When the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) became apparent in the UK in the autumn of 2008 a debate began about what this might mean for the future of capitalism. Robert Peston, the UK BBC business correspondent, posted an article on his blog entitled “The New Capitalism”. In this he suggested that current events might presage a new form of capitalism, one that was more humane and more geared to social and environmental concerns and less dominated by purely financial and economic drivers. It seemed to me and to my colleagues at the William Temple Foundation that Peston was opening up an important debate to which faith groups such as ours might want to make a contribution. Our first response was to produce a series of papers which are posted on the WTF website under the heading of the Religious Futures Network. The second response has been to publish “Christianity and the New Social Order” (SPCK 2011), using the interventions of Archbishop William Temple back in 1941 as a springboard for a contemporary attempt to show how ethical and faith-based values might have some impact upon shaping the future of capitalism. One of our central arguments is that in 1941 there was a state of crisis in the UK, not only related to the unknown outcome of the war, but in terms of what sort of society might emerge at the end of it. One of the key members of the UK coalition government now in office (Vince Cable) has recently said that the current situation is comparable to being in a state of war, given the dangers and uncertainties that are now facing the global economy. So this is a different sort of crisis perhaps, but one that demands thoughtful and even radical responses. “Business as usual” is no longer an option we are told, just as we are bombarded with the view that “there is no alternative” to the austerity measures now being implemented by a large number of national governments in response to the sovereign debt crisis. But are there – or should there be – alternatives?
Could there be an outcome along the lines that Peston proposed in his original article, a more humane or moral capitalism that gives greater precedence to matters of pastoral or social concern? Can the system be altered or tinkered with in such a way that what emerges from this crisis offers a form of capitalism that gives more attention to the human and environmental problems now facing us? Or will the various forms of capitalism across the globe display the flexibility and adaptability that have enabled it so survive thus far despite many external shocks and challenges? In which case, what will this look like in a few years time? Or is this the beginning of the end of capitalism as we know it? Is the system a “busted flush” now in its death throes and heading towards Armageddon? In which case, what would replace it?
I believe that people of faith need to be engaged in this debate as the outcome will shape our lives for some time to come, and also that we have an opportunity to contribute to shaping what will happen. Call this a Public Theology or a Political Theology, the task seems to me to be the same, and to be one of the most important we are likely to face for a generation. But this is a complex and multi-faceted debate in which our interventions must be made with proper empirical grounding and with due humility. If we are going to challenge those who would tell us what must be, then we must also be wary of telling others what must be. The future is open and unknown and we are on a journey that will unravel in unexpected ways. As we pursue this path, we would argue that a Public Theology up to this task needs to be realist, engaged with the insights of other disciplines and prepared to envisage new possibilities which might include redescribing the well-worn ways of shaping the debates – developing a new terminology in effect. I would hope to introduce these ideas in greater detail over the coming months, aware that the story of the GFC continues to unfold and that our responses need to be nimble and sharp. This will not mean proposing specific policies necessarily, although we must not shy away from speaking truths into the situation where this is required. One reviewer described an earlier book we produced as “edgy but not always coherent”. I think I would accept that as a good starting point. There may well be a number of different “futures of capitalism” and maybe even some futures of political alternatives to capitalism, so edginess rather than an artificial coherence could be the realist and realistic way forward.
John Reader is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in the Diocese of Oxford and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation (University of Chester. UK). His first degree was from Oxford (Philosophy and Theology); then an M.Phil from Manchester University, and finally a Ph.D from the University of Wales, Bangor on “The Problem of Faith and Reason after Habermas and Derrida”. He has taught on a number of courses and been Director of Pastoral Theology at an Anglican theological college. His books include Local Theology (SPCK); Blurred Encounters (Aureus); Reconstructing Practical Theology (Ashgate) and Encountering the New Theological Space co-edited with Chris Baker (Ashgate). He is also a visiting scholar at OxCEPT based at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.