A CHARACTERISTIC feature of the liberal secular mind is that it
struggles to understand both tragedy and paradox. Nowhere has this
been more apparent than in the response of both liberal economists
and state socialists to the financial crash of 2008. For both, the
problem was fundamentally about money. The question has been
whether to spend more or less of it to solve what they perceive as
a technical problem.
For the Left (Syriza in Greece is a notable example), the answer
to debt and deficit is more debt and deficit; and the morality of
this is greatly enhanced if you are spending other people's money.
For the Right, the cheating, exaggeration, and corruption exposed
by the crash can be resolved only by greater deregulation and
The language of virtue, of value, and of vocation is nowhere to
be found in the analysis of the economy. The Big Society did not
penetrate the banking system. Labour's stimulus package has more in
common with Viagra than with sustaining long-term, stable
relationships. What happens when the stimulus package wears
The tragedy of 2008 was that it marked the end of two big
national economic dreams without any alternative to put in their
place. The Labour dream of 1945 was of a nationalised economy, run
in the public interest, complemented by a welfare state that would
transform the lives of the poor. It turned out that nationalisation
was inefficient, bureaucratic, and self-serving.
The market utopia, inaugurated in 1979, was supposed to unleash
the spirit of entrepreneurialism, self-reliance, and risk-taking;
but the bailout of 2008 led to the greatest transfer of wealth from
poor to rich. There were no constraints on self-interest; in fact,
the idea of pursuing your own interests was considered the basis of
economic growth. The result was sustained and relentless vice at
the heart of the economic system. People behaved in a greedy and
dishonest way. Sin was a palpable reality, even if it went
unrecognised by the prevailing paradigms that governed our economy
and politics. There is no quick policy fix for that.
Into this void of mendacious superficiality, the Church (both
Catholic and Reformed) has made its most significant political
intervention for a hundred years. It is all the more powerful for
being not a party-political intervention, but a contribution to the
well-being of society by retrieving some forgotten ideas, carried
within the Church but rejected by secular ideologies, which turn
out to have a great deal more rational force than invisible hands
and spending targets.
Led globally by Pope Francis, and nationally by Archbishop
Welby, this intervention has tried to insert the concept of the
"good" into economic calculation. In a world of rights, the idea of
goodness can be quite subversive.
Built around the tradition of Catholic Social Thought which has
been quietly growing since the publication of Rerum
Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, it has been a challenge to
Left and Right that neither took seriously, and that neither can
adequately respond to. It recognises the tragic paradox that, while
there is no alternative to the market, the market is no
Left to its own devices, capitalism leads to the domination of
the poor by the rich, and the undermining of work in favour of the
maximisation of returns on investment - which, in turn, leads to an
enormous pressure to turn human beings and nature into commodities,
to be sold at a price, in labour, land, and food markets.
If the only response is state intervention, that further erodes
traditions of vocation, democratic association, and relationships.
In utilitarian terms, caught between the individual maximiser and
the collective aggregator, society as an ethical entity disappears.
That is the tragedy.
When I am criticised by those in the Labour tradition in which I
work for working closely with the Churches, I answer that at least
people of faith do not think that the free market created the
world. The Church has acted courageously in pointing out that human
beings and their natural environment are not commodities. Catholic
Social Thought held also to a concept of subsidiarity: of power
exercised at the most local level commensurate with its fulfilment.
This has been a powerful way of resisting not only state
centralisation but also the centralisation of capital.
During the credit crunch, it was Archbishop Welby who
highlighted the issue of usury, and proposed a constructive
alternative. The banks borrowed at half a per cent, and lent to the
Money Shop and Wonga at seven per cent. These, in turn, lent to
their customers at five-and-a-half thousand per cent. It looks as
if the poor are carrying an awful lot of the pain of restructuring.
Building up credit unions and regional banks would bring capital to
the regions, when it has hitherto been centralised in the City of
Then there is the long-neglected concept of vocation and the
dignity of labour. For 30 years, people argued that technology,
risk-taking, banking, even friends, generated value - anything
other than labour. That is not true. Germany, with its strong
apprenticeship system and regulated labour-market entry, has a
stronger economy than ours. Vocation brings in tradition and
self-regulation, concepts absent from our financialised economy.
And then there is the idea of a balance of interests within
corporations, and the representation of the workforce, as well as
consumers, on boards of directors, for some relational
accountability. Someone to look in the eye when chief executives
grant themselves bonuses. Good governance.
Perhaps the biggest paradox is that only when there is some
awareness of sin can you begin to think about how you might be
good. Nowhere is this truer than in the economy, and no institution
has more experience of pointing this out than the Church. It is the
basis of the Common Good.
Good is a subversive word.
Lord Glasman is an academic, social thinker, and Labour life
peer; and a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on
Inclusive Growth, which this week hosted a debate on The Good
Economy with a keynote speech by the Archbishop of