I work close to the madding crowd. 50 yards from the busiest shopping street in Britain. And the epicentre, for that one day, of what many thought would we be a violent protest against the effects of our currently, extremely virulent strain of global capitalism. That grey May day 32,000 children died.
The media worried about the violence. Or at least the potential for it. And afterwards they mused on how little violence occurred. Most of what happened, happened at the end of the day as people frustrated by being penned in for hours, became angrier. Perhaps there would have been more if the police had allowed the crowd to make their own way along the busiest shopping street in Britain. But they didn’t, so we ’ll never know. Still,on that day 32,000 children died.
There were a few arrests early on. People sitting in the middle of the road, refusing to move. “If you don ’t move, we ’ll arrest you.” They didn ’t move, so the Police did what they were supposed to do. There was little resistance. It was a shopping day, on the busiest shopping street in the world, but to begin with it was like 5am on a Sunday morning. A few people in fluffy green hats ambled by – like the remnants of a fancy-dress party. A few shoppers, a few people coming to see if anything would happen. MacDonald ’s, like most of the big stores, was boarded up, but the little fish and chippie next door was open – it was a good day for small business. That day on which 32,000 children died.
Later, they came in their hundreds – and just for a little while it seemed it might turn nasty. Someone, here, in London, in this financial capital, on this street where people come to do something as harmless as shopping, someone might get hurt. But shopping, we have learnt, is not necessarily harmless. It can damage someone else’s health. I didn ’t want to get hurt on the day that 32,000 children died unnecessarily. And another 32,000 wheezed,and stared into oblivion, their own death ticking closer.
In the evening, the media focused on the violence – what little there had been. And as for the 32,000 who died that day, well, they didn ’t get much more than a soundbite.
In the days that followed, the people spoke of the need to protect property, of the naivety of the protesters who could not offer a viable alternative economic model. “Ah,these fluff-heads who don’t understand economics.” But is it really up to them to figure out a way to maximise shareholder value whilst providing food and shelter and clean water for the children of the planet?“ Ah,well, if you haven ’t got an alternative economic model, if you can’t take on a phalanx of World Bank economists, keep your mouth shut, stay home.”
But they were right to protest.
Just as William Wilberforce was right to protest against slavery, just as those who signed the Jubilee 2000 petitions were right to do so. And they were right to protest because on that grey May day 32,000 children died,unnecessarily. There was enough food to feed them, and enough medicine to prevent most of their deaths. We are living in the 21st century, and in the 21st century, unlike the 19th,the problem is not a lack of resources to feed the world –we have the resources –the problem is the lack of political will to do so.
So the protesters were right to protest – even in their ignorance – because what they knew was knowledge enough for protest. They knew children were dying, they knew that there was no need for this, they knew that no government in the so-called first world has actually contributed the level of aid they have said they ought. Now, on the whole, Christians have been generous towards the poor. On the whole, Christians give, I suspect, a great deal more to charity in terms of time, treasure and talent than the general population. And there is some data to suggest that among Christians, evangelicals,and particularly those who are members of the EA are most generous, contributing about 7% of after-tax income. On the whole, Christians have supported Jubilee 2000, and so on. But, despite Jubilee 2000’s success in gaining the Government’s agreement to write off the unpayable debt of the poorest countries in the world, it is clear that the deep structures of the global economy have changed little. The enormity of the problem and complexity of the economics can so easily lead either to compassion fatigue or a paralysing sense of impotence. Or both.
Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that Jubilee 2000 has had some success, it is worth remembering that several multi-national pharmaceutical companies recently backed down and are allowing the distribution of Aids medicines into South Africa at massively reduced levels of revenue.
Similarly, look back in wonder at the success of the Green Movement in shifting corporate consciousness, in changing laws, in creating demand for, and production of, eco-friendly products – from bio-degradable BMWs to planet-kind detergents. Of course, there is enormous room for progress and it is a matter of sadness that the US seems to be pulling back on its global environ-mental agreements but it is not a surprise – there ’s a Texan in the White House and Texas is an oil state. What Texan will go against the interests of the American oil companies? Might as well expect 19th century Mississippi plantation owners to come out against slavery. But still, progress has been made. There is not a major energy company in the world that is not being monitored by the eco-warriors and is not working to prevent environmental damage and its grim companion –damage to its image and thence to sales and profits.
The blame for this is laid squarely at the polished shoes of plutocrats and the large companies they control. Globally, power has shifted away from elected officials, towards unelected business people. Hence the foci of the May day protests have been in the City – the financial centre – and Oxford Street – the Mecca of consumerism. Many of the protesters see the politicians as essentially impotent to curb the influence of contemporary capitalism.
They may want to. But they can ’t. And this,for commentators like Noreena Hertz, explains why the young are disillusioned by politics and stayed away from the polls in record numbers. Why waste time voting?
Capitalism was not always so vicious. We have had it in various forms, some argue since the Renaissance. For Max Weber capitalism derived its most potent ideological impetus from Calvinism, and the development of the Protestant Work Ethic – which in turn derived form the anxiety produced by the popular understanding of the Reform doctrine of Predestination. How does someone know that they are one of the elect? How can they be sure of their salvation? The answer: the impact of salvation on the predestined ones will mean that they will lead particular kinds of lives …they will work hard, be sober, tend to avoid extravagant purchases and luxurious living, and so on. Such qualities were precisely what capitalism needed in its early centuries.
So it was no accident that so many significant companies were founded by Quakers – Barclays, Lloyds, Cadbury’s and Rowntrees. The early Quakers worked hard, were often technophiles and combined that with a deep commitment to honesty and trustworthiness – good qualities for a banker. Today, of course, capitalism doesn ’t want savers, it needs spenders. It is not the savings book but the credit card that is the key to continued economic growth. But even today, there are different models of capitalism.
The Northern European strain tends to be more benign. Take Germany, for example, where the banks often have shares in the companies they lend to.
As such, they are much less likely to foreclose. And there are far more family firms, like, for example, BMW. The result is that a much bigger slice of the economy escapes the intense scrutiny of share-holders, intent on a quick return.
The central danger of our particular form of Anglo-American capitalism is that ultimately its engine is greed. That is, that despite all the rhetoric that business is not simply about making money. contemporary business seems primarily about making money rather than contributing to the common good. And this essentially selfish rather than community-centred attitude to business is both non-Biblical and deeply destructive.
Biblically, it is clear, as Professor Prabhu Guptara puts it, that business, economic activity was made for people, not people for economic activity.
Economic systems are there to help us provide for one another, heal one another, educate one another, celebrate together, give to the poor, worship the creator together, and so on. It is there for us. For the common good. To be an agent of life, not a thief and a murderer. Certainly democratic politicians are elected to serve in the best interests of the people. But free-market capitalism and contemporary businesses are not necessarily focused on serving the common good. Unbridled capitalism certainly doesn ’t work in the interests of most two-thirds world countries. And it certainly is not working in the psychological, emotional and physical interests of most workers in Britain. If you didn ’t see the deeply depressing statistics in the 1999 study of white collar managers about the impacts of current working patterns on health,marriages, kids, don ’t worry, because the 2001 Metro study of 20,000 Britons would send you into the slough of despond. As a nation, we’re exhausted, anxious, depressed and not even having sex very often. The current form of capitalism is not good for us, it is not good for the poor, it is not good for the world. It is a stench in God ’s nostrils. And it deserves to be protested against.
32,000 children died today.
But if protest is to be successful, it will have to be conducted at several levels. We will, as Jubilee 2000 did, have to find a simple way for millions of people to show their basic support. We will have to find specific things that more involved people can do – much of which many do – recycle, adopt a child, avoid certain products, invest in small businesses in developing countries And we will have to work, as Jubilee 2000 did, at the economics from a Christian perspective. As my colleague at LICC, Peter Heslam, is now doing. I do not believe, and nor does he, that nothing good can come out of capitalism. Most capitalist democracies are infinitely preferable to the alternatives. In capitalist democracies, people pay their taxes for the benefit of others, in capitalist democracies companies are somewhat accountable, in capitalist democracies most people get paid a living wage, and even if global corporations don ’t pay people in the developing world what they ought, they tend to pay better than many local competitors. Generating wealth is critical to alleviating poverty. So is distributing it more equitably. And that, as a recent article in The Economist demonstrated, is simply not occurring.
Still, even as the hard economic and theological reflection proceeds, we cannot forget that it is our job to look after the widows and the orphans, it is our job to be their voice. Peacefully,of course. Though we should remember with sobriety that the G8 nations’ complicity in allowing millions to die of starvation while we sit on butter mountains is a form of violence. It is certainly a very effective way of inflicting pain and death.
In Isaiah 58:10 God makes a promise, “If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.” In Malachi 3:5ff, God says that he will be “quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice.”
The May Day protests were not just a cry for the poor, they were perhaps also a warning. And a reminder of an agenda that courses through Scripture.
With whom shall we make our stand? On a day when another 32,000 children died of poverty. Unnecessarily.