My first response to Robert Peston’s blog on the subject of a new capitalism was to suggest that what we were more likely to be heading for was a form of authoritarian capitalism. I still fear that this may be the case and I will explain why. The image I have is of a balloon which now has too many people aboard and that, in order to stay airborne needs to throw some of its passengers overboard. I say this as what I believe is now happening is that too many people have been able to benefit from global capitalist growth over the last 20 years and that in a period of austerity and economic downturn access to the “goods” of global capitalism is going to be limited and rationed. This is not a value judgement but an economic and practical one. The sums appeared to add up when times were good and growth continued unabated, but this was always an illusion, and once confidence disappeared and it became clear that economic growth was built upon a house of cards, then the massive amount of debt that had been incurred, both individual, corporate and sovereign, could only undermine future prospects for “continuous improvement”.
The impact of this is beginning to strike home and we are also beginning to see a wave of protest and discontent as the reality dawns. I watched an interview with a young mum taking part in the protests outside the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last weekend. She said that, for the first time (for her anyway), it was clear that the future for her and her children was no longer one of hope, but that things were only going to get worse. So prospects of work, of rising standards of living, of the state picking up the bill for the Welfare State, are all under threat. For her generation this is a new experience, and one wonders about the capacity to respond and to know how to deal with this situation. In the USA there are also protest movements springing up, most notably “Occupy Wall Street” which appears to be spreading to other major cities. It is interesting that there has been minimal coverage of this in the UK, presumably because of the fear of copycat marches and events.
What is one to make of this? On one level it is hardly a surprise. Social unrest would appear to be one predictable and obvious response to the economic woes now facing increasing numbers of people. We hear that food stores are experiencing higher levels of activity while economic commentators tell us that we face 10 years of deleveraging while the mountain of debt that has been accumulated slowly winds down and some sort of equilibrium is restored. In the meantime, those who are still in a position to “ride the tiger” consolidate their power and position and take advantage of the weaknesses that so damage the prospects for many others. Greater inequalities and higher degrees of social injustice are to be expected, and the only way in which growing social unrest can be contained is by governments exercising their power in increasingly authoritarian ways. Those who have work must be prepared to accommodate poorer working conditions and be grateful they have a job. And for those who don’t, what support the state offers will be on even stricter terms and last a short time only. The picture is clear.
But there are further dimensions to this, other lines of enquiry which we would do well to pursue. Are these protests simply the consequence of a culture which is essentially one of entitlement and a “me first” attitude?
I have some sort of right to expect that my aspirations can be realized so when it seems that cannot happen I take to the streets and cry “foul”. It is alright for others (elsewhere) to bear the cost of my lifestyle, but when it comes down to me and mine I draw the line. What exactly is it that the protesters are complaining about and what do they hope to achieve? It is all very well to be angry about corporate power, but when things were going well and everybody seemed to be benefiting, who was protesting then? Is this the people who are being thrown out of the balloon (understandably) voicing their disgust and wanting a lifeline back in? Or is there in fact an alternative political and economic agenda beginning to form that could provide a longer-term focus for constructive dissent?
At the moment it is hard to see much prospect for this constructive dissent – in the UK at least. The Unions have traditionally been, and still are to an extent, both the forum and the focus for this type of protest, but they have no coherent alternative programme other than suggesting that cuts are happening too fast and that there needs to be some strategy for growth and job creation. When strikes are called, the leader of the Labour Party dissociates himself from them and says this is not the way to go about things. Perhaps there is a fear that the press will portray strikes as they did the recent riots in some of our cities, and that any form of social unrest will be dubbed dangerous and criminal? So where is there a convincing focus for dissent when what remains of the Left in UK politics either retreats behind a parliamentary barricade, or finds itself marginalized from the political mainstream?
So we have at least two critical questions for the responses to the current crises. Do they simply represent the complaint that more of us are going to be cut out of the deals of global capitalism as it reconfigures itself? In which case how might a faith position begin to question the very values that underlie this whole approach and take people beyond a purely self-interested position? Where do the notions of sacrifice and working for a greater collective good impinge on this debate? Then there is the issue of the apparent political vacuum which is surfacing and where there is a need for an alternative vision. Do those of faith attempt to subvert existing economic and political discourses from the inside and to influence policy makers, or do they try to develop a new discourse of some description which by-passes concerns about the State and traditional economic structures? Then what will be the cost of doing either in an authoritarian climate where maintaining law, order and social control become major issues for national governments? Protest itself is not sufficient, there must be constructive dissent based on a realistic assessment of what might be achievable. How faith-based responses contribute to this is the question with which political theology needs to struggle.
John Reader is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in the Diocese of Oxford and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation (University of Chester. UK). His first degree was from Oxford (Philosophy and Theology); then an M.Phil from Manchester University, and finally a Ph.D from the University of Wales, Bangor on “The Problem of Faith and Reason after Habermas and Derrida”. He has taught on a number of courses and been Director of Pastoral Theology at an Anglican theological college. His books include Local Theology (SPCK); Blurred Encounters (Aureus); Reconstructing Practical Theology (Ashgate) and Encountering the New Theological Space co-edited with Chris Baker (Ashgate). He is also a visiting scholar at OxCEPT based at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.