Posted by: rogermitchell | July 27, 2011

Economics at the end of Christendom (i)

I am not an economist, but my research does have profound implications for our contemporary Western economic system. These are both negative and positive. Negative in the sense that it reveals that the origin of Western capitalism, whether or not tempered by social justice considerations, lies in the church’s erroneous embrace of sovereign power as the means to the promised kingdom of God. As a result it is primarily about preserving the power of the powerful. Positive in the sense that an economics  reconfigured on the testimony of Jesus, or what I term kenarchy, rejects the power of profit and makes love and gift the motive for the utilisation of human and natural resources in business and industry. These can, and in some cases already do, grow up alongside the decomposing Western system.

I suggest that four things follow in each case:

Negatively

(i) Money as we now have it is actually a device invented in the seventeenth century when actual gold and silver were lent to the newly emerging nation state in order to pay for war, under cover of which promissory notes for the same amount were printed and used as currency to lend to entrepreneurs.

(ii) The currency that this produced is not actual money but the token of a promise to pay off the debt for the amount written on it. It follows that when this money is again borrowed, it is really debt that is being borrowed. The shift to electronic transactions has further obscured this, but has not altered it.

(iii) All this debt is secured against the necessary profitability of the nation state and the tax returns from the business it facilitates. This, in turn, is based solely on the profits obtained from exploiting the labour skills of human life, or biopower, combined together with the diminishing finite resources of the planet.

(iv) This economic system is coming to an end as the nation state, created by the partnership of church and empire, is increasingly breaking down under the strain of securing the debt. At the same time the planet is less and less able to endure the resultant exploitation and the consumption of human life is becoming increasingly unbearable.

Positively

(i) The primary purpose of business and industry is to supply the needs of the multitude by and for love and gift, not to make a profit in order to hold on to or acquire power.

ii) The implication of the incarnation, affirmed by the resurrection, is that the gifts of human life and creation, applied by faith, can supply the needs of the multitude.

(iii) The current decaying and imploding Western economic system needs to be fully exposed and a new way of life seeded alongside the weeds of capitalism by acts of love and gift. The resurrection of Jesus is the first fruit and clarion call for this.

(iv) It is time to be intensely practical. My research considers past attempts at economic alternatives from the developing Western system in its past history. These include the bold innovations of Joachim of Fiore and Francis of Assisi in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the reappropriation of land by Gerard Winstanley and William Penn’s ‘holy experiment’ in what became Pennsylvania in the 17th century. There are many other past initiatives which need to be disclosed and learnt from. More importantly we need to discover, explore and encourage ongoing and new initiatives.

Clearly these positive points need practical development, and I acknowledge that it is sometimes easier to analyse what is wrong than devise practical alternatives. But I believe that we have now arrived at a point when this is now both possible and imperative. It is part of the purpose of the last three generations of renewal and is the intercessory political action that forerunners are called to right now. So discussion, experimentation and the evaluation of existing attempts to initiate an economics of love and gift is all part of the action that this blog is calling for. (See the time for action page). Please interact!

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Responses

  1. Timely Roger. Some random thoughts – we’ll see if they come together into anything.

    1. Just last week I was thinking that it is time for Christians to renounce profit as a business motive. I realize that will annoy lots of Christians but I think, especially for me, in terms of care for creation and the well-being of future generations, that is essential.

    2. I also think that my generation (the bloated baby boomers) will have to think seriously about pensions, retirement, debt loads, all of that. What do we need to have in our hands when we die? Why?

    3. I am somewhat amused to have just read an account of a wee twitter war between Joan Walsh (editor of Salon.com and left-.leaning Catholic) and Rick Warren (he of “Purpose Driven Life” and Saddleback pastor fame and political conservative). He tweeted about how only about 50% of Americans actually pay taxes and so of course all those people (laggards?) would be quite happy to see taxes raised on the rest. Just to put that in perspective the tax raises proposed by Obama and the Democrats would be for millionaires and billionaires, would close tax loop holes for corporate jets, and eliminate tax payer subsidies for the oil industry. Walsh pointed out that the reason about half of Americans don’t pay income taxes (they do pay payroll and sales taxes and of course sales taxes are regressive not progressive taxation) is that their incomes are so low they don’t qualify to pay taxes.
    Think about that. That many working Americans are that poor. She challenged Warren that perhaps Jesus was not into class warfare against the poor. Interesting eh? Here is a man, famous for not taking a salary and giving away a large portion of his millions from book sales completely confused by conservative talking points on the issue of taxation. One can argue the wisdom of tweeting before you know what you are talking about but the real issue here is the general ignorance of many, not just Warren, on how the economic system of our day actually functions. And who wins in it and who loses despite immediate appearances.
    That said, one of the bigger questions for all of us is how do we pay, collectively, for things like roads, sewers, water systems etc. Those big infrastructure things need to be covered somehow. Do we fund education for the poor? Do we fund health care for a few, for all? What does it mean to operate as a collective, large or small?

    4. I also noted recently some person, can’t remember who, spoke about economics and lauded private property as something that has always been, and always should be. I found that fascinating. All sorts of cultures over the ages have not had any concept of private property except for say a few personal items to adorn one’s person, or the weapon of choice for hunting, or a special bowl for milling grain. The thought that a person could individually own land,air, water would be absurd to many of our human brothers and sisters from times past (and a few from these times). I am reminded of Acts 2 – the baby church’s first response to the risen Jesus was to share everything so that everyone was provided for. I can only assume in light of so many theologies today that emphasize private property as a Christian thing and a right, that hey, those folks in Acts 2 surely got it wrong. Too bad they misunderstood things. Good thing it all got put right later on.

    5. And finally, a note on dates. I know your work has focused on certain things including the rise of nation states but capitalism does pre-date that by a long time (at least back to the 9th and 10th centuries in Venice) and it was common practice (forever!?) for rulers to exhort loans from nobles (in exchange for privileges granted) to fund their wars. Most of the time those loans were not repaid in cash but in more privileges many of which included private ownership of money making ventures like mills (it was illegal for the poor to own hand mills and mill their own grain, they had to take it to the mill owned by the feudal lord so that he could make money off of it in medieval europe), bridges, roads, water rights etc. So this system is far older than the relatively youthful manifestation of the euro nation state. It is a means to manage greed by making a few to be winners in the system and the majority to be losers (but in modern democracy always with the promised myth that you too can be a winner if you work hard enough, make enough sacrifices, go to the right school, know the right folks, etc.).

    Practical responses – lose the profit motive, live communally, share space, food, work, income. Create communities that demonstrate kingdom life. Ooops, that sounds like Acts 2 again.
    c.

    • Thanks for the random thoughts, insightful as usual. On the point you raise about dates, this was raised in my thesis viva and I was able to defend it. I am not saying that capitalism in all forms postdates the nation state. But I am saying that the current capitalist system of the West and the nation state are wedded together and that both are the progeny of the church-empire consortium known as Christendom. This alleged genealogy will become clearer once the thesis is published and generally available.

      • “Until the eighteenth century in the West economic systems were based on the principles of reciprocity or redistribution, or of (individual) house-holding, or some combination of the three; and: ‘In this framework the orderly production and distribution ofgoods was secured through a great variety of individual motives disciplined by general principles of behaviour. Among these motives gain was not prominent’ (1944, p.55). ‘The economy’, in these circumstances, was actually ‘submerged’ (embedded) in social relationships” From my course book Poverty in the 21st Century discussing Polanyi and his thoughts on capitalism.

        So markets embedded in social relations, ie get to to know the people you buy from. Gain is not a sufficient motive to live by – so like you said Cheryl, drop the profit motive and make enough to operate by.

      • Roger:

        I think the difference is in how we research human behaviour. Your work focused on shifts embodied in the emergence of the nation state, some particular economic developments that were associated with that, and the role of the church as married to the spirit of empire which you did track over time (I hope I got that right). I appreciate that. However I am concerned if our discussion of how to move forward takes in only the recent history of the nationstate and its economics. As your own work shows the church became enmeshed and mired in the spirit of empire much earlier. And while that may not have been acted out fully until more recent years it has been there in one way or another for all that time.

        My own work deals with long, long human history and behaviour of other species (that which is similar and that which contrasts). So for me, economics, as an expression of the collective human household that stewards resources, the issues are things like cooperative breeding, altruism, greed- and the mangement thereof, opportunism, leadership and followership, conflict, and conflict resolution. In other words, when we discuss all this stuff, I am mostly interested in the behaviours at varied scales that are essentially universal for human animals and how they have been acted upon and acted out in long human history.

        One thing is clear – the current political and economic systems are not written in stone. Humans over their history have engaged in many permutations of collective resource management with more or less private control of more or less resources. There are many models of human society available to us. In some tribal societies the norm for men is to give away the meat they hunted. So much so that their own families sometimes suffer. They do this for the prestige of feeding the whole tribe. In other places food is seen as collectively owned and managed in that way. Cooperative breeding means that we often give our children over to the keeping of others so that a woman can go out and forage or gain sufficient resources to feed them. Altruism, may well have arisen out of cooperative breeding. So there is much available for us to explore on these topics.

        I just don’t want to get into a conversation where we only react to the current situation. It would be worthwhile, for sure, to come up with alternatives to the nation state and its economics but I think we may miss important things if we stop there. I note that perhaps our best model of future collective stewardship and resource management would be Acts 2 – certainly empire is there but the nation state is not.
        c.

        c.

  2. I’ve been thinking along the same lines re currency, especially about the promise (empty today) to pay the bearer the sum of… with the way the price of gold is going I’m tempted to walk in and ask them to fulfill it for me. I also agree that the security of debt is dependent on the state being able to grow and repay it. It is this aspect that is under scrutiny at this time, doubt is growing that these debts can be honoured – sovereign debt crisis.
    I would however not want to call all profit wrong, but rather redeem its meaning. Not-for-profit doesn’t mean that there isn’t any gain but that it is used purposefully rather than retained for wealth or power. It would be from this profit that I choose to bless. I am not, however, saying that we should only give when in profit, there must be a selfless sacrificial dimension, reflecting the incarnation. At the same time I would want to see the creation purpose of fruitfulness and tending & keeping restored.
    Love and gift must be the new paradigm, along with a reckless grace and faithfulness. Credit is based on merit, grace is without merit. We need to recover the potency of blessing.
    “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Acts 3:6

    • Thanks for this Hywel. Like you I certainly don’t want to imply that all profit is wrong. But if I understand Cheryl correctly then I agree with her that profit needs renouncing as the primary motive for business and industry. The primary motive, or paradigm as you put it, is love and gift.

  3. one additional comment – okay 2 little ones.
    1. when I say profit I mean to differentiate between profit that just adds to my personal wealth and that which is beyond the cost of production and then invested back into jobs, wealth creation for all involved, the community etc. However, the income gap between rich and poor has to be dealt with so profit in terms of my own personal, ever increasing advancement, is an issue. Where did we ever get the idea that we should all die rich and are entitled to constantly increase income?
    2. new stats out in the US yesterday detail the increasing wealth gap (different from the income gap) between whites and black and latinos. Obviously non white people are the losers here with almost no wealth incomparison to the white demographic. This is the result of historic decisions made frequently by government to exclude blacks and latinos from the mechanisms that would allow famial and multi-generational wealth creation. Yet in very short order the US will be a majority of minorities, minorities that at this point are in debt and poor, whose household average 1/20th the wealth of a white household. It would be interesting to consider what real Jesus economics looks like in this situation.
    c.

  4. It may be true that the system we have right now is coming to an end ,but it is much more difficult to imagine a new way forward.Far to many of us are infested by the capitalist mindset(myself included)and though we like to think of new ways forward it is much more difficult to cut lose and make a fresh start.
    I have been running a small family business for many years now and the idea of making a profit is always at the front of your mind because you are trying to provide for your family.But that does not mean its the sole aim of your work life,that profit must not rule you rather you must rule the profit. Practically that means looking for ways to sow the fruit of your labour back into the community you live and work in.Sowing it in without any strings being attached in terms of what it is used for.Over the lat few years I have become more involved with the guys at the Seedbed fund and have seen the amazing effects of how profit given away without strings can transform peoples dreams into reality.
    Another area that I studied for a while was the whole idea of micro finance,the method of encouraging people to pool there resources for the benefit of the whole community ,enabling people to start up small enterprises that make a huge difference to the way they live.In some areas this has had a huge impact on local people and it encourages joint responsibility and a sharing that looks somewhat like acts 2.It has had most impact in the poorer areas (financially ) of the world but it could be adapted for the western world if we could first of all convince people of the value of sharing and investing in one another.
    As I said it is easy to dream and imagine new ways but for the moment I seem somewhat stuck in the old even if I do have yearning for the new .Perhaps I just need a little more faith and courage for the journey.

    • Hi Billy, as ever I am encouraged by the practical integrity of your daily discipleship. You sound far less ‘stuck in the old’ than you seem to think, and I believe that your prophetic obedience is pioneering new ways. The issue, as I have already commented, is not whether or not you seek a profit, but what your fundamental motivation is, how you treat your fellow humans, yourself and the planet in your work and what you do with the profit once you get it.

  5. 2 quick points from me – I love this disucssion, meaty – though the real meat will be found in working it out!

    1) This why Jesus said “REPENT, and believe the GOOD news!” This is about getting transformed minds.Whole new ways of thinking about economics – the foolish things of the world, a crazy way to use money. Hearts need to change, not just practice (though the practice really needs to change). This is why we are at such a vital moment. We actually need to recover the gospel for the sake of the whole creation. Once we get our minds alligned with the mind of Christ, we realise that this good news is for everyone! We need to both model something fresh but also recover evangelism (I know – dirty word for many, not narrowing things down to “saving souls”, but really sowing afresh the good news of the kin(g) dom).

    2) Martin Scott’s stuff on work and it’s purpose is also very helpful, here. Work that makes profit but actually impoverishes, disempowers and makes slaves of others is not work, it is demonisation. I wonder if that is part of what the angel tells the saints to get out of, when referring to Babylon in revelation. Working the land, as in our original mandate produces fruit that blesses…….If we can profit something and sow it back into that which can profit yet more to bring blessing, more life, more healing more goodness, then maybe we’re talking….

  6. Yes, this demands a change of heart. We need to see ourselves as a part of creation rather than apart from it. So to add some practical measures to our thinking (literal measures). . . .

    I recently read a review of a book called “The God Species” about shifting the debate on climate change to be more productive. The author tells of how in 2009 he encountered scientists at Copenhagen and there learned that many scientists now promote the concept of 9 planetary boundaries we should not cross. They are: climate change, biodiversity loss, biogeochemical cycles (think nitrogen and phosphorous here), ocean acidification (I’m thinking we are pretty close on this one), water consumption, land use, ozone depletion, atmospheric particulate pollution, and chemical pollution. We have already passed the planet’s limits on the first 3, The next four are not yet past, and the last 2 have not been quantified according to this review.

    So any discussion on economics has to take these limits into account. If we are moving on from the extreme free trade, free market agenda that has ruled then we are moving onto something that at local levels (all water management is truly local or watershed based) and at national and global levels sets boundaries that honours these limits. It doesn’t matter what individual laws and treaties are called but we will have to, as a human community, conduct our economics, under these limits. Only then do we actually do the kind of creation care that we, as the species that is capable of destroying life as we know it on this planet, must do.
    c.

  7. Thanks for this. Helps with some perspective on the struggles around a particular contract at work this week.

  8. Another issue we have been chatting about here has been the issue of land and the creation,and our disconnection with it.The issue of land ownership has been moving up the political agenda in Scotland for a few years now.There has been some success along with some some recent failures .The SNP government abolished feudal rights a few years back which meant that I no longer needed to get permission from the Duke of Hamilton to build a loft extension on my own property.But more recently we have seen the same administration force through the sale of protected land near Aberdeen so that Donald Trump can build a golf complex for the rich and famous.

    This is important because so many of us have been dislocated from creation by the system so that we no longer relate to it .Christendom and the evangelicals in particular have only served to support this.We have been so focused on making our relationship with God right we have have lost sight of the relationship with the land and creation.
    One way of changing our economic way of life is by helping people reconnect to not only God but with God and the creation he gave us. Giving people the opportunity to be involved with the land to perhaps own a small piece of land and grow some fruit and veg perhaps keep some stock and do this together with others along the lines of the crofters might be one way of people being able to return to the barter system which is a much healthier economic system than the one based on debt.
    I believe it may also help us to understand the fullness of the redemption story of Christ.

    • I’m with you on connecting back to the land but we need to be very imaginative about this. We are about to hit 7 billion people on this planet any day now. And the number keeps rising. And we are now more than 50% urbanized in terms of where people live. And many live in super, mega-sized cities. So moving to the countryside to reconnect to creation and the land is not do-able. There isn’t enough land anyway. Instead we need to bring that mentality, that approach into the city. Rooftops make excellent places to grow food. Vacant lots can be turned into gardens and be a way to remediate toxic soil in the process. Balconies can host significant vegetable gardens. There are ways to make it happen but the countryside is not really the place we should be looking. Think of all the unused land in suburbia. All that sod that someone mows could be a place to grow food or support chickens. It can happen though it requires a change in most zoning regulations. I envision a future where much of our food needs are met by people working the soil /land in the city.
      c.

  9. Those ideas sound very interesting Billy, I would love to know more. If you read this rather late comment then perhaps you could email me. If you click on my name that will take you to my blog where there is a contact icon. It’s not good to post personal emails online so this is the easiest way.

  10. Cherl as a dedicated urban boy I have no desire to move to the country ,but this is about enabling that re-connection with the creation which I do think in turn would bring about a change in the economics of our world.
    There are certainly many places within cities that are left to waste ,some of them poisoned by the industry of the past and the present,we can be part of the redemption plan for the whole of creation by bringing that land back to life and seeing it become productive again.

    • Yes, cities are a part of creation, at least our creation too. I walk around my suburban neighbourhood and I see tons of empty, unused space. Most of it yards of turf. And this turf is not managed by Dad on his mower but by professional landscape companies, the mow and blow brigade, as I call them. These folks show up, blitz the property with maximum noise and tidy everything and then leave. So the owner, except to marvel at their highly controlled property has no connection to the land they actually own. But my suspicion is this. As food prices continue to rise more and more of these landowners will start to understand that the maintenance of turf is expensive and a luxury they can no longer afford (aside from raising sheep on it). Already, here in Toronto, there is a company of young people who will come and plant a vegetable garden in your yard. They will show up to maintain it or train you to do so. That is a small step and still may leave folks free not to get their hands dirty. But others are planting their own wee gardens, in their yards, on their balconies, and on communal plots. Others have chosen, sometimes in defiance of city by -laws to replant the sodded boulevards as naturalized gardens to attract bees and butterflies. There is a whole movement here to green and naturalize school yards. So I see that expanding. Living in the city should not disconnect us from the land – whatever culture we create for ourselves that includes dense human habitations should also include connection to the land that nurtures us. That’s what I hope for.

      What we are all really saying in this blog is that we long for some sort of relational economics. An economics that promotes right relationships with those we connect with as we carry on our economic activities (and those we never see but who produce materials for us) and an economics that promotes right relationship to creation. None of that can be abstract, in theory only. It means real, hands-on relationships that start with the intimate and extend outward.

      c.

  11. I’m not sure I can say much other than “Wow.” It’s not very bright, I know. Nevertheless, there it is…”Wow.” I love this post!

    While being a Canadian seems to automatically qualify me as a ‘soft-socialist’, I have concerns about the implied redistribution that I see in some of these comments. Historically, human beings have done a terrible job in playing Robin Hood…and human governments have only done terrible jobs on larger scales.

    What we miss as Christians, I think, is that what we read in Acts 2 wasn’t a political socio-economic movement; it was a work of the Holy Spirit. While I believe fervently that believers need to be re-gifted(?) with the Spirit so that this work may become evident again, I don’t believe that politicians, clergy, social workers, economists, or other eggheads have the moral authority to determine who should give up what.

    Love. You hit the nail on the head in your post. Love’s the key.


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