Follow by Email

Sunday, 30 October 2011

St.Paul's and the Crisis in Capitalism

The crisis is happening in a sort of slow-motion car-crash way. We all know it – and may feel powerless in relation to it. But it is a crisis.

I was down at St.Paul’s Cathedral early last week, spending some time there (mostly in the rain), trying to absorb what is going on, what this ‘Occupy London’ movement is about, trying not to let my mind be filled with how the media are representing it, but seeing for myself, talking to people, wandering round the site into the educational centre and the multi-faith centre and the media centre and the volunteer-run kitchens and the legal aid centre and the entertainment centre and the first-aid centre – I use the word ‘centre’ but actually I should say tent, because all of these centres of activity are under canvas, (well, polyurethane, to be accurate), but anyway, tents large and small, spread out higgledy-piggledy and yet in a curiously tidy way, around the Cathedral, with clear and safe access to and from the building for those who want to use it.

There seemed to be a lot of good-natured conversations going on that day, between camera-wielding visitors and those living there or just giving up time to be there – academics and lawyers, teachers and the unemployed, young and old, sober suits in earnest conversation with dreadlocks and grunge – discussions serious and jovial, with the great religious building providing a backdrop - and a silent commentary (apart from the bells) – on the social and political issues at stake for all of us, but being given specific attention by the inhabitants of these makeshift booths plastered with posters and quotations and lists of daily events, discussions and lectures and films on worthy issues like the dangers of deep-sea oil drilling or political oppression in South America or the implications of the savage cuts to legal aid in the UK.

It felt like a new hybrid, a cross between politics and street theatre, an on-going act of performance art that, like all art, wants to change the world – or perhaps, less grandiosely, just help us see the world differently.

Trying to see the world differently, trying to live out certain ethical values, is of course a Jewish preoccupation, a Jewish meshuggas, that stubborn refusal to accept the world as it is, a stubborn belief that we could live in better and more life-enhancing ways. During Sukkot there was a Jewish tent, a sukkah, offering hospitality; and on Simchat Torah dancing and song; and a Shabbat service is planned. Jews have been bringing their values into the mix – and they bring their humour.

‘Now is the Winter of our Discount Tents’ reads one banner [for my blog readers in other countries for whom English is not your first language, this is a rather delicious re-working of Shakespeare’s line from Richard III, ‘Now is the winter of our discontents’] - humour being one of the hallmarks of this gathering in the centre of London , along with civility and co-operation and a principled spirit of commitment not to inconvenience those who live in the area or work in the area or who have businesses in the area. It was all curiously tidy – not a scrap of litter and large recycling bins at the very centre of the encampment.

And the talk was of a range of issues – political and environmental and economic – and the commitment to try and create a particular form of community. And to my surprise there seemed a lot of respect, praise, for the church officials and workers who have been involved with them this last fortnight – this was even before Canon Giles Fraser’s principled resignation on Thursday – and, again surprisingly, what seemed a mutual respect (muted but apparent) between the police and the protesters. Though they say they are not protesters, but ‘resisters’.

And what they are resistant to is encapsulated in one of the largest banners on the site: ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ it reads; which as a slogan is rather simplistic, and makes it easy for us to be sceptical. But as propaganda for a cause it is quite effective, because it can provoke us to think more deeply, more rigorously, about what is going on in relation to the values we live by; and how we organise ourselves in societies; and the systemic failures we have to endure.

I don’t agree that ‘Capitalism is Crisis’: it might be in crisis but Judaism traditionally didn’t disparage wealth creation – it just insisted (regularly and rather boringly) that when wealth had been generated it needed to be distributed fairly, equitably, that spreading justice was a higher value than accumulating wealth, that charity was an obligation, that with wealth comes responsibility; that a society that neglected the poor, the widow, the orphan, the outsider, that deprived them of the means to live with dignity, that refused to listen to their cries for help, their needs, their well-being – that such a society where wealth was generated but not used for the good of all, that kind of society was – to use a traditional word – sinful. And, as both the Torah and the prophets intuited, such societies were doomed, would in the end be destroyed (from the outside), or destroy themselves.

I was very impressed by what I saw this week. More than impressed, I would say I was rather inspired. It is easy to poke fun at this gathering, it’s easy to be a bit scared (as I felt for moments) by the otherness of people, the way they look, the way they sound - you inevitably get people at these kind of open gatherings with a variety of mental health problems - but what was inspirational was the tolerance I saw, the kindness, the commitment to a laborious form of collective decision-making: meetings open to everyone at 1 pm and 7 pm each day with a slow process of listening and speaking and respecting different views until some coherent consensus was achieved – that’s a commitment to a particular kind of inter-personal respect; it’s a commitment that unites a secular belief in the dignity of the individual with a religious belief in the holiness of each human being.

And percolating through it all, what is inspirational is the passion on display for a different model of living together in community. And yes it is easy to be sceptical and dismissive of this as naive – or to condemn it, as a lot of the media and Tory MPs have done, as hypocritical because some of these people have a coffee at Starbucks, or charge their mobile phones there. But this smug moral point-scoring quite misses the point.

And the point is that all around the world this year, starting in Spain with the los indignados protests, there have been groups coming together, for one-off events or day after day – 400,000 in Tel Aviv in August on the streets demanding of the Israeli government a fairer ordering of society, prioritising jobs and homes and education and care of the elderly – people gathering in 900 cities world-wide this month, and they are not all saying ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ but they are all responding to global capitalism being in crisis.

This Shabbat we read the mythic Tower of Babel story, Genesis 11: 1-9. But a myth can contain powerful truth if you know how to read it right, if you listen in to its message, to what is hidden inside its fairytale-like exterior. And the Tower of Babel is a story that speaks about what is happening now, it tells us about a society that ‘had the same language and the same words’ and the people said ‘Come on, let’s all build a city with a tower that reaches to heaven’ – literally a skyscraper – ‘and let’s make a name for ourselves...’

And this is what we have done, more powerfully than ever before in the history of this planet – the same language, the same words, whether you in London or Berlin, New York or Brussels or Beijing: ‘globalisation, economic growth, free-market turbo-capitalism, deregulation, consumerism based on the manufacture of desire’ – this is what we have built over the last fifty years or so. This is the name of the game – and what a ‘name we have made for ourselves’.

You can go up to Hampstead Heath and look out over the city, this wonderful, awesome, awful city of ours, London, and you survey the thrusting Canary Wharf-Gherkin-Shardification of our skyline, all that glitter and glass and phallic cold steel – and you don’t have to be the God of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, to think: no good will come of all this, the omnipotent building and the idolisation of growth; and you don’t have to be the Holy One of Israel to think: who do these people think they are, playing god with people’s lives?

There is an extraordinary story in the Jewish tradition, a midrash about the Tower of Babel, where the rabbis said that the Tower had seven levels on its east side and seven on its west side: builders brought the bricks up one side and then came down the other. And if a person slipped and fell down and died, nobody paid any attention and the work went on. But if a brick fell down, everyone stopped working and wept: ‘OMG, they said – Woe is us! How, when, are we going to get another brick to replace it!’

So you don’t have to be a Marxist critic of capitalism to see what is going on in this story. Two thousand years ago the rabbis were aware that people were quite ready to put the projects of empire-building before care for people, for individuals. Building the brand becomes more important than the conditions of the workers. Profit margins take precedence over alleviating poverty. It’s a universal story and it has led us in our own times into a profound crisis.

But this time no God is going to look down and destroy the project and scatter the people and confound their language. We are the gods now – or think we are. Co-incidentally this Shabbat, because it was a new moon, we also read another part of our mythic narrative from the Book of Genesis, about the fourth day of creation, which describes the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars: it’s a story wrestling with the mystery of how did they come to be here, these celestial bodies, how did they come into existence? how is it that we live just the right distance from the sun – 93,000,000 miles – not too hot, not too cold, that we can live at all on the fragile surface of this tiny planet in the middle of nowhere? how can that be, how can that possibly be?

And we, who have become the gods now – or think we are – we have a universal language now, just like in the story of the Tower of Babel, and with this language of science and technology (on which of course the global markets now depend) we can measure the heat of the sun, and we can land a man on the moon, and we can see pictures in wonderful colour and awesome detail of stars being born and stars dying: we can do all this miraculous stuff, we have build a civilisation brick by brick, with information added to information, a world solid and towering and magnificent – and I don’t decry it, because I wouldn’t want to live in a world without penicillin or be operated on with a carving knife - so we have build this world with towers of knowledge and expertise; but we can’t yet care, we still don’t care, for those who fall off the edge, who depend for their homes and their well-being, and their very lives sometimes, who depend on the politicians and wealth-creators to devise ways of sharing it – more equally, more justly, more compassionately. If we can put men on the moon and capture the birth of stars, surely we can use our ingenuity to prevent one fifth of the children in this country living in poverty?

And those protestors, resisters, are saying: We can do this, if there is the will to do it, we can do things better, we can pay attention to those who fall off the project. And around the world there are many, many who fall off, who slip out of sight, who are exploited and abused and used for the sake of the Babel projects of profit and consumption. We can do it differently, we need to do it differently, and the challenge for the younger generation growing up in this world – and the majority of those I saw at St Paul’s were young (but then most people look young to me these days) – the challenge is to do it differently, to do it better. They are not going to have any choice – because the Tower is tottering, and when it falls, who will have the energy, the experience, the wisdom, to re-build on more secure foundations, on more deep-rooted human values?

Those people in those tents may be gone by Christmas, by choice or by eviction; this may be an ephemeral, a transient occupation of the space around St.Paul’s. But they will be back, in one form or another, here and abroad, they will be back because they represent something eternal, something very Jewish actually, a belief, a hopefulness – what use to be called messianic hopefulness - that we can do better than this. We can build a society, brick by brick: dignity, justice, generosity, compassion, care, companionship - these are the building blocks of real community and a good, a godly, society where people are more valued than profit margins, where sharing what we have is more important than share options. We can do it better.

[Extracted and adapted from a sermon given on October 29th at Finchley Reform Synagaogue]


  1. This is a brilliantly articulate piece, Howard. You mention my traditional enemies, the right-wing politicians and the right-wing press but I need to think way beyond that. I certainly need to do what you do, and go and see for myself. I use St Paul's station every day on the way to or from the Old Bailey. A number of times I have used in closing speeches the study passage about how easy it is to have vague good-will but how much harder it is to give individuals their rights as humans. Thanks for the encouragement to think more and offer more. MIchael

  2. Excellent insight. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Howard

    As always, an erudite, well written, article which takes recent events and wraps around them religious comment, questions and thought.

    One does not necessarily need to agree with your analysis to know how heartfelt it is. My day to day life - working in the heart of the City and living in a lovely and admittedly fairly wealthy community in North London - leads me to be far more optimistic than you and Michael. Every day I see good people living their lives in good ways, trying to make the world a better place. One only has to look at what goes on around our Shul.Is our world perfect? Of course not. Will it ever be? Of course not. But I see acts of charity and community action all around me from people on the right as well as on the left who do not need to see "tradtional enemies" lurking around every corner. God, how depressing Michael to define one's life by seeing "traditonal enemies" everywhere; is this how you view your colleagues, your neighbours, your friends and your family members who do not share your political views? It must be difficult to get out of bed in the morning. What happens when those people do good things? How does that impact on your world view?
    The reason why people find it easy to ignore the activities of those currently at St Pauls or elsewhere is because, as always, it's so easy to be "against" something without suggesting something practical and sensible to replace what they don't like. I saw T shirts saying "abolish money". Yup, that's the way to be treated sensibly and get broad support for your cause, whatever that may be.

    Howard, the camp may be democratic and may be an uplifting place to spend a few hours, days or weeks, but it will then disappear into the ether until the next trendy "I'm against something/anything" cause comes along.

  4. Hi Jonathan, I mentioned my traditional enemies but they neither dominate nor define my life. One should actively oppose the racist press and racist politicians. However, in life generally, I am very much a "happy idiot". Indeed, my persistent optimism clouds many people's lives.
    Your post superficially presents a positive approach but I wouldn't judge a camp by it's t-shirts, and I wouldn't reach your rather world-weary final conclusion either.
    My son called me the other day from Denmark where he lives and told me he was going to New York to join the Wall Street protests but had to be back in time for the Copenhagen "Occupy the Streets" protest. I think he gets out of bed full of purpose and full of hope.

  5. however, "happy idiot" or not, it will take me a long time to forgive myself for writing "it's" in that sentence.

  6. Michael

    Thanks for responding and I forgive the typo!

    So my questions for your son are very straightforward: What is he trying to achieve? How will he know whether his "cause" has been won? (Can you win a cause?) What are the achievable solutions to whatever he thinks are the problems?

    Clearly his life is not too bad - he has the time, the ability and the financial means to cross continents in order to protest against something. I would guess that puts him in a tiny percentage of the world's privileged elite. He clearly has a social conscience - which is no surprise when he has been brought up with the right values.I would like to think I am doing the same for my sons. He wants the world to be a better place; so do I.

    But I am also in the real world and the naivety of youth has long gone. If your son and his cohorts want to achieve something, they need to come to the table with a simple clear proposal. Do you know what it is? Because I don't have a clue. So how can I or anyone else give our support? Or for that matter, if we disagree, argue against them?

    I wish him well. We need good people out there. But I fear, for him, that the whole exercise will be a complete waste of time.

  7. thanks for your response. I will ask him to reply to your questions and hope he finds time to do so, and has the interest to do so. I wouldn't dream of speaking for him!