A New World is Possible

By Fr Kevin J. Barr

Over the months since the economic collapse around the world a number of interesting statements have been made by various people – politicians, economists, churchmen, and the media as well as ordinary people who (as usual) are bearing the burden of the economic disaster.

We have heard highly regarded economists such as Alan Greenspan admit that their free market economic thinking was faulty and there was need for governments to intervene and set controls in place. The French Prime Minister (Sakozy) said bluntly that “capitalism is dead”. The British Prime Minister (David Cameron) was also very blunt when he called for “moral capitalism” that showed a conscience and would repair decades of “reckless greed”.

Media reports spoke of “addiction to money”, corporate greed and individual selfishness in pursuing huge profits while so many were made poor and left on the margins of society.

It is interesting to see that many people are continuing to come out in their various ways in opposition to the dominant economic paradigm of neo-liberal free-market capitalism.

A number of books have addressed the causes of the recent economic collapse. One book by Sue Gerhardt is entitled The Selfish Society – How we all forgot to love one another and made money instead (2010, London: Simon and Schuster). In the book she stresses that we need to incorporate the values of empathy, caring and sharing into politics and economics.

Another book by Jim Wallis entitled Rediscovering Values (2010, Orbis) reflects on the suffering caused by the economic recession in the United States and sees this crisis as an opportunity to repent and to change and rediscover the values that work for the common good of all. He points out the harm caused by consumerist values and the harm caused by our belief in a self-regulating market. Short term profits for individuals have been valued and not the long term good of all. He proclaims the need for “a moral compass for a new economy”.

Another recent book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2010) is The Spirit Level – Why Equality is better for Everyone. Its message (supported by an abundance of evidence) is that societies which have a high level of inequality are bad for everyone in them, including the well-off. The evidence shows that the greater the degree of inequality in a society, the greater are the social and health problems as well as the crime rates and numbers of people in prison. Some countries of the world may be materially successful but, despite their affluence, they are social failures. The US stands in stark contrast to Norway, Sweden and Denmark. So real development is not just a matter of continually increasing economic growth according to free-market neo-liberal ideology; rather real development involves making sure that the benefits of economic growth are distributed with a greater sense of fairness and justice.

Interestingly both the book of Wilkinson and Pickett and the statement of the British Prime Minister (David Cameron) speak out strongly against opposition from the super-rich. Cameron says that capitalism needs to be reformed “even if that means standing in the way of global corporate juggernauts”. Wilkinson and Pickett say that in order to reduce inequality in a society we need to stand up to “the tiny minority of the rich whose misplaced idea of self-interest makes them feel threatened by a more democratic and egalitarian world”.
An article in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 25th April 2011 by Ross Gittins (the economics editor) says that in recent decades economists have propagated and subtly influenced a way of thinking and behaviour which has made us more competitive and self-seeking and less cooperative and public-spirited. He suggests that we have become the poorer for it and need to look at the benefits of co-operation in order to achieve the common good rather than individual personal profit.

Again at the Holy Thursday Service in Westminster Abbey in the presence of the Queen the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said in his homily that bankers, politicians, party leaders, newspaper editors and the hundred most successful financiers should be legally required to spend a number of hours every year with the poor and needy to remind them of the purpose of their power and wealth. He said he thought this might achieve two ends: “reminding our leaders of what the needs really are at grassroots level, so that those needs can never again be just remote statistics; and reminding the rest of us what politics and government are really for”. He went on: “Power exists in the church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves”.

Also Pope Benedict recently pointed out that we do not lack the resources to ensure the hungry of the world are fed. What we lack is the moral determination to do so.

Then Dr John Falzon, the CEO of the national council of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia recently spoke out strongly against those who blame the poor for their poverty and insisted that the roots of poverty lay in the way society was structured rather than the failures of individuals. He said:
“The problem in Australia is not the idleness of the poor, as perniciously proposed by welfare-bashers of all political stripes. The problem is inequality. ... We do irreparable harm when we turn it into a question of individual behaviour, blaming people for their own poverty, as is so often the case with people who are homeless, or in jail because of society’s failure to provide them with opportunities and to nurture their talents.”

Interestingly the Vinnies organise and annual “sleep-out” all around Australia. They invite people to sleep out and do it tough for one night in order to experience what life is like for the homeless. Among those involved this year there are CEOs of Banks, Real Estate agents, as well as top representatives of Tourism Australia and the media. The sleep-out is all about changing minds and hearts and attitudes through experiencing the conditions in which so many people are living.

Many of these writers and speakers from various backgrounds are basically conveying the same message. The old paradigm of neo-liberal, free-market capitalism may have produced economic growth for some but it has also produced great inequality and a high degree of poverty for so many. It is not the answer for true development. A new world is possible if we have the courage to leave behind corporate greed and the clamour for individual personal prosperity and return to a more cooperative ethic which values greater empathy caring, sharing and works for the common good of all. In order to achieve this we may have to stand in the way of corporate, global juggernauts and oppose the small minority of the super-rich who currently dominate political and economic decisions.


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