Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

They toil not, neither do they spin…

May 14th, 2016

I see that FiveThirtyEight has caught on to the fact that manufacturing jobs will never return. Sadly, they seem to think that the solution is to create jobs in service industries, and that’s a problem.

The thing is, manufacturing jobs are the easiest to automate; as the article notes, manufacturing is actually returning to the USA, but it’s largely automated and doesn’t provide the number of jobs it used to. Low level clerical jobs are the next easiest; very many of those have similarly disappeared with the advent of computerised workplaces. Customer service is in the process of going the same way; my bank (for instance) has successfully persuaded customers to do most of their banking online, where computer systems handle the work which a load of clerks and counter staff would once have done, and I hear that even burger flipping is in danger, as automated short-order cooks are being trialed at the moment. In the office, vending machines have largely replaced the tea lady.

When I retired from the law, the need for secretaries had diminished somewhat, but also I noted that expert systems were starting to take over some of the work which qualified lawyers had previously done. There are now surgical robots – admittedly these are currently remotely operated by real surgeons, but it is only a matter of time… Professional jobs are by no means safe either.

How about the entertainment industry? There is still going to be a huge demand for people singing, acting, doing variety turns, surely? Well, to an extent that’s true, though the popularity a few years ago of Max Headroom and the ubiquity of CGI makes me wonder how long it is going to be before we have the first completely computer-generated “live action” film or television. However, whereas 100 years ago, there were performers in every town (and often every pub or bar) churning out music and drama, now the use of TV and film means that only relatively few performers actually get to make a decent living. Everyone wants to listen, say, to David Bowie or Prince, not to their local Joe Bloggs or Fred Smith. The market for actual performers is much more limited than it once was, and is likely to shrink further, and even the very popular are now having difficulty with the internet getting round copyright so that significant parts of their output ends up free.

Of course, these last two categories require substantial natural ability as well as training, and even if they were boom areas, most of the population would be unlikely to be able to do the jobs as one would wish them done. I pause for a moment for a sideswipe at government policy for some time – it is pointless expanding education willy-nilly in the apparent belief that you can train anyone to be a brain surgeon if you take enough time and they are dedicated enough, and that is just not true. At the moment we are merely piling on courses for the sake of courses to “qualify” people for jobs which they could learn by doing them in a couple of weeks.

We are progressively making the majority of humanity redundant.

Or, at least, we are making them redundant as workers. Our capitalist system is predicated on there being a vast class of consumers, as otherwise there is no market for all the goods and services. The redundant, of course, do no work and therefore do not get paid – and therefore can’t consume. Eventually, the whole system will break down – and I think there are significant signs that it is doing that already.

It has to be time for us to break the linkage between money and work. Efficiency and automation mean that we can produce enough to supply even the vast population we now have, but not to keep them in work. Time, I think, to look very closely at the concept of a national guaranteed income, or an “universal income”.

There will be a few collateral effects of this. One is that, provided with enough income for the basic necessities of life, no-one need take a job who does not want it. Without the need for labour unions, suddenly workers will have a negotiating strength which they have always historically lacked. The conditions (including pay) of work will have to be sufficient to entice people to do the work. Granted, there need be no minimum  wage – people may find out that a job well done is satisfaction in and of itself, or that even a very small additional discretionary income is worth the effort. Those who wish to turn their minds to art or literature will no longer need to starve in a garret; the inventor or innovator will be free to put in the long hours working out their idea into something practical without the fear of destitution.

Another is that companies will be forced to consider that having people able to buy their products is a good in and of itself; this might just persuade them that in order to gain access to a market, they would need to pay tax. Governments, on the other hand, would no longer need to beg, plead, cajole and bribe companies into employing workers in their countries. Instead, they need only point out that “we have a market of 60 million people” (or whatever is the current figure for your population) to induce a company to come and trade – and pay taxes. They may well, of course, also want to site their manufacturing in the country where they trade; after all, there will be no minimum wage, and lower transport costs!

I will continue looking with huge interest at Switzerland and Holland, which seem to the the countries most likely to be the first to implement such a scheme.

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Satan, yeast and seeds

May 13th, 2016

Professor Kathryn Tanner has, at the point I write this, just finished her series of Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University. They are well worth a listen; I don’t think I have heard a better skewering of market capitalism as it functions in the 21st century, under the neo-liberal philosophy which seems to have captured the thinking of politicians throughout the West (and a fair proportion of the East).

She does, of course, come to the conclusion that market capitalism (particularly finance-led market capitalism) is profoundly contrary to Christian principles. It encourages greed where Jesus commands care for the disadvantaged. It encourages competition where Jesus commands care for community. It grinds down workers where Paul counsels that labourers are worthy of their hire and should not be short-changed. It considers people as units of production and units of consumption where Jesus sees each as being unique creations of our Heavenly Father, with supreme worth (more valuable than a sparrow or a lily, indeed).

It also focuses on short term financial gain to the exclusion of building a lasting community, and there there might be a temptation to remember Jesus counselling that we give no thought for tomorrow and think that he approved a short term viewpoint. However, he also placed this in terms of dependence on God for our basic sustenance (daily bread) and, in looking forward to the Kingdom of God on earth, assumes, in my view, that that Kingdom will be structured to give everyone their basic sustenance, not to look for a “fast buck”. A fast buck is, of course, an idol, and we cannot serve God and Mammon, as I expanded upon recently (see link below).

Prof. Tanner does not, it seems to me, take quite the same view I do of the requirements of the Christian life; she works within the paradigm of the “salvation history” which I do not really subscribe to. However, I have recently finished Richard Beck’s new book “Reviving Old Scratch; Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted” which among other things works from the framework set up by William Stringfellow and Walter Wink which has made the real existence of forces of evil make sense to me again.

This has enabled me to identify the finance-led market capitalism of today as “the System of Satan”. Merely calling it idolatry is not sufficient for me, given the all-encompassing and subtle power of this system and the fact that most of us see no real alternative, in particular our politicians.

I think Prof. Tanner could do with an element of this more powerful way of condemning the system; while at the point of writing I have not yet heard her final (and summing up) lecture, so far she has merely set out in a factual and resigned way the undesirable features of the system, and commented that there is no longer any competing structure available for us to prefer, communism being widely considered to have failed (and inasmuch as it requires a command economy directed by a few people in power, this is true). Marx, it seems, was a brilliant diagnostician of the weaknesses of capitalism, but his prescription was a failure…

She has not so far considered any of the anarchist thinking which might (as long as it is not anarcho-capitalism) provide another way; her solution seems to be to work within the system but not to subscribe to it’s encompassing ethos, not to be drawn into belief in it, accepting that we live in a fallen world.

I do not think this is enough, though it is a start. We should certainly adopt small measures of protest against the way the system works, but we should also at least hope for a future in which the Kingdom, and it’s non-capitalist economics, grows out of that – as Jesus suggested, like a leaven or a mustard seed. Anything we can do to hasten the leavening or the growth of the seed should be tried.

And maybe, just maybe, we will see the start of the Kingdom coming in glory…

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Give to him who asks of you

April 7th, 2016

Ian Hislop, who is occasionally more a journalist than a satirist, presented a programme on BBC this evening entitled “Workers or Shirkers”, looking at how the Victorians dealt with the poor, and the question of whether and how they should be provided for, and in particular whether we should discriminate between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. It was a fairly balanced presentation, with some shocking moments, such as finding out that Ian Duncan Smith, lately in charge in the UK of cutting and denying benefits to the poor while claiming to be “helping them” (by which he meant providing them with the incentive of starvation to go and find employment),  actually has some feelings for the poor.

OK, I maybe jest very slightly there, but not a lot. There was quite a bit on the system of workhouses instituted in the 19th century (and still in some cases active in my lifetime) which were deliberately designed to be worse than anything on the outside which didn’t actually kill you immediately. I regularly pass along a street called “Union Lane”, which now has several branches of the social welfare establishment spread along one side, which was named because before most of it was knocked down as being both supremely ugly and unfit for human habitation even by social workers, it was the site of the Union Workhouse. “Union” because it was operated by a union of several parishes rather than merely one. It still had a rather sinister reputation in my childhood, and people of my grandparent’s generation often had a terror of “going on the parish”, as people tended to call becoming dependent on the workhouses. Actually, by that time, few people alive had actually experienced the workhouses in their full horror, as they had by and large become far more civilised as the 20th century progressed, and innovations like National Insurance and Old Age Pensions had seriously reduced the need for them. A small plaque on the rather decorative former gatehouse (one of the few attractive features, and rightly preserved) commemorates its origin. I’m perhaps unusual in that the mere name of the street makes me remember the system every time I pass along it…

The workhouse system was definitely more shocking than IDS, though many of his and his successor’s pronouncements make me wonder quite how close to a new workhouse system our current government would like to get.

The programme perhaps doesn’t go back quite far enough. The various Poor Laws which were administered initially through the parishes had become necessary because charitable giving utterly failed to meet the need (and that in a country which was in those days at least avowedly something over 95% Christian). It did, however, follow through the initial institution of the Welfare State here, and adverted to the fact that even a Labour government faced with the Great Depression decided that it needed to cut back on welfare (what was not mentioned is that there was also a national debt dwarfing the one we now see in percentage of GDP due to having fought the First World War…) An obvious parallel with current conditions was not  explicitly drawn but implied, leaving it more difficult to point to all the areas in which finances then were massively worse than they are now.

The conclusion? We are, it seems, hopelessly confused between a desire only to benefit the deserving and an impulse to correct suffering without reference to merit.

But then, we are not any more a 95% Christian country, more like a 7% Christian one. If we were, I could point to a very clear injunction contained in Matthew 5:42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you”. Jesus says nothing about asking why someone is in need, nor about asking whether they deserve help, or even whether we should check what they will spend it on. We are just to give whenever asked (and there are a large set of other quotations available to back this up).

However, I do notice that in at least one church in York are cards encouraging people not to give money to people begging on the street (of whom there are regrettably quite a few), but instead to give to charities helping them. Yes, I thoroughly approve of giving to those charities (and I do, regularly), and that church does do excellent work helping feed the homeless, but those cards seem to me basically contrary to Jesus’ command. If I have money, I will give something to them direct, whatever the church says. And it should not be saying that.

Of course, looking back at the history of helping the poor, as Hislop does, makes it pretty clear that the Church has never been very good at following this particular command of Jesus. Suspending judgment, it seems, is even more difficult than parting with your money.

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What price free trade?

March 23rd, 2016

A friend has recently posted an approving link to an article criticising both Trump and Sanders for opposing the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) treaty; the basis on which the criticism is levied is that free trade and more of it is good for the US economy; the article then goes on to suggest that the failure of non-competitive industries is a price worth paying for the benefits of increased productivity and innovation.

In doing that, it completely misses the point of Sanders’ criticism of the treaty, which is not on the basis that the lowering of trade barriers is bad for employment, but on the basis that the treaty hamstrings the ability of governments on both sides to enact legislation which might hamper trade. Sanders’ position is not (as the article suggests) protectionism, it’s simple care for the population and the environment which is being prejudiced.

This is the same criticism which I have been levelling at the proposed TTIP treaty between the US and the EU; in essence, the treaty would remove sovereignty from the individual nations in favour of unregulated big business, limiting or removing the powers of governments to legislate on (for instance) food safety, environmental protection and banking control. These kinds of treaties give corporations the power to sue governments for losses (generally being the inability to make future profits) which they anticipate if the governments restrict the ability of those corporations to (for instance) strip mine large tracts of land, deforest wide areas, sell dangerous drugs or foods or, of course, carry out the same kind of financial manoeuverings which led to the 2008 crash.

My view is that governments’ abilities to control large multi-national corporations are already far too limited, particularly in the US with it’s system requiring huge money in order to get elected, thus putting politicians in the pockets of big business. (Our home-grown politicians at present seem willing to do much the same things without actually directly receiving vast sums of money, which in my eyes makes them fools rather than crooks; I might prefer crooks, as at least their crookedness is predictable).

It is a huge shame that the treaties of this type in existence (and the drafts of TTIP) actually operate in this way. It makes sense to have a mechanism by which restrictive rules made by governments can be challenged; historically many of these have been back door means of instituting protection of native industries rather than regulations designed to safeguard the environment (a Christian duty in my view, as we are called to be good stewards of the remainder of creation) or keep consumers safe from shoddy or dangerous products (another Christian duty, as protecting the weaker against the stronger and limiting fraud). My personal instinct is in favour of free trade, as this has been historically the position of the Liberal Party (and then the Liberal Democrat Party) in the UK. However, this has to be tempered by considering the actual effects on people and environment.

What the article does in the main is attack some of Trump’s criticism. I don’t propose to talk about that directly, as Trump expresses his ideas on the subject fairly incoherently, but instead note an article by Chris Hedges recently. To quote from that article:-

“To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment, indeed, even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society,” Polanyi warned in “The Great Transformation.”

“In disposing of a man’s labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity ‘man’ attached to the tag,” he went on. “Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed.”

Hedges is, of course, a significantly left-leaning commentator (as, it might be argued, is Robert Reich), but I think his observation that the existing treaty is impoverishing the population of the weaker partners (Mexico in this case) as well as contributing to the forces lowering the living standards of US workers is well founded. The benefit of free trade in enabling workers in poorer countries to lift themselves out of poverty by producing things cheaper than can be done in richer countries is a good; it contributes to the alleviation of poverty, which is a major Christian duty. However, in this case the existing free trade agreement seems not to be having that effect. Partly that will be due to the fact that the pool of labour is not organised and is far larger than the demands of production could ever need, of course.

I am also inclined to question whether it makes sense to ship low value goods vast distances, particularly to places which can readily produce their own; none of the mechanisms envisaged take account of the vast carbon footprint of long distance travel, which in my opinion ought to render some trade uneconomic. I might, for instance, like the fact that under TTIP British farmers could potentially strike down US regulations forbidding British beef and lamb from US markets – but the USA are perfectly capable of producing their own, and the transport costs (if they included pollution) should render this uneconomic.

It might be that under a properly constituted free trade agreement, the poor farmers of other countries would be able to sue the US government for subsidising agriculture to their considerable disadvantage. However, the mechanisms which are in place, even were this a practical possibility, are effectively open only to rich companies and not to poor individuals.

It may well be that protectionism is indeed something which is now impossible to resurrect – the article suggests it’s a thing of the 50’s, though I would argue that it is still alive and well and being practiced in many countries, perhaps all in some measure. We would not in any event, I think, wish to go back to the days of major tariffs on imported goods, as we like our cheap consumer goods, clothing and food too much. Is protection, though, a completely bad thing when just designed to protect our native industries and workers?

Hedges’ quotation accurately pinpoints one of the problems; a larger pool of labour (worldwide rather than local) reduces the bargaining power of labour, and thus reduces the income of workers. As Trump might say were he not speaking in a wholly populist manner, this is likely to prejudice the workers ability to meet the needs of the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (basic sustenance and security) and in fact is doing so. I have in mind here the repeated suggestions of Alan Greenspan (former president of the Federal Reserve) that immigration of skilled workers should be encouraged in the US in order to drive down the wages of the skilled.

So what I’m left concluding is that while free trade between parties with rough parity of bargaining power (the kind of situation advanced by most proponents as paradigmatic) is in principle a good thing provided due consideration is given to (for instance) the environment, the kind of agreement which TPP and TTIP represent doesn’t achieve this in a sensible way, and indeed may act against true freedom of trade by increasing the relative power of large corporations against the consumer and labour (and, of course, the environment) without really achieving the improvement of the situation of the workers in poor countries which is a major aim.

But it’ll keep things cheap, at the expense of sweated labour (or even outright slavery) somewhere.

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Freedom with or without property?

March 13th, 2016

“Property is freedom” (Proudhon)
“Property is theft” (Proudhon)
“Property is impossible” (Proudhon)
“Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” (Thoreau) (the four quotations assembled by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson as a chapter heading in “Illuminatus”).

Proudhon, sometimes called the father of anarchism, was not actually being quite so inconsistent as those quotations suggest. However, his “Theory of Property “ makes for extremely tedious reading, so tends to get forgotten apart from those highlights!

I started thinking about this post on reading a meme shared by a friend, attacking the ability of government to tax people. In essence, it says that people cannot delegate to government a right they do not have themselves, and they have no right to rob their neighbour. That led me to wonder quite how well the idea of private property aligns with Biblical and Christian principles; it was not immediately apparent to me that there is, for instance, a right not to be “robbed” by ones neighbour, nor that in the natural state of things there is no right to “rob” ones neighbour, if that be interpreted as taking and using yourself something your neighbour is not using themselves. There isn’t even truly a right not to have something you’re using yourself taken away unless either you have the force to prevent it or there is a system of government and law to give you redress for someone else taking it.  Rights are non-existent in the absence of such a system (and, I remark, such systems have to be paid for). It is perhaps in this sense that “property is impossible”.

It seems to me that in the world as we now find it, private property is increasingly seen as a “right” (at least for those who have it). Margaret Thatcher praised the “property owning Democracy”, and although private property is not one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, it seems to me that it might as well have been. It is absolutely foundational to the modern capitalist system. Thatcher had a point; if you own property, you are at least somewhat more secure (level 2 on Maslow’s hierarchy); you are at least to some extent free to say “no” to demands that you do something for someone else; you are not forced to work in order to eat (which destroys any semblance of an equal bargaining position with those looking for workers); you have some degree of power inasmuch as there is an exchange value of your property. This is Proudhon’s target in saying “property is freedom”.

I wrote recently about the deeply anti-Biblical nature of money, the ultimate form of property which is nothing but exchange value, so I will not go much further into property which is money. There are, however, two major other divisions of property, moveable and immovable – the second category is land, together with what is built on it.

To have land may mean you have a house (and therefore shelter, part of level 1 for Maslow). If you have enough land, you may be able to farm it to provide yourself with food, answering both a level 1 and a level 2 need (I remark that very few people in the UK have that much land; that is probably the case in most developed countries, but in the States seems to be a dream which is very much alive, even if not actually given to most to realise). The ancient Israelites were clearly aware of this when they allotted land to each tribe by lot according to their size (Num. 26:55-6) though clearly from the Jubilee provisions they anticipated that individuals (patriarchs of families) within those tribes would have their own allotment, and instituted provisions to return land at a Jubilee so as to prevent people losing this freedom; the Jubilee also freed slaves and cancelled debts, thus removing debt-slavery as another means of denying basic needs. It should be noted, however, that the basic allotment was to the tribe, not to individuals, so land was at the most basic level a common asset.

There is a common theme through the Hebrew Scriptures that water (much prized in the generally arid landscape of the Middle East) was in particular provided by God – Isa. 55:1, Psalm 107:33-36, Psalm 23:1-3, as merely a few or many instances, thus strongly suggesting that basic utilities should be common to everyone (and that water resources in particular should not be in private ownership). Of course we also should not forget Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”.

Land is thus a particularly difficult thing to categorise as naturally being “private property”, as it clearly belongs to God, and not in general to man. One factor in this is that by and large, you cannot “use up” land (though you can certainly make it very unattractive for others by, for instance, polluting it or strip mining it). It’s still going to be there when you’re dead and gone, and a lot of farmers, owners of stately homes and even those of us fortunate or unfortunate enough to live in an old and interesting building will testify that to a great extent you don’t own the property, the property owns you.

In addition, of course, land is habitat for a lot of species apart from humans. If we have a “right” to land, do not other species also have rights to it? Are owners of land not responsible for their alteration of its characteristics such that, for instance, what was forest fixing large amounts of CO2 becomes arable land (or worse, desert) which fixes none, often in the process burning the trees to produce more of the CO2 which needs to be fixed?

The ancient Israelites were maybe getting at something like this in not permitting land to be sold off on a permanent basis; the only way you could alienate it was for, at most, 49 years until the next Jubilee. You could in the meantime use it, and I’m inclined to think that “use value” rather than “exchange value” is a better measure of land.

So, how should we use it? A common argument for long term ownership of land is that the land has been “improved”, for instance by reducing it to arable land from wood or scrub, or irrigating or draining it. I have to question whether these can truly be regarded as improvements. I’ve mentioned the problems of deforestation already, but should underline that any intensive human use is massively damaging to land as habitat for other species, and when we farm it we are tending to introduce monocultures which severely damage biodiversity. One man’s improvement is, therefore, another man’s damage or destruction.

“The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). The Biblical witness in Genesis 1 is that God made it, and saw that it was good as he made it. While yes, God is seen here as giving mankind rule over it, a ruler does not destroy that which he rules, he tends and protects it – and the vegetation is clearly given to both mankind and the rest of the fauna on earth to eat.  We should, I think, not see ourselves as owning land, but being stewards of it – and, perhaps, being owned by the land. Does the fact that God “gave man dominion over” created things (Gen. 1:26) mean that man should be less solicitous of the welfare of the rest of creation than is God, who “saw that it was good”, or rather “in the image of God” every bit as caring as God, for whom even sparrows are important?

Although the writers of the Pentateuch envisaged that land would in fact not be held communally, they did make provision for (for instance) the poor to be able to glean from the fields ; margins were to be left so they could do this. Genesis 1:30 clearly states that God gave vegetation to animals to eat; should we therefore not prevent them from eating, and do they not therefore have rights in “our” land?

The other form of property, and that which is beloved of those making simplistic arguments for property rights and thus capitalism, is things which we make (or buy).  Or find and collect, or extract from the earth, or grow in the earth, or (in the case of livestock) collect, allow to breed and then utilise in some way.

It tends to seem obvious that when I do something which places an object in my possession, unless I have stolen it, it is mine (and remains so). This is particularly the case when I have done something in order to make it – in the case of a miner, dug it out of the ground, a farmer prepared ground, planted seed, weeded, fertilised and irrigated it and finally reaped it, in the case of a hunter chased down an animal and killed it, in the case of a craftsman taken materials and formed and/or assembled them into something new. This is the case, for instance, for Marx, for whom the human labour which goes in to something is the sole form of value which it should have (neglecting the use of land or equipment which may not belong to the labourer); it is doubly the case for capitalist economists, who would value the land and equipment first and the labour only second (if at all – the pure capitalist regards labour as an irritating cost to be reduced by all means possible). For both of them, value has been added, and their dissent is merely as to how that value should be apportioned.

I question this view. It seems to me that what I most truly own is actually just those things which I am currently using – as Heidegger put it “zuhanden”, i.e. “ready to hand”. The skilled workman acts as if the tool he is using is an extension of himself, and to a great extent, it is; he can reasonably be said to own it while using it in this way. Something which I am not using is at best, in Heideggerian terminology, “vorhanden”, i.e. present to hand – and much of what I tend to think of as “mine” is not even actually present to hand – it isn’t even immediately available for use. This is a form of valuation  purely by use-value (which both Marx and the capitalist economists both acknowledge), but one which is more restricted by suggesting that potential use-value isn’t yet really value at all. As an aside, if potential use-value is considered a value, use for one purpose should surely be regarded as destroying (or at least reducing) the value of all other potential uses.

After I started writing this, my wife bought bones for our two dogs. The older of the two persistently tried to corner both the bones, and when he managed it would growl fiercely at the puppy to warn him off “his” bone. Of course, he could not eat two bones at the same time, and he was depriving the puppy of “his” bone (we had to keep intervening to take one of the bones off the old dog and give it to the puppy). Before saying that this was just clearly theft, consider whether, to the dogs, we are not in effect in the position of God, giving abundant food (or at least the opportunity and circumstances to cultivate it) and then seeing one person cornering it and denying it to others. I was reminded of seeing a homeless man begging outside a plush restaurant; he was hungy, and those inside had more than enough. Was that not also a form of theft (Proudhon’s second meaning)? Of course, Jesus preached against this attitude in Luke 12:13-21 (the parable of the rich fool), in which a man with abundant grain builds more storehouses, but does not live to enjoy their contents.

I could argue that unless I am in the process of using something, if someone else would benefit by using it, this might be equivalent to a form of theft. Before dismissing this argument too quickly, recall that a major argument for settlers having a claim to land over and above migratory people who only occasionally used the land is just that; that they settled on it and actually used it. Another is, of course, that they improved the land, for instance by making it cultivable, but as examples such as the deforestation of the Amazon and the creation of the mid-west dustbowl indicate, the term “improvement” is very debatable.

In a similar way to the “improvement” of the mid-west, I might also argue that when someone takes, say, wood from a forest (thus destroying living trees), works it and produces, say, a chair, this should really be viewed merely as adjusting the form of something, and not as creating something (and if, for instance, there is a glut of chairs around, the chair produced has frankly near-zero value for either use or exchange value, whereas the tree it came from has value merely by existing as part of the ecosystem, and indeed the chair might have negative value as waste needing to be disposed of). The intuition in Genesis and the Psalms that God alone is the Creator is valid here; man does not create, he merely rearranges.

I suspect that by this point many reading this will think “this goes massively too far”, and I would agree. It’s an extreme. For there to be no real private property (Proudhon’s third suggestion) is also the position someone is in when society has broken down and there is no trust or fellow feeling between individuals; what you “own” is, if it goes beyond what you are actually currently using, what you can by force or intimidation prevent others from taking. “But we don’t live in a society like that”, I hear. Well, conditions like that occur regularly in places like childrens’ playgrounds and prisons, where individuals either haven’t yet learned to respect the conventions of society or have wilfully rejected them. I suggest that this is a more natural state than is the society of property owners, in fact. A friend recently alerted me to the fact that the Founding Fathers contemplated in the Declaration of Independence expressing a God-given right to property ownership (in fact, they substituted “the pursuit of happiness”); I think that they were entirely correct to reject this as a natural right. It has to be said, however, that having some property does contribute to Maslow’s second level, security (although there too, Jesus would comment “do not worry about tomorrow”).

However, if you add to a society an ethos of compassion, “loving your neighbour as yourself” as a general value,a mix of private and communal property becomes the most natural way to organise things, always in the consciousness that everything originates from God, and that we are mere stewards of it (or, in the case of food or drink, recipients of a gift).

There is one final thing. As I mentioned earlier, very many people I talk to who own a large house or a large area of land (perhaps a farm) say that they do not really feel that they own it, they feel that it owns them. They may well also say they are merely custodians, evidencing just that attitude of stewardship which I commend. Some people with (for instance) vintage cars will gladly confess that they are slaves to keeping it in pristine condition and good running order. Fewer people with large bank balances and multiple investments will say that they are owned by their possessions – but it seems to me that they are. They are defined by being a millionaire or a billionaire, and their primary energy goes to retaining that status and increasing it.

When Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, he was not asking him to damage himself, he was suggesting that he free himself. Just as an addict or an alcoholic is enslaved to their addicting substance or activity, so possessions can enslave us. Let’s be free!

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The System of Satan?

January 30th, 2016

On Friday 22nd January, one of the topics covered in the Global Christian Perspectives webcast, at its new regular time of 10pm UK time (4pm Central Time), was one which the Energion Discussion Network had asked Elgin Hushbeck (my usual sparring partner on GCP) and myself to write contrary blog posts. Elgin’s appeared on the 18th, and mine on the 19th. What follows is an expanded version of my blogpost of the 19th, expanded in the light of the fact that neither Elgin nor myself had seen the other’s post when we wrote our own.

The question asked is “Does Capitalism best express Christian economic values?” which I interpret as meaning free market capitalism, rather than (for instance) the nascent Chinese authoritarian-capitalist model.

So, what passages in scripture best enable us to see what Christian economic values might be? One might start with the account of the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2:44-45 “And all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need”.

Having all things in common would be an expression of the second part of the Great Commandment from Mat. 22:36-40 “You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Selling their possessions and distributing them to all would seem to flow from the parable of the rich young man in (inter alia) Mark 10:17-31 “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me””. He went on to say “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Also, of course, according to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Many reading this will immediately think that this had to be a short term situation, perhaps having regard to the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return and the institution of the Kingdom of God on earth, and some will think of Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church referred to in 1 Cor. 16, 2 Cor. 8 and Rom. 15 and suspect that the Jerusalem church had effectively beggared themselves. I am, however, mindful that Jesus also said (Matt 6:25-34) “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” and “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

If there is a major fault I can see in the Jerusalem church attitude, it is that the evidence is that it shared equally only between its own members. Implementing the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself” however has guidance as to who your neighbour is in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in which it is clear that your neighbour includes those of another religion and race, and traditional enemies. These days, it should probably be the parable of the Good ISIS insurgent. Help should have been for the whole community, and not just the group of followers of Christ.

But, I hear said, this is just totally impractical, it cannot work. G.K. Chesterton however said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” There have been some decent attempts (generally shorn of explicitly Christian content, for instance the anarchist communal enterprises during the Spanish Civil War), but never a widespread trial. I should underline that a statist controlled economy (which is often seen as the only alternative to unbridled free market capitalism) is not what I think is the nearest to a system Jesus might have approved of. However, something like the Jerusalem church might well be a halfway house to a truly Christian economics.

Let’s turn to free market capitalism. At first sight, a free market looks a wonderful idea. You produce something which someone wants, and you agree a price with them. If someone else sells cheaper than you do, you have to lower your price to compete with them, and without any conscious decision making other than everyone getting the “best buy” and, on the other hand, selling at the “best price”, prices are kept low and competitive.

This is very much the basis on which Elgin suggests that a free market is a magnificent system for ensuring things such as efficiency and cost-effectiveness. To a significant extent, he is right in that. He opposes the free market to a centralised system fixing prices, a “command economy”, and rightly remarks that all experiments with command economies (chiefly in communist states) have been unmitigated failures. However, command economies are not the only alternative to an unregulated free market, as witness the fact that in a recent poll of the ten best countries for doing business, all of them were social democracies rather than fully free market states (and neither the UK nor the USA were on that list).

There are two major problems with free markets from a Christian perspective. The first is in the motivation it assumes on the part of both buyer and seller – the buyer is looking to pay as little as possible for as much as possible, the seller to sell as little as possible for as much as possible. Both are assumed to be working entirely out of self-interest. Self-interest is not a Christian value; it ignores the command to love your neighbour as yourself. It can be argued that it is realistic to assume the worst of humanity, and even Christian (given that most Christian denominations hold that mankind is in a fallen condition), but it is not something we can hold up as an ideal situation, as it rests, fundamentally, on greed. However, adopting more Christian principles of exchange might not completely destroy the ability of free markets to regulate prices (and supply) without central control.

The second is that it fails to work in practice except in very limited circumstances. What we actually see in unregulated economies (and in a lot of somewhat regulated ones) is developing monopolies (even on a very small scale you get those – there just is not room for two competing providers of some goods or services in my town, for instance) and, where there isn’t quite a monopoly, a cartel, agreeing not to compete on price. As time goes by without a cartel, one supplier becomes dominant because they can sell a little cheaper (or with a cartel the cartel becomes dominant), and then economies of scale kick in and they become cheaper yet, and you have another monopoly (which is then protected from someone else entering the market by selling at a loss until the new entrant fails, at which point the losses are recouped by raising the price).

On the back of monopolies comes an ever greater concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands (on the basis of a recent study, looking purely at moveable wealth, half the world’s wealth is currently in the hands of 62 people). As Adam Smith (hardly a poster-boy for liberals and socialists) pointed out (and I link to an article by David Brin discussing this at length), great disparities in wealth destroy the freedom of markets, via the huge disparities of purchasing power they produce.

As a secondary effect, the freedom of the market is compromised severely when less and less people actually have the money (or power) to enter into it, resulting in the removal of the mass decision making which makes the free market work, concentrating the power to make decisions in a very few hands. The result is close to a command economy, with all the abysmal track record that brings. As Brin remarks, in exchange for price setting by 10,000 civil servants, we get price setting by 5,000 golf buddies – and I add to what Brin says, that the man in the street has at least in theory the ability to elect politicians who will do something about the 10,000 civil servants, whereas the golf buddies are not removable except by people with immense wealth to buy controlling interests in the companies they operate.

Free markets are thus demonstrated to be fundamentally unstable; they will eventually cease to be free unless they (or their effects) are regulated.

Another problem kicks in when talking about markets in, for instance, stocks and shares. What governs those prices is more what people think is going to happen to the price in the future than a dispassionate view of how well the underlying company is doing, so they are prone to boom and bust cycles, particularly since automated trading systems started to react to changes in the market more rapidly than human traders ever could.

Turning from markets to capitalism proper, except on a very small scale (without economies of scale), it is not a matter of a single person producing something. Elgin is correct to say that capitalism has produced a higher standard of living for masses of people, and the mechanism is mass production, which demands major investment of equipment to work; this has been provided by mechanisms such as the joint stock company and by the banking system, which together give you capitalism.

I need to pause here to say that I have misgivings about both the joint stock company and the banking system as being in accordance with Christian principles.

The joint stock company allows people to risk only their initial investment through the principle of limited liability; the worst they can fear is the loss of their share value. What that actually does, however, is enable companies to fail to meet their obligations to others, either debts owed or liabilities for damage caused, by just declaring the company insolvent and winding it up. This enables people to support companies which will defraud or cause damage to people without fearing the full consequences.

The banking system lends money at interest, fundamentally. That is something which, for very many years, Christians believed was forbidden by scripture, basing this on Deuteronomy 23:19 “Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest”, first prohibiting it at the First Council of Nicea (325). This was the sin of usury (for over a millennium Christians left that practice to Jews, who used the parallel provision permitting interest to be charged to foreigners in Deut. 23:20). I am not convinced that our move away from condemning usury is warranted.

Beyond that, capitalism is a matter of an employer (usually a company) with multiple employees, it is a matter of needing capital from somewhere in order to set up the business; both separate the work of production from the sale of the product. But, I hear, workers contract freely to work for the capitalist, and there is again a free market. The fact that the employer or the provider of capital makes most of the money, and not those who actually produce, is fair because it is a free market.

This is just not the case. A free market demands that both seller and buyer are free from overwhelming need to contract at whatever price the other demands. Except in circumstances of labour shortages (which rarely arise except in the case of people with specialist skills and which the mass production through automation on which the modern capitalist economy depends constantly strives to reduce or eliminate), the employer can employ anyone while the worker typically fears starvation and the gutter and is compelled to accept what the employer is willing to give. This is good free market capitalist economics; it reduces the cost of production for the employer and increases the profit margin.

It is not, however, remotely Christian. The employer is not only failing to love the employee as himself, but is taking advantage of rather than benefiting the poor (for instance by giving them all his money…). In a truly Christian economy, the fear of starvation and the gutter would not be there, because the rich would be queuing up to give the poor money.

Indeed, free market capitalist economics value people only as units of production or units of consumption. The less you pay in wages the better, the more they pay for what they buy (and the more they buy) the better. A Christian economics would value them as people and, I suggest, value them the more if they are poor (hungy,  thirsty or unclothed), a stranger, sick or imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46). Capitalist economics, in other words, values only money. If you work for a capitalist enterprise, you are likely to be sacked for giving anything away or for selling it at a lower price than the employers demand; you are forever going to be pushed to produce more at a lower cost and sell more at a higher price. To make more money.  As Gordon Gecko says in “Wall Street”, “Greed is good”.

There lies the problem. Paul said “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and Jesus said “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). The word used for money there is “Mammon”, which Christian theology has traditionally seen as a false god or prince of hell (Gregory of Nyssa, Cyprian and Jerome certainly thought this way; Gregory equated Mammon with Beelzebub).

All this for something which you cannot eat or drink, which you cannot wear, and which has only the value we permit ourselves to be deceived into giving it unless and until it is converted into something real. If you consider that money has real value, think of inflation, and particularly hyper-inflation which has affected some economies in the past. The pound (or dollar) in your pocket is really only worth to you what someone is prepared to give you in exchange for it, and that can vary wildly (if, for instance, someone just doesn’t want to sell you something, or work for what you offer, or just isn’t interested in having more money) or, in hyperinflation, collapse completely. Money, and therefore wealth, is a fiction, given value only by the belief of those who have faith in it. That’ to my mind, sounds very much like a minimalist definition of a god… or, at least, a false god.

In addition, if you consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, while the lowest level (physiological) can be attended to fairly readily with money in normal circumstances, safety requires more than just money, and having more money does not correlate well (some would argue “at all”) with attaining any of  the higher needs of humanity (“Money can’t buy you love”), though we are deceived into thinking that money gives us security and others are deceived into esteeming us more for “having” more of it.

Indeed, while with most commodities we can readily see that, at best, “enough is as good as a feast”, and consumption of many things in excess can actually be bad for you, having reduced everything to money, i.e. wealth, we have produced a system in which you can never clearly see that you have too much.  In the quest to sell more (and produce more) we have developed marketing and advertising, the chief effects of which have gone beyond the initial aim of letting the buyer know what was available to inducing people to buy what they don’t need, and to pay more for it not because it is intrinsically better, but because it is seen as trendy, or high status.

It is also the case that in every free market capitalist system (and the more so the more nearly that approaches the ideal), the principle of “trickle down economics” (otherwise expressed as “a rising tide lifts all boats”) which benefits the poor because it benefits everyone, does not work unless there is a labour shortage. Marx got a lot of things wrong, in my eyes, but the one thing he got right was that free market capitalism concentrates wealth (and so power and the ability to choose what one does with life) in fewer and fewer hands. “Thus says the LORD:  For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way. “ (Amos 2:6-7)

So, capitalism gives us a system which results in us valuing each other by the amount of this Satanic fiction we consider each of us to have and concentrating that in fewer and fewer hands. We live in fear of not having it (which is a primary reason why we do not try a truly Christian economics) and are compelled into getting more of it, and letting others have as little of it as possible.

I therefore think that I was entirely justified in a recent Global Christian Perspectives webcast in calling Market Capitalism the “system of Satan”. It is the opposite of a Christian economic system.

The trouble is, just as Jesus observed when he said “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), we are stuck with this system. I am myself too consumed with the fear of destitution to go as far as I think I should towards a truly Christian view of economics, and can only chip away at the edges (by, for instance, not buying from companies which I know oppress workers particularly badly, and by paying more than I need to where a seller is plainly poor, as well as the normal charitable imperatives for which there is no justification in Market Capitalism, as well as by seeking to elect politicians who will curb the excesses of the system). The fact that we are stuck with it, absent a level of popular faith I can’t muster in myself, however, should not blind us to its “Satanic” character and the fact that we should aim at something better, or at least at using government (the people acting as a whole) to regulate and moderate its influence.

Free Market Capitalism is not a matter of “best expressing Christian values”, it’s a matter of turning the opposite of Christian values into a belief system which becomes the whole basis for society.

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More statesmen, less crucifixion.

November 15th, 2015

The attacks in Paris last night are horrifying in their death toll, the number of those injured and that fact that there was no conceivable offence which the victims had committed, apart, that is, from living in France. My prayers go with the families of those killed and injured, and with the people of Paris and of France who are coming to terms with the shock.

There are already a lot of idiot statements going around the web, and no doubt there will be many more in the future, but before I get to those, I find I am shocked not to have heard anything from the media about the bombings in Beirut and Baghdad before yesterday, and I suspect I might never have heard about them had it not been for the Paris attacks. Our media has failed us in this; lives do not matter less because they are in the Middle East than in Europe, or because they are those of people with a different religion or a different skin colour. Nor do they matter less because Beirut and Baghdad are far less shocked than is Paris, as they are more used to such atrocities – indeed, we should perhaps consider that Beirut and (in particular) Baghdad deserve special sympathy because there, the violence is more frequent and therefore more damaging to morale.

Some of those idiot statements have come from the French President, François Hollande, in various statements. He talks about severe measures, and about a war on terror, and did that even before anyone had claimed responsibility for the attacks. I can understand that a politician will feel the need to capture the mood of his country, and that that mood is one of wishing to have vengeance for the damage. A statesman, however (and I would have hoped that the president of a major European nation might have managed to achieve that status) would seek to guide the people rather than ride the wave of their anger, and precipitate action is one of the things which terrorists most hope to cause. He would acknowledge the anger, state that he shares it and talk about prevention of a future atrocity and taking measured steps against those ultimately responsible.

Let me start with “war on terror”. This is a ridiculous concept, almost as much so as a war on drugs (do I go out and shoot a few aspirin?). Wars are between sovereign nations, and the vast majority of terrorist groups are not acting on behalf of a sovereign state (though the military of many nations may be guilty of terror attacks themselves). Curiously, these attacks are possibly an exception, in that credit has been claimed by IS, who are de-facto a sovereign state, holding a large swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria. I think he would have been justified in principle in declaring war on Islamic State – I am even inclined to think that this meets the criteria necessary for starting a just war under Augustine’s and Aquinas’ principles (jus ad bellum). Of course, no-one wants to recognise IS as a state…

This topic, in fact, came up in last night’s Global Christian Perspectives webcast, in which Allan Bevere went into some detail about just war, and rightly pointed out that it is not just the issue of whether you go to war which is subject to moral principles (originally specifically Christian, but now in theory accepted as good argument in international law), but also whether the war is waged justly (jus in bello). If you cannot wage war justly, even if it is just to start a war, you have no moral alternative but to sue for peace or surrender, according to Augustine and Aquinas. Major principles are that there must be a reasonable prospect of success, and that you must not kill innocents.

There, I think we have huge difficulties, firstly in safeguarding innocents. Certainly, efforts to date in the “war on terror” have resulted in very large numbers of innocent casualties – many more innocents than terrorists, in fact. Unless we change our way of dealing with this (and there is really no alternative to “boots on the ground” given the lamentable accuracy of targeting from the air – this piece of idiocy from Allen West is actually right on point; I might think that he was a liberal speaking satirically if I didn’t know better), we will not possess “jus in bello” and cannot reasonably wage war even against IS.

Secondly, what remote possibility is there of ever declaring success? In particular, what possibility is there of success when we are not prepared to occupy (for an indefinite but no doubt very long period) even the states which we have held accountable for past terrorism? It is, of course, very widely appreciated that where you kill innocents in significant numbers, you actually create new terrorists in greater numbers than the reduction you tend to achieve, and certainly create more sympathy for the terrorists’ cause; certainly the terrorists understand this, and the overreaction is one of the outcomes they most desire. What possibility is there of success when prosecuting the “war” actually makes more new terrorists than it kills, and where significant numbers of them are living in states which have no responsibility for their actions, sometimes our own nations?

I recently linked again from facebook to my 2013 meditation on Remembrance Day, and the sentiments there are still entirely valid. If anything, though, the more I read the gospels, the less I think that Jesus would have approved any of the Just War concepts which Augustine came up with; he would not approve war at all. I am not quite at the point of being able to say that I would never support my country going to war in any circumstances (though I thoroughly approve Jeremy Corbyn’s undertaking that if he became Prime Minister, he would never order the use of nuclear weapons, and hope that the right wing and the media are wrong that this makes him unlelectable), but at the least, can we try to adhere to Just War principles?

I now realise that I missed something in my 2013 account. Although I rightly, I think, determined that no war my country had fought in the last 100 years or more had been just with the exception of World War II, I missed the fact that the way Britain fought the war emphatically did not meet just war standards, as we deliberately targeted civilian populations (first with the excuse that the Germans had first bombed London, which it proves was in error when a raid overshot industrial targets). I think I can therefore now say that we have not fought a completely just war at any time in history which I can think of.

I realise that in saying that, I am going completely against a lot of public mood, particularly at present in France. I will also probably make myself unpopular in many circles if I point out that the fact that my country, France and Spain have been targeted by Islamic terrorists follows our own actions in bombing and invading Islamic countries, and killing large numbers of innocent Muslims. It is, no doubt, difficult for someone whose home is bombed and whose family members are killed or maimed to appreciate that we were not waging war on them and that the correct action is not to come and bomb us.

I do not think that I would be inclined to accept the excuse of someone who killed my wife that she was “collateral damage”, for instance, though I would hope that my Christian principles would win out over my natural urge to do them at least as much damage in return, and if not them personally, then their families, their friends or those associated with them, or in paroxysms of grief, those who looked a bit like them or shared their politics or religion – it is scary what the frustration of powerlessness in the face of loss can do to human morality, what depths otherwise civilised people are prepared to sink to. I could here point out Rene Girard’s work on the futility of redemptive violence and his identification of the Crucifixion as the “last scapegoat”, after which we need not look to violence to redeem anything.

War is hell. It crucifies people and nations. We should do everything in our power to avoid it. And, if we are a Christian nation, or a nation whose sense of morality was forged in Christianity even if we have moved on from that belief, we should consider very seriously the injunction to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

France, however, is not feeling much like that at the moment (and who can blame them?). Feelings, however, do not have to become actions, and a statesman might point that out. On the back of that, there are some other stupid statements. “It’s because of all the refugees” is one obvious one. Well, despite the fact that I now hear that a Syrian man who is known to have come via Lesbos may be implicated (and I’m afraid I find that all too convenient to those arguing against the refugees), in general the refugees are trying to get away from the people who do these things. Christianity inherited from Judaism an obligation of hospitality towards the stranger, which Europe is not doing a very good job of upholding so far, and it would be a tragedy if the borders now closed completely, which is certainly what not a few people are suggesting. You might argue that Europe is post-Christian, but it has emerged out of Christianity and in theory still holds to largely Christian principles. It could be that the basic European principle of free movement of people within Europe (to which my country does not wholly subscribe) may be ending here, and that would be a tragedy for Europe and a victory for the terrorists. If you’re in the States, contemplate what the imposition of full border controls between the individual states would do to, for instance, the commute from New Jersey to New York…

Equally damaging is the suggestion that the attacks must be because of security failures, and therefore we should massively increase security measures. One of the things which makes Europe a great place to live, work and holiday in is that it is relatively free, we are not a set of police states, a set of nations obsessed with looking over our shoulders. If we lose that as a reaction to these attacks, again the terrorists have won. We also value free speech, and that would vanish under such a regime – in point of fact that has already been horribly eroded due to previous attacks (such as those on Charlie Hebdo, in central London and on trains in Madrid).

A statesman would say that there is a value in being European, a value created from our common beliefs in justice and mercy, tolerance, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of belief. He would suggest that if we react in such a way as to reduce those values, the terrorists have destroyed us. 8 men with guns and some explosives will have caused the destruction of the dream of a multi-national union of some 750 million people, and we will largely have done it to ourselves.

A Christian statesman might remind us that Jesus said “what you do to the least of these, you do to me”.

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A plague on both your tribes

November 1st, 2015

Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen a lot of very favourable words written by left-leaning sources firstly about Pope Francis and then about Bernie Sanders, followed by some push-back from people who don’t think they measure up to the ideal of a leftist which the commentators would like. I grant that in neither case is that criticism anything like notable compared with the howls of conservative anger, but it is definitely there

Francis, for instance, is criticised for not pushing the church in the direction of equality for women, abortion or homosexuality.  I have no idea whether he would want to, and frankly that doesn’t matter to me; the fact is that he is saying some things about poverty, climate change and global capitalism which I think are thoroughly in accordance with the teachings of both Jesus and his sainted namesake. Even if he wanted to move towards a more liberal position on sexual equality or abortion, he has stirred up quite enough controversy in the traditionally very conservative halls of the Vatican already, and to stir up more would be distinctly a bridge too far.

Bernie Sanders has similarly received criticism for not being left wing enough. (Yes, for my US readers, Sanders is in fact not very left wing at all by international standards). He’s not, apparently, sufficiently loudly in favour of black Americans, nor is he a wholly believable anti-Zionist. (Actually, I think he’s adequately to the left on those issues, just not rabidly so). Apparently, in order for “liberals” to support him, he needs to tick every possible liberal-progressive-radical box, just as does Francis. (Incidentally, I’m using “liberals” in the US sense there – “liberals” in the UK are centrists, often with a somewhat anti-big-government tinge to them).

I really have no time for this “bounded set” thinking, where unless you tick every box, you’re not “one of us”. I far prefer the idea of a centred set, where there are one or several markers, and anyone who is moving toward any of them is a member, even if they may be slightly further from the absolute centre on other points. The left should thank it’s lucky stars that they have in Francis and Sanders two people who are moving closer to their ideal location than has been seen in either of their institutions in generations. If the left regards itself as a tribe with rigidly defined boundaries as to who is out and who is in, they will never succeed; if they regard themselves as following general directions, they will find a lot of people walking in the same direction.

I say that as someone who by US standards is definitely well to the left myself – though in UK terms, I’ve been a centrist since my teenage years, although the centre of gravity of UK politics has moved a long way right over that time and I haven’t.

My irritation here is not by any means confined to the left, however. The right, and particularly the religious right, also do it and have been doing it for a long time. I spare some thoughts of sympathy for the Reverend Rob Schenck, whose credentials as a conservative evangelical are stellar, and with whom I disagree on almost every subject. Rev. Schenck has recently taken the entirely logical step of deciding that if he is against abortion in any form due to a high view of the sanctity of life, he must therefore also be in favour of gun control. Many of the conservative evangelical tribe are busily disowning him. Apparently in order to be a conservative Christian in the States, you also need to be in favour of unrestricted ownership of deadly weapons, and he is not any more.

There is absolutely no danger that the progressive left tribe are going to take him to their bosoms and welcome him into the fold of true believers, as this is only one of the many markers he would need to adopt, so he is left in the uncomfortable position of being in the middle.

Uncomfortable, that is, only if you feel the need to belong to one of the two tribes (both of which would prefer to see everyone as one or the other). Actually, just like Francis and Sanders, Schenck is in the position of most of us, not agreeing with everything which either extreme puts forward.

Welcome to post-tribal humanity, where you can (and should) look critically at all the sacred cows of both left and right!


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Depression, the system of Satan and the Devil’s evangelism

October 21st, 2015

My Small Group has been doing the Jeff Lucas series “Elijah, Prophet at a Loss”, and I got to lead the last session recently.

First, a few words about the series. On the whole, it’s pretty reasonably constructed and at least intended to leave those leading sessions fairly little to do. It takes a standard evangelical approach to scripture, but there is material on which you can base excursions beyond that. There are four sessions, and each then has five days worth of short readings and bible passages, plus a prayer. Jeff writes rather good short prayers. I do worry that having five readings after the last actual session doesn’t allow a neat conclusion, though (especially given the tendency of groups to “do their homework” if at all, the day before the next session…).

However, the series only deals with Elijah’s earlier career, and ends with an episode where he becomes completely dis-spirited, so the last session material deals with depression, stress and burnout. In fact, I added some material at the end of the session to underline a more upbeat trajectory from Elijah’s later story and his reputation in Judaism and as referred to in Mark 8:27-8 (inter alia).

The “icebreaker” question for the session involves drawing a picture representing your worst fear. I elected to just ask people to share, suspecting rightly that the group would balk at drawing, but even that was, it proved, asking for more disclosure than many were happy with.

And, of course, I was completely targeted (I’m assured, and I believe, that knowledge of my history was not in anyone’s minds when allocating that session to me, which makes it one of those coincidences which either reality or a hyperactive pattern recognition tends to interpret as a guiding hand). I’m the only member of the group who has suffered a major clinical depression (or debilitating stress, or burnout), so I had a story to share, and I’m a twelve stepper, so I’m not unused to sharing my story.

Now, whether Elijah, in the story, was actually suffering a major clinical depression or merely a depressive episode is uncertain. It was, in the account, fairly short, but did involve a loss of hope and a wish to die (I spent six and a half years telling myself “Just for today, I will not kill myself” and hope, as a positive emotion, was entirely beyond my comprehension at the time). Jeff Lucas has clearly not suffered even as serious a depression as Elijah, and while he tried hard to understand, he could really have done to listen to testimony from someone who has actually been there, like this TED talk from Andrew Solomon. Even better, he could have given a section of the video over to someone who had first hand knowledge. At least he didn’t suggest that some trivial prayer would inevitably cure depression, which I have heard far too many times, but I didn’t feel he communicated the potential severity of the condition, and neither did the group. However, there was, I think, good discussion. I was very glad that I’d prepared a more upbeat ending, though!

My greatest fear, as I explained to the group for the icebreaker, was that my depression might return. It’s not something I dwell on, but in low moments I do wonder if that might be happening, as my slide downwards was not something I really noticed at the time. That, of course, highlights the difference between low mood and depression; I can still have distinctly down times and not be remotely in the same place as clinical depression. Incidentally, I have found that a touch of prayer and meditation is good medicine for low mood!

As came to me in the course of our discussion about fears, however, is the fact that pre-depression (and all the stuff which contributed to it), my greatest fear was of being broke and jobless; eventually the depression resulted in me being both, and that fear has now been more or less eliminated. There’s a good chance that that’s actually because “the worst happened and I survived it”. Circumstances combined to put me in a place I couldn’t see a way to achieving by myself, as I couldn’t then and still can’t bring myself to follow the example suggested to the rich young man by Jesus. I had to have that done for me. That is, of course, a positive I can take from the experience – and rather than accept several years of “ruined time”, I want to find as much positive as I can in it!

I can link this with Elijah’s story at the point we looked at (1 Kings 19); Elijah flees, afraid of death at the hands of Jezebel, but then ends up disspirited and praying for death. Perhaps this was his equivalent of giving up his fear?

From where I stand now, this fear of economic catastrophe led to me being overly concerned for years with making money, latterly trying to make enough to be able to retire and not have to worry about money again in the future. If you look at an operational definition of my position, I was behaving as if money was my main objective in life, rather than spiritual progress or practical care for others, and if you behave as if something is your ultimate objective, you are worshiping it in fact even if not in theory. As the love of money is the root of all evil, and you cannot serve God and Mammon, although I was still trying to give practical care to others as well, in accordance with the social gospel, I can point to that period and say that I was operationally “worshiping strange Gods”, i.e. Mammon, as money frequently came first. I have described free market capitalism as the system of Satan, and I was thoroughly caught up in it. Certainly my spiritual praxis declined almost to nothing over the years against the background of this need to make money; I was by and large not stopping to seek moments of prayer and meditation, to become closer to God.

I can now ask myself if this idolatry of money was, in fact, a major contributing feature of the depression in the first place. However, there’s more. Although at the time our national social security system was not yet broken to the extent that makes unemployment and lack of capital a real demon, I felt that I had to achieve this by my own efforts; I was fiercely self-reliant and did not want to ask for or receive help from anyone else. This in itself was a turning from God; we are repeatedly told to rely on God for our basic needs (and not ourselves), including in the sentence “Give us this day our daily bread”. I was praying that frequently, but I was not really thinking of its full implications, nor those of “give no thought to tomorrow”.

As a last point, the fact that I was always conscious of not yet having enough money, fearing the lack of enough money to buy the basics of existence (Maslow’s lowest two levels at least, and possibly the third as well), made me a slave to work, and a more or less willing slave at that. In my case it was based on a lie I told myself, that I needed not only to have enough for today, but enough for the rest of my life, and I didn’t feel that I needed a lot of new stuff all the time. However, I look at advertising, which is generally calculated to make you feel that you need stuff you in fact don’t, and consider that it is trying to make us all slaves to money. We are encouraged to have more and more, newer and newer. And we don’t need it – in fact, the perception of that need is bad for us. You might describe it as the Devil’s evangelism.

Finally my thoughts have to turn to those people who don’t even have enough to fulfill the bottom two levels of Maslow’s pyramid, these days in a climate of “austerity” which seems to hit the poorest the most an increasing number, frequently people who actually work very hard, just at jobs which don’t pay enough for even basic requirements of life. They are not free, they are slaves. They have no option but to take such jobs (and, if they can get them, second jobs which give them some small hope of getting as far as Maslow’s third and fourth levels, but never the highest level), no option but to work extremely hard for nothing but a bare minimum.

I can say from my own experience that when you are enslaved this way, it is incredibly difficult to turn your attention to the top two levels proposed by Maslow. It’s very arguable that faith and spirituality are actually in the top level. It’s difficult to turn your attention to the third level, love and belonging, and one would hope that those are available through a church community.

I dream of a society in which Maslow’s two bottom levels are met for every one of us by our community, working as a whole (and that implies that we use the mechanism we have for operating our community, namely the State and lower levels of government). We are not too poor as a country to provide for everyone air, water, food,  and shelter (level 1) and personal and financial security, health care and care in the event of accidents (level 2), and to provide it as of right, provided by those of us fortunate enough to be able to make surplus money, and provided by us as an absolute obligation of living in a community which has some aspiration to be considered civilised, let alone one which is moving towards being the Kingdom of God on earth.

Let us, therefore, demand that government give up the system of Satan, and stop listening to the Devil’s evangelists.

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Guns, climate, lawyers and arguments

October 13th, 2015

Guns continue to occupy a lot of my facebook feed. There are a lot of very impassioned arguments being made, particularly in the comments sections – as is the case with this article.

I don’t resonate all that well with the author, to be honest, despite agreeing with him completely about climate change and recognising that I’d feel the same kind of lack of safety if I were in the States. If you’re teaching, you teach the facts as nearly as they can be known, and where there’s a substantial scientific consensus, there’s no need to teach minority viewpoints. I can’t see either passionate advocacy or diversions into another topic as being justified, in other words.

Where I do find common ground is in identifying the tendency of all such issues to be dealt with like a set of lawyers in a courtroom, and in particular an US courtroom with a jury (there is, for my US readers, far less use of juries in the UK, including almost all civil cases,, the major exception being defamation). I’ve spent some 25 years as a practising lawyer, and I recognise the tricks – and I’ve also spent 20 years in local politics, so I also recognise the political use of the same tricks.

I used to joke that when a client came to me and said “What does this mean?”, I’d negotiate a fee and then ask “What do you want it to mean?”. This was a cynical attitude which came to me eventually after going into law thinking that a court would decide reasonably correctly on the facts most of the time, and that all the lawyers had to do was to present the best interpretation of the facts from their client’s point of view and leave it to judge and jury (more often just judge or magistrates in the UK). As time went by, I became increasingly convinced that in fact, the victory tended to go to the best lawyer (for which read “best arguer”) more or less irrespective of the facts.

By and large, the best lawyer was also the most expensive lawyer, and the client with a disproportionately large amount to spend was therefore going to win in a lot of cases where they shouldn’t. Even if the small guy managed to get a lawyer who was a really good arguer, the big guy’s lawyers could spend more time and have more people working on the case (as inevitably time costs money), and frequently that would carry the day.

Incidentally, just in case anyone is asking themselves, I had an 85% success rate for not guilty pleas over the course of my career. This may sound really good, but was bolstered by the fact that I wouldn’t plead not guilty for anyone I was confident was in fact guilty. As time went by, I steadily stopped doing trial work, as the feeling that it was not, in fact, producing justice increased and I felt more and more that the system was intrinsically flawed. In addition, the three cases I lost which I was certain were wrongful convictions and the two I won which I became certain by the end of the trial should have been guilty verdicts weighed on me.

That, I point out, is in a situation where I was arguing in front of judges and magistrates, not juries; one could therefore expect that they would be less swayed by false logic and appeals to emotion.

Now, let’s look at the two standards of proof in legal cases. The first, which applies in civil cases, is the test of balance of probabilities. Which of these two situations do you think is more likely to be the case? This is, I think, the standard which we should apply to both climate change and gun control arguments. In both cases, the human cost of getting it wrong is substantial; in the case of climate change it could well be colossal.

The other test is that of proof beyond reasonable doubt, which is the standard which should apply in criminal cases. Actually, my experience in the UK is that most of the time you need to do a lot more than establishing a reasonable doubt, except in front of a jury; judges and magistrates become fairly hard-bitten and I was never confident in an argument before them unless I felt I could manage something close to balance of probabilities.

The problem is with climate change and gun control that there are a lot of people who do not want to restrict their lives in a way which would enable us on the one hand to reduce our CO2 emissions to a reasonable level and on the other, in the States, to give up playing with guns. There are also huge and wealthy corporate interests which would be damaged were we to take the necessary steps to alleviate these problems, and they have a lot of money, and the ability to produce a lot of arguments and a lot of statistics.

That alone would be sufficient, in my mind, to question very closely any claims made against CO2 reduction or gun control. They have the money, and they can buy the media and the research.

It is not, of course, a reason to question particularly closely claims for these unpopular positions; they do not have the money and find it far more difficult to pay for powerful arguments or slanted statistics. Indeed, the other side, having the money, has already done this!

Against this background, I find it striking that a majority of scientists with expertise in climatology or meteorology agree that there is human-caused global warming and that it presents a major threat. It is unfortunate that some proponents of climate change arguments are doing the lawyerly thing and skewing the statistics; it is not 85%, but it is substantially better than 50%. There is, of course, a range of opinions; the vast majority will agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and promotes global warming, but a lesser majority consider that this effect is large in comparison to cyclic changes in climate; there are even a few who argue that there is an underlying trend in the opposite direction in the statistics. That’s unfortunately true; however it is also a truism that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics”, and it is regrettably easy to skew these.

The thing is, it has really not been in the interests of scientists to find human-caused global warming, just because doing something about it would be unpopular (so few votes) and because all the big money would like to find that there isn’t. Remember – “What do you want it to mean?”. There were, of  course, bound to be a few dissenters – after all, you make a name for yourself in science if you can destroy someone else’s hypothesis.

It also hasn’t been in the interest of politicians – see my comment on votes above, even if you don’t think politicians are swayed by campaign contributions at least as much as by votes. I therefore find it extremely convincing that the consensus of the G8 and of all the national leaders in the EU is that global warming is happening and is significantly human-produced and that reducing CO2 emissions will help. They were not quick to come to this conclusion – some scientists were saying this was likely back in the 1970’s, after all.

The thing is that these are both what a lawyer would identify as “admissions against interest”. Even in the case of a generally very unreliable witness, lawyers pay huge attention to these as they go against the trend of testimony to be self-serving.

Sadly, I can’t identify many admissions against interest in the case of guns in the States. In Australia, yes – their parliaments instituted fairly strong gun control after the Port Arthur massacre, which followed a number of mass shootings. This was in a country with a strong tradition of hunting, sport shooting and militia activity, so one which is not so dissimilar from the US, and involved every one of their state legislatures. They have not had a mass shooting of note since then.

There is, however, apparently a scientific consensus.

Perhaps the difficulty is that, where you have a personal interest in something, you’re inclined to take a “beyond reasonable doubt” approach. It is certainly possible, both with climate change and gun control, to say that there is “reasonable doubt”, even if it’s (as one of the statistics in the above article states) 73% to 8%.

So, how about this. This link is to an individual who actually supports concealed carry as a self-defence measure. He has one video in particular which I think illustrates my point (although the fact that the main site proposes a 20 hour course plus a huge amount of regular training before you contemplate carrying a gun as a means of self-defence and crime prevention). Insofar as it may put anyone off the idea of carrying (or even possessing) a gun, it’s an admission against interest. Of course, as the presenter is trying to sell training, there is an element of self-interest – but I note that his awful example is a police officer, who will have had plenty of training, albeit possibly not good training.

So, were I to suggest that no-one who has not followed every piece of advice in that video should be permitted to carry a gun (or have one at home for “self-defence”), how could that be unreasonable? Are you, for instance, happy that your neighbour, who has not done this kind of training, has a handgun?

PS. Needless to say, this last set of links doesn’t apply in the UK or in most of the rest of the first world, only in the States. Most of us aren’t allowed to own handguns for self-defence and/or have such strict laws on what constitutes self defence that it would be a very bad idea to chance using one.

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