Abba thought it was all about money. The MC in Cabaret sang that ‘money makes the world go around’. And Der Spiegel poses the key question on its front page this week: money rules the world… but who rules money?

At least this question reminds us that, despite the technology that now drives financial transactions across the world, it is still real people who are responsible (a) for the system we accept, and (b) the values that shape our acceptance of that system.
 
It seems to me that this is actually the bit of reconnection that needs to be made today. Politicians seem to think that more of the same systems that have created our current distress will get us out of the mess we are now in. Where, we ask, is the political or economic imagination – the vision of an economic system that puts people back at the heart of the enterprise? Where is the vision that re-grasps the only dynamic that can ever have integrity: that money exists for people and not people for money? Which is subject and which is object?

These questions might be inevitable and acute right now, but they are not new. Jesus quietly slipped in the notion that if we want to know where your values really lie (and what really drives you and your choices, etc) we’ll need to see your bank statement. Heart and money lie closely together – at least for those who have money to love.
 
So, Spiegel‘s front-cover question is a deeper one than it appears. Markets do not drive the world, money does not behave as if personified, the economy cannot be ascribed personality or moral competence. People make systems, people are driven by values and assumptions about what (and who) matters (even if there is a discrepancy between what they think and what the evidence suggests), and people decide on the ends the systems are intended to achieve – and in whose interests.

It looks like the conversion of St Paul’s wasn’t exactly a Damascus Road experience after all.

The delayed publication of the latest report by the St Paul’s Institute shows that, even if the City was unaware of it and the Occupy protesters ended up on the cathedral steps more by accident than design, the Church was already well underway with serious questioning of the values that drove City culture in the 25 years since Big Bang. The Value and Values report (subtitled Perceptions of Ethics in the City Today) was published yesterday.

Contrary to the press accusation that this report had been ‘suppressed’ for a couple of weeks, it should by now be blindingly obvious what criticism (of naff timing and incoherent process) would have been levelled at the Church if it had gone ahead and published according to the schedule. Given that the report is fronted by both Dean Graeme Knowles and Canon Dr Giles Fraser, it would have been kind of hard to put it out with both of them in the process of resignation.

Of course, that inconvenient truth won’t satisfy those who revel in selective amnesia – the same condition that slates the Archbishop of Canterbury for questioning the values of our dominant economic and political culture, then forgets he had done so when the later story breaks and they can’t get him to feed the hungry media machine with further repetition.

Anyway, the report makes clear that there are some good people in the City – people who are already sensitised to the disconnect between the Square Mile and the real world. Indeed, the report makes clear that many of those who work in the City do understand the reasons behind the rage against perceived injustice. It highlights the way technology has dehumanised financial transactions. It recognises that reward has become divorced from work and that the Big Bang created a failure to drive value with values that assumed a common humanity. Money has become an end instead of a means to a greater end that we choose.

I was once asked to give an after-dinner speech at London’s famous Mansion House to a company of insurers and financiers. These people, among whom there was a plethora of motivations, had raised enormous amounts of money for a range of charitable causes and I wanted to recognise this and thank them for it. But I also wanted to reconnect this generosity with a humane appraisal of the transaction. I think I said something like:

this is not a case of the strong giving to the weak, but of the ‘weak who have’ giving to the ‘weak who have not’.

(I finished by quoting Jesus who said “it is easier to get a needle through your eye than for a rich man to pass a camel”… or something like that, anyway.

The point is that wealth can create a security that hides basic human frailty. We all weep and bleed and feel lonely in the universe on a dark night when our relationships have failed or we find ourselves wondering what it is all about. What unites us is the common humanity that has somehow got lost in the scrap for money.

Perhaps the Church is in a good place to stand between the City and the rest of the world. We ‘do’ people and we ‘get’ the people who live in both worlds. It is our business – confusing and compromising though it sometimes feels – and a church that follows Jesus Christ (who opted into this compromising and material world) can do no other than stand where the fault lines fall and try to hold it all together.

Read the report and the critique that concludes it. This wasn’t a craven cathedral at all – it had opened itself up to judgement. The tragedy is that the protestors didn’t turn up just a few days later, once the report had been published.

When Abba proclaimed that ‘it’s a rich man’s world’, they were simply repeating what has been complained about for thousands of year. The prophets of the Old Testament had less of a bias to the poor and more of a bias to telling the rich to use their wealth and power for the common good and the protection of the weak. The Psalmists constantly complained about the injustice of a world in which ‘the wicked prosper’ and the ‘godly’ just keep getting a bum deal. So, there’s nothing new in moaning about rich people running the world.

But it seems to me that it isn’t good enough simply to moan about the current recession and the global financial crisis, scapegoating ‘greedy bankers’ – even if they deserve it. It is all too easy to be wise after the event and there are loads of smug people slinging the dirt around at the moment.

Andreas Whittam-Smith brings some wisdom to the situation in today’s Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/andreas-whittam-smith/andreas-whittam-smith-we-are-angry-so-tell-us-what-went-wrong-at-the-banks-1513373.html). The natural search for revenge (usually dressed up in the language of ‘accountability’) will get us nowhere and will solve nothing. But, as charity trustees in the UK would demand an inquiry into where the system had gone wrong with their charity, so ought the British Government establish an independent inquiry into how the world’s economic and financial systems were able to go so awry.

People like me will be able to offer a limited perspective. I have three adult children and all of them have been through university – indeed, one is still there. They emerged with massive debts and begin their working (and married) life with an assumption that living in debt is the only option – the norm. For those of us who have spent our lives trying to live within our means, this has always looked wrong. It was not rocket science to realise that the endless offers of credit cards, loans and debt-consolidation schemes from banks were unsustainable. Lending money indiscriminately to people without any scrutiny of their future ability to repay – also the problem with sub-prime mortgages – was always bound to end in tears. But, when everything is going well and the general standard of living is high, we all-too-easily assume that the experts must know what they are doing. Now we know they didn’t. Or, if they did, they were criminally selfish.

The point about an inquiry is that it would re-tell the story in the cold light of day and expose where the system and decision-making went wrong. And I suspect it would make the fantasyland activities of the banking sector look embarrassingly stupid. But at least it would help us to learn and learn and learn.

I suspect that we would end up questioning the values that have underpinned the economic and banking system in the past thirty years. I would not be the first to suggest that money doesn’t actually exist – that it merely represents an arbitrary system of relative values that only pertain if everyone agrees to the same assumptions about where ‘value’ lies. That is surely why the system, founded on trust and confidence, collapsed so quickly when trust and confidence evaporated. The uncritical assumption that economic growth is eternally sustainable and can only generate winners now looks like the Emperor’s new clothes.

But this situation now provides us with a unique opportunity not only to try to get the economy going again, but also to re-think the values and assumptions that underlie it. It enables us to ask (without embarrassment) for whom the economy and the banks exist – and whether the system is there to serve the people whose money it uses or if the people are merely there to serve the system and those who run it.

Coincidentally, the Independent today also has an interview with Jerome Kerviel, the French banker who lost Societe Generale in the region of five billion Euros. He describes the unreality of the gambling he was involved in and the lack of scrutiny by his superiors as long as he was making vast profits. His (and their) negligent hubris led to disaster. He describes his joy at making huge profits out of events such as the 7/7 Tube bombings in London and the 9/11 attacks in the USA, exposing the hard fact that some people love crises because they are able to make huge amounts of money from them.

Although I think I understand why Gordon Brown is taking us further into almost inconceivable amounts of deeper debt (to get the credit flow going so that we can gradually resume the lending and borrowing that allows businesses to function as well as grow), I have a possibly simplistic suspicion that it might not be good to sort out a debt problem by going further into debt. We cannot and must not simply try to resume ‘business as usual’, if that means returning to the same old fantasies that have dominated the last couple of decades and not learning that a fundamental review and repositioning of values is essential to the future construction of a fair economy.

Abba’s cynicism will always be there, whatever system is shaped in the future. But whatever happens next, the world cannot re-dress the Emperor in the same old new clothes.