Rowan Williams wins on points

‘Dr Williams is right’ aren’t words that cross my mind regularly, if ever. Practising the art of English understatement, something to which I’m privy only vicariously, I can safely say I haven’t always been Dr Williams’s most devoted fan. The Archbishop consistently gravitates towards the modernising agenda within the Anglican church, which I regard as a shortcut to atheism. And when he ventures outside his immediate expertise, he tends to express views somewhat to the left of the Guardian‘s editorial policy, which I regard as harebrained as it is destructive.

But comparing his Christmas message with the Archbishop of Westminster’s, I have to hand it to Dr Williams: the points he made are more telling. Vincent Nichols expressed episcopal sympathy for the 50 Palestinian families losing their land to Israeli ‘expropriation’. It would have been more in keeping with his mission to mention hundreds of Christians losing their lives to Muslim terrorism. The bomb murdering 35 worshippers in Nigeria provided an awful postscriptum to the Archbishop’s PC platitudes (something to which he is increasingly given — comes with the territory, one supposes).

By contrast, Dr Williams said, ‘Whether it is an urban rioter mindlessly burning down a small shop… or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost… in the virtual reality of today’s financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark.’ Appalled by the parallel between smelly rioters and aftershaved City chaps , the Tory party, in the person of Gary Streeter, responded immediately: ‘The Archbishop of Cantenbury is on safer grounds when he sticks to moral and spiritual issues.’ The implication is that finance never overlaps with such issues, which these days is doubtless true. But this truth is toxic, and the Archbishop was absolutely right to point this out.

Dr Williams’s form in this area suggests that he has not just specific but general misgivings about ‘capitalism’. Whenever I hear this word mentioned, I always think it would be worth a try. Under no circumstances can an economy in which the government spends nearly 50% of GDP (closer to 75% in the outer areas of the UK) be termed capitalist. But whatever the economy is, when it’s ripped off its ethical underpinnings, it’ll be cast adrift into the sea of virtuality. Nor can an economy be morally self-regulating: to expect this would be to deny the imperfect nature of man. For the suits not to join the anoraks in the devil’s work of atomising society, the morality governing business has to come from outside, from an authority so much higher than man that we all fall under its umbrella. Whatever you believe personally, you have to recognise that, given our history and constitution, such a unifying authority can only come from Christianity.

When financiers and businessmen claim they are driven by their own conscience, what they really mean is that their morality is elastic enough to allow opportunism under all circumstances. When they feel responsible only to their own or secular rules, they indeed create a virtual world  — one where banks don’t hesitate to accumulate bad debts 100 times their total capitalisation; where High-Frequency Traders can dispose of their total holdings in hours, which frantic trading creates share prices bearing no relation to any underlying value; where the combined value of the world’s outstanding derivatives equals 15 times the world’s GDP combined (this bomb is yet to go off); where financial institutions create surrogate money in the form of default swaps and other mechanisms; where personal indebtedness has replaced personal income throughout the West. When the unifying reality of our civilisation falls by the wayside, we indeed sink into a virtual world — in which we live on virtual money.

Remove God as the unifying principle, and money acquires sole redemptive value. The sociologist Max Weber pointed this out back in 1904: ‘Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life,’ He forgot to mention that, when this is the case, real money will eventually be replaced by its virtual caricature. 

Remove reality from life in general and money in particular, and society is indeed reduced to atoms, spinning every which way and occasionally smashing into one another. The anoraks at St Paul’s join the suits from further east in their common assault, and the Archbishop stays entirely within his realm when pointing this out. There’s nothing wrong with capitalism, provided its entrepreneurial freedom is exercised within a moral discipline. But, though godless capitalism is more attractive and less cannibalistic than godless communism, it’s ultimately just as destructive.

For once, Archbishop Williams has done his job. Yet again, Archbishop Nichols hasn’t. Will there be a rematch?






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