Demo at St Paul's

Looks like I got it wrong last week over the anti-capitalism demo outside St Paul’s.  It’s the church, not the demonstrators, which now has egg on its face.  No banker has been forced to resign and no chief executive has been forced to take a cut in pay, but the Dean and his Chancellor have found themselves, for different reasons, with no option but to stand down, leaving the media to spin the story as a crisis for Christianity.

The clerics of St Paul’s are as anti-capitalist as it gets, but this has been lost on the demonstrators, and attention has focused instead on the fact that the Church itself is a major capitalist with considerable assets in both property and shares.

But this is true of every church and of every charity.  Indeed, it has to be, because their Trustees are charged in law with administering their finances to the maximum benefit of the charity.  If a pious Anglican bequeaths a substantial estate to the Church, the Trustees have two options: either spend the money immediately (like a good demonstrator) or invest it wisely (like a good capitalist).    Which is the better stewardship?

In the case of the Church, a huge proportion of income goes towards stipends, wages and salaries.  But it pays its bishops no bonuses, and pays none of its executives £2million a year.  Quite the contrary!  Many an Anglican priest lives a Spartan existence on the margins of poverty, while the Church spends millions of its pounds on projects which bring immeasurable benefit to the community.

At the same time, there’s something more than a trifle funny in the antics of the demonstrators themselves, using tents made by capitalists and nipping out periodically to connect their capitalist computers to the WiFi available in the nearby capitalist Starbucks.

It’s all a forceful reminder that we can’t do without capital.  One Highlander used it to buy his cow; another used it to buy a loom; and yet another used it to buy a horse-and-cart, thus laying the foundation of a great haulage company (W. H. Malcolm). All trade and commerce requires capital.

Yet corruption and abuse have been endemic to the system.  The recent banking crisis has merely highlighted the greed that both drives and imperils capitalism.  The problem has been there for centuries.  Calvin faced it, for example, in 16th century Geneva, a great trading city, but one whose traders had the misfortune to be members of Calvin’s congregation and subject to his discipline.  He was often incandescent.  The businessmen of Geneva ruthlessly exploited refugees who had no option but to work for low wages.  Lenders regularly charged interest well above the legal limit of five per-cent, demanded payment in another currency when the exchange-rate fluctuated, and re-scheduled loans at exorbitant-rates when clients had cash-flow problems.  All too often, it was the honest, hard-working members of society who fell victim to the financiers.  Craftsmen had their tools mortgaged, and farmers who needed money in spring to buy seed were forced to pledge two-thirds of their harvest, come the autumn; while, at the other end of the scale hoarders were hanging on to essential supplies till the price rose to levels which were punitive for ordinary people.

But alongside these endemic vices Calvin detected something less obvious.  Language itself was being debased and corrupted.  Creditors exaggerated the profits of their debtors; debtors exaggerated their assets; and libellous whispers were deployed to destroy competitors, or even to create a panic where opportunists could make a killing.   Capitalism flourished on deception and lies.

Calvin’s response was twofold: first, through the local Council, to regulate the market; and secondly, to bar from Communion those guilty of abuses.

It’s often assumed that church discipline in Calvin’s Geneva dealt with nothing but sexual sins.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The sins of the market-place were high on his scale of priorities.  But what is interesting is Calvin’s reasons for using church discipline in this way.In his mind, Communion was precisely that: a declaration of community and a protest against individualism.  When you shared in the Sacrament you were affirming your commitment to the community.  But when, in the market-place, you single-mindedly pursued personal gain, you were repudiating the community.  There was no place for you, therefore, at Communion.  You could not sit at the table of Community and at the table of Self.

Yet the free market is designed precisely to ensure the unregulated exercise of selfishness; and allied to it is our modern form of debased public discourse, as voices all around us cry for the “elimination of red tape”.  If there’s one domain in the world that needs red tape it’s the market, but this is absolute anathema to those who live by Adam Smith’s principle that the unregulated pursuit of personal gain will promote the Common Good.  Let the banker, we are told, focus on his personal bonus and the whole bank will profit!  Set the entrepreneur free from Health and Safety and he will create thousands of jobs!

We dreamed that the free market would make us gods; and, like Adam and Eve, we discovered only that we were naked.

Fast forward from the 16th century to the 19th century, when Thomas Chalmers, then Minister of St John’s, delivered a remarkable series of “Commercial Discourses” in Glasgow’s Merchant City.  Chalmers was a devoted follower of Adam Smith, yet these Discourses show profound unease with the trading practices which occupied his elders six days a week.

Two points stand out.  First, according to Chalmers, what drives the modern market is not the demand for what people need, but the demand for luxuries.  If we were to keep our appetite for the good things of this life within the limits of biblical moderation, there wouldn’t be enough impulse to uphold the world’s commerce.  On the other hand, such moderation might force commerce to divert its attention from supplying the West with luxuries to supplying the rest of the world with necessities.  Every anti-capitalist demonstrator has to ask herself whether her demands lie at the root of the problem.

Secondly, Chalmers comments on the principle that “the spirit of enterprise is the soul of commerce.”  Yes, he agrees, but it is precisely the excess of this principle which recoils on every capitalist country, in the shape of beggared capitalists and unemployed operatives:  “Dreary intervals of bankruptcy and alarm are observed to follow a season of overdone speculation.”

Prophetic words indeed.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on 4 November 2011.