Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Socialism

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

George Monbiot has written another insightful article, this one on the problem of neoliberalism, and the fact that most people in our neoliberal society don’t know what the term means.

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it.

Here are my thoughts on some of the points Monbiot makes:

  • “Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.”

Just like communism reduced people to cogs in a machine, neoliberalism, or market capitalism, does the same. We become consumers whose value lies in how much we contribute to the ongoing efficiency of the economic machine. We are not seen as having inherent dignity in ourselves.

  • “When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation.” Think Tony Abbott and ‘stop the boats’ in Australia.

The rise of Bernie Sanders is as much a response to the current climate as is the rise of Donald Trump. The failure of the Left has been seen by them and is responding in the rise of Sanders.

“Like communism, neoliberalism is the God that failed”. I remember when communism fell over in the late 1980s, Jim Wallis said the same would happen to capitalism one day. It might take another generation, but we are seeing it happening now before our eyes.

  • “it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed.” Perhaps one option (and there may be others along the lines of what people like Bernie Sanders are putting forward) is Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth.

The problem with unfettered market capitalism is that it is an amoral system. It doesn’t take into account human nature, the fact that humans are ultimately committed to their own self-interest. That’s why it needs people in poverty to survive.

Mental health and consumer culture

The latest New Internationalist focuses on mental illness and has a great article on what is called the collective insanity of consumer culture. It is certainly no exaggeration that our obsession with stuff is an addiction. The fact that, as Brene Brown says, we are the most obese, addicted, medicated society in history, coupled with the widely acknowledged fact that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, shows that we are in a seriously dangerous place in our mentally ill culture. Here are some quotes from the article, along with comments from me in blue:

  • A century on from Oscar Wilde’s immortal poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, death comes gift-wrapped and perfumed, in beguiling guilt-free varieties, delivered with a toothy smile and prophecy of material salvation. Betrayal gets absolved as the consumer age supplants conscience with craving, and duty with self-devotion. Even with our beloved Earth and the future of humankind balanced on a knife’s edge, our killing feels strangely like a bargain.
  • In Escape from Evil, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker describes consumer culture as a second-rate religion that has programed a society of ‘cheerful robots’ to martyr all to “a grotesque spectacle of unrestrained material production, perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history.”
  • If consumer culture were a separate individual and assessed psychiatrically, its diagnosis would be criminal psychosis of the most fiendish variety.
  • Once sold on ourselves, we can be wooed by the most impoverished of ambitions, from ‘having it all,’ and ‘living the dream,’ right on down to ‘making it to the top.’
  • Hyper-competitive individualism is a lonely straightjacket that fuels frustration, alienation, and rage. Freedom has cheapened into a demeaning free-for-all in a prison of petty wants. As a springboard to happiness, emotional health, and social well-being, ‘the good life’ is an exhausting flop. As evidenced by Martin Seligman’s research which shows that consumer culture now has ten times the rate of depression we had at the end of the Second World War.
  • The term ‘cultural insanity’ refers to normative templates that have become so counter-productive and self-defeating, or so misaligned to our basic human needs, that they stand to undo society or its life supports. In fact, normality can be the deadliest of foes.
  • Never before has a society indebted itself so heavily to unreality.
  • For the first time, Utopia is a matter of life or death. Getting it half right or even mostly right is not enough.
  • For cultural psychologist Erich Fromm, the only defense against our all-consuming social insanity was ‘a radical change of the human heart.’ Perhaps the most important change that needs to happen, because all the other changes will not last unless the human heart is connected with a Source outside of itself.
  • We recognize in films like The Matrix and The Truman Show our phantasmagoric world of factory-farmed experience that keeps us blankly nippled to fantasy, and numbed to life beyond our brainwashing.
  • God, increasingly hell-bent on wanting us to be rich, is resisting the green makeover that some prayed could spare Creation. Unfortunately, as with many article of this type, written by those with a socialist leaning, the God they critique is the God of fundamentalism, who is a kill-joy and only cares about punishing homosexuals and people who have had abortions. Millions of Christians don’t believe in this God either.
  • The highest act of love in a criminally insane society is disobedience. Normality can no longer be trusted. Unconditional obedience is an unaffordable luxury. To be “well-adjusted” is to be part of the problem. Brilliant; a great definition of love in this context.
  • Economics, once the boring background affair it should be, is now the cornerstone for cultural consciousness. What will it profit someone if they gain the whole world but lose their very self?
  • For the same price as the insanity-saving ‘credit crunch’ bailout, we could be well on our way to a society of minimalists, naturalists, humanitarians, and debt-dodging vegetarians. Compassion and childlessness could be chic, and conservationists sexy. Throw in half a year’s military budget and peace could be hip, education could enlighten, and eloquent simplicity could be all the rage. A society where childlessness is encouraged is a society on its way to extinction. What else could it be? And as far as education goes, as I read once, because of human nature, education doesn’t achieve the desired outcome. If you educate a devil, you don’t get an angel, you just get a clever devil.
  • There is nothing that we cannot be or believe. We are as perfectible as we are corruptible. Thousands of years of human history has shown us by now that this is simply not true. This type of thinking is really the same addictive thinking that says that despite the mountain of evidence, we can still be perfect one day. It is not for nothing that Jesus said that without Him we can do nothing. It is only when we find ourselves in our ultimate Connection that we will eventually be made perfect, and that will not be this side od death.
  • The biggest problem is that, by design, we are cultural creatures, fated to be normal except for rare individuals with enough courage and conviction to liberate themselves partially from culture’s powerful gravitational pull. Even well meaning individuals who profess concern about the unfolding apocalypse usually plod on like zombies in allegiance to their cultural norms.
  • Culture is the last great frontier. While it would be a spectacular leap of maturity on our parts, the deliberate and preemptive management of collective consciousness guided by a responsibility-based culture is the next and most important step in our evolution.

This magnificent article needs to be shared far and wide, despite its naivety and seeming ignorance of the deception of the human heart. It comes closer to a vision of the kingdom of God than much of what we hear in our churches. I am reminded of a couple of brilliant books that should also be must-reads for people of faith. They are Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change, and Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination.

It is true that what we need is a change in the human heart, but what this article proposes is a kingdom without a king. As Johnny Cash sang in the song The Wanderer, ‘they say they want the kingdom but they don’t want God in it.’

Perhaps the most important omission from the article is the house on rock that Jesus spoke of, that of hope; not just hope that we will one day get to our utopia, but a hope based on a fact of history, that because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, there will indeed come a day when utopia will be a reality, and we can indeed build for it now. But it will not be one that is finally completed by defective humanity, but one that is completed and consummated by God himself. It will be the wonderful new creation that the Scriptures point to and whose consummation is gloriously described in Revelation 21. May that day come quickly because God knows we need it.

The weaknesses of capitalism and the non-answer of socialism

With the inherent weaknesses of unfettered market capitalism being exposed in recent months by the global economic situation, socialists have been trumpeting the apparent downfall of this economic system. And well they might. I have already explained my views on unregulated capitalism. However, on the cover of one left-leaning publication was the proud headline ‘Capitalism is bankrupt; socialism is the only answer’. I think the first part of that headline is correct and the second part is not.

485085_new_york_stock_exchangeSocialism is no more the answer to humanity’s problems than capitalism. While capitalism survives no the backs of the poor, the history of socialism survives the same way. Any look at the atrocities committed in Eastern Europe since the Second World War have shown that. While socialism as an idea is fine – public ownership of the means of production, in practice it has limited freedom for its own citizens.

At the centre of socialism lies the idea of the utopian society being achieved through the work of humanity, unaided by any higher power. The classless society is a great idea, outlined in Acts, but it can never be achieved as long as humanity works on its own. 

Human hearts need changing and no human economic system can ever do that. Martin Luther King, talking about communism, said that it 

thrives on the grand illusion that man, unaided by any divine power, can save himself and usher in a new society.

Socialism does not take into account the fact of humanity’s tendency toward selfishness. Bono has said that the 20th century is not a good advertisement for atheism. What does atheism have to do with it? Well, socialism is based on a secular vision of the new society, a kingdom without a king. The 20th century proves once and for all that a kingdom without a king will eventually fall in on itself.

For more on Dr. King’s views of a Christian response to communism, see his Strength to Love, pp 97-106.

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