Theology with its emphasis on ‘other worldly’ experiences appears to be at the opposite end of the spectrum of thought to economics which deals with the mundanity of every day existence. It’s a science of facts far removed from the speculative thinking of the theologians. Yet this is a false understanding of theology, as it can be as every day as economics, the only difference being the approach to life. A theology that had no relevance to daily existence would be pointless subject of study. Adopting something of the perspective of theology would be of benefit to economics.
What I intend to do is demonstrate how an analytical framework taken from St.Augustine’s Fifth Century classic, “The City of God” can be used to explain developments in the economy of today.
The City of God & the City of Man | Koinonia palamas.info
Although Augustine’s book is primarily intended to explain why the eternal city of Rome fell to foreign invaders, what interests me particularly is Augustine’s account of the role of its Gods in Roman society. The Roman’s assumed one of the reasons for their success was their fidelity to their ancient Gods. Castor and Pollux the heavenly twins were thought to have intervened in a crucial battle to assure the Roman army of victory. In gratitude to the two Gods the Romans constructed temple in the forum for their worship. When Rome fell it was thought by some that the cause was the abandoning of the worship of the old Olympian Gods, the Gods who had always stood by Rome and ensured its survival and success. Augustine suggested a very different Christian version of Roman history
The Olympian Gods were for Augustine not Gods but demons who lead mankind astray. Stories about these God’s such as Zeus’s rape of Europa in the for of bull demonstrated their demonic nature. The nature of these Gods was capricious and cruel. Apollo was for instance challenged to a music contest by the satyr; unfortunately for Marsyas he was judged the loser and for having had the impudence to challenge a God Apollo hung him upside down and flayed him alive. Roman cities that had temples of Mars, chained the statue to the temple in the hope that the God would not wander and provoke war with a neighbouring city.
Augustine saw these God/demons as having bodies of air and circulating around the earth in the atmosphere waiting for the opportunity to intervene in the affairs of men and cause mischief. Misleading mankind was not difficult for them as all men were corrupted by original sin and easily corrupted. Despite pretending to be protectors of Rome, they had according to Augustine in fact allowed it to be sacked in the past by the Gauls; so the sacking of Christian Rome by the Visigoths was little different from the sacking of pagan Rome by the Gauls in earlier centuries. The visions and dreams that Roman’s had of the God’s which they thought gave them insight into future events, were nothing more than trickery intended to mislead the dreamer. On innumerable occasions Roman Emperors and Generals made sacrifices to the God’s to ensure victory. Yet on so many occasions instead leading their armies to victory they led them to defeat.
The Gods for Augustine were the deceivers of men, leading them into error from their own sense of mischief. This concept of a group of deceivers leading mankind into error by making deceptive promises is a useful concept when it is shorn of its supernatural context. I would like to recast Augustine’s concept of a world of men mislead by a race of demons into a more human form. Rather than seeing original sin as the corrupting element in mankind, I see ambition as the corrupting element, something best expressed in the term vainglory. Leaders wish to be remembered in history as men and women who changed the world for the better. While this is a laudable ambition it can led them into following certain practices or beliefs which they believe will improve the lot of mankind, but which in fact does the reverse. Unlike the demons of Augustine these deceivers often deceive themselves as they really do believe that they have discovered the holy grail of human betterment. The current race of deceivers are not demons but Neo-Liberal economists and philosophers.
These philosophers and economists have been campaigning actively since the 1970’s for the adoption of Neo-Liberal economic policies and the creation of a free market society, one largely free of government intervention. The argument in the 1970’s by these economists was that by freeing markets to find their own equilibrium there would no longer be any foreign exchange crisis, as currencies would freely move up and down to their natural level. (This was a time of crisis when the IMF was constantly having to bail out countries such as the UK which were experiencing such crises.) Despite that the world has not seen an end of foreign currency cries. However Neo-Liberal economists would assert that these have been due to governments not wholeheartedly adopting the Neo-Liberal agenda.
The UK is one of the countries that have most wholeheartedly adopted Neo-Liberal economics, through the practice of supply side economics. Supply side economics stated that the cause of economic under performance were the various restrictions imposed the markets that supplied the factors of production, in particular labour. Following these policy prescriptions the government almost completely destroyed the powerful trade union movement and removed most of the employment protection measures that previous governments had imposed on the labour market. The UK now has one of the most flexible labour markets in the developed world, a market in which employers have few restrictions on how they use labour. Yet the UK is not an economic success story, 1 in 3 workers in the UK are receiving less than the living wage, having to rely on government handouts to held them pay for their accommodation, food and clothing for their families. The trade deficit also has spiralled out of control, in the 1960’s it averaged 0.2% of GDP, whereas today it is 30 times larger at 6% of GDP. Despite all the increased flexibility in the labour market, the productivity of the average British worker is significantly less than in our European partners such as Germany or France. However Neo-Liberal economists continue to assert that the economy is healthier than ever, usually citing some statistics to prove their point. They are self deceiving as many of the statistics that really matter show an economy that is performing badly.
However the self deception is largely that of the politicians, as economists have always known that changing to a Neo-Liberal economy would create a substantial group of losers. The deception has been in that they have always dismissed the losers as a small and insignificant minority. Those British economists asking for reform in the 1960’s argued for an unemployment level of 3% and for those economists this would be made up largely of those people temporarily unemployed and who were between jobs. However the more influential have been the public choice theorists and Neo-Liberal philosophers such as Ayn Rand, who have argued for a more social Darwinist approach to public policy making. Ayn Rand argued that the poor had little place in society as they contributed little to it and saw starvation as one means of reducing the number of useless mouths. (Atlas Unshrugged). She has been extremely influential in British political circles and her followers have been effective in creating a society wide contempt for the poor, which has led to a whole series of measures directed against them. These politicians have never gone so far as advocating the starvation of the poor, but they have implemented policies that have impoverished them. What these deceivers have been successful in doing is portraying the poor as the OTHER, a group to which the majority never belongs. They have successfully concealed from the public imagination that disabling illness is not confined to the poor, but it can affect anybody and only the richest can avoid being driven into poverty by disabling illness.
Perhaps the worst of the deceivers are the public choice theorists who pretend that privatising public services will only create winners as we all will benefit from cheaper public services. However these are labour intensive services and cheaper services can only be delivered through reducing the incomes of the people working in these services and through worsening their conditions of service. One very effective way of doing this is to abolish extra payments for working outside normal hours, or by using zero hour contracts, by rewriting the terms of employment or using temporary agency staff. All of which enables the employer to get more for less. Today my dustbin was collected by the refuge service on a day which for most is a public holiday. In past I had to wait until the day after the public holiday. While most people will probably appreciate the fact that there is no break in the service; I am concerned that the families of the three men on the lorry are deprived of their company on a holiday. Am I in a minority in preferring to have my bin collection delayed by one day so these men could have a day with their children?
These Neo-Liberal deceivers have succeeded in portraying those who lose as a consequence of their reforms as the losing OTHER. Yet there is a danger that this other might become the majority should society move backwards in recreating the widespread hardship and misery of previous eras. These economists, philosophers and politicians have successfully deceived the majority by portraying their changes as necessary if society and the economy are to prosper and that the only losers will only be the insignificant OTHER, not them. Yet the purpose of a Neo-Liberal agenda is to create a large impoverished serice or underclass to service the deserving better off minority(?). In fact in 2011 a group of politicians published a book which blamed the poor for their plight, they were poor because they lacked the work ethic. I don’t think it’s wrong to compare the Neo-Liberal deceivers of today with Augustine’s demons, as both promise a better tomorrow, while in fact intending the opposite.