Modern Existence and Christian Existence
3. ‘It’s the Economy. stupid!’
The devil’s own work . . .
The radical distortion of economy in Modernity
Community, Economy, Technology, and Creation
‘He [Adam] moved contrary to his nature, madly (ανοητ0ς) and of his own initiative, making a bad use of the natural faculty which had been entrusted to him in his constitution with an eye to the unification of what was separated, so as rather to separate things united’ Maximos the Confessor. Quoted in ‘Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses’ Jean-Claud Larchet Volume I, p65
And let’s begin by once more drawing Christian Existence – The Crucified Man – the place of Reconciliation – held in the hospital of the Church (I shall return to this in the last lecture), betwixt the Creation and the Creator, and neighbour and neighbour.
So last time we ended up considering the abstract nature of shared life in the world today, under the label of ‘Society’ or ‘The Public’. Of how life was largely mediated to us, and increasingly experienced as either Private (individualistic), or Public (abstract).
In this respect of the unReality of ‘Society’ we quickly considered the work of Søren Kierkegaard, and we might also think of an influential distinction made by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies between ‘Gemeinschaft’ – Personal sociality – in which we know and and are known to each other – usually rendered ‘Community’, and Gesellschaft – the realm of impersonal and indirect relationships – usually rendered ‘Society’. We might think also of ‘The State’ in those terms. We do not encounter The State personally, in so far as it might be said to exist we cannot Know it – personal knowledge, merely know about it. So, what we might say has happened is that a word which once carried a concrete meaning, Society – that is deep rich human shared existence – or Community for our purposes, became increasingly abstract as human existence became more and more individualised. So it is sobering to ask young people if they are independent – and they say that they pretty much are. They have no sense that their existence depends on many many people and places they have no sense of. For Food, for clothing, for the raw materials which make up their consumer goods, for the fuel in their cars . . . We can only say we are Independent if we have lost touch with the truth of our existence – woven together . . . and of course in these things I am moving towards todays them, that of economy, or rather its contemporary distortion ‘The Economy’ For as Society became abstract, so too did economy and the shift in the two are inter related
. . . and here I am going to push my argument perhaps to what might be seen as an extreme position, but as I have spent time pondering these matters it seems a not unreasonable position to hold for all that. ‘It’s The Economy, Stupid!’ as Bill Clinton famously called out George Bush Senior . . . and we are SO attuned to The Economy, that we may well have applauded his profoundly impersonal indeed murderous words (if we take Jesus at His Word) ‘The Economy’ is the one thing we are so terrified of that all over the world we elect people who are ‘strong on ‘The Economy’, not realising that this is a death blow to our Human existence.
For ‘The Economy’ is profoundly abstract, inhuman and that it is nothing less than a demonic distortion of true economy which I would say is in Reality Κοινονια, this shared existence which I suggest is Christian Existence. Put slightly differently if we understand ‘economy’ correctly, we will find deep similarities with Κοινονια, that is the profound integrative nature of true Human existence. And we will understand how The Economy is in reality Anti-economy, that nothing is more destructive of true human flourishing than ‘The Economy’
Now a couple of points up front. Firstly as they say ‘I have skin in the game’ here. Like it or not I cannot but at some deep level participate in ‘The Economy’ – like The Matrix, I cannot touch it, but it is quite literally Everywhere. What is more that ‘skin in the game’ extends to my own kin for my son in law is a research economist. Clearly when we next meet, I am going to have some explaining to do 🙂
But secondly and perhaps counter intuitively in naming ‘The Economy’ as a truly demonic distortion we may perhaps have a key clue to Redemption, for as we note from our Scriptures, it is the presence of Jesus which reveals the demonic – which flushes them out. Not I must add that that means that we can redeem ‘The Economy’, for also like Society, it is an abstract, and a philosophical abstract which has profoundly inhuman presuppositions built into it. There is a Real sense in which is does not exist, in the same way neither do demons. The Economy is as we shall see both a significant part of the cause and also the product of our profound Alienation, from Creation, from one another and from God, and thus from our own selves. Remember our picture of The Human?
In this radical alienation – There is for the Economy no way back to the garden – after all it is protected by an angel with a flashing sword – BUT there is a way for us to come to know True economy in and through Jesus Christ and in the church. For as St Paul says, when someone is ‘in Christ’ There is New Creation – we may well say there is Κοινονια, there is indeed economy . . . but that will have to wait for a week or so. Firstly we need to understand how bad our plight is, to own up to our own place in Modernity 🙂
And I want to take you back – not all the way back to the Great Schism this time, but to C16 England. And yes, as one ponders the roots of Modernity, then ‘the home country’ has a lot to answer for. As one person put it, ‘Only England could have produced Richard Dawkins . . .’ and one might add Christopher Hitchens and other prominent atheists. And the English language which has been radically shaped by ‘Modern’ existence is very comfortable and ‘creative’ in this regard.
At that time, around the time of Henry VIII, something happened which had not been seen before – suddenly in Rural England chimneys started sprouting everywhere . . . not those of William Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’, we are still about 200 years short of that, but chimneys on houses. Suddenly LOTS of chimneys on big houses, where previously there had only been one . . . Yet as we shall see, the multiplication of chimneys on houses leads us to those smoke belching creations of Blake (and indeed Tolkien as he speaks of Isengard, the domain of Saruman, the deceived White Wizard. The arch pragmatist)
But why more house chimneys? Why might that be? Well put simply, growing wealth had meant that Lords of the manors were now following a fashion of wealthy aristocrats on the European content and in London, of installing inside what were Common shared living spaces, where ox and ass and human lived in ‘close’ proximity, separate rooms . . . each of course needing warming – hence the sudden proliferation of chimneys!
Prior to this, existence had often been shared both within and also outside of the house. You might hear an echo of last week when we spoke of the Inuit and how with all ‘indigenous people’s’ their perception did not lead them to think of an as it were ‘hidden’ interior life at odds with the exterior. Inner and outer were one. So the feudal system meant – and we heard another dim echo of this in my story about my grandmother’s childhood last week – a way of living of sharing in the proceeds of the land, and also that the Lord of the Manor had obligations to those who worked his land. Simply if people were ill etc etc rents were OF COURSE held back or reduced etc. If children were orphaned, they became the wards of the Lord of the manor. There was a deep sense of Obligation – noblesse oblige we might say – towards those further down the ladder. As Andro Linklater puts it in his work on Land Ownership – ‘the idea of the manor as a social contract was more important than its physical form’ The House, The Manor, a place of living under one roof was a way of living in the world, one might say. But under one roof or out on the Land – it was Life Together.
Rooted in? Well at the end of the day, Christian existence. For The Lord of the Manor Knew himself to be part of a hierarchy and he wasn’t the top!! For he was ‘under’ God and answerable to God for those in his care.
Now we see signs that as this order begins to crumble, The Church trying to hold it together. Witness this prayer of the 1553 Prayer Book, the first revision of the first prayer book of the Church of England (1549) “The earth O Lord is thine, and all that is contained therein; we heartily pray thee to send thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds, pastures and dwelling places of the earth that they, remembering themselves to be Thy tenants, (not at the top of the ladder) may not rack and stretch out the rents of their houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes after the manner of covetous worldliness, but so let them out to others that the inhabitants thereof (those lower down) may both be able to pay the rents, and also honestly to live to nourish their families and to relieve the poor’
And remember how those to whom the prayer referred were sat in church . . . You may wish to reflect on the rather abstract and bland wording of our prayers in church nowadays!! (For of course we work from the assumption that those in authority are NOT answerable to God . . . etc etc)
‘that they may be able to honestly live’ Marylinne Robinson in a book of her essays makes the astute point that no nation may call itself Christian where people literally cannot earn enough to live without theft . . . Indeed we may well ask ‘who really is the thief here?’. I’ll return to this at the close.
‘that they may be able . . . honestly to live to nourish their families and to relieve the poor’ For this duty went straight down the line, as I illustrated even form the recent past of my grandmother’s life last week.
Everything is God’s – and to be used for human flourishing within the care of HIs Creation. The Lord of the manor looked after those in his care who looked after the poor – for The Lord is God, and all things are His
So to comeback to Linklater’s observation that the manor, or ’house as social contract’ is PRECISELY where we get the word ‘economy’ from . Quite literally it is the οικο – νομοσ [oiko nomos] the law, or perhaps better the guide, the Way of the house – the oikos. How we are together in the house. Economy is the How of life together in the descriptive sense. Indeed it links us directly to the Life of God – not only in the phrase, ‘the economic Trinity’ meaning how are the three one and the one three . . . ‘Love one another as I have loved you . . .’ says Jesus ‘in my Father’s οικοσ . . .’
So I want to suggest that in this division of the oikos, what we see here is the beginning of the end of a way of life in which labour and social care went hand in hand in a shared existence we might call Community, economy, Κοινονια. And it involves a human disconnection from one another. Think how ‘Normal we think it that in a family ‘each person’ has their own room, whereas communal sleeping has been for all other cultures the norm – think Marae.
And that personal disconnection [breaking the one body] is also accompanied by a disconnection from Place. The shift from shared ‘feudal’ land practices, to the growing practise of turning the land over to sheep which removes people from the land – echoes here of Wendell Berry and his complaint that ‘the powers that be’ say “there are too many famers”. Flocks of sheep require less people, less care than the land, and as a happy coincidence might give a better economic (???) no let us be clear, not and ‘economic’ return for the oiko nomos (social contract we might say) is being taken to bits – this is to give a better financial return . . . The Landowner having lost sight of his place before God (as we shall see in fact subtly encouraged by the Church no less 0 now just looks at Land – field joined to field . . .
[Actually as many studies show if you really want to destroy an ecosystem, our ‘house’, then sheep are as good a way to do it as any . . . – think The Lake District]
As this is going on – Listen to the words of Sir Thomas More from Utopia – “[the powerful magnates] enclose all in pasture; they throw down houses; they pluck down townes (villages by our standard); and leave nothing standynge, but only the church, to make of it a shepehouse . . .The rich men not only by private fraud, but also by common laws, do every day pluck and snatch away from the poor some part of their daily living . . . I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of commonwealth.” Now that reference to Common Wealth is of course rooted in the idea of a common ownership of things, the Earth is the Lord’s! – Yet note how the 39 Articles of religion, in their final form 150 years later have changed this – Listen for the contrast with the prayer of 1553
‘Article XXXVIII Of Christian men’s goods, which are not common. The Riches and goods of the Christian man are not common as touching to the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally give alms to the poor, according to his ability.’ And, we might say, so say all of us . . .
A couple of things to note here – first there is no sense in this Article that ‘everything actually belongs to God . . .’ and also secondarily there is no shared practise. This is a move from Shared Life to the realm of the Private – simply a moral enjoinder to the individual conscience of each. Something you ought to do – but not of necessity do. Note also to come back to More’s tirade in utopia – with the moral outlook, we do not ask whether the law is a good law. The Lawyer merely dispenses the law. So it is ‘by common laws’ that the powerful increase their holdings of land and drive off those further down the scale. And anyone who knows the history of this land will recognise in this C16 colonisation of the Land by the powerful a pattern for the legalised colonisation of lands globally. As I was reminded by an American friend this week, one of the strength s of the American legal system strangely enough is that the Judge may well decide that a Law is a bad law and throw a case out . . .
The move was from Shared lIfe with mutuality of obligation especially to the most vulnerable to privatised matters of conscience and the Law, with its move to individualistic piety. In this regard it is worthwhile considering how ‘private’ is the so called Christian Ethic of the Anglican Church. So we have no practise which we share in together of giving alms to the poor as a special discipline in Lent. So we have moved away from the economy of the manor, towards The Economy of the powerful magnates who no longer live under the same roof, nor and this is fundamentally important do we Share the same table with the poor . . . I shall return to this when we come to look at Christian Existence in its fulness in the final lecture
And this change – a move away from a shared life of mutual obligation, to that of individual be it all so religious and moral, self interest – maps out not only the changing culture of the West but also of course its dominant religious outlook . . . ‘you in your small corner and I in mine . . .’ or as Fanny Alexander put it – ‘he died to make us good . . .’ plenty for the moralists there! Jesus did not die to make us morally good, he died that we might SHARE Life, This is the Christian Message – that we are born again into a living hope which is nothing less than a sharing in the divine nature . . .
To jump ahead slightly this is a very important point. So many complain about the collapse of the family as a moral issue – but the reality is that it is a Life issue – The Economy has all but destroyed Family existence. And I see this all around. So children are brought up by strangers, parents by carers, for The Economy has an appetite for life. You cannot even begin to have life as a family where both parents have to work every hour to keep a roof over your heads and children are drilled in the skills to make the matters worse,Educating them for ‘life in the Economy’
Let us return to our Picture of Christian Existence and explore what is happening as true economy – shared life, family, good work for observable ends – disintegrates. And we only have time to look at this briefly – what happens to to that inter relation of Work and Place and Relationship. For of course we are under no illusions about the supposed relationship between Work and The Economy. As the Story goes, “we”, men and women go to work which builds or contributes to ‘The Economy’ . . . (And I think also that there is a significant connection between this ModernWorldview which we so comfortably seem to inhabit, such that it might have been made for us, by us, AND the language so common in the Church nowadays of ‘Building the Kingdom of God’. Both highly abstract, and both at least on the surface highly anthropocentric.)
Let us just start with that idea of ‘going to work’. What we note immediately is the shift of the focus of work. So people are removed from the land (in England – a sort of test bed for Scotland in the C18 – the notorious highland clearances, and of course here in New Zealand. Globally the infection of clearing people from the land has spread – of course many of those who set off to ‘find a new life in the New World or in Aotearoa, radically infected with this germ of disconnection from Place being either the descendants of or indeed the very people cleared from the land, became those who cleared others from the Land. Cf Tangata Whenua)
Initially people had work on the land and there was much to do. Not only of course all the eyes caring for it – for one could See the Land from where your food came – a practise of engagement – but also because it takes somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the energy we get from food, to grow food 🙂
We’ll come back to energy shortly. BUT we note that we worked in proximity to where we ate and slept. Place was Home was the arena of shared work and existence. yet following the clearances more and more people had to leave ‘home’, often a richly storied place of many generations ’to go to work’. Work thus becomes something dislocated from Home and Place, from Roots. ‘Going to Work’ unravelled this even further.
As it is in our culture, so we go home to get away from work, which suggests that our relationship with work has changed. (although as many might ruefully note work has a habit now of invading the home) This I suggest is how we might rightly distinguish between what we have in ‘The Economy’ which is ‘a job’, and truly human work which is engaged in in place and in relationship. Put another way so many of our jobs who I am with my history and roots etc etc are entirely irrelevant. Work in The Economy is nor respecter persons or place, or lest us forget, God. Thus I suggest we should be very very wary of attempts to justify work in this regard. Such justifications I only here from those who sit astride The Economy. ‘Work makes you Free!!’ they may well declare as train after train loads commuters to take them into the place of work, disconnected from house,home, family etc.
We cannot know who is benefitting, or where – and what is more our work and our consumption of goods are radically disconnected. So there is no connection between what our work is and what we consume. ‘Consumer goods’ are highly abstracted from place. We do not see the land from whence the raw materials have come. We do not experience the alienation of the land experienced by those for whom either ‘by private fraud, but also by common laws,’ have been removed from the land.
What is more this disengagement opens the door to the significant increase in the significance of MONEY. Now you no longer are working with others to grow food, you have to buy food (echoes of Egypt . . .). Buying food is a perilous business and out of your hands. The disconnection introduces all sorts of troubling possibilities, not least your own disconnection from the land, from the producers of food and so on.
All technologies are things that come between the human and the human or the human and the Creation. They are forms of Alienation. So the technology Money is about Alienation. We no longer share the fruits of our labours with others. The value of food is transferred to what it has financially cost us – to it nutrient value – not to place to shared life or increasingly shared meals as the hurried and harried worker – grabs something on the way home.
In The Economy ‘Work’ is a thing of alienation – it may be ‘the job you have always wanted’ but its connection to people and place has been largely lost. Its impact on others is largely irrelevant. It has no obvious place in connecting you to people and places you know and in which arena you share in Life together. In this sense we may well say that Work is no longer Good Work.
Because Economy has come to mean now ‘Money’ (and here I use a simplification for the sake of clarity) We work to live, to eat, to have money. Because of the collapse of true economy, you cannot live without money. We do not grow and make things that we share with one another without money.
‘The bottom line’ is no longer a purely financial expression, it describes anything that is fundamental – in other words, money has become what it is all about. And thus it is about radical alienation, separation from one another and the Land and God, as we serve Mammon, both rich and destitute alike
The monetisation of everything reaches deep deep into the modern Culture – a culture of things in separation. Every Thing is for sale – even the human body when the desperate sell themselves – for labour which kills, down to the selling of organs or the renting of wombs . . . or worse.
Money is at base a technology and all technologies as we shall explore next time come with a story about what it means to be human
This monetisation of seemingly Everything – comes in the age of what one might call, the Total Economy. So in a terrible indictment on our thinking we are taught to believe that ‘Economic Independence’ is a Good thing . . .
Indeed the Economy might seem to so dominate everything – for example which government of late has ever been elected without a strong economic programme of one sort or another – that it might come as a surprise to hear that ‘The Economy’ only came into being as a political aim in the . . . 1950s . . . the beginning of The Great Acceleration
As we observed last week – of course there have always been forces at play which have sought to separate humans form each other, from the Land and from God – The prophets inveighed against those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land! . . . For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
But now it happens at an unprecedented and still accelerating rate
Following the Second world war , the great industrial machine lay idle as did many men who had fought and we came to the Great Acceleration of all this the Modern World grew to dominate which it did with the mass use of fossil fuels. Firstly coal, mined at great human expense in so many ways – allowed the steam engines which took work from the home weavers. A true home industry became something to be done in the factories, the dark satanic mills. Places of Work efficiency studies as the human was more and more conformed to the machine. (By the way, I am not letting the Western Church off the hook here, clocks were the invention of the post Schism Catholic Church to make sure the monks prayed, like machines.)
Then at lesser cost in human terms gas and especially oil – at the end of the C19. Wendell Berry again noted the changes that came over farming and rural life. Firstly that machine which did more to actively destroy human community than any other perhaps the motor car. His novel ‘Jayber Crow’ speaks of the life of a community much like his own in Tennessee where the car starts to appear. Then one day a central character suffers the loss of a child as they walk down a lane and are hit by one of these cars – then how people stopped associating together as ‘entertainment’ was available in the town several miles along the road, and people could go to the big stores in town to by any number of wonderful goods not available at the local store which rooted in the reality of Creation could only sell what the land could bear to grow.
But chemical fertilisers, the product of Oil, increased the ‘productivity of the soil’ for a season. Soil has its own life. Its relation to a small number of grazing animals and the decay of some of that which grows upon it – of communities who manure the fields, was a closed system. Chemical fertilisers ignored Place. More energy was pumped in, but as we are now beginning to see, the soil cannot bear it – only 60 years left at current levels of degradation – like a person living on endless cups of coffee – the body cannot ultimately handle it (and indeed those who work under those endlessly fuelled by coffee cannot either).
But it wasn’t just fertiliser of course, it was the tractor.
If we go back to the medieval era – people lived close to the land – in sympathy – hard hard existence (as it is for so many still today let us not forget) – but there was a sense of things being connected. Ploughs were not to be pulled by more than a pair of ox, for the violence done to the land was considered a sacrilege. Consider the enormous rose power of the tractor in comparison. Berry’s novel track all these changes as farmers with an eye to more money began to look at land not as a place of variety and distinction. With certain acres and corners better for certain crops than others. A work which required too much mental work and care for the land. Land now was just dirt in which things could be grown. Hedges were torn down to ‘make the land more productive’ – or more truly to abuse it and enslave it – to feed it supplements to make it do things it was never meant to. A development which we echoed in the dehumanisation of so much work – the adoption of the language of efficency, and Human resources (with their grim echoes of Auschwitz) the fortunate few have ‘the job they always dreamed of whilst so so many others hire their labour to whatever for whatever they can get. The fact that their is even any discussion of a living wage only reveals that.
And so it goes on ‘The Global Economy’ continues its destructive work. Nothing and nowhere is to be allowed to escape its clutches. So to take on simple example which we could replicate over and over again – On Valentines Day in the UK millions of red roses are sold, at a very reasonable cost, CHEAP especially when you consider that people were cleared from the land in places like Kenya, from their substance way of life, then invited back on to farm land which now ‘by common laws’ belongs to a corporation to grow roses. For which they obtain a pittance in money and have to go and buy food, often produced by the same corporation – far less food and often far worse food than they would have grown – and that also ignores the theft of water from a water stressed country. As I said, The Economy is no respecter of anything except Wealth
What is revealed in the end is that ‘The Economy’ is nothing more nor less than a system of legalised theft . . .’ For all things are God’s and not ours. In not sharing liberally with one another, in taking land from people for our own good, in putting people in a position where they have no option but to turn to crime to feed themselves and their family and I have encountered this myself here, we are taking that which is the Lord’s and stealing from his sheep . . .
Oh comes the cry, but if we paid people more then food would become more expensive – yes it would – for it is. The Food we enjoy has come to us at a cost hidden from us, but that cannot much longer be borne. And the Earth will have its say – all because we have exchanged economy, for The Economy
It has been sobering these past weeks to be reading Jeremiah at morning prayer – it is notable how the theme of ecological devastation runs through that book, as it also does in Isaiah. The reason? For they have broken the everlasting covenant. they have forgotten who they are and the earth lies ruined. The everlasting covenant is the Connection revealed to us in The Crucified God who is The Crucified Man – the true economy – the Koinonia – the Sharing in Life, and in all good things . . .
Well . . . next week – the place of technology and we shall be looking at Money, The Light bulb, the Clock, the Car and of course, the cell phone 🙂 In Week 5 we shall consider how The Modern Way has turned the message of Christian Existence inside out – before considering some of the riches available to us in the our story which might be seeds of the recovery of such Existence.