A high profile debate chaired by the Bishop of Salisbury on the question of whether capitalism can be made good has resulted in an increasing number of people believing it can’t be saved.
More than 100 people attending the event at Marlborough’s St John’s Academy last week were asked to vote on the motion before and after the Bishop’s Debate took place.
And though it was admitted that the motion was deliberately ambiguous – was it about ethics or economics or both? – the aim was to see whether power of the arguments increased the number of members of the audience changing sides.
On the initial vote 71 to 36 people voted that capitalism could be made good, but more than 90 minutes later the figures changed to 63 to 46, a substantial rise in the number of doubters.
It was then that Bishop Nick Holtam summed up emphasising the essential need for change.
“There are important questions as to what sort of alternatives there are around and how we begin to imagine alternatives in new possible worlds,” he said. “Are we evolving systems that we have got or actually looking for something quite radically different?
“We have certainly got a problem with companies that are too big to fail. There is a question there about accountability and control.”
He added: “This is not just about how we live with stuff, we all have to live with stuff, that’s half the human condition, whatever the system. But it does ask questions about how we answer ourselves in God’s world.”
“The question of spirituality and whether we can add alternatives is really important. There’s the question of active citizenship, and the way how we often feel powerless but actually do need to engage in a way most of us don’t most of the time, in order to encourage and help stimulate change.”
The overall debate was wide ranging. On one side were those who believed that banks were not all bad, that they stimulated wealth creation and enterprise that provided employment, there being nothing at all in seeking profit. Technology too could solve our global problems, though there was an urgent need for trust to be re-established and a sense of fairness an equality.
On the other side came the argument that world resources could no longer sustain a growing population at a time when climate change was creating impossible problems plus the belief that capitalism was based on debt and idolatry making it, as in the Bible, unfit for purpose.
It was a failure as much as Communism and other economic systems but somehow a belief in markets was allowed to distort a system that believed endless growth was vital to our lifestyle.
Hugh Pym even pointed out that he was pleased to see that enterprise had kept the Sun public house and Polly’s still in business as they were when he was at Marlborough College, though the sweet shop near the College gates had been replaced by a barber’s.
He believed bank regulation reform was essential and that consumer power too must be used to ensure fair trade.
There were suggestions too that the Church of England had failed to take full advantage of the sit-down protest outside St Paul’s Cathedral.
Stewart Wallis made one passionate plea that may well have changed the views of the audience.
He recalled working for a major banking company with 1,000 employees who wanted to maximise the return on their effort because that was what they believed business was for.
“Sometimes I had to do things I didn’t believe in,” he said. “And I don’t exactly think any more that we look forward to a system that may have done good but in a system that relies in effect on individual selfishness is fundamental.”
“I am not arguing that there aren’t many good people out there. There are lots and lots of good people in banks and businesses and lots of good businesses too.”
“But why is there only one John Lewis? Just ask yourself that question.”
He pointed out that at the top too many big businesses could buck the market while, at the bottom, social enterprise companies such as that launched by Gordon and Anita Rodick always sold out in the end.
The trouble was that people felt trapped in a system that just encouraged growth and profit, always looked after number one.
“I remember how I felt when I went from business to Oxfam,” he said. “Then I could live my own values for something I believed in. You talk to many people in business. They constrained by the purposes around them. A different system or not, we need to change fundamentally the system we’re in.”
“We need a system that creates much higher well-being. That doesn’t mean going back to a barter economy. You can’t get rid of debt, in my view.”
“It’s still going to be a market economy, but it is going to have many John Lewis’ in it and many less of the horrible range of firms you see doing not very nice things.”
“And that system has to start by being based about us, as people, about how we function and how we get well-being. We can have something much better.”
He recalled an Oxfam meeting at the Treasury when he was told by a senior official that ending the sovereign debt of the world’s poorest countries would bring the financial system down.
“As we left the room, one of them said, ‘Go away and play with your toys’. So rude. We thought, OK, we will play with our toys. We’ll play with yours as well.”
“That resulted in the churches worldwide coming together and saying, ‘We want change.’ We’re at that same moment now. We are running out of planet. The past economies are too embedded.”
“We need to stand up and say, Enough. Then we might manage things differently. We can’t say this is the best we can have. It’s done lots of good. But it’s time for a change.”
Those taking part:
Hugh Pym – chief economics correspondent for the BBC, who was educated at Marlborough College. Pym was a radio journalist and producer from 1986 to 1988, then a BBC special correspondent covering economics before being appointed to his present post.
The Rev Will Morris – global tax policy director for General Electric, chair of the CBI’s tax committee and associate priest at St Martin’s in the Fields, Trafalgar Square. A former US Treasury official, he has written a paper entitled “Not just “how” but “why”: a personal reflection on business ethics and the crisis.”
Stewart Wallis – executive director of the think tank New Economics Foundation since 2003 and an advocate for transition to a system for a “new model of wealth creation, based on equality, diversity and economic stability”. He worked for Oxfam from 1992 to 2002, for which he was awarded an OBE.
Symon Hill – Christian activist, journalist and associate director of the Ekklesia think tank. He has written The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion. Last February, he was dragged by police from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral as he prayed during the eviction of Occupy London Stock Exchange. He previously worked for the Campaign Against Arms Trade.
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