We Are All Marxists Now

Don’t look now, but apparently there’s a credit crunch.  We’re not entirely sure what this is, but it’ll have to be super-tasty to lure us away from our usual diet of kibble, cat food, burgers and Galaxy chocolate.

The Vicar (whose diet is the same, minus the first three) doesn’t really know what a credit crunch is either, but then we never credited her with much sense in the first place.

At least in her ignorance she can finally claim something in common with one of that great trinity of heroes she calls The J.C. Three (Jarvis Cocker, Johnny Cash and Jesus Christ).

Last week, a couple of Guardian journalists amused themselves by asking various ‘opponents of capitalism’ what they made of the present global financial crisis.  With Jesus a bit busy, and Johnny sadly unavailable for comment, it fell to Jarvis to respond:

I think most people can understand capitalism when it’s about companies that make real products, but when it’s about organisations that just make money … that’s abstract capitalism, it’s beyond most ordinary people – and I include myself among them. I mean, you see the FTSE index, or whatever, running along the bottom of the TV screen and generally it just doesn’t impinge at all on the way you live your life, and then suddenly you’re told your life is going to take a nosedive. Who understands that?

Surprisingly – ok, not surprisingly – the paper’s selection of “high-profile leftwingers” didn’t include a single religious leader, not even the Red Rector.  But, as it happens, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury have had some things to say on money matters recently.

Archbishop John Sentamu, in a speech to some city bigwigs, asked how the US Government had managed to bail out the banks to the tune of 700 billion dollars, yet can’t seem to find the cash to take meaningful action on poverty:

It would cost $5bn (£2.7bn) to save six million children’s lives. World leaders could find 140 times that amount for the banking system in a week. How can they tell us that action for the poorest is too expensive?

Meanwhile, Archbishop Rowan (a.k.a. the “Hairy Leftie”) has written an article on the financial crisis, published in The Spectator with the natty title Face It: Marx was Partly Right about Capitalism

Of course, the press have zoomed in on the word “Marx” and remembered how they used to call +Rowan the Red Bishop (as if that were some sort of bad thing to be…).  Naturally, the Radio 4 interview on the article started with the question: “So, are we all supposed to be Marxists now?” 

But the clergy are used to that sort of thing.

Behind the hype, though, +Rowan was only saying what Jarvis said, and most of us are thinking too.  Markets and banks and city traders all seem to deal in things which aren’t actually real:

Almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders.

Millions of dollars whizz around the world without a single banknote to be seen.  Traders aren’t buying and selling goods or services, they’re swapping debts.  The whole thing is like a Saturday afternoon at the bookie’s, but when the bet goes wrong, it can bring millions of people to their knees.

+Rowan’s not one for knee-jerk reactions and soundbites, and neither is he an uncritical devotee of Karl Marx.  But it’s clear (as Andrew Brown recently argued in a comment piece for the Guardian) that the Archbishop regards globalised capitalism as dangerous, anti-Christian, perhaps even evil.  This is how he concluded his article:

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. And 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.

 Jesus himself spoke starkly of the same problem:

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.

You cannot serve God and capital. 

(Matthew 6:24)

Global capitalism is a system as big, idolatrous and oppressive to ordinary folks in our day as the Roman Empire was in the time of Jesus.  Yes, there are people who have managed to do well for themselves under capitalism, just as there were those who prospered under Roman occupation.  But at what cost to everyone else?

If global capitalism really is going into crisis somewhere way above our heads, perhaps we will take a more critical look at its “mythologies, abstractions and pseudo-objects.”  The computerised movement of imaginary money and pseudo-things doesn’t ‘trickle down’ to ordinary folks like us, and it certainly doesn’t help the poorest people of the world.  Could the financial crisis finally be the wake-up call to the fact that the great idol of capitalism has feet of clay?

Perhaps we won’t end up saying “We are all Marxists now;” but we won’t be singing We are all bourgeois now for very much longer either.

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