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.

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"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”