Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Serving Mammon

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Today, the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, stood up at the Labour Party conference in Brighton and had a go at the bankers and their bonuses. So far, so populist. Pointing at naughty bankers, who do deserve to be brought down a peg or two, is simple legerdemain, making sure we don’t see that it is the neoliberalism incarnate in Thatcherism and Blairism that has been the driving force behind this chaos in the UK. We got our MPs expenses scandal (no progress is being made by the flimsy legislation that has come in to deal with the issue), but we haven’t been allowed to analyse the Government economic mismanagement scandal.

A long time ago, I read that money is the second most talked about issue in the gospels (after the kingdom of heaven). Christian moralising is so often hung up on sex, it has no energy left to deal with what seems to me to be Jesus’ bigger issue, Mammon. He is the personification of pelf and lucre. Stock markets have become his temples, bankers his priests, economists are his theologians. Their doctrines are ineffable and inscrutable, keeping us in the pews unaware of what they were up to. The more we ask the question ‘what is money?’, the more we realise that it is an abstract social agreement we no longer comprehend. Money actually isn’t any one thing, but a whole set of related ideas; it doesn’t exist in a coin or banknote, but they are just symbols of money. Doesn’t the whole thing sound not a little theological?

Although the perpetual-motion machine is an impossibility under natural law, it is the goal of economics. Bankers call themselves ‘wealth creators’ in defence of their usefulness. In fact, they are money creators, and they are debt creators. Their trick is to try to separate the money and debt they create so that we cannot see the immediate result of their money creation — that’s how the debts of poor US home-owners found their way around the world. Due to the trick of interest rates, there always has to be more money created to service the growing debt. Of course, this new money creates new debts, and…perpetual motion!

The specific problems with the neoliberal creed that this present crisis has highlighted is that the liberalisation of foreign direct investment has made the real economy much more difficult to control at a national level, privatisation has further weakened public control of key services, and deregulation has made what is controllable uncontrolled. Effectively, governments have rendered themselves incompetent because competence costs too much. It has also taken the reins off Mammon’s perpetual-motion machine. The economy must be under state control, and the state under democratic control, so that I am responsible within the commonality for the economy, not bankers nor stock brokers.

The consequences are clear: the poverty gap is increasing, the environment is denuded, and apathy abounds due to not perceiving what is happening and a feeling of helplessness. I remember during Thatcher’s reign that ministers interviewed on the telly always gave economic answers to non-economic questions. The trend has continued, meaning that government is all about economics. But here’s the problem, our recession ends when a couple of quarters of consecutive economic growth occurs: yippee! Unemployment and the deterioration of our social fabric continue for a long time after the share prices start to rise.

You cannot serve two masters. If a politician is serving the needs of money, they are not serving democracy.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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