I have just taken part in a rather frustrating remote discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme. Frustrating only because (I think) Ed Stourton was in Manchester, Eric Lonergan was in London, Professor John Milbank was in Nottingham and I was in Bradford – so, none of us could see each other… which makes interruption, eye contact and real engagement rather difficult.
Naturally, the theme arose from the events in London and elsewhere and the questions raised by the Occupy movement. Away from the heat of the particular (how St Paul’s Cathedral was handling the ‘crisis’, for example), it was possible to take a step back and ask some of the important questions about money, markets and morality. The programme can be located here, the particular discussion coming over half-way in.
It seems to me that the key to discussing these issues lies in nobbling the assumptions behind the language we use. Markets are never ‘free’ in the sense that they are neutral: they are shaped by human choices, values and priorities. The question is: which choices, according to which priorities, derived from which values, shaped by which assumptions about who we are and how the world should be?
John Milbank spoke of the ‘disconnect between the City and real people’, but this disconnect also exposes the vacuum in identifying and shaping the moral framework within (and from) which our financial business should be done. This is not anti-capitalist. Rather, it is a recognition that capitalism needs effective regulation, a shared set of moral values, a framework of mutual accountability and honest language.
City workers were asked if there is a moral framework within which the City or the markets operate. Odd question. Of course, there is – there is no neutral space shaped by value-free (or self-evidently noble) morality. The question simply has to do with the questions I cited above. I was a little unnerved to hear City workers saying things like, “We work incredibly hard” and “We are just doing a job”. I can think of other (incomparable) circumstances in history where such disclaimers are disallowed.
Anyway, I have to go to work on the sabbath. There clearly needs to be a more general debate within society about who shapes the moral framework for our business and economic life and how we better engage wider society in ownership of those choices. But, for this there has to be a growing experience of mutual responsibility at every level, reduced abstraction of economic life, a rehumanising of business, and a re-definition or re-articulation of public economic morality.
And we need to re-examine the connection between individual moral choosing and the common moral framing of our common life. After all, the economy exists not for the sake of the market, but in order better to shape our common life for the common good.