Thursday, September 18, 2008


Somewhere in the attic of my life there is a postcard depicting Wall Street in the 1930s. A penniless worker is holding out his hand to a worried looking banker. The speech bubble reads: "Lend us a dime until the inevitable downfall of the capitalist economic system, eh guv?"

Of course the current banking and stock exchange panic is no laughing matter. It will cost jobs, livelihoods and much else besides. Plus it will be the most vulnerable who suffer most, as always. Fairness doesn't come into it when blind forces collide. Many of us have been saying for years that an increasingly boundary-less and virtual money economy dependent on gambling, avarice, manipulation, febrile 'market confidence' and a basic disconnect from the actual productive economy (let alone actual human needs) is unsustainable in the long run. But that doesn't make the current massive jolts funny.

The overall picture is not totally apocalyptic, but it is very, very serious. Neoliberalism has failed and global capitalism needs fundamental change. As do the people who have come to be gods and priests in it, and those who have turned it into a secular worship space: "Thou shalt have no other products and desires but Mine."

Years ago, some of us imagined the day when capitalism would collapse and the world would be taken over by left-wing paper sellers with no idea as to what to do next, other than to flog the next edition. Times have changed, state socialism is dead, markets rule. But the moral, spiritual and practical critique of the dominant global order remains vital for a viable future.

That is what Marx, who in some ways turned out to be the last of the great Hebrew prophets, was about. His dream was turned into a living nightmare by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. They, plus a fatal non-religious Messianism, ecological blindness, bureaucratic dehumanisation, the creation of militarised state machines, and a lack of understanding of the contradictions of human nature.

As a totalising theory of action, Marxism was found wanting and failed appallingly. As a cogent reminder that unfettered capitalism can be monumentally destructive, Marx and his plural critics remains vital. We need to re-imagine an economic future not based on greed and might, or the world will continue to devour itself.


ChrisC said...

There are other critics of Capitalism other than Marx, whose real concern was not economics but a redefinition of what man is. It should be rejected by Christians on that basis alone. But as the Secretary General of the TUC said today, it is hopefully an end to a particular variant of capitalism of which there are several. For a much better alternative than Marx, try Wilhelm Ropke or even Wendell Berry.

ChrisC said...

Also, the phrase 'eh guv' is very unlikely to have been heard on Wall Street unless a penniless, Eastender with appalingly bad timing had just arrived in New York in time to get himself sacked.

Jane said...

Thanks for this Simon
I spent part of last week listening to Nancy Cardoso from Brazil who it seems to me profoundly understands and retells Marx for her own context.
somehow the creative Marxists in our generation need to be able to tell teh story in the same way good preachers can. Nancy is of course a Marxist and a pastor.
Recently I had to revise a translation of a piece by her and was taken all the way back to my very first spirituality class when training for the ministry - it was all about Marx's fetishism of commodities (!) in a series on spirituality and work. I'm grateful now for a training that tried to make the links between politics, work, economics and spirituality - though I suspect that of all of us tehre that day I'm probably the only one this had any impact on!
But we have fetishised both the market and money itself.

Simon Barrow said...

Oh Chris, guv. You are so *literal*. Bless :) xx

PS. Theologian and commentator Philip Blond's conservative critique of neoliberal versions of capitalism will make interesting reading. His book 'Red Tory' is due out soon.