An interesting article in The Altantic talks of unemployment and underemployment as a “Spiritual Crisis”. The article is directed particularly at the United States, but the same general problems are very apparent in the UK as well. Evonomics has recently had an article talking of this from an economic perspective. I’ve also talked a bit about one of the drivers for this malaise in a previous post.
The Atlantic prescribes grace as a foundation for looking at people in a new way, and indeed that might be a good start. Economics values people as producers (and tries its best to reduce the amount spent on them, as this is an overhead, and overheads are to be avoided in the pursuit of profit), as providers of capital (those being the really valuable members of society, according to modern economics) and as consumers (though consumers aren’t really valued for themselves, merely as means to make greater sales). It doesn’t value them as people. Christianity, on the other hand, values every living human being in and for themselves, irrespective of what they produce, what they have or what they might buy. Indeed, it tends to downvalue what people have, as the story of the rich young man and the extolling of flowers and birds display. The sooner we can change hearts and minds to see economics as a tool for benefiting people rather than people as economic units, the better.
But preaching this is not going to be enough. Again as the Atlantic article touches on, people have been indoctrinated into seeing their worth as being in what they produce, which all too often translates to how much money they make (a false equivalence dictated by economics, which reduces everything to money and tends to declare that if something cannot be reduced to money, then it is worthless). I have been struggling with this deep-seated belief in myself for some years; in 2005 I had to give up work due to ill health, and having started to be capable of some useful activity (other than trying to get well) a little over three years ago, find that merely occupying myself isn’t sufficient – I have a couple of occupations which, when I feel under pressure to tell someone what I do, suffice – I am, part of the time, a theological editor and proofreader, and part of the time a research assistant doing chemical process development. OK, I am also a carer for my wife, an aspiring theological writer and a volunteer with mental health and recovery organisations, but those don’t really qualify as “job” – only the second might conceivably produce some money, and in no way would I expect it to be significant.
The snag is, neither the editing nor the research yields an amount which could be lived on, even cumulatively. I have a permanent voice at the back of my head asking whether what I do is useful, as that obviously determines whether I am useful. I can just about manage it with the editing – at least, there, the books I edit are published, and people read them, and even if the work pays peanuts, there is still use there. Less so with the research – even when we develop a process which produces a particular chemical for the use of less raw materials, less labour, less energy and/or less waste, we do not make any actual money unless someone buys that chemical. More to the point, unless someone buys it, no-one is going to use it, and the knowledge is going to sit in a file until it is wanted, which is possibly never. We don’t have the luxury of having a research grant, shifting the decision as to whether the chemical is useful to a funder, nor do we have the avenue of publishing a paper, as this just tells everyone who can read how to do the process and removes any hope of getting money for it.
My upbringing landed me with this kind of mindset, but all the pressure of society is in the same direction these days – you are what you do, and even more you are worth what your bank account says you are. I’m not American, nor do I come from a “working poor” background, but this article sums up the attitude I struggle against well: “We applaud the rich and powerful for their industry, shrewdness, and cunning. The poor have nobody to blame but themselves. There are winners and losers. The market sorts them out according to their achievements. Since this all seems to run in families, it’s probably in the genes. Winners beget winners. Losers beget losers.“
Preaching may, just, be sufficient to work against the wisdom of society as it currently is for a small group of people, but there is an urgent need to change the attitude of society as a whole, and I live in a society which is no longer predominantly Christian, so the “small group” is never likely to be able to influence societal views much (and, despite the predictions of some evangelicals that revival is just around the corner, I can’t see that happening). The situation is not going to get better within the neoliberal economic model we have – in fact, it can only get worse, as pressures such as globalisation and automation remove jobs which ordinary people can do, leaving only jobs requiring such a long process of learning, a large level of native ability and well-developed skill set as benefit only the few who are equipped by nature to do them and (as publically funded education is eroded) have the wealth to pay to be trained for them. I rather suspect that the widespread contempt for experts evidenced here during the Brexit campaign may have something to do with this trend – many are really sick of being told what to do by people who were born capable and rich and therefore have had the luxury of becoming experts.
So yes, we should practice grace as Christians – but we should also look for a new politics and a new economics, founded on a new understanding of humanity – as something more than a cheque book…