English archbishops on Marx and the markets

Rowan Williams has written a searching moral examination of the free market financial system which has been badly caricatured in initial news reports. It contains this sentence: “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.” How anyone gets from this mild criticism to headlines proclaiming that the archbishop has praised Marx, is difficult to fathom. You can read it for yourself in the Spectator, whose own headline writers have done Williams no favors.

A key passage:

To grant that without a basis of some common prosperity and stability, no speculative market can long survive is not to argue for rigid Soviet-style centralised direction. Insecure or failed states may provide a brief and golden opportunity for profiteering, but cannot sustain reliable institutions.

Without a background of social stability everyone will eventually suffer, including even the most resourceful, bold and ingenious of speculators. The question is not how to choose between total control and total deregulation, but how to identify the points and practices where social risk becomes unacceptably high. The banning of short-selling is an example of just such a judgment. Governments should not lose their nerve as they look to identify a few more targets.

Behind all this, though, is the deeper moral issue. We find ourselves talking about capital or the market almost as if they were individuals, with purposes and strategies, making choices, deliberating reasonably about how to achieve aims. We lose sight of the fact that they are things that we make. They are sets of practices, habits, agreements which have arisen through a mixture of choice and chance. Once we get used to speaking about any of them as if they had a life independent of actual human practices and relations, we fall into any number of destructive errors. We expect an abstraction called ‘the market’ to produce the common good or to regulate its potential excesses by a sort of natural innate prudence, like a physical organism or ecosystem. We appeal to ‘business’ to acquire public responsibility and moral vision. And so we lose sight of the fact that the market is not like a huge individual consciousness, that business is a practice carried on by persons who have to make decisions about priorities — not a machine governed by inexorable laws.

Meanwhile, John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, is blasting “short sellers,” whom he refers to as bank robbers. Sentamu will preach tonight at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

The archbishops’ criticisms of the financial system have generated considerable press coverage in England, and Simon Sarmiento has a round up at Thinking Anglicans. Reuters is on the Sentamu statement, which some UK stockbrokers don’t care for.

The Guardian has one comment on each bishop’s statement.

One observation on these issues in the Anglican context: Neither archbishop has much of an audience in the United States. Most of those likely to agree with their economic critique, their interest in the Millennium Development Goals, their concerns about global warming and their opposition to a univalent American foreign policy, are alienated from them by their unwillingness to speak out against the flamboyant homophobia of other Anglican leaders such as Peter Akinola of Nigeria, Henry Orombi of Uganda and Mouneer Anis of Egypt. Those who cheer the archbishops’ tacit embrace of bigotry disagree with them on most of the political issues. The conservatives get the better end of this deal. The archbishops opposition to the Bush administration makes nothing happen, while their opposition to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the Church has devastating effects.

Without commenting on the arguments they are advancing here–it isn’t clear that either of them understands short-selling–one is still left to wonder how to respond when the archbishops say something one agrees with?

“Three cheers for the abettors of bigotry!” ?

“God bless your irrelevant hearts!” ?

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