A CRISIS OF FAITH
By Floyd Toulet. An example of recently commissioned print work
When did the free market free itself from basic morality?
When Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury submitted his observations on the current global crisis last week he must done it with some trepidation. Speaking of morality, individual responsibility and group culpability at a time of such paranoia and fear was never going to make him a crowd pleaser. But it was perhaps his decision to suggest that Karl Marx was right when he observed the way in which unbridled capitalism can become a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that have no life in themselves, that the Archbishop guaranteed a response – albeit a knee-jerk response.
Unfortunately for diehard capitalists, the facts appear to support the embattled Archbishop and many of Marx’s observations on the nature of capitalism and its inherent pitfalls resonate as powerfully today as they did when he conceived them in 1867.
“The bourgeoisie . . . has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—free trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”
Of course Marx’s economic alternative, far from creating a society of equals, has proved to be riddled with flaws and horrendous failings of its own, and so we seem to be stuck with capitalism - the best of evils.
Managing such a dynamic system to the advantage of all is the real challenge. The scale of the present financial crisis is truly enormous, and potentially the most damaging since the Great Depression of 1929. To many Americans commentators it is the direct consequence of decades of financial incompetence and unbridled arrogance. At what point they ask, did the fictional ‘greed is good’ philosophy promoted by Gordon Gekko in the popular 1980’s movie, Wall Street, become a practiced fact?
Economists and politicians will pore over recent events for many years to come and each will no doubt arrive at a different answer, but what is almost certain is that none will voice the simple (and unelectable) truth that we are all culpable.
As Rowan Williams pointed out “It would seem that Trading the debts of others without accountability has been the motor of astronomical financial gain for many in recent years.” In other words, we are simply reaping what we have sown.
The idea that today’s problems are the sole responsibility of a handful of wicked individuals playing loose and fast with the money of an entire generation might be satisfying but it is nevertheless utter nonsense. We are all responsible in some part for the financial chaos spiralling out of control around us. We turned a blind eye to the growing discrepancies between effort and reward because to do otherwise would be to deny massive profits on our homes and buy to let properties. We looked the other way when credit was being offered at an almost unprecedented level because it suited our individual ambitions to accept it.
The Archbishop of Canterbury suggests “This crisis exposes the element of basic unreality in the situation — the truth that almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders.” Adding, “While we are getting used to this sudden vision of the Emperor's New Clothes, there are one or two questions that, in government as in society at large, we at last have a chance to ask.”
Only time will tell whether we have the courage or desire to ask them.