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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rowan Williams on Capitalism

Yesterday an essay by the Archbishop of Canterbury was published by The Spectator.

It is a great essay, filled with human concern about the mythology which surrounds the market and the real damage it can do to people. A couple of quotations:

'We find ourselves talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals, with purposes and strategies, making choices, deliberating reasonably about how to achieve aims. We lose sight of the fact that they are things that we make. They are sets of practices, habits, agreements which have arisen through a mixture of choice and chance. Once we get used to speaking about any of them as if they had a life independent of actual human practices and relations, we fall into any number of destructive errors. We expect an abstraction called ‘the market’ to produce the common good or to regulate its potential excesses by a sort of natural innate prudence, like a physical organism or ecosystem. We appeal to ‘business’ to acquire public responsibility and moral vision. And so we lose sight of the fact that the market is not like a huge individual consciousness, that business is a practice carried on by persons who have to make decisions about priorities — not a machine governed by inexorable laws.'
...
'...ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry. What the present anxieties and disasters should be teaching us is to ‘keep ourselves from idols’, in the biblical phrase. The mythologies and abstractions, the pseudo-objects of much modern financial culture, are in urgent need of their own Dawkins or Hitchens. We need to be reacquainted with our own capacity to choose — which means acquiring some skills in discerning true faith from false, and re-learning some of the inescapable face-to-face dimensions of human trust.'
Read it all here.

But somewhat troubling is that the essay itself is entitled "Face it: Marx was partly right about capitalism". Now, I am assuming that, as with newspapers, the headline was not composed by the author but added in later by someone else. (I suspect but do not know - I am not a regular reader of the Spectator - that the deliberately provocative 'Face it:' is a regular feature, and that the specific headline follows the colon.) But the headline, whilst attention-getting, is not apposite to the essay. He does indeed mention Marx near the end, in a by-the-way fashion, but this is not his overarching concern, not the theme of the essay. As it stands, it might sound like a full-court-press defense of Karl Marx and Marxism, but this is far from the intent. In fact, he says of Marx, in the only mention of him in the essay:'Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else.' Hardly a ringing endorsement. And hardly a suitable headline for a passionate, thoughtful, and irenic essay.

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