Money has changed – that’s the issue

Markets and moral limits.

Peter Selby responds to Nelson Jones's article Money and Morality.

When the St Paul’s Institute, working with JustShare, Penguin Books and the LSE, brought nearly 2000 people into St Paul’s for a public debate on the theme of Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits to Markets (see Nelson Jones, NS 25 May) it was because we knew the theme touched a nerve, not because we have an answer to peddle. The Institute has been engaged for some years, as an agency of the Cathedral, in seeking to get into debate with the financial institutions which are its ‘parish’; as such we could hardly think Sandel’s book unimportant, and we were delighted so many others thought the same.

That’s not the same as signing up to his thesis about the moral corrosion brought about by the intrusion of the market into all sorts of spheres to which it is not appropriate. Certainly we are signed up to the desire to get people thinking hard about which are the things that should be for sale and which should not be and, as Rowan Williams says in his review of What Money Can’t Buy, to do so on the basis of rational reflection rather than relying in feelings of revulsion when we see certain things getting a price.

Nelson Jones in his NS piece wonders whether things have deteriorated from some golden age when money didn’t play the part it now does, and points to many areas where things were much more monetised in the past than they are now. Tellingly, if slightly optimistically, he says we no longer sell people, and however bad the euro crisis gets we still won’t be doing that. There are examples he cites in the ancient world that are at least as unpleasant to think about as some of the examples Sandel gives of the intrusion of market thinking.

In my comments in the debate I voiced my own reservations about Sandel’s thinking, so much of which seems to me to address symptoms without digging deeper into causes. When he gives the example of prisoners being able to buy a cell upgrade, and when Nelson Jones points out that that has historical precedent, the deeper issue is not being faced by either of them: the selling off of incarceration as a business is common policy in the USA as it is increasingly in Britain. In the process of creating that market a financial interest is being created in locking people up. That can’t be unconnected with the fact that we in Britain lock up more people than other European countries and that a quarter of the rising number of prisoners in the world – and a third of all incarcerated women in the world, whose number has increased by a sixth in five years – are in the USA.

The figures that became a matter of public scandal during the Jubilee 2000 campaign for the relief of unrepayable third world debt showed all too clearly that the escalating power fo financial debt was depriving children worldwide of education, healthcare and life itself. The situation is infinitely worse than either Sandel or Jones portrays: the issue is not the buying and selling of things that should, or should not, be free, or whether people value things they pay for more than things they receive for nothing; in the end it is not about getting people to think more clearly than they do about whether markets should have moral limits though all these questions are important. What really matters is that in everything from the depletion of the planet’s resources to the requirement on Greek citizens to sell their democratic birthright to have their debts rescheduled money is deciding matters of life and death, and doing so more and more.

That’s why as a Christian and a theologian I am convinced money has acquired all the characteristics of an idol, aggrandising its power and claiming more and more of people’s lives. And that’s why, because of faith’s commitment to raise fundamental questions about anything that has the potential to be an idol, the St Paul’s Institute will go on engaging that debate at an ever more fundamental level. When it recently commissioned a report on the attitudes of those working in the financial sector (see Value and Values) we learned that most did not think the City should listen more to the Church’s guidance. But we now know, since the Sandel debate came to St Paul’s, that many people do want to know whether pressing economic questions have something to say about the meaning of life and whether those who profess faith are prepared to get involved in relating that faith to those questions.

Because, make no mistake, money did not acquire this power by accident. The last four decades, roughly since the massive oil price rises of the early 1970s, have seen vast increases in the amount of money in circulation, and technological advance has multiplied its speed of circulation. In the absence of means of regulating that the dominant policy has been one of deregulation, allowing the power of money to grow with its quantity. The results are not just the life and death issues I have described, but a situation in which all of us, rich or poor, are compelled to worry more and more about money and think more and more about it.

The issues of monetary reform, dismissed even by the independent commission on banking and widely ignored, are ones we need to press: just as ‘home ownership’ is a euphemism for housing debt, so ‘fractional reserve’ is now a synonym for debt multiplication: is one of the questions we need to ask about the post-2008 crisis whether the system on which we have relied for money creation for nearly a century fraught with inherent instability? I ask the question not because the Institute has a recipe or a policy to commend, but because it is our passion as a community of faith to ensure that these questions are honestly faced. The Sandel debate, and the Jones response are just a start.

Peter Selby is one of the interim directors of the St Paul’s Institute, and author of Grace and Mortgage: the Language of Faith and the Debt of the World. He was until retirement Bishop of Worcester, and Bishop to HM Prisons.

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Selby is one of the interim directors of the St Paul’s Institute, and author of Grace and Mortgage: the Language of Faith and the Debt of the World. He was until retirement Bishop of Worcester, and Bishop to HM Prisons.

Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp
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Meet Jorge Sharp, the rising star of Chile’s left who beat right-wingers to running its second city

The 31-year-old human rights lawyer says he is inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative politics as he takes the fight to the Chilean establishment.

Bearded, with shaggy hair, chinos and a plaid shirt, 31-year-old Jorge Sharp does not look like your typical mayor elect. But that does nothing to stop him speaking with the conviction of one.

“Look, Chile is a country that solely operates centrally, as one unit,” he says. “It is not a federal country – the concentration of state functions is very compact. In reality, most of the power is in Santiago. There are many limitations when it comes to introducing significant changes [in local areas].”

In October, Sharp upset Chile’s political status quo by defeating establishment rivals in the mayoral election of Valparaíso, the second city of South America’s first OECD country. He is taking office today.

Often compared to Podemos in Spain, Sharp’s win was significant – not only as yet another example of voters turning against mainstream politics – because it denied Chilean right-wing candidates another seat during local elections that saw them sweep to power across the country.

As the results rolled in, Conservative politicians had managed to snatch dozens of seats from the country’s centre-left coalition, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Sitting in one of Valparaíso’s many bohemian cafes, Sharp accepts the comparison with Podemos gracefully but is keen to make sure that Chile’s new “autonomous left” movement is seen as distinct.

“What we are doing in Chile is a process that is difficult to compare with other emerging political movements in the world,” he says. “We are a distinct political group and we are a modern force for the left. We are a left that is distinct in our own country and that is different to the left in Spain, in Bolivia, and in Venezuela.”

Sharp’s Autonomous Left movement is not so much a party rather than a group of affiliated individuals who want to change Chilean politics for good. Considering its relatively small size, the so-called Aut Left experienced degrees of success in October.

Chilean voters may have punished Bachelet – also Chile’s first female leader – and her coalition after a number of corruption scandals, but they did not turn against left-wing politics completely. Where they had options, many Chileans voted for newer, younger and independent left-wing candidates. 

“We only had nine candidates and we won three of the races – in Punta Arenas, Antofagasta and Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago,” he says. “We hope that the experience here will help us to articulate a national message for all of Chile.”


Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp

For Sharp, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit movement are due to people fed up – on a global scale – with their respective countries’ mainstream political parties or candidates. Given that assumption, how would he describe the cause of his own election success?

“The problem in Chile, and also for the people in Valparaíso, is that the resources go to very few people,” he says. “It was a vote to live better, to live differently. Our project for social policy is one that is more sufficient for all the people. It’s a return to democracy, to break the electoral status quo.”   

Sharp – like many – believes that the United States’ Democrat party missed out by passing up the opportunity to break with the status quo and choose Bernie Sanders over the chosen nominee Hillary Clinton. “They would have been better off with Sanders than Clinton,” he believes. 

“The [people] in the US are living through a deep economic crisis. These were the right conditions for Trump. The people weren’t looking for the candidate from the banks or Wall Street, not the ‘establishment’ candidate. The way forward was Sanders.”

Turning to other 2016 geo-political events, he claims Brexit was a case of Britons “looking for an answer to crises” about identity. Elsewhere in South America, the tactics of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe – who led the “No” vote campaign against peace with the Farc – were “fundamentally undemocratic”.

In the future, Sharp hopes that he and the rest of the Autonomous Left will be better-prepared to take power in higher offices, in order to further reform social policy and politics in Chile.

“For these elections, we weren't unified enough,” he concedes. “For 2017 [when national elections take place], we will have one list of parliamentary candidates and one presidential candidate.”

And while Sharp clearly sympathises with other left-wing movements in countries throughout the world, this is not a call for a unified approach to take on the rise of the right.

“Every country has its own path,” he finishes. “There is no single correct path. What we need to do [in Chile] is articulate a force that’s outside the political mainstream.”

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.