Immoral earning power of the few

Market Whys and Human Wherefores
September 29, 2000

Released from the soundbites of his bishopric, David Jenkins offers in this book an extended analysis of popular defences of the free market. Jenkins is troubled by the uncritical way in which political leaders of all parties "look to the free market as the sole and sure source of our civic survival and prosperity". He turns his forensic skills of textual analysis from the sacred texts of the theologian to the pages of The Economist and The Times . He offers no critique of academic economics but shows how language about the market permeates public discourse, offering as its mantra: "There is no alternative."

The first half of the book assesses the assumptions that underpin language about the market. Jenkins looks at mechanistic and organic metaphors and sees them being read as deterministic guarantors of prosperity for all. Some commentators are seen as trying to put macro-economic questions beyond political debate by reframing them as purely technical and neutral. The market is projected as a meta-narrative in which all should have faith even though it fails to acknowledge the majority of the world's population, who have no meaningful purchasing power. He shows how a loss of confidence in the state means that it is cast in the role of facilitating the market rather than restraining its power.

The second half of the book examines the reality of a global economy. The vast inequalities between North and South are set out, as is the polarisation in UK society. Markets are seen as concentrating power so that a few have the upper hand. Jenkins also points out the environmental unsustainability of constant and accelerating growth. With irony, he contrasts the market disciplines applied to the poor and the mechanisms that save the western banks that have made imprudent loans and are rescued at the taxpayers' expense.

Finally, the passion one might expect from this author is let loose in a prophetic challenge. "The proponents and practitioners of the market faith are, in effect, liars. You are relying on what is untrue and you are promoting, or at least endorsing, what is immoral." Even here the book is restrained, allowing that those involved in the market may be individually acting in good faith but that the effect of their actions is immoral.

Only in the final chapter does Jenkins offer some prescriptions for a more democratic future. Governments must be sufficiently powerful to counterbalance the global workings of markets and trade. There is a need to raise the collective consciousness about the flaws in the ideology supporting the market, a need to challenge consciences about the impact of the market on global society and a call to form coalitions of pressure groups that can reassert democratic control. A new perfect system of trade is not envisaged but rather eternal vigilance and an ongoing struggle between the forces of competition and collaboration in human nature.

A few brief prescriptions for reform are offered including international agreements to regulate capital flows, increased taxation, proportional representation to temper adversarial politics and a reinvigoration of local government. The Christian God gets a brief recommendation on the final page as a power able to sustain those who invest in human worth.

While the restraint of the author as a theologian in the field of economics is understandable, it is disappointing to find so little reference to the ways in which he has grappled with these issues. The book presents a gloomy picture of a polarising world, with those in power having little inclination to relinquish their upper hand, yet the author ends with an assertion of hope in the ability of humans to order their affairs in a way that recognises their common humanity.

It would have been good to hear Jenkins's reflection on his experience of raising consciousness and creating coalitions for action. Is the civil society in which the church operates a servant of the market, comforting its casualties, or does it have the power of independent action that could create compelling metaphors?

This book would be useful in stimulating debate in postgraduate classrooms about the assumptions that underlie popular discourse on the market.

Helen Cameron is a tutor on the MA in practical and contextual theology, Oxford Brookes University.

Market Whys and Human Wherefores: Thinking again about Markets, Politics & People

Author - David Jenkins
ISBN - 0 304 70608 6
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £16.99
Pages - 6

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