Restoring the Fabric of Irish Economic and Social Life – A Theological Reflection (Part Two)

on Wednesday, 12 March 2014. Posted in Issue 73 The Rights of Workers – Then and Now, Economics, Church

Gerry O'Hanlon SJ

For Part One of this article click here.

Introduction

In Part One of this article,1 I discussed some of the core features of the currently dominant economic model and the part they played in bringing about our prolonged economic crisis. In particular, I raised questions regarding the overarching role accorded to ‘the market’ and the increase in the size and reach of the financial sector; the growth in inequality in incomes and wealth; and the underlying assumption that ‘growth is good’. I suggested, in Part One, that there is need to construct a ‘redemption narrative’ which can offer ‘vision and hope, galvanising our society towards effective action’. In this second part, I will look at the socio-cultural, political and theological resources which might contribute to that process.

Socio-cultural

We live in a culture where the operative, dominant ‘common sense’ is that there is no alternative to the type of capitalism now holding sway.

Writer and theorist Mark Fisher has dubbed this ‘capitalism realism’, defined as ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’.2

Cultural commentator and academic Michael Cronin argues that the pervasiveness of modern capitalism is such that education, health, the prison system, social welfare, the security forces, all become subject to neo-liberal political rationality, to ‘the market’. And, he says, the cruel paradox is that:

As the Market proved itself to be the God that Failed, the response was not to dismantle a system or question a logic that had generated hitherto unseen levels of inequality, greed and environmental destructiveness but to use public monies to subsidise private losses and to introduce a series of austerity measures that primarily targeted public goods.3

The market, he continues, ‘has come to function as a dark version of transcendence … a parody of a pagan deity, irascible, touchy, and only to be appeased with pledges, sacrifices and the burnt offerings of public services’.4

In somewhat similar vein, Church of Ireland social theologian John Marsden speaks of our ‘blind faith’, ‘fawning worship’, and ‘idolatrous adherence’ in respect to the free market.5

Behind this operative commonsense and dominant assumption there is a culture comprising a world-view (an understanding of what constitutes a good life) and supporting values. Culture is like the air we breathe – it is often unnoticed, taken for granted, experienced at an unconscious level but no less real for that.

We may describe the culture behind modern capitalism in broad terms as a product of Modernity’s prioritising of the individual and of freedom, and its loss of confidence in any kind of knowledge that is not empirically verifiable. This has been reinforced by a post-Modern turn to a relativism, which at its worst trivialises the search for the true and the good and has left us with a notion of the good life dominated by ‘economism’ (the conviction that money is the measure of everything) and a crude social Darwinism in which the survival of the fittest, the rule of the jungle, is pervasive.

Within this culture there is little room for critical thinking and a premium on deference. The Nyberg Report (2011) on the causes of the banking crisis in Ireland from 2003 to mid-January 2009 referred to ‘an unquestioning consensus’, a ‘tendency to groupthink’, a ‘herd instinct’ which involved the banks, the Government, the Financial Regulator, the media and indeed the general public.6

This culture of deference had already been referred to by the earlier (2010) Regling and Watson report on the banking crisis;7 Eddie Molloy argues that it is a culture deeply embedded in our public service and is an obstacle to an ethical, accountable, values-led public service.8

It shows itself in a different form in the findings of TASC study Mapping the Golden Circle, which revealed that a network of 39 individuals held multiple directorships on at least two boards across 33 of the top 40 public and private companies in Ireland. Nat O’Connor, Director of TASC, notes the argument that one reason for this situation is that those responsible for selecting board members may be hesitant to recruit people they do not already know; he comments: ‘On the contrary: the suggestion that board members should not look beyond those they have heard of is a recipe for groupthink’.9

There is a challenge to theologians and other cultural commentators today to leave our ivory towers and to engage in the public square (if not the market-place!) of ideas about the way forward. The language of culture and values need not be so vague that they have no bearing on ‘down-to earth analysis of concrete institutions and policies’. On the contrary, this kind of ‘down-to-earth analysis’ is always carried out within, and is significantly influenced and even determined by, one’s world-view and the values which inform it. And so, for example, if slavery is approved, if women are regarded as inferior to men, if civil rights are to be accorded only to white people, and so on – then ‘down-to-earth’ solutions to concrete problems are already skewed in a certain direction.

It matters greatly, then, that the role of ‘the market’ is taken for granted in the way that it now is. Theologians and other commentators need to name this and engage in the search for a new economic paradigm, in respectful dialogue with the more technically competent, for the betterment – one could even say the salvation – of us all.

In this context, theologian Fred Lawrence argues for a return to the notion that money is instrumental and functional, serving the economy which in turn is there to serve society. Money, in this analysis, should not be regarded as a commodity in itself (as something in principle to be accumulated endlessly), as an end rather than as a means.10

Will Hutton argues that, paradoxically, ‘fairness is capitalism’s indispensable value’,11 that the capitalist with a reputation for double-dealing rarely survives for long, and so, if capitalism is to survive, it needs radical reform along the lines of greater economic and social responsibility. In other words, and to use more explicitly Christian terminology, it needs reform in ways that are consistent with the concept of ‘integral human development’12 and which respect the integrity of creation and the environment.13

Clearly, this is a very different world-view from that which is now dominant, but which historically was not always so. The virtual axiom of today’s orthodox economics that more is always better, and our obsession with the pursuit of individual gain as the route to happiness, are, viewed historically, ‘a curious anomaly’.14

Clifford Longley puts it graphically:

The world is being chewed to death in the possibly final destructive phase of international capitalism, capitalism turned feral, omnipotent and omnipresent, as scary and as mysterious as plagues and other inexplicable afflictions must have seemed in the Middle Ages.15

He goes on to say:

The world has created a mindless monster, a modern Frankenstein it cannot control but which has taken control of it … where are the political leaders with the courage to say so?16

In addressing this situation of the idolatrous ‘fetishisation of the market’ and the imperative to challenge it in public debate, Michael Cronin argues that we need a new culture of dissent in Ireland, characterised by empathy, responsibility and conflict. He notes that fear is the great enemy of critical thinking and imagining and sees in the Christian message of hope a resource to counter this fear.17 Civil society (including universities, think-tanks, citizens’ assemblies, movements, media and so on) is usually the place where this kind of new, critical thinking emerges, and there are some signs that this is happening here in Ireland and elsewhere.

Politics

However, new insights, a new culture, the development of a different set of values – all these need to win democratic acceptance through persuasive skills, to be enshrined in policies and enacted in law: we require a politics that has clear vision and exercises power and governance accordingly.

There has been much talk in Ireland of political reform, in particular of refounding our Republic, of a new, second Republic.18 Within this debate, the concept of civic republicanism has attracted significant attention. This political philosophy has at its core concepts such as civic virtue, concern for the common good and freedom – understood as ‘... freedom from domination in a society which places the common good at the centre of all public life. This definition contrasts sharply with the liberal idea of freedom, defined as freedom from interference by the State or by others.’19   

Writing on civic republicanism, political philosopher Iseult Honohan draws attention to the difficulties inherent in striving to achieve a balance between protecting individual freedom and interests and the promotion of the common good, and notes the challenges which this poses for political processes and institutional structures, particularly in a pluralist society.20

However, Honohan and other political philosophers such as Patrick Riordan,21 make it clear that, despite the complex issues involved, it is realistic to envisage a politics which takes on board the notion of the common good, with attendant values such as equality, solidarity, fairness and so on, in contrast to the dominant model of democratic liberalism, which is still in thrall to an excessive individualism and captive to a particular form of financial capitalism. How does one move from theory to practice?

Within Ireland itself we – including the Government – are conscious of the need for political reform. There are many ideas that suggest themselves, including the enhancement of the role of parliament and the creation of a new ethos of responsibility and accountability in the public service.22 In addition, I would propose that of central importance is the need to create effective channels between government and organs of civil society, in particular think-tanks and movements that espouse alternative, contrarian views.23  

As already noted, our economic crisis was in part due to ‘groupthink’, with alternative voices and ‘whistle-blowers’ given scant attention.24  Are we now into a new ‘groupthink’ about the management of the crisis and its aftermath and about what ‘recovery’ might look like? It makes sense to listen to other voices. We need a more participative politics that seeks to overcome the political alienation of so many and tap into a wider communal wisdom.

In this respect, I would argue that the media can play an important role. Too often, particularly in our broadcast media, there is an easy acceptance of the status quo approach even in the reporting of news (‘good news – the markets are up today!’). Panels of experts tend to be drawn from an establishment base that too easily accepts a form of ‘economism’ that separates debate on the economy from the wider, crucially influential issues of the world-view and values which inform a particular economic viewpoint.

The surrounding culture and commonsense, crucially influenced by media, are in turn a key influence on the ability of politicians to envisage and implement a different values-led approach to our economy. A fair economy can only thrive if there is access to information and opinion across a wide spectrum (‘open access societies’),25 in addition to such structures as parliament and the rule of law.

It is clear, however, that nothing we do in Ireland will be enough on its own. Our problems are global and require global solutions. One has only to think of the European financial crisis, the internationalisation of financial markets, the flight of capital, the power of multi-nationals (including in Ireland), the existence of off-shore tax havens, the difficulties of imposing a financial transactions tax nationally or even regionally if not also globally, to realise that the notion of a political economy requires some reality of global governance.  

In his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI says:

In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need, even in the midst of global recession, for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth … there is urgent need of a true world political authority.26

Different international groups and organisations do offer seeds of this kind of global governance – most obviously, the United Nations, which despite its frailties, has a certain legitimacy in terms of history and reputation.

The Irish government needs to lobby at all international levels – including of course at EU level – but in such a way that our self-interest is not defined so narrowly that we avoid the ‘bigger picture’ questions and fail to see that radical reform of the system may indeed be the best way forward. It is disappointing, in this context, to note the Irish reluctance to take the notion of a financial transactions tax more seriously or, indeed, to raise any of the macro-issues at world level. A small, awkward voice can still make itself heard and have impact: we do well to be givers and not just receivers at the banquet table of the nations.

I am arguing that our crisis is of such a serious nature that, in the words of Professor Justin O’Brien, we need to create ‘an alternative meta-narrative’, a new economic thinking that will only come from an inter-disciplinary approach:

For economics to save itself it must accept reintegration with the other social sciences and humanities.27

What might faith and theology contribute to this redemptive narrative?

Theology

The collapse of an Irish bank, caused by corrupt directors who embezzled funds and secretly took out unsecured loans to illegally gamble in the property market, has been revealed in previously unpublished documents. An investigation … shows evidence of massive fraud by bank directors and staff – yet no one went to jail – a report on the liquidation of the Munster Bank in 1885, 126 years ago.28

David Boyle speaks about the 1986 deregulation of financial markets as a ‘kind of financial moment of Original Sin’.29 The banal and terrible reality of ignorance, evil and sin are perennial, as believers know only too well, not least from personal experience. Do things never change, are we deluded in our planning and working for a better world?

The Christian narrative acknowledges this reality of sin, with all its particular manifestations at different times, and yet tells a story of hope. How might we draw on it in our present circumstances?

This hope is based on the belief that tells us that, in the world we inhabit, the human being ‘is not a lost atom in a random universe’30 but that all – universe, world and humankind – are rooted in the loving origins and ongoing providence of a transcendent Trinitarian God who emptied God-self to come among us historically, immanently, intimately. His emptying took the ultimate form of love to death on a cross, and his victory over sin and death, revealed by his resurrection, is made present to us every moment by the Holy Spirit. And his eschatological reign of justice and peace, proclaimed by Church, witnessed to by countless women and men of service, and celebrated eucharistically, is anticipated in innumerable ways in this life, before its ultimate arrival at the end of history.

It is in this context that ignorance, sin, even death exist: they are real, they are terrible, they wreak havoc and cause enormous suffering, but they are always and forever shot through with the radiance of the glory of divine love.

A number of consequences follow. This shift to a transcendent perspective introduces a new dimension: we are not on our own in all this, there are secure grounds for our hope that love, goodness, truth, freedom, justice are how things are meant to be and will be.

This Christian story has many resonances with our earlier discussion. The social situation in which we find ourselves – with such egregious inequalities, an economic model which puts the individual before society, a culture which is in thrall to a dominant commonsense worshipping of  ‘the market’ and is unable to imagine an alternative, a politics which follows rather than leads – all this is challenged by the Christian narrative of redemption with its urgent call to conversion at personal and all other levels, including societal, structural and political.

The challenge by the Christian narrative, to be effective, needs to be nuanced and self-critical. If the temptation of political and economic practitioners is to ignore the Christian message of hope in face of the seemingly overwhelming force of capitalist or market realism, the temptation of Christian theorists can be to imagine an overly direct and unmediated link between the inspirational Christian narrative and its realisation in practical politics.

Instead of being faithful to tradition we are more likely to be fundamentalist if we try to convert the Christian rhetoric of self-sacrificing death and glorious resurrection into some purely altruistic philosophy of gratuity that ignores a properly Christian realism rooted in an eschatological notion of hope.31 Of course there is much more room for altruism and gratuity than our present economic model allows32 and we should never put limits to what can be achieved even in this life, as anticipations of the full coming of the kingdom – one thinks of the civil rights movement in the USA, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the peace-process in Northern Ireland, the gains of the feminist and green movements, and so many other historical achievements that once seemed impossible if not unimaginable.

However, progress is more likely to be achieved if we are respectful of the rightful ‘autonomy of earthly affairs’, if we acknowledge the limited role of politics in its guardianship of public order, if we are mindful that civic virtue need not embrace all the virtues (for ‘good enough citizens, not saints’), that there is a pluralism in so many of our societies which does not easily allow for a ‘thick’ notion of the good, that, in short, sin exists, as does real ignorance, so that a search for blueprint solutions to economic and societal problems that are read off from a scriptural master-copy is mistaken. The ‘imitation of Christ’ is not like a child learning how to write by repeatedly copying the teacher’s headline version. It is much more like the movements of a drama in which the divine playwright is also an actor and in which the lines are often improvised and always free, albeit within a context embraced by the unimaginable stretch of divine love.33    

The role of faith and theology, then, will be to hold firm to the belief that, despite the realities and absurdities of our social situation, there is meaning. Its role will be to dialogue patiently with all the disciplines required to realise this meaning, to observe a prudence that is shot through with a fortitude and courage which allow for the constancy required to make ‘the long march through the institutions’ and the imagination to attempt radical change. This long-term commitment to the common good, this ‘habit of the heart’ which may find expression in so many seemingly boring committee meetings and ‘muddling through’ as we seek to find common ground and resolve conflict, is a real expression of the self-sacrificing love of the faithful disciple.

Conclusion

We started with the search for a redemption narrative from a theological perspective to respond to our present socio-economic crisis. I have argued that this narrative must involve many voices, always in dialogue with other disciplines.

Much of the narrative has centred on the asking of questions, perhaps the most useful function that faith, theology and Church can perform at this time. But there have also been pointers towards answers, proposals, basic directions. We have noted the importance of greater economic equality, not just from the viewpoint of fairness but also to ensure the kind of social solidarity needed to tackle our problems. We have questioned the current free market economic model, in particular the process of the excessive financialisation of the economy, which requires quite radical and different policies and legislation to resolve. We have questioned as well our commonsense insistence on growth, in the context of environmental constraints.

We have noted the need to heal our culture – which too easily defers to an individualistic market realism and idolatry – by creating a new, less deferential ‘commonsense’ which respects both individual and social flourishing. We have argued that all this needs to take political form, in a politics of the common good that can be at ease in a civic Republic and will also entail some element of supra-national, regional and even global governance. We have framed all this in the context of a faith which has particular regard for the suffering of those who are poor and vulnerable, all too aware of the tendency of power and privilege to be oppressive and callous.

It can seem somewhat of a luxury – somewhat ‘academic’, in the pejorative sense – to limit the role of theology to the asking of questions. This appearance remains, even when one takes account of the teaching of ‘wheat and tares’ growing together till the end, of the human need to ‘muddle through’, of the requirement of politicians and business people to also look to the short-term and to continue to do their best to micro-manage within systems which are flawed. The appearance can only be removed if the questions are asked with real persistence and in dialogue with partners who matter, accompanied by the witness of those who live out what they believe. This is the ongoing challenge for all of us, as human begins, as people of faith, as Christians, as theologians.

Notes

  1. Gerry O’Hanlon, ‘Restoring the Fabric of Irish Economic and Social Life – A Theological Reflection’, Working Notes, Issue 71, April 2013, pp 20–28.
  2. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Ropley, Hants: Zero Books, 2009, p. 2.
  3. Michael Cronin, ‘Educate That You May Be Free? Religious and Critical Thinking in Post-Boom Ireland’, in Eugene Duffy (ed.), Catholic Primary Education, Facing New Challenges, Dublin: Columba Press, 2012.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The Irish Times, Friday, 11 March 2011 and Wednesday, 20 April 2011.
  6. Misjudging Risk: Causes of the Systemic Banking Crisis in Ireland, Report of the Commission of Investigation into the Banking Sector in Ireland (The Nyberg Report), 2011.
  7. Klaus Regling and Max Watson, A Preliminary Report on the Sources of Ireland’s Banking Crisis, Dublin: Stationery Office, 2010.
  8. Eddie Molloy, The Irish Times, Friday, 22 April 2011.
  9. The Irish Times, Letters, Monday, 12 September 2011.
  10. Fred Lawrence, ‘Money, Institutions and the Human Good’  in Richard M. Liddy (ed.), The Lonergan Review: The Journal of the Bernard J. Lonergan Institute, Vol II, No. 1, Spring 2010, South Orange, SJ: Seton Hall University, pp 175–197. For a similar analysis, see philosopher William Mathews, ‘Finance Ethics’, The Lonergan Review, op. cit., pp 169–172.
  11. Will Hutton, Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society, London: Little, Brown, 2010, p. 23.
  12. There is a long tradition of using this phrase within Catholic social teaching going back at least to Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples), the Encyclical Letter of Pope Paul VI, 26 March 1967. In the encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), issued on 29 June 2009, Pope Benedict XVI explores at length the application of the concept of integral human development across a range of current societal issues. For an insightful application of Catholic Social Teaching to the current Irish situation, see: Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Episcopal Conference, From Crisis to Hope: Working to Achieve the Common Good, Maynooth: Council for Justice and Peace, 2011.
  13. A key element of the work of the World Council of Churches since the 1980s has been an explicit linking of environmental concern to justice, encapsulated in the phrase ‘Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation’.
  14. The New Economics Foundation, The Great Transition: A Tale of How It Turned Out Right, London: New Economics Foundation, 2009, p. 14.
  15. Clifford Longley, ‘The world has created a mindless monster it cannot control, but which now controls it’, The Tablet, 8 October 2011, p. 5.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Michael Cronin, op. cit., pp 5–19.
  18. Fintan O’Toole, Enough is Enough – How to Build a New Republic, London: Faber and Faber, 2010.
  19. Fergus O’Ferrall (ed.), Towards a Flourishing Society, Dublin: TASC, 2012, p. 14. (http://www.tascnet.ie/upload/file/Towards%20a%20Flourishing%20Society.pdf)
  20. Iseult Honohan, Civic Republicanism, London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
  21. Riordan brings discussion of the common good explicitly into dialogue with Christian and in particular Roman Catholic concerns and formulations. See Patrick Riordan,  ‘A Blessed Rage for the Common Good’, Irish Theological Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 1, February 2011, pp 3–19.
  22. Fintan O’Toole, op. cit., Part One, Chaper 3, ‘The Myth of Parliamentary Democracy’ and Part Two, Chapter 5, ‘Ethical Austerity: The Decency of Citizenship’.
  23. I refer to think-tanks such as TASC and to movements such as Claiming our Future, with its aim for an alternative economic model that would better serve society and our environment.
  24. Charlie Fell, ‘Bubble highlights value of independent thinking’, The Irish Times, Friday, 29 April 2011.
  25. Will Hutton, op. cit., pp 112–117.
  26. Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, Encyclical Letter, 29 June 2009, n. 67.
  27. Professor Justin O’Brien, director of the Centre for Law, Markets and Regulation, University of New South Wales, The Irish Times, Monday, 11 April 2011.
  28. The Irish Times, Thursday, 15 September 2011.
  29. David Boyle, ‘New deal for a better world’, The Tablet, 15 October 2011, p. 5.
  30. Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, Encyclical Letter, 29 June 2009, n. 29.
  31. Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, ‘Hope’, in Theology in the Irish Public Square, Dublin: Columba Press, 2010, pp 200–216. See also, in the same book of essays, the following: ‘The Recession and God: Reading the Signs of the Times’; ‘Religion and Society’; ‘Religion and Politics’.
  32. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 2009, Chapter 3.
  33. Gerard O’Hanlon SJ, ‘Theological Dramatics’, in Bede McGregor OP and Thomas Norris (eds.), The Beauty of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1994, pp 92–111.

This article is based on a presentation to a seminar, 'Reshaping the Ethical Imagination', organised by the Irish School of Ecumenics and held in Trinity College Dublin on 22 October 2011.

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ is a theologian and staff member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.