Is there a heart at the heart of our economics?

Mike Buckley

It’s hardly news that we live in interesting times and that there is as yet little agreement on the way out of the various predicaments we find ourselves in. Five years into the financial crisis and its fallout we’re back in recession, austerity is biting, and shifts are underway which make talk of our capitalism being ‘morally degraded’ and of ‘broad popular demands for greater economic security and social responsibility’ part of the political furniture. There seems to be broad agreement that something needs to happen yet there is precious little agreement on what that something is. Perhaps worse, there seems to be more political will for talk than action, based perhaps in part in a residual fear of the institutions that bet their way into the financial crisis in the first place.

The Christian Socialist Movement’s 2012 Tawney dialogue, ‘Transforming Capitalism: putting relationships back into economics’, to be given by Rachel Reeves MP, the Revd Dr John Hughes and Lord Myners this evening, offers an opportunity to take a step back from the headlines and to look more clearly at underlying issues. Grounded as it is in the legacy of R. H. Tawney, the dialogue offers a chance to look back to the lessons of the past and forward to a possible future.

Changed circumstances and disillusionment with past forms of economics, welfare and indeed the moral basis of our society presents challenges for both Left and Right. This evening’s debate promises to tackle a number of these from the Left’s perspective. Firstly, if we are to speak of prioritising relationships rather than finance we thus draw in debates not only about economics but also about welfare and morality. Shared shock at the behaviour of bankers, journalists and politicians has led to a broad agreement that we need a higher standard of morality in public life, but what is the source of these morals to be?

Secondly, on the issue of welfare, the Coalition has accelerated the existing dismantling of the 1945 settlement, in part on grounds of cost, in part in the hopeful expectation that civil society will take up some of the slack. If an over-regulative state truly has encouraged cultures of dependency rather than relationships of mutuality and participation how is civil society to be strengthened (assuming that simply withdrawing the state will not achieve this)?

Thirdly, the commitment to equality is at the heart of Christian socialism, but perhaps this needs to be understood in closer relation to fraternity and solidarity rather than just liberty.  There remains a potential tension here in that if equality must be cultivated through traditions, communities, and practices, these can always degenerate into self-serving forms of privilege.

Finally, while the return to the local and human-scale is vital in re-embedding the economy in society and real relationships, Christian socialists should not abandon the discussion of globalisation to the neo-liberals.  What does all this mean for questions of international development?

This evening’s debate provides an opportunity to further these debates and to contribute to next steps, a transformed capitalism, and an economics that prioritises relationships and humanity as well as growth and stability.

Mike Buckley is a London member of the Christian Socialist Movement

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