WE CAN – AND MUST – BE BETTER THAN THIS
Those of us brought up in the shadow of the Cold War – an ageing cohort now – often take a particular view of history. In 1989, the US and its allies overcame the Soviet Union. Capitalism triumphed over communism. The west beat the east. These binary categories conceal as much as they reveal and they have allowed complacency and hubris to fester.
The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of a dysfunctional, debt-laden system and the anger of materially deprived and rights starved citizens. Western capitalism, built on a liberal foundation and market sensitivity, proved durable.
There are risks in every victory. Sometimes the wrong conclusions are drawn from the outcome which ill-serve future battles, indulging weakness in the winning argument. Market capitalism is long overdue the kind of critique we need to put it in service of people rather than they in service of it, but the victory of 1989 ensured this did not happen. The economic crash of 2008 revealed the shaky foundations of a system also built on debt and the indulgence of bizarrely speculative financial instruments and yet still the critique did not happen.
The mantra of light touch regulation sounded right – after all, who wants a heavy touch in life? But what that meant for hundreds of millions of people in developing nations was to see their ruling elites illegally siphon billions of dollars out of their countries into western systems that put this money beyond taxable reach. Obliging regulators, bankers, lawyers and PR firms took their cut from corrupt money but continued to lecture others on the supremacy of capitalism as a system. The thing about hypocrisy is how clearly others see it in us before we do.
A similar problem emerged round a liberal order that staked its reputation on individual rights and freedom from tyranny but which continued to support regimes that deprived its citizens of both because it was politically expedient to do so.
These are two reasons why the incipient battle between democratic and authoritarian governments has a less likely outcome than the evidence of 1989 points to. Authoritarians dress in democratic clothing and remain camouflaged. The appearance of democracy is made in managed elections and then the principle of majority rule is used both to impose itself upon minorities and eventually to stigmatise them.
In the west, most people know little about the Christian faith and even less about how it can shape society. They also have an uncertain grasp of what a liberal order looks like. The historic contribution of Christianity to the structures of western public life is huge, but at risk both from ignorance and arrogance. The result is not to imagine a more cohesive life, unintentionally reinforced by liberalism’s endless appetite for the individual and their rights at the expense of the community and its togetherness.
Moral vision has had a bad time of it. Few public leaders speak of a vision for society in case they are relegated to the role of religious nut. And morality has been privatised, as if a wider sense of it is an illegitimate imperial endeavour.
In the years since the 2008 crash, the Church has in many places re-doubled its efforts to meet existential human needs. We need to share with others a new debate about a moral compass to guide our next steps. The pandemic has asked searching questions of health, liberty, economic value and the right to life. Can we find the courage to express a more prophetic role? One that will impact the Church as well as society, and which might just renew democratic structures in the character of God before the authoritarian impulse takes hold.
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