26 July 2011

Can Christians celebrate the collapse of neo-liberalism?

The tower in the chapel in Jesus College, Cambridge ... the Revd Dr John Hughes of Jesus College spoke on Christian Social Teaching and the Economic Crisis at the summer school this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The global financial crisis has brought about a questioning of dominant neo-liberalism, and has raised theological questions about the ultimate ends of the economy, we were told this morning [26 July] by the Revd Dr John Hughes, Dean of Jesus College and the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge.

Dr Hughes was speaking in Sidney Sussex College at the 12th summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies on the topic: “Beyond the Secular Market: Christian Social Teaching and the Economic Crisis.”

Dr Hughes is part of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, which is rooted in the Cambridge theological tradition, providing a critique of the violence of secular social theories. Its main figures include John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward.

Dr Hughes argued this morning that the free market has long been bound up with secularism, and set out how Christian theology has responded to this, arguing that the markets need morals.

The market was once seen as the answer to everything and, until the recent crisis, the market was untouchable and went unquestioned. But the crisis has seen a widespread rejection of the myth of a morally neutral free market and of the neoliberal utilitarian fantasy.

Since 2008-2009, it has been recognised that the marked is not an end in itself, and a new consensus has emerged.

Prior to 2009 summit, Gordon Brown spoke in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, about a society that is free but not laissez faire, pointing out that markets cannot self-regulate but can self-destruct. About the same time, David Cameron had spoken in Davos in 2009 about markets without morality, and capitalism without a conscience, saying the markets are a means to an end and not an end in themselves. Cameron had argued that we need to shape capitalism to suit needs of society.

Looking at the significance of this language, Dr Hughes said the politics of virtue may be on the rise, and that questions that ask what the market is for are quasi-theological questions.

The market is fundamentally cultural, therefore we did not have to end up here. The present crisis was not a natural happening, but was due to specific, ideological decisions.

He sees the beginnings of a new consensus in favour of tighter financial regulation in the hope of preventing this happening again. However, Christian concerns about usury are related to feelings about the injustice of large profits being made through de facto gambling. Is the financial crisis a strange aberration or is it deeply symptomatic of capitalism, he wondered. Do we need not just a pruning of excesses, but a new political economy?

He looked at the emergence of new thinking on both the left and the right about the moralising of the market. He traced this on the left in the thinking from Compass, and on the right in the writings of Philip Blond, the Anglican theologian and English political thinker, who is the director of the think tank ResPublica, and who is known for his articulation of ‘Red Tory’ thinking.

But he also found an articulate radical Christian response to the economic crisis and the crisis in capitalism in the writings of Archbishop Rowan Williams, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, and especially in Pope Benedict’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (‘Love in Truth’).

He described the encyclical Caritas in Veritate as radical in its reflection on economic and social issues and problems and its concern for the problems of globalisation. In the encyclical, Pope Benedict argues that both Love and Truth are essential elements of an effective response to the current economic crisis, and attacks free market fundamentalism, and talks of new models of business and enterprise.

He said Christians should celebrate the collapse of neo-liberalism and its economics, and sees Christian social tradition enjoying a revival and offering fresh insights.

Dr Hughes is the newly-elected Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge, and a member of the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge University. He studied theology in Cambridge under Janet Soskice and in Oxford under Oliver O’Donovan, before completing a PhD on ‘Theologies of Work’ with Catherine Pickstock and Jeremy Morris, published as The End of Work (Blackwell: 2007).

He teaches philosophy and ethics, with a particular interest in aesthetics and political thought. His has published a paper on the Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov in Sobornost, and has written a chapter in a forthcoming volume on the Crisis of Global Capitalism. He is working on a project on the role of divine ideas in the doctrine of creation.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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