Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Taking a broader view of our predicament (2)

Following on from last week, here is the second extract from Peter Selby’s lecture (full text or audio available online). Please see last week's introduction for the overview of this sequence of posts.

Again, the issues that Peter raises about money and the established church, and money and power, also have relevance to other churches. This extract will make most sense if you have read last week's post.

This collection of issues, when put together, always reminds me of that poignant and hard-hitting Spiritual All My Trials:

If living was something money could buy
The rich would live, and the poor would die . . .

. . . which is, of course, exactly what does happen.

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Sovereign Power and the role of money

Posters advertising The Spectator on the London underground recently expressed in chilling terms the source of sovereign power in the present day: ‘Most Germans own a second property’, the poster proclaims: ‘Greece’. The reality of sovereign power as it is exercised in a nation, Greece, which happens to be the cradle of European democracy, is that while the outward structures might indeed be more or less in place, rule of a quite different kind is being exercised, even if not with the violent brutality that we associate with the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. But from the point of view of the Greek people, and especially of its poor, any suggestion that their democracy exercises sovereignty in their country can only elicit a hollow laugh.

But this is just a current instance of a developing trend towards the exercise of sovereign power by the quantity and controlling strength of money and those who hold or manipulate it. Before the collective might, even of a failing banking system, the governments of nation states, even the largest nation states, are helpless. ‘Too big to fail’ means too powerful to control. This is not the place, nor is there the time, to give a full account of the way in which sovereign power has passed to those who have, control or manipulate money. But of the reality of the passing of sovereign power we can surely be in no doubt. The authority to create money was in times past no different from the authority to raise an army: a sovereign act. The passing of that power, virtually unchallenged, to boardrooms is a passing of sovereign power. And it is sovereignty over bare life: the power of such institutions virtually to determine the economic policies of elected governments means that those receiving – or no longer receiving – welfare payments do so at the behest of unelected bodies. Those who sit on juries deciding in effect whether a person might be consigned to custody will increasingly know that the ‘good of the economy’, at least of their pension funds, will in part be related to those whose prosperity depends on the prisons they buy, build and manage. And as the dislocations in the world economy grow greater, more and more people will be driven to migrate in search of the essentials of bare life, and immigration policy will be structured to maintain the standard of living of those who already have, consigning hundreds of thousands to a state of exception, the status of banned persons.

Why mention these changes in the way sovereignty is exercised? Because sovereign power as it is now exercised bears no signs of the establishment of the Church at all. Bishops may sit in the legislature; the monarch may take an oath before God; but the Church will be the last body to be involved in decisions about investment, interest rates, the money supply and so forth. I am not suggesting that the Church should have a place on the governing body of the Bank of England; I am only pointing out that in our debates about the privileges we have and the duties we acquire by virtue of being the established Church we must remain aware that our involvement with sovereignty is with sovereignty as it was and not as it is. We are mis-established, and wisdom and faithfulness begins with that recognition and therefore with abandoning any over-estimate of the significance of our relationship with the old order.

Of course those relations may give opportunity for marginal effects on what government does, on legislation, on the institutions of civil society. Again, to take those opportunities is perfectly proper, as it is proper to resist points where the duties associated with those relationships become irksome. But over all of those activities is a warning sign that reads, ‘This night your soul will be required of you’; crisis, the point of judgement, comes when sovereign power, ‘vitae necisque potestas’ (the power of life and death), is actually exercised, where persons are made, economically or by the use of force, non-persons, and the decision has to be made whether to side with sovereign power or with the victims of its use, even at the cost of the relationship enjoyed with the outward sources of sovereign power, the monarch or parliament.

Empire – sovereignty sans frontière
If the exercise of sovereignty has extended itself into bare life, that is not simply a national phenomenon. Nation states have less and less capacity to act as though they could exercise independent sovereignty. The globalisation of the market economy is a phrase covering a range of phenomena all to do with the power of the mechanisms of international trade and finance to determine policies and outcomes over which nations have less and less control. In part that leads to the increasing development of large groupings of nations for economic and trading purposes or as military alliances. On the other hand, more and more power has come to reside in trans-national corporations, free by virtue of their size to shift their centre of operations to wherever the political framework suits their purposes, and therefore exercising a great deal of power over the governing authorities of nation states.

Yet again, the scale of the global economy means that a dominant individual national economy can exercise enormous influence over the economies of other nations, and particularly over the poorest. What we have seen, and shall continue to see more and more, is the mutation of sovereignty into Empire, sovereignty exercised without frontiers. Unlike the empires of old this empire is not the result of successful national imperialism but of financial power, supported by force where necessary but mostly exercised through the operation of the market by the will of those with the most power to act there. [. . .]

The world’s poorest populations may be taught to attribute their famine and disease to decisions made by their own government in the exercise of its sovereignty, or they may assume they are part of the givenness of their lives, rooted in climatic conditions or other matters beyond human control. No doubt both those elements play a part. But in the main, and from the perspective of our examination of sovereign power over bare life, the reality is that the power of those who control money in the wealthiest countries has declared a ‘state of exception’ over the majority of humankind, but also the right to determine the law under which trading relations (and consequent relationships of credit and debt) exist. So, as with most exercise of sovereign power, it is natural for the powerful to be convinced that the course of action they take is also the most beneficial not just for them but for those whose destiny they are deciding. We surely hear echoes here of the closing sentence of Jesus’ comment on the disciples’ dispute about which of them is to be greatest: ‘The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those in authority are called benefactors.’ (Luke 22.25)

The laws of the market that declare various states of exception and call them beneficial have much wider effects too. The global market has the potential to govern the whole environment of a society, its provision of health care and its educational system, its legal apparatus and criminal law, and in the last resort also those areas of people’s lives which are, at the same time, declared to be ‘private’. Michael Sandel’s  latest book asks, with numerous examples to back up his case, what if anything is left that money can’t buy.

There is of course much more to be said about globalisation than that it causes the most vulnerable people and nations to be excluded from human flourishing. From the standpoint of a Christian tradition which speaks again and again of the determination of God that God’s love should be shared to the ends of the earth we should not place ourselves among those who simply grumble about it. There has been and continues to be a sharing of democratic institutions and the rule of law, ideals of solidarity and inclusion. If these appear increasingly without the direct exercise of power by churches they do nonetheless appear. The fact that the Church of England, like churches in many countries, no longer has its hands on the levers of power and influence should not stand in the way of our rejoicing in the good when we see it, even as it constitutes a challenge to respond to those whom the benefits of a global market passes by and those who more seriously are reduced to the status of non-persons by its onward march.

Conclusion – the Call to Relocation
[. . .] Above all else I have sought to draw attention to an aspect of establishment that is absolutely central but frequently overlooked and that is the fact that it is about a relationship with the Sovereign. The Sovereign as holder of the power to declare states of exception, specifically to exercise increasing power over the bare life of the subject, to lock up, to exclude and to grant basic rights of survival, is the one with whom an established Church is in relation. That being so, what has caused the Church to be mis-established is the historic change to the location of sovereign power from the structures of the nation state to those who have control over the operation of the market. A debate about whether to change the relationship of the Church to the nation state bypasses the more challenging question of the Church’s relation – or non-relation – to the market. It is there that the policies of nation states are determined, there that people are reduced to poverty or otherwise excluded from the mainstream of society.

A consideration of that mis-establishment has therefore to lead to a reconsideration of the Church’s location. That reconsideration, one that takes seriously the absence of any effective relationship with the sources of financial power or those principally experiencing poverty and exclusion, is further demanded, as I have suggested, by the international character of those current sources of sovereign power, determining as they do the operation of a globalised market. We are not at liberty, it seems to me, to ignore that historic development or simply to bemoan it; the divine project has always been, and is now, a global one, and there is too much on offer and too much at stake for us to neglect the opportunities or the challenges of that globalisation.

But as things are, the Church is perceived, and accurately so, as lacking both the determination or the skills to engage those who operate in the globalised financial market place, and at the same time the willingness to act in solidarity with those whom the international market subjects to states of exception. To remedy that is to embark on the reform of our discipleship, always a more challenging and demanding task than debating or even executing changes in our institutional arrangements. But the combination of the disturbances of last summer, the explosion of frustration at the market’s exercise of sovereign power represented by the Occupy movement, and the discovery by St Paul’s Institute (if we did not already know it) that financial sector professionals do not believe that the Church has any useful ethical guidance to offer  – these and many other signs leave us no choice if we are to be faithful than to respond to the requirement to relocate ourselves in relation to that sovereign power, its controllers and its victims. And what really leaves us no choice is that we profess that the one who resisted sovereign power to the point of becoming its victim is the one to whom sovereignty ultimately belongs.

* * * * *

Published with permission (© Peter Selby 2012).

1 comment:

  1. This discussion is very relevant for Quakers, although we may pride ourselves on being in a more counter-cultural position than the Church of England. The attempt at Yearly Meeting to explore issues of economic injustice highlighted for me to what extent we are still largely rooted in a bourgeois way of life that limits our vision and capacity to engage honestly with the issues. As long as we continue to rely on pension funds for our incomes, to shepherd our children into debt for University degrees, and to expect to be able to maintain affluent lifestyles, we will inevitably find it difficult to see or speak with any clarity about the sources of economic inequality and exploitation. The 'Good News' (which will undoubtedly not feel like it) is that austerity and long-term economic decline are already starting to undercut the economic basis of the professions from which British Quakers are overwhelmingly drawn (and the investments of those drawing pensions). Once most of us are really starting to struggle financially, I expect to see a substantial improvement in the clarity of our thinking about economic injustice.