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A Question of Worth by Christopher Steed

21 April 2017

Bernice Martin on the danger of economists with political blinkers

A Question of Worth: Economy, society and the quantification of human value
Christopher Steed
I. B. Tauris £64
Church Times Bookshop £57.60


IN HIS book A Question of Worth, Christopher Steed offers a wise and timely essay on the ills of our era which erode the value of the human in favour of the quantification of economic price: we know the price (but not the cost) of everything and everybody, and understand the value of nothing.

Steed is an Anglican parish priest, a psychotherapist, and an academic, who fuses sociology, theology, and personal experience in a well-informed and accessible diagnosis of how we got into our chronic crisis of human devaluation.

Steed reviews the development of society from the first to the fourth Industrial Revolutions, the growth of economic production and the wealth it creates, the development of modern class structures, and the unequal and today startlingly concentrated distribution of wealth and income which marks the most “affluent” societies.

He is not a doctrinaire denouncer of capitalism, which he regards as the best economic system available, but he ruthlessly anatomises the morally and politically disastrous effects of extreme inequality in the “devaluation” of whole categories of people who experience themselves as “on the scrap heap” with no intrinsic worth apart from their measured (non)-contribution to sacred “productivity”.

Steed believes that the all-conquering discipline of economics “has not had a theory of power” since it turned itself into a quantifying “science” of rational economic choice and left behind its original identity as “political economy” and its connection to sociology, which takes both the non-rational elements of human behaviour and the structures of power as its fundamental concerns. Yet, Steed asserts, “power relations are rooted in ascribing and transmitting social value in which some groups and individuals are demoted.”

The economic and political traumas of the past few years do not figure in Steed’s thesis, since the latest crisis from which he draws lessons is the riots in English cities in summer 2011, starring the under-qualified young excluded from the dignity of work and the satisfactions of the consumer carnival.

Yet the financial crisis, the revenge of the “left behind” in the Brexit outcome of the British referendum, and the triumph of Trump in the America presidential election of 2016 are grist to this analytic mill. His proposed reforms, from government limits on excessive remuneration packages to grass-roots experiments in Shared Value and mutuality, are not quick solutions, but demand patient attention.

This book deserves a wide readership, though a price of £64 makes that unlikely, and it could have benefited from a judicious editor. Steed cites only well-known data, but his originality lies in the moral and political case that he builds from what we all know but too often shrug off as inevitable and, anyway, outside our control. We need to heed him.


Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.

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