An Afternoon in Gateshead, or The Idol in the Desert

Thursday October 16, 2008

Money lender

It is hard not to agree with Rowan Williams, when he says that greed is one of the root causes of the present financial crisis. His second-in-command, the more flamboyant John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, with his gift for dramatic imagery has put it rather differently

Just as the Hebrew slaves from Egypt built the Golden Calf as the ultimate act of idolatry in the desert, so millions of British people are prostrating themselves before an altar of materialism.

Such religious voices raised against our materialistic age are not without force. I have just finished Tim Kasser’s instructive book, The High Price of Materialism, which explores the harms sown by our materialist cultures, backed up with fairly persuasive research, and it is clear from this that we have a problem of some magnitude on our hands. When it seems like a fact of nature that there should be such a thing as a “housing ladder” that one aspires to climb, for example, or when the advertisers hector us from every billboard and insinuate their way into our homes to persuade us to buy things we didn’t even know we wanted until a moment before, when our economic system is built upon the ideology of continual growth (and there is no sign of any change in this as a baseline assumption) in a world of finite resources, and when all these things lead – as Kasser shows – to personal unhappiness, the fracturing of relationships and the putting in danger of our continued existence here in the world, it is clear that we are up the creek.

What I am less clear about is whether what we need, in response to this, is a recourse to specifically religious values. To be sure, to give one example, it seems that some of the principles of Islamic Banking, with its sharing of profit and loss and its bar on lending on interest, seem to be humane and just and, as far as I can see (because I understand the weird, abstract world of money even less than I understand the weird abstract world of particle physics), more or less workable. But they are commendable not insofar as they are “religious”, but insofar as they are humane and just and workable. And here, I think, religion often gets in the way of our ability to build a more equitable world, not because religion is the root of all evil, as some would have us believe (there are plenty of horrors in the world that cannot be put down to “religion”), but because the good ideas in religion – and I would say to the sceptics that there must be some in all religions, if only because of the profound unlikelihood of any group of people being so deeply misguided that they are capable only of having consistently bad ideas all the time – are frequently claimed by those of the religion in question to be specifically theirs. This is, in the end, a rather mean-spirited approach to good ideas, but it is also a damaging one. In the early days when I was more Buddhist than Buddhish, I came across a great many ideas that seemed to be rather good and useful, but I was continually frustrated by the insistence that they mattered not because they were good and useful, but because they were Buddhist and, not only this, that one could not really make use of them unless one signed up to a whole raft of other ideas that seemed, to me at least, to be somewhat less good and somewhat less useful. One risks, then, turning people who don’t want the whole package off the good ideas, and inculcating bad ideas in those who do want the whole package. Neither is desirable. Religions, seething with ideas both good and bad, are often presented to us in this way as packages that we are asked to sign up to. But this does not seem the right approach. Because the good ideas in religion, in the end, are the ones that can set free from their religious parentage, and that can make their own way in the world, that can stand not on claims to revelatory authority, but on their own merits.

And so I would agree with both archbishops that we would do well to take stock of the situation we are in; but I very much doubt that the best response is a good dose of religion, for religious institutions are often bound up in the problem itself. Tending towards the monolithic, it is hard to disentangle the good ideas from the bad. Take the Church of England, from where these voices raised against consumerism and greed issue: here is an institution that owns property and shares valued at almost five billion pounds in 2006, and that bankrolled the construction of Europe’s largest shopping mall, the Metro Centre in Gateshead (the centre was sold in 1995, although the Church of England still has a substantial stake). It is hard not to ask the following question: if one builds an altar in the desert (and here I intend no slur on the fine city of Gateshead) and sticks a golden calf upon it, can one justly complain when the hordes come and prostrate themselves before it?

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#1 · Susmita Barua

17 October 2008

Hi Micahel
I like to invite fellow buddhists to my Buddhist social engagement and educational blog on the roots of financial crisis and how we can engage collectively to create a debt-free nondual sustainable currency system.
Education is critical.

Please do a metasearch on “Deep conscious capitalism”

Cheers

#2 · Ed Knight

19 October 2008

From the Sandokai. “make no criterion”

#3 · Will

20 October 2008

Thanks for the link, Susmita (although I’m not sure who Michael is) and for the quote from the sandokai, Ed.

However, forgive me for being so dull-of-mind, but I cannot see that either of these respond in any substantial way to the argument of my post. Would anybody care to elaborate?

Thanks,
Will

#4 · Rin'dzin Pamo

9 November 2008

Greed has certainly played its part in the present financial crisis, but I would attribute root causes in part to systemic (regulatory) failures and to the motivations of politicians more focused on winning elections than allowing milder recessions earlier on. I could also view that as systemic failure, on one of my more charitable days. So, what’s new? Greed exists. I don’t think there’s any proof that people are more greedy in the present economic system than they ever were in pre-modern economies. Income disparities were, in some circumstances (the majority of the Chinese dynasties, or feudal England, for example) probably greater in real terms than the gini-coefficient shows for most developed countries today.

John Sentamu’s notion that “British people are prostrating themselves before an altar of materialism” could be a reflection of the people he knows. It doesn’t represent most of my friends, at any rate. “Our materialistic age” is easily criticized. Do we actually know for sure that human beings have become more materialistic? I doubt it. There’s no doubt that more goods have become available to more people than ever before, but that is, obviously, not altogether a bad thing. People’s relationship with stuff is complicated, it always has been. If John S is right, then either something has fundamentally shifted in the nature of human beings, or what he accuses us of has always been there anyway.

It’s an aspect of the current Western right-on zeitgeist to criticize capitalist materialism. Doing so has become an accepted reference point for righteous self-confirmation and indignation at evil otherness. What exactly is wrong with the ideology of continual growth? Of course, resources are finite and precious. However, it’s a basic economic mistake to understand continual growth to mean the same as continued exploitation of scarce mineral resources. Perhaps the question should be, growth where, and for whom? How can I contribute to growth occurring where it’s most needed and wanted?

I don’t buy into the argument that I’m a powerless victim in a world of all-powerful advertising hawks out to hector and cajole me into buying something that I somehow kid myself that I really want. If it wasn’t for a large, gaudy advert in Tottenham Court Road tube station, I would never have sampled the extraordinarily unprecedented explosive taste of a particular brand of Italian chilli pasta sauce. How delightful! Admittedly, there are some days that I walk through the tubes and feel irritated by the onslaught of people, pictures and noise. At other times I take immense pleasure from the infinite variety of forms, colour and sound about me. The only difference is my state of mind. That’s a question of choice, not material. A great deal more choice, attitudinal and material, is available to me than I might have had, or have, in a different society.

So, much as I admire and agree with your sentiment that religion is not the answer, I think I would configure the problem differently. Blaming materialist culture for personal unhappiness is misplaced: I don’t believe that people are any less happy now than they ever were. And, yes, now would be a good time to take stock of the situation that we’re in, but so would it always be. If that weren’t the case, then you would be suggesting that we only take stock of the situation when it gets out of hand…a strategy that some might say is, after all, the root cause of the severity of the recent economic collapse.

#5 · Will

9 November 2008

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Rin’dzin. In many ways, I agree with what you write. We are not, I think, more greedy these days than in the past. And I’m all for recognising the complexity of our relationship to stuff – as I’ve written on this blog before, from many perspectives, we are simply not materialist enough, in that we take material stuff for granted, we don’t appreciate how astonishingly complex the web of material conditions of which we are a part actually is. Similarly, clearly in the present financial crisis, there has been a massive failure of regulatory systems and so on.

But I do think that we are living in a time when strange ideologies prevail (although perhaps no more than any other time…) – I mention the idea of continual growth and the ‘housing ladder’. These ideas are so much a part of the background of our lives that we do not really reflect upon them. And even if we are no more greedy than we ever have been, the problem with the regulatory frameworks is, in part, the way in which they institutionalise greed.

When it comes to advertising, Kasser makes a fairly persuasive case for considering the harmfulness of much of what goes on in advertising. It is not a question of getting rid of advertising altogether, but more a case of becoming more aware – and Kasser’s research helps in this direction – of the potential dangers. Of course there is some element of choice, but I think it is also worth being aware of how strongly we are conditioned by the things that surround us.

All the best,

Will

#6 · Rin'dzin Pamo

11 November 2008

Hello Will,

The idea of a housing ladder seems no more strange to me than Kula (See: en.wikipedia.org/wik…)

Possibly institutionalisation and conditioning, broadly speaking, mean the same thing…that’s interesting. I hadn’t equated the two exactly before. I wonder, then, whether the institutionalisation of utilitarianism is fundamentally any different from that of any other ideology? If it were, we might be tempted to moralise conditioning along a continuum, from bad to worse…

Isn’t any conditioning effectively self-interest?

These questions are somewhat rhetorical – I think we agree that, whatever the problem, the solution begins with awareness.

Rin’dzin

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