When the Archbishops of Canterbury and York weigh in against what they see as the excesses of market capitalism and financial speculators, something is definitely up. The most senior figures in the Church of England haven’t suddenly become revolutionaries, however, but reflect a growing sense in society that the economy is going to hell and that ordinary people are the principal victims.
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, condemned the financial traders who made millions by driving down the share price of leading banks as "bank robbers and asset strippers". Speaking to City bankers on the effects of the credit crisis, he damned the "Alice in Wonderland" world of global finance where speculators profited by laying bets that shares in HBOS would fall in price.
Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, warned that modern devotion to the free market is a form of idolatry and that Karl Marx was right in his analysis of the power of "unbridled capitalism". In an article for The Spectator magazine, Dr Williams said the current crisis had exposed the "basic unreality" of the long-standing global trade in debts, in which "almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders".
Sentamu and Williams make some good points but like many others, fail to relate the financial crisis to the essential nature of the capitalist system. The inner drive for the continuing expansion of capital is the source of the fantasy finance world the archbishops describe. Their demands for regulation and reining in of the speculators will not only fall on deaf ears but are as far removed from reality as the financial system they denounce.
In the United States, for example, the Bush administration is taking desperate measures to try and keep the financial system going by spending $700 billion to buy up useless assets that the market is unwilling to put a price to. Bush is bludgeoning Congress into approving the deal, warning that failure would lead to “financial panic” and a “long and painful recession”. The Financial Times has doubts whether the package will make a difference, saying today: “The plan has some serious flaws. In particular, there is no reason why public sector buyers should be better at pricing these assets than private bidders. This could, potentially, lead to significant losses.”
The archbishops would like to return to a more benign form of capitalism of the 1960s, before the globalisation genie was let out of the bottle. Those of a mature age like myself would love to go back 40 years, which shows how the imagination can run riot. It is far easier to conceive of a future based on co-operation expressed through common ownership and democratic control of the resources of the global economy.
Of course, the Church of England cannot help in this respect. Since the Reformation, it has provided the theological justification for capitalism. Money-lending and the accumulation of individual wealth through land grabbing, slavery and colonial possessions were generally blessed and approved of by the church, which is an integral part of the British state. Rather than limiting ourselves to Sentamu’s and Williams’ criticisms, the action of Jesus in driving the merchants and money-lenders out of the temple would be a far better starting point!