A liberal religion

In the third and fourth blogs devoted to the religion of ancient Greece, Nikolaos Markoulakis takes

The whole my life I've been a Greek polytheist, Hellenes, and supporter of the liberal political thought.

Nowadays, it is difficult to conceptualize that a religious faith can be described as liberal in notion.

We understand religion today as a structural organization with sacred books and a professional priesthood.

Liberalism requires a society driven by freedom of thought, there must be limits on power - especially that wielded by governmental and religious institutions.

How can I be both a liberal and a follower of a revived ancient religion? And can we really say that a religion which has derived from such an ancient culture and civilization could be liberal in modern terms? In my view this can be indeed the case when it concerns Greek polytheism.

The modern democracy has a structure which underlines the importance of the individual as part of a greater political organization, the state. Individual rights, as well as responsibilities, make up the political being.

Our contemporary democratic notion incorporates separation of state from religion because otherwise the individual freedoms could easily be suppressed by the most powerful religious group. A secular state is the only solution in a multi-cultural and diverse world to preserve political and individual rights and freedoms. Our free world today, which is liberal in notion derives from a school of thought dating back to the Enlightenment era. It is known that this initial liberal contemplation was ignited by the writings of Ancient Greece.

That world produced such marvellous spiritual works: philosophy and science, political constitution and deliberation, civil law and individualism, art and drama, literature and poetry as we known them today. The ancient Greek nation was tolerant towards new thought and diversity, because it was diverse and liberal at its core, and that core was its religion.

So, Greek thought is in fact a product of the ancient Greek religion. What makes Greek polytheism unique in producing such liberal societal structures? Some would argue that a set of foreign influences draw the minds of Greeks into a high level of contemplation. Indeed, this is partly right, but it is not the whole picture. A society (nation) has to be free of taboos and moral restrictions if it is to be able to easily absorb foreign thought as its own. Greek polytheism had an element so powerful and closely connected with the customs and ethics of men, yet all the while its directives were open to alterations and criticism.

Greek polytheism by its nature generates a variety of religious praxis. This multiplicity was reflected in the communities, the polis (city states), the nation as well as in the minds of men leaving in them. It was a religion for the state, not a religion of the state. The law of men was above the divine. Humility does not appear in Greek Polytheistic worship because the first principle of the Greek religion is the dignity of the individual.

In Greek religion there are no signs of zealotry, because it is part of the natural world, too much a part of the man’s nature. The religion and the gods are accepted as part of Nature’s body and the state’s constitution. Greeks recognized their divinities and religious practises as essential and important, turning to them whenever they felt the need. Greek polytheistic notion was a matter of joy and gladness, leaving no space for absorbed thoughts, empowerment and / or mystic devotion. Liberal thought, therefore, was in fact an element present in Greek polytheistic religiosity.

Nikolaos Markoulakis holds degrees in Social sciences and Social research. He is the director of the Markoulakis Publications, editor-in-chief at the scholarly based, peer-reviewed Journal of Hellenic Religion and the educational periodical Sparta.
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation