Manchester University economics students are campaigning for a change in the teaching of economics at their university. They are discontented with a curriculum whose content is limited to Neo-classical economics and mathematical modelling, a curriculum that fails to adequately address the issues of the day. They have called for a broadening of the curriculum to include other subjects such as psychology and economic history so as to develop a more reality based subject. One subject not included in their list was theology, so as a theologian I am going to demonstrate how theology can contribute to economic analysis. I want to show how using what many consider an out dated concept ‘the devil’ aids our understanding of economics.
Satan or the devil does not really figure in religious iconography until the last century BCE. In the Old Testament Satan is but one of the angels. He is one of the angels that are involved in inflicting pain and suffering on Job. With the rise of the new religious beliefs and practices of the last century BCE, the new religious world view was increasingly at odds with reality. There was the problem of how to reconcile a good God, who created a good world with the cruelties and suffering of the contemporary world. A problem that became more acute with the Roman persecution of Christians in the 1BCE. How could a world ruled by cruel Roman governors who used crucifixion as the punishment for dissent be part of a world created by a good God? The answer they found was in the devil a fallen angel, a malevolent being who introduced sin into creation and worked unceasingly to corrupt God’s good world. The old Olympian Gods who were cruel, licentious and deceitful were redefined as demons. St. Augustine portrays a world in which these demons (whose bodies were made of air) circle around the earth in the atmosphere looking for opportunities to lead men astray. One of the most ruthless persecutors of Christians in the Roman Empire, the Roman a Emperor Diocletian is shown in medieval pictures in companionship with demons. The actions malevolent spirit explained why the world did not fit with the Christian world view.
Perhaps the most compelling picture of the world as imagined by the Christians of the early centuries CE, is the picture of St. Anthony in the desert being tortured and tempted by devils. Frequently a subject for medieval and renaissance artists. Despite its apparent dissimilarity the Christian obsession with the devil and contemporary economic thinking, it does provide the perfect analytical tool for understanding the latter.
Economists have created through ‘thought experiments’ the perfect economy. Yet whenever they put their precepts into practice it inevitably fails. Why does the free market economics as practised in the developed West so frequently fail? Why in this perfect world did the financial crash of 2008 happen? Their mathematical modelling of the economy showed that the free markets economic systems were those ideally best suited to maximise human welfare. If there models were correct what was going wrong in this perfectly manufactured economic system? There had to be some extraneous malevolent force interfering which made the system malfunction. Economists needed their own devil to explain the failures of their policies. Fortunately it was not hard to find this new devil, it had to be government. Neo-Liberal economists set about rewriting history to prove their case. There were sufficient horror stories from the Social Democratic era to demonstrate why the government should be excluded any management role in the economy. Perhaps the most striking of these stories of failure is that of DeLorean sports cars. DeLorean persuaded the government to fund the construction of a factory to make futuristic stainless steel sports cars in Belfast. Unfortunately there was no market for these cars and the business collapsed, losing the government millions of pounds. Now not only had economists found their devil they could demonstrate the horrors of his work to unbelievers.
There is a parallel between the preaching of early Christian missionaries and that of modern Neo-Liberal economists. Both could demonstrate the horrors of a life lived in thrall to the devil. For the first it was a life which ended in eternal torment in the fires of hell, for the second it was a life lived in the hell of social democracy as witnessed through the winter of discontent in 1979. Who would not want a life free from the horrors of the winter of discontent 1979 or the Great Society and LA riots associated with Lyndon Johnson’s occupancy of the White Hose.
Once the devil had been discovered a whole host of minor devils could be found to be working to frustrate the free market. NGO’s by campaigning for aid to help the most troubled of developing countries, were through the provision of aid undermining local economies and preventing the development of a local agricultural market that would feed the people. A profitable and thriving farming sector could only develop if they were not undermined by the distribution of free food. Saving lives now was misguided as it only laid up troubles for the future.
Just like the evangelical Christians who have to co-exist with the devil as he is part of God’s creation and economists have the accept the existence of government as it part of society, without which there could be no social order. Evangelicals rely on prayer, missionary work and political campaigns to profit abortion etc, to minimise the influence the devil has over people’s lives. Economists endlessly proselytise on the benefits of the small state on the assumption that the smaller the state the less damage it can do. Consequently there has been the constant privatisations and out sourcing of government activities to make this happen.
Free market economists are similar to fundamentalist or evangelical Christians in the horror in which they regard their own devil. One prominent Christian Republican politician advocated the killing of those who had claimed to have encountered aliens. His reasoning was that as aliens don’t exist they must have encountered devils and the only way to prevent these dupes of the devil spreading corruption in society would be to eliminate them. Grant Shapps the Conservative Party Chairman reacted with horror when the Labour Party suggested some modest regulation of the housing market. The most vile term he could come up with to describe it was ‘Venezuelan’ . For him their could be no greatest horror than living in the socialist state of Venezuela. Similarly in the US Congress a similar revulsion attaches to the word socialist.
Obviously it can be no surprise that there is an overlapping between membership of fundamentalist evangelical Christian organisations and the right wing political parties which are populated by believers in the free market. In the USA the Southern Baptists are Republicans and in the UK those Christians who oppose contemporary mores such as gay marriage are to be found disproportionately in the Conservative Party. What cannot be denied is the popularity of the belief in the devil, perhaps because its offers reassurance. In a world that seems alien or hostile too them it is easy believe that the cause is an external malevolent force, it explains everything.
What I can conclude by saying is that contemporary economists and first century CE Christians share a similar dilemma, how to explain a world that does not accord with their world view. For the Christian it was the Roman government dominated by the Satanic ethos and for the economist it is a malign government dominated by a similarly destructive ethos.