Did you know that in California prisoners can pay for a cell upgrade ($82 per night)?
Or that you can pay for the right to shoot an endangered Black Rhino in South Africa ($150,000) and Walruses in Canada?
Did you know that some companies will pay you to tattoo yourself (permanently) with their Logo?
Or that you can buy the Life Insurance policy of an ill person while they are still alive and then collect payment upon their death?
At first sight, the question in the title of this Blog might seem strange. Clearly, a modern Society needs an Economy to prosper and a modern Economy needs a stable Society to function. But which is ultimately more important as we think about how to build a progressive country in the Twenty-First Century? Which should be at the front of our minds as we think about the purpose of politics, for example?
It can be argued that, since the end of the Cold War, and in the absence of the old ideological fault-lines, Free Market Capitalism and the neo-liberal worldview which underpins it are completely dominant. After all, in the infamous words of the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, haven’t we reached the End of History anyway?
And yet, through this way of looking at life, moral decisions about what constitutes Goodness have been downgraded in favour of Market Efficiency. It has become increasingly possible to consider the impact of business decisions on the workforce, community or the environment as superfluous. It is the size of the shareholder dividend which really matters.
Taken to its logical conclusion, in the paradigm of the Market Society, politics becomes a process which is simply about the most effective management of the Economy. The winner of the electoral process should be the Political Party which can promise and then produce the best economic results for the largest number of people. The only thing we need to (or even can) agree on is that we all want to be more materially-wealthy, whilst agreement about what constitutes Public morality and social capital become increasingly rare.
As political ideology has narrowed toward the centre-right over the last 30 years, the range of the political discourse has narrowed along with it. And yet the question still remains: How will we live together?
And something seems to be changing. In the last seven years since the financial crash, we have seen the unchallenged dominance of neo-liberalism and the idea that the Market Knows Best increasingly called into question. Whether in academic journals, the Bank of England and Federal Reserve or the Occupy Movement, more and more people are asking if our primary identity really should be HomoEconomicus after all.
Meanwhile, the – often brutal – rise of Islamic extremism across the world has seen the pursuit of a worldview which seems to be primarily-rooted in an idea of what a Society should look like, with relatively little reference to economic structures at all. Whilst the West continues to move towards the ultimate commercialisation of everything – including social Goods like education, healthcare and policing – ISIS and their allies fight from and for a worldview that has very clear ideas of how Society should be structured.
It seems like we may have a window of opportunity to ask anew what Goodness is, to publicly articulate our answer to the question and ultimately even to change the way that we organise our society. In this space, we could do worse than return to the Christian teaching on the Common Good, such as that found in Catholic Social Teaching.
And what is the Common Good? The best description that I have found comes from one of the supporting documents to Vatican II – “The Common Good is a vision of the social order which is founded on Truth, built by Justice and animated by Love”.
In contrast to this Michael Sandel, the renowned Harvard Moral Philosopher, notes that there has been a moral vacancy in contemporary politics, in which there is an:
“…attempt to banish notions of the good life from public discourse. In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But despite its good intention, the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics prepared the way for market triumphalism and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.”
This is what happens when the Economy becomes our only focus. Alternatively, we see in the Bible that God views Society as a worthy aim in itself – an Oikonomia that includes the Material but which frames society as being much more about relationship than material possessions. As Jesus said in Nazareth at the start of his ministry, in the words of the prophet Isaiah :
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
We could do worse than start with this as we seek to build a progressive society.