Friday, 30 December 2011

Reinventing the Guild

Russell Sparkes has written a new paper on the reinvention of the guilds, which is now posted on the Economy site. Here is an extract:
Where do we go from here? I want to suggest that one answer may lie in a revival of mutual self-help groups, inspired by spiritual values, which we might call by their old medieval name of ‘guilds’. Of course I am not suggesting an exact return to the medieval guilds, any more than I am advocating that people should go around talking Chaucerian English. However, I do argue that the guilds provide a model answer to two major problems of modern economic and social life. The first of these is the rapid shift in the labour market from life-time employment for most people to a world of self-employment and temporary contracts. The second, partly as a consequence of the former, is the reduction in the safety net provided by the welfare state and corporate health and pension provision.
Read the whole thing. Some of you may also be interested in a recent article in the RSA Journal on the growing importance of the crafts sector and the need for a "new language" in which to talk about it, by Sir Christopher Frayling FRSA: "Tools for Survival".

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Crisis of the Corporation: 7

Flag of the East India Company from 1801
The entire series CRISIS OF THE CORPORATION is now available as a single PDF article on our Economy pages. What follows is the final part.
"Many companies extol the value of work-life balance for their employees, but the reality for senior executives? There isn't any. Frequently, stressed and harried managers look up the organization hierarchy and assume that they'll have greater control of their time when they advance to the C-suite. What they don't understand is that modern-day telecommunications, the hair-trigger requirements of financial markets, and the pace of global organizations create 24 x 7 work lives for most executives."
This text is taken from that symbol of social radicalism called the Harvard Business Review in November 2011. It summarizes the existential issue of the corporation in terms that are direct and unequivocal. It also poses the fundamental ethical problem of modern life: corporate ambition.

Ambition in modern society, really the drive toward personal power, isn't fundamentally different from ambition in any other era. It involves persistence, single-mindedness, immense energy, and commitment. In a word: passion. The corporation has become an instrument of this passion. But it is an instrument which cannot be controlled. In theological terms it is a Power, a force beyond the control of human beings, a force, like the state, which we theorize is under our control but which in fact has a life of its own.

The legal recognition that the corporation is a “person” does not give it an inappropriate status. Rather it serves as a warning that the corporation is not a tool that can be

Friday, 16 December 2011

Saving Europe's soul

The full text of the Chief Rabbi's landmark address at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on 12 December can be read online here. Meanwhile David Cameron's recent speech in Oxford defining Britain as a "Christian country" and calling on Christians to "stand up and defend" our values and beliefs is HERE. There is a discussion of these important speeches and an interesting post about "Blue Labour" starting over in the Social Teaching section of our online forum.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Elderly care crisis

British newspapers have recently been reporting that an estimated 20,000 people a year are forced to sell their homes to pay fees for nursing and residential care, which can reach hundreds of thousands of pounds. (My mother may be in this position very soon.) Spending cuts due to the recession have driven some care home companies out of business, while inspectors have warned that elderly people are being neglected and even abused by poorly trained helpers in their own homes.

Earlier this year, a government commission chaired by Andrew Dilnot recommended reforms to the system – a new private insurance scheme would be expected to cover the first £35,000 of care, with the State covering the rest. But the Treasury is understandably reluctant to agree the £1.7 billion a year this would take, and 2025 is being talked about at the earliest start date for the reform. That's a long way off, and the crisis will be much worse by then.

Clearly more needs to be done urgently. But it is important to note that throwing money at the problem is not a complete solution, even if it were possible (say, by diverting bankers' bonuses into a national elderly care fund). In a way the more worrying aspect of the crisis is the inhumanity with which the elderly are being treated when care is available.

I have an old friend now in her 90s, now in a care home. She recently wrote to me: "in so many care homes I fear the treatment is all theory with very little true understanding or commonsense." She is in a new unit surrounded by dementia patients, and describes

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Capitalism in question?

As we wait for the final instalment of our series on the Crisis of the Corporation, after which we'll move on to discuss the Recovery of the Guilds, here is a general comment on the broader "crisis of capitalism", so called. Two big topics will be left out, for the moment – the environment, and Europe – to be addressed later.

In capitalism the pursuit of self-interest is supposed to work for the greatest common good. It hasn't. Maybe it was always just too simplistic an idea. George Soros makes some sensible points about the fallibility of the economic system we have created. He argues that

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Crisis of the Corporation: 6

The greater the spiritual importance of human institutions, the greater their potential for corruption and misuse. (See here.) The theological analysis of the corporation gives us a clue as to what has gone wrong – the reason why the corporation is in crisis today. The corporation has always presented an enormous temptation. Its legal form should always correspond to the essential relationship that determines its distinctive meaning. Once stripped of this reality, however, the corporation becomes an uncontrollable beast, a sociological mutant capable only of destruction. As it was with the Israel addressed by Isaiah and Jeremiah, and with the obstinate Corinthians who proved so problematic to Paul and Clement, and with the empty legalisms of the medieval kings and lawyers who used the institution of the Church for personal aggrandizement, so it is with the “robber barons” of the 19th century and the hedge fund managers of the 21st, who used the corporation as a smoke-screen to hide fraudulent financial dealings.

Corporate sin, however, is not corrigible by human action. It is a sin of wrong relationship. The only solution to wrong relationship is to be in right relationship; but no individual, nor even any group, can achieve this unilaterally. In the terms of the modern philosophy of the self (and the corporate self), a solution is impossible. This philosophy opposes the

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Crisis of the Corporation: 5

Our series by Dr Michael Black and Stratford Caldecott nears its end.

It may be a hard thing to say in the modern boardroom, but the corporate relation we have been discussing is a theological concept. (Similarly, the notion of the human person started in Christian theology and has come to be universally accepted by the “secular” world. It began in the Jewish notion of an evolving Covenant between God and his People. In the later Christian understanding, both sides of this Covenant, divine and human, had come together in the one person, and the union between the two had been extended outwards through the mystery of baptism to create a “people of God” no longer confined to the descendants of Abraham – the people of the New Covenant (or New Testament). The relationship of mutual submission that binds God and humanity together in this Covenant – symbolized by the flaming torch that passes between the two parts of the sacrifice in the O.T. paradigm – is now understood to be none other than a divine Person, the “Holy Spirit”, who is the “soul of the Church”.

Modern corporate law emerges directly from the idea of this “supernatural” relationship of mutual service and commitment. In a very real sense the institution of the corporation is

Monday, 21 November 2011

Crisis of the Corporation: 4

Dr Michael Black continues our series on the Corporate Relation and its implications for the theory of business management.

In the Spring of 2010 the investigation of the mid-Staffordshire hospital was published. Its findings were remarkable. It found that

– Overstretched and poorly trained nurses turned off life-supporting equipment because they did not know how to work it.
– Newly qualified doctors were inappropriately left to care for critically ill patients recovering from surgery.
– Patients were routinely left for hours in soiled bedclothes and with no real hygienic much less medical attention.
– Non-medical reception staff were expected to judge the seriousness of the condition of patients arriving at Accident and Emergency.
–Doctors were commonly diverted from seriously ill patients to treat ones with minor problems to make the trust look better because it was in danger of breaching the Government’s four-hour waiting-time target.

In summary, the report said, the Mid-Staffordshire Hospital Trust had “lost sight” of its

Friday, 18 November 2011

Crisis of the Corporation: 3

Dr Michael Black continues our series.

The British Library has in the last few weeks exhibited its collection of Royal Manuscripts, which includes illuminated documents associated with many medieval English and continental sovereigns. Among these are several depicting the so-called “two swords” of secular and ecclesiastical power.

One of the most recent of these, from the sixteenth century, shows Henry VIII usurping the throne of King David – claiming the power of both swords, representing his absolute dominion over both State and Church. Henry, of course, was not the first monarch to claim such universal control. Another illumination from fourteenth-century France, Le Songe du Vergier, shows

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Crisis of the Corporation: 2

Dr Michael Black and Stratford Caldecott continue a series of reflections on the corporate relation in crisis.

Concerns about the relationship of ethics to economics, and the moral dimensions and responsibilities involved in economic life, have been intensified by the modern experience of globalization, and the various cultural, economic and environmental crises associated with it. Great wealth has been generated, but also great poverty; great advances but also great social instability – suggesting to many that economic growth and progress, in the sense commonly understood, may be unsustainable in the long term. These questions are too huge to be dealt with in a single project or by a single group. Rather than focus on globalization, the market, the role of the State or the impact of our way of life on the environment, we have chosen to look at a topic seemingly narrower but equally fundamental, namely the unit of economic life known as the corporation, understood as a “projection” and instrument of the human person.

The rise of the modern global corporation dates from the mid-Victorian codification of limited liability, but corporate life has existed for much longer than this. The corporation

Monday, 14 November 2011

Crisis of the Corporation: 1

Dr Michael Black introduces a series of articles on the mystery and crisis of the corporate relation.

The Occupy movement has gone global over the last several months, spreading from New York City to London, to every developed country on the planet. Despite the cultural diversity in which it is taking place and the variety of objectives expressed by the participants, every location seems to have the same focus: mitigation or destruction of the power of the corporation. Whether the language is that of economic equality, environmental sanity, political freedom, or personal fulfilment, the object of ire, fear, and reform always includes the institution of the corporation, not merely as a symbolic element in global destruction but as the primary instrument of individual repression and social division in modern life.

But what is a “corporation”? There is something mysterious at the heart of the corporation that eludes purely secular analysis. There are many forms of human organization we understand relatively well: partnerships, clubs, nation states, and so on. The distinguishing feature of a corporation – a limited liability company, for example – is that it somehow possesses an identity, a life, independent of its members. It can act through its members, whereas in the other cases it is the members who act through the association, either individually or collectively. This is expressed in law in a variety of ways, but the most important is the rule that the corporation has its own interests, values, or criteria of choice, which are not those of its members. This is universally accepted without

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Is this the moment?

With a mood of fear pervading the markets, the likelihood of another round of economic collapse, the traumas afflicting the eurozone, the resignation of governments, and a spreading protest movement seemingly directed against capitalism itself – not to mention the "Arab Awakening" in the Middle East, the weakness of American leadership, and a possible increase in climate instability – it seems we are living in another interesting time for Catholic social teaching. It may be that even secular economic institutions are prepared to listen. But what are we to say, without falling into the obvious traps? The principles of Catholic teaching are clear enough; the applications less so. This blog will continue to highlight interesting developments, but my main interest is to delve into something more fundamental, namely the fact that economic and political instability have a spiritual dimension. Our mistake is to think of these structures as mechanistic, neutral, implacable, entirely "secular". This way of thinking is part of the divorce between nature and the supernatural in our civilization. Our economic and political woes are all part of the spiritual struggle of our times.

Picture by Neil Cummins licensed through Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A global Authority?

The document issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) under Cardinal Turkson on the global economy and the reform of monetary and financial systems in October 2011 generated a storm of controversy, and has since been roundly repudiated by the Vatican Secretary of State and pulled to pieces in L'Osservatore Romano. Presented as merely a “reflection” and not an authoritative statement binding on the conscience of Catholics, it may still be helpful to look and see what was asserted here.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Special Issue on Ecology

The latest issue of our journal Second Spring, number 14, entitled 'In the Garden", is themed around Nature, Gardens, and Ecology. For us, this is a landmark issue. Not only does it mark a developing focus in our work on issues of development, sustainability, and man's relationship to nature, but this year is the tenth anniversary of the first appearance of Second Spring as an independent journal in 2001.

The Garden issue of Second Spring contains lead articles by Cardinal Angelo Scola (the new Archbishop of Milan, formerly Venice), Mary Taylor (Pax in Terra), and Christopher Blum (Thomas More College). There are also articles on gardening by Vigen Guroian, Jane Mossendew and others. Peter Milward SJ contributes a piece from Japan. Mark Elvins OFM Cap. writes from a Franciscan perspective, and Aidan Hart from the Orthodox Church on the way Icons "transfigure matter". Together with poetry, book reviews, reports, and lots of beautiful illustrations, this is in many ways our best issue yet.

(Several articles on the same theme can be found online in our main articles section at, including Keith Lemna on Human Ecology, Environmental Ecology, and Ressourcement Theology. There is also a longer version of the important Second Spring article "Healing the Rift" by Mary Taylor available online. And readers might be interested to read a fascinating study of the universal symbolism of gardens by Mihnea Capruta, from Eye of the Heart issue 4. Some beautiful pictures of Japanese gardens and a discussion of that aesthetic may be found at David Clayton's Way of Beauty site.)

Our issue is quite timely, given the high-profile speech the Pope recently gave to the Bundestag in Berlin, where he emphasized the intrinsic relationship between respect for human life and respect for nature. Pope Benedict said that "the emergence of the ecological movement in German politics since the 1970s... was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored or pushed aside, just because too much of it is seen to be irrational. Young people had come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives." "If something is wrong in our relationship with reality," he added, "then we must all reflect seriously on the whole situation and we are all prompted to question the very foundations of our culture." He went on:
The importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly. Yet I would like to underline a further point that is still largely disregarded, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he listens to his nature, respects it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Sustainability in Crisis

useful report from The Tablet on a conference about climate change in Cambridge.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Quote of the month

The philosopher Roger Scruton writes at the end of his article on the British Government's planning reforms:
When people refuse to pull down a cathedral for the sake of the coal beneath it, or insist on retaining a Georgian city when it could be rebuilt as a business park, they create obstacles to economic growth. Most forms of love are obstacles to economic growth. Thank God for obstacles to economic growth.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The British riots

"We have learnt that barbarism is not a picturesque myth or a half-forgotten memory of a long-surpassed stage of history, but an ugly underlying reality which may erupt with shattering force whenever the moral authority of a civilization loses its control." -- Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 1950

How do we understand the riots and looting that have engulfed parts of many British cities in the last few days? Britain's "broken society" has come in for a lot of comment, but there are reasons that lie deeper than family breakdown, poor education, unemployment and poverty, and the loss of trust in politicians. John Milbank's comments are interesting. I would add that we are seeing the results of an erosion of the sense of transcendence and respect that accompanies, not necessarily a religious faith, but a religious sense - the sense that somewhere there may be something worthy of belief, even if we aren't exactly sure what it is. It is not religious dogma that awakens this sense, but the experience of being loved. Mindless violence is the result of mindlessness: of living entirely at the level of feeling, impulse, and instinct, of never having been woken by love to the reality of an existence greater than ourselves, which is the awakening of the mind as much as it is the awakening of true human feeling.

The roots of all this lie deep. In the previous post I recommended a book by historian Glenn W. Olsen called The Turn to Transcendence. Winston Elliott III mentioned another seminal title in his comment: David L. Schindler's Heart of the World, Center of the Church. Others that would be worth mentioning in the same breath are Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences, Romano Guardini's The End of the Modern World, Louis Dupre's Passage to Modernity, Jean Danielou's Prayer as a Political Problem, and G.K. Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World? Helpful too are several works by the historian Christopher Dawson, including The Judgement of the Nations (1943) which, though written in the face of totalitarianism, correctly saw that Western civilization itself had already broken down, and that victory against the Nazis would leave us vulnerable to moral anarchy and the temptation to control our own populations by the use of ever more powerful (and ineffective) machines - by means of cameras, plastic bullets, and ultimately tanks. Without a spiritual revival individuals will be incapable of controlling themselves. It's all in Plato, of course. If order is not in the soul, we will not find it elsewhere.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Left and Right

This column on other occasions has called into question the distinction between Right and Left (for example here). Further food for thought is provided by Charles Moore, a leading writer for the "right wing" Telegraph newspaper, in an article called "I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right". But, as historian Glenn W. Olsen notes, these days "the great division is not between liberal (or progressive) and conservative, but between materialists and those who acknowledge a transcendental order."  The theme is explored with enormous depth and erudition in his book, The Turn to Transcendence. Materialists of Right and Left are playing the same game. But then there is a further division among those who do acknowledge a transcendent order, and that is the division between those who genuinely submit to it and those who don't: between those who are striving for truth, goodness, and beauty and those who are not; between those who are turned away from self by humility and love, and those who will try to use even the transcendent to advance their own aims. So everything comes back in the end to spiritual warfare, even politics. Glenn Olsen's book is a masterpiece on the role of religion in our society, and it ends with the Eucharist, where transcendence meets immanence - the "enactment within history of the new politics for which the human heart yearns."

Saturday, 23 July 2011

The Origin of Religion

For a long time, mainstream scholarship has gone along with the theory of the flamboyant Stalinist archeologist, V. Gordon Childe, that formal religion and the rest of what we call civilization originated in need to organize society, a need created by the invention of agriculture. He called this the "Neolithic Revolution". The National Geographic recently featured research that overturns this theory. At the northern end of the Fertile Crescent where agriculture seems to have originated and the first cities were built, digs at a Turkish site called Gobekli Tepe have revealed a remarkable temple complex, built and rebuilt over many generations starting 11,600 years ago -- seven millennia before the Great Pyramid, nine before Stonehenge, and long before human beings gave up foraging for food and started to settle down. (Follow the link to read the full text.) Even more intriguingly, it seems the temple was more sophisticated in its earlier stages, and subsequent generations rebuilt it more crudely.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Trust and the Big Society

The editor of The Tablet has some interesting comments on Catholic social teaching online here. She points out that most social scientists would agree with the Church that trust is a "key ingredient in the ecology of a sound society". But trust cannot flourish in a society where everyone is encouraged to pursue their own short-term self interest. Too often those in whom we place our trust have proven unworthy of it -- whether it be bankers, MPs, health-service providers, priests, newspapers, or police.... "One of the points made by Caritas in Veritate is that an economic system driven purely by self-interest not only cannot be relied upon to provide a moral basis for economic activity, but will actively undermine it." Where does trust come from? How do we get it back, once it has been betrayed? Not from the government or the market, that's for sure. From civil society? Yes, but only if there is a religious dimension present -- a tradition -- by which individuals are encouraged and enabled to give of themselves to others and seek the common good. Without faith there is no trust.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Family farms

Pope Benedict XVI, in an speech on 1 July 2011 to participants in an annual conference on hunger organised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said that persistent world hunger is a tragedy driven by selfish and profit-driven economic models, whose first victims are millions of children deprived of life or good health. In responding to the crisis, international agencies should rediscover the value of the family farm, promoting the movement of young people back into rural areas. “How can we be silent about the fact that even food has become the object of speculation or is tied to the course of a financial market that, lacking definite rules and poor in moral principles, appears anchored to the sole objective of profit?” 
The Pope called for support of international efforts to promote the family farm as a key component of national economies. “The rural family is a model not only of work, but of life and the concrete expression of solidarity, in which the essential role of the woman is confirmed.” Food security also requires protective measures against “frenetic exploitation of natural resources”. This is especially true because the race to consumption and waste seems to ignore the threat to the genetic patrimony and biological diversity, which are so important to agricultural activity. The Bible’s injunction to “cultivate and care for the earth” was opposed to exclusive appropriation of such natural resources.
These remarks should be read in the context of his encyclical on development, and seem to fit very well with aspects of the Distributist tradition. This philosophy or approach is admittedly hard to apply in developed economies, but its relevance in poor countries (in Africa and Asia particularly) is easy to see. Please refer to our project in Sierra Leone. Also see the Vatican's document on the distribution of land in Latin America.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Liberalism, Consumerism, Islam

In June I attended a conference of the Oasis journal founded by Cardinal Angelo Scola in Venice (recently elected Archbishop of Milan). It is a journal mainly for Christians in Islamic countries, published in English, Arabic, Hindi, and other languages, recommended to anyone who takes an interest in inter-religious questions and the position of Christian minorities in the Middle East and North Africa. The conference this year was about the “Arab Spring”. While listening to the distinguished contributions, my own thoughts moved in the following direction.

In a traditional society, whether Christian or Islamic, human beings live surrounded by reminders of God, which function as a call to prayer. In the world fashioned by modern technology, this is not the case. The environment created by mobile phones, TV, internet, and even modern transport is essentially a new culture, within which religious faith starts to seem irrelevant. (That is, within the world of the imagination, where most people live.)

If the Islamic world is now immersed in this electronic culture, I do not see why the Islamic religion will not go the way of the Christian, and lose much of its dynamic, culture-forming capacity. Recent riots and revolutions seem to have very little to do with Islam, and this may indicate that social behaviour is no longer being shaped primarily by religious conviction, even in its impoverished ideological form (“Islamism”), but rather by material discontent coupled with a sense of solidarity mediated by new technology. This certainly makes it easier to mobilize against tyranny and corruption, which is a great thing, but at the same time it leaves these societies wide open to a consumerism no longer just Western, but fast becoming universal.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Population crisis? AIDS?

We have touched on this before, but it does seem as though one of the main accusations thrown against the Catholic Church - that she encourages a population explosion, and at the same time, rather inconsistently, is responsible for the death of millions from AIDS (both, of course, by her opposition to contraception) - is just as shaky as one might expect from knowing something about the history of anti-Catholicism. True, the UN now seems to predict a world population of more than 10 billion by the end of the century, but these projections are disputed, and in any case the more serious challenge is not demographic but political - caused not only by unjust political and economic structures in countries with growing populations, but by the massive social problems likely to flow from the decline and ageing of the population in Europe and North America. [China and Japan too? Read the debate in the New York Times.] [See also this more recent article concerning the possible stabilization of global population by 20150.]

Skepticism about computer projections of human behaviour and natural processes generally is likely to be increased by viewing the fascinating documentary series by Adam Curtis on the BBC, "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace", which shows how these projections are largely based on ideology not reality - in particular by a determination to reduce the world to a cybernetic system that can be modelled by machines (in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary). As for AIDS, the CTS recently published an important report by Matthew Hanley called The Catholic Church and the Global AIDS Crisis which demonstrates not only that the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS has been ineffective, but that the only effective method is precisely the one adopted by the Catholic Church, namely "partner reduction". The Church is the largest single provider of health-care and support for those suffering from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide; besides which her teachings offer the only hope of an integrated and humanistic approach to human sexuality.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Liquid modernity

On his visit to Venice recently, hosted by Cardinal Angelo Scola (they are seen together in this picture from Zenit), Pope Benedict drew on the analysis of Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his books Liquid Modernity, Liquid Love, Liquid Times and Liquid Life. European society, said the Holy Father as reported by Zenit, is submerged in a liquid culture; in this regard, he pointed out "its 'fluidity,' its low level of stability or perhaps absence of stability, its mutability, the inconsistency that at times seems to characterize it."

He noted that Bauman attributes the birth of the "liquid" society to the consumerist model. The philosopher stated that its most profound impact has been felt in social relations, and, more in particular, in relations between man and woman, which have become increasingly flexible and impalpable, as manifested by the present concept of love reduced to a mere passing sentiment.

Speaking to an audience in the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, Benedict XVI opposed this model of a liquid society with a model of the society "of life and of beauty." He said that "man is free to interpret, to give meaning to reality, and it is precisely in this liberty that his great dignity lies." He continued: "It is about choosing between a 'liquid' city, homeland of a culture that seems to be increasingly the culture of the relative and the ephemeral, and a city that constantly renews its beauty, taking recourse to the beneficent resources of art, learning, of relations between men and nations."

Bauman's analysis seems to extend more familiar discussions of modernity in terms of "atomic" individualism, increased mobility, the spread of relativism, the breakdown of traditional and conventional bonds and of civil society by consumerism, and so forth. The metaphor of "liquidity" seems eminently appropriate. It is interesting that the Pope chooses to oppose it with the notion not of morality or the natural law or even the common good, but of "life and beauty", which is perhaps the most profound response possible. Beauty is the self-revelation of Being, and a pointer to the underlying order of love which is the source of freedom and of civilization.

Monday, 25 April 2011

This blog is resting

Happy Easter, everyone! This is just to let you know that I probably won't be posting much on this blog for at least a month or two, since I am concentrating my energies on some other writing and editing projects. It will remain for the time being an archive for reference - an extension of the main Economy Project site - until I decide on the next phase. Next year is the 20th anniversary of Second Spring, so time for some rethinking and a relaunch! Please try to follow the various blogs that are recommended in the left-hand column, which are doing a great job and are always full of good material.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The crisis of national identity

Such a heading might be suitable in many countries. Every country seems to be going through a crisis of national identity, though perhaps for different reasons in each case. On a visit to Madrid recently I was told that Spain had never quite rediscovered itself since losing the great empire of Philip II, which he ruled from the Escorial, his monastic palace in the granite mountains, modelled some say on the Temple of Solomon. Britain, or the “United Kingdom”, lost hers as the Empire dissolved into the Commonwealth and the spirit of the Blitz was replaced by the spirit of consumerism and the dictatorship of relativism. As we struggle to integrate an influx of immigrants, we wonder what it means to be a British citizen and how it can be taught.

So where does a national identity come from? It does not come from navel-gazing or looking in the mirror. Identity comes from the relationships that define us. The identity of a nation is an aspect of the common good of its people – what they know, will, feel, and love writ large; what they won’t do, and what they will. It is the past (memory) and the future (imagination). It is the stories it tells about itself, the ideals it aspires to.

Deeper than all this it is a mission. As in the case of my personal identity, I am what I am given to do. I am unfinished; I must become what I am. Thus we find our identity when we hear a call, the summons to be a self. This is why a nation has a patron saint. Often, that saint expresses the particular character and mission of the nation, at least in some symbolic way. England should be asking St George, what dragon must we conquer?

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Phillip Blond in Madrid

While in Madrid this month for the Encuentro, I attended the excellent opening lecture about the Big Society by Phillip Blond of ResPublica. At the risk of caricaturing by oversimplification, and distorting by paraphrase, he made among others the following points.

The Big Society is about creating ownership, and opening up markets. Ownership implies taking responsibility, and taking responsibility implies a need to educate for wisdom and virtue.

To mutualise by creating public-sector cooperatives is a way of avoiding the main problem with privatisation, which is that it merely transfers monopolies from the State to small numbers of private individuals. It is important to devolve power and wealth, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity -- to devolve them where possible not to individuals but to groups. As individuals we are virtually powerless, but as groups we can create new schools, hospitals, guilds...

Individualism is "left-wing". Rousseau's extreme individualism easily flips into collectivism via the notion of the "general will" (made up of many individual wills). Anarchy and totalitarianism are two sides of the coin of individualism. If we are merely individuals with competing rights, we will require a surveillance or police State to ensure order. How do we escape from this dilemma? By realising who we are: that is, not just individuals, but individuals in relationship. To abstract ourselves from these relationships is to fail to understand the nature of the human being.

Europe is "locked in a conspiracy of decline". Bureaucracies proliferate due to suspicion and fear. We can reverse that decline by reviving civil society and creating a culture of trust (cf. trust networks like eBay). But the only way to do that, just as the only way out of the poverty trap, is through education -- education for virtue. Morality is not oppressive or repressive but essentially liberating.

This then connects with the themes of my other blog, Beauty for Truth's Sake. But I wonder if the Big Society, and mutualism and localism generally, can succeed without a profound spiritual impulse. The role of the Spirit in all this cannot be underestimated, and that is the subject of work by Michael Black that I intend to discuss in future posts.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Logic of Gift and the Meaning of Business

A very worthwhile set of conference papers from the University of St Thomas, published by the Vatican, has been made available online here. I haven't had a chance to read through these yet myself, but as I do I hope to expand this entry with comments.

"It is important for the Church to speak meaningfully to all people of good will within the business community especially during this current economic and financial crisis. While business ethics can move us forward in this reflection and practice, what is taking place in businesses today is not just the loss of will to do good, but the loss of meaning, and especially theological meaning, which ultimately demands more than what traditional business ethics and corporate social responsibility can offer."

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Big Society

David Cameron says it is his mission in politics to make the Big Society succeed – see his recent speech on the subject – although opponents claim it is being wrecked by spending cuts, or even that the whole idea was motivated by the need to reduce government spending in the first place. But there seems little doubt that, from well before the election, the Big Society was the Big Idea in Cameron’s mind. The BBC recently reported that the PM had told social entrepreneurs that the initiative would get “all his passion" over the five-year Parliament. The government has also set out details of a Big Society bank to fund voluntary projects. But it isn’t just about volunteering. A “Localism Bill” has already defined numerous ways in which the Coalition aims to encourage local and regional initiative, as part of an intended reduction in bureaucratic red tape and centralized management.

In my booklet Catholic Social Teaching: A Way In, some years ago, I quoted the English expert on Catholic social teaching, Roger Charles SJ: “civil society is… founded on respect for person and family, a morally responsible citizenry knowing its rights and fulfilling its duties, built up though a network of voluntary organisations, social, political and economic, and based on respect for morally responsible freedom.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it!  The question is, can the government get a Big Society to flourish at a time of massive cuts in social services, widespread unemployment, a rising cost of living, and a decline in religious adherence? Have the real roots of the recent financial crisis been addressed? Has the government taken on board other important elements of Catholic social teaching, such as the critique of consumerism, the concern for social justice, the understanding of marriage as the bedrock of society, and the sanctity of the unborn? These and other elements of the teaching make up a coherent whole, and one part of the teaching won’t work if the others are not integrated with it.

This blog entry is based on one I wrote for the new CTS blog Catholic Compass.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

People Power

The present wave of revolt across the Middle East -- Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc. -- seems to show the power of a rising generation that will no longer stand for rule by dictatorship. The degree to which Islamic belief plays a part in fuelling this revolt is open to question. Nor is it clear what will emerge to replace the regimes and ruling families that are falling. Western newspapers assume the call is for "democracy", but what does that mean, exactly, and what might it mean in a confessional Muslim state? The word itself literally means "people power". But how are the people to exercise their power,

Monday, 7 February 2011

Recovery of the Guilds

Is it possible that the guilds, those great symbols of medieval culture and enterprise, might be restored to life in our own time? The guilds were an association of freemen, of craftsmen working together to sustain each other, and through apprenticeship and training, to ensure the quality of what they produced. In the UK, the 2010 election installed a government committed to the rebuilding of the “Big Society” and reviving localism. A revival of the guilds would be a keystone in the political process of rebuilding mediatory agencies along with church and school. It is up to us who believe in the necessity of as many members of our society as possible being the economic masters of their fate to create a demand for the recovery of the guilds in our time.

So argues Russell Sparkes, in a "Tract for Our Time" just published in the Articles section of Second Spring Economy. Russell is one of the UK's leading authorities on the practical interface of ethics and economics. He is a Senior Fund Manager for the British Methodist Church working in the field of ethical investment, and Secretary on the Ethics of Investment for the same organization.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Population bomb defused?

For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than outside them. The world’s population has been rising steadily, from 3 billion in 1960 to nearly 7 billion now, and in forty years more it may reach 9 billion.

The numbers sound huge, but Paul Ehrlich’s alarmist prediction in his 1966 book The Population Bomb that in the 1970s hundreds of millions would starve to death has been proved false. Advances in agriculture (the “green revolution”) enabled the world to double its grain supply to compensate for increasing demand. Continued expansion of our population may similarly be offset by further advances in technology. This should not lead us to ignore the possible impact of such a huge increase of numbers on social, political and economic systems, as well as the environment. But Catholics, who are frequently confronted with arguments in favour of contraception based on the “population bomb” thesis, can take some heart from a recent study by National Geographic that emphasizes how hard it is to predict the effects of the population explosion. The real issue, it turns out, is not numbers (which in any case are due to level out by the end of the century) but the use of resources. A person in the developed world uses 32 times as many resources as someone elsewhere, and emits 200 times as much carbon dioxide.

What are the implications? You can have bigger numbers, but people have to stay poor. Or the consumption of the wealthy has to be reduced. Eliminate poverty, and educate third-world women, and population growth will cease. But eliminate poverty, and everyone will be consuming more resources. There is another way, one that allows bigger numbers while combatting poverty, and it goes by the name of “sustainable development”. That is where Catholic social teaching really comes into its own, based on an appreciation of the natural laws written into the created world. This is where we need to devote more research, to find ways to promote development without destroying the earth around us. For more on this, see the earlier post commenting on Caritas in Veritate. See also the book by Fred Pearce, Peoplequake.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Theology of the corporation

This term in Oxford, our colleague and adviser Michael Black will be giving a series of important lectures at BlackfriarsThe corporation is a dominant institution of modern society. Our economic, political and cultural life is almost inconceivable without the corporation as the legal, commercial and financial foundation for human association. And it is an institution that affects us all intimately as participants, partners, observers, and victims. Yet it is an institution that is frequently misunderstood in terms of both its history and its function in society. What ‘good’ does the corporation actually provide? Are there defensible reasons for the evolution corporate law and the conventions of corporate life? What does it mean to be ethical as part of the corporate way of being? These lectures will explore the history, practices, and prospects of the corporation from a theological perspective. Theology, it will be shown, is not something extrinsic to the corporation, yet another point of view among many from which to analyse the corporate character. Rather, theology is a basic constituent of the social relation which we call corporate – in its design, in its legal expression, and in its particular logic the corporation is a product of theological categories of thought. Theology therefore is able to help uncover the hidden form and potential of corporate life, and to suggest fresh approaches to its membership, management, regulation and evaluation. Students of law, economics, and business as well as theology may find the material relevant to their courses of study and are welcome to attend.