Philip Goodchild, of the University of Nottingham. In a 2009 summary of his book The Theology of Money, Goodchild sees
“2008 as the first shock in the terminal collision between economy and ecology, with a major depression to follow in the coming decade due to an ongoing crisis in energy supply. The hope upon which the modern world is based will soon collapse, and competition for increasingly scarce resources will significantly undermine the moral and political cooperation to which we currently aspire.”

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Right to Land

The "market" is not absolute but always conditioned by culture, philosophy, history and law. We can see this merely by considering what counts as a commodity. Human beings were once considered as such, but slavery has been abolished by law. Should there be a trade in body parts, in relics of the saints, in drinking water or air? Should we be allowed to "patent" a genetic code? The decision is up to us. If I can put something in a bottle or box and someone else is prepared to pay for it, it enters the market. I was reminded recently by an article in Prospect magazine ("A Place of One's Own" by Andrew Linklater) that land ownership rights only began to be recognized under the common law in the 12th century. For most peoples throughout history, while "animals and crops could be owned, occupancy might be bought and sold, but the Earth, the source of life itself, belonged to no one." (In 1800, Linklater estimates, two thirds of the world's agricultural land was still owned communally.) But in the modern era that distinction was lost.

Of course, the right to use land easily turns into a claim on the land itself - leasehold turning by degrees into freehold. In ancient times the King (or in the case of Israel, God) granted use of the land to his tenants, or in the case of "common land" rights of use may have predated even the monarchy, but with the Enclosure movement most of England became parcelled up into private plots. When in the 16th century money began to be lent against the value of a chunk of land, the concept of "equity" was invented (as the residual value after the payment of the debt) and equity became the basis for capital - but I suppose the key development was the assigning of a quantitative "value" to the land in the first place. The injustices to which the accumulation of landholdings around the world gave rise, once the principle of a "social mortgage" on private property was forgotten, are condemned in a powerful and informative document from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace called "Towards a Better Distribution of Land" (1997).

The global boom a few years ago, Linklater argues, was built on the disparity between the way land was owned in the West and in China. In the West, Clinton and Bush lifted financial regulations on home loans to spread homeownership to the poor, assuming the endless rise in the value of those homes would enable them to pay off their mortgages eventually. This rising value powered the expansion of the consumer economies - people (thought they) had more to spend. GDP expanded enormously. In China meanwhile, lack of property rights drove the peasants into urban factories, producing goods for Western markets - and savings too had to be invested abroad because of the lack of property at home. This created the whole unstable edifice of global finance ("around $2 trillion in Chinese savings invested in US treasury bonds, which in turn kept interest rates low, mortgage lending high, and economies growing", with derivative securities growing to more than $600 trillion by 2007). The rug was pulled from under this by the inevitable collapse of the property market in the US. Linklater concludes that a "future government would be wise to find ways to support property owners against their mortgage-lenders, and favour both ahead of the financiers who lent to them in the first place."

[Picture: Port Meadow Oxford, by Rose-Marie Caldecott]