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Archbishop reviews books by Sandel and Skidelsky in Prospect magazine

Thursday 26th April 2012

In an article for Prospect magazine, Archbishop Williams reviews two recent and thought-provoking books that engage with the continuing debate on ethics, economic life and the shape of society.

What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel (Allen Lane, £20, 26th April)

How Much is Enough? by Robert Skidelsky & Edward Skidelsky (Allen Lane, £20, 19th June)

Should people be paid for donating blood? In the United States, there is a mixed economy of free donation and the sale of blood through commercial blood banks. Predictably, most of the blood that is dealt with on a commercial basis comes from the very poor, including the homeless and the unemployed. The system entails a large-scale redistribution of blood from the poor to the rich.

This is only one of the examples cited by Michael Sandel, the political philosopher and former Reith Lecturer, in his survey of the rapidly growing commercialisation of social transactions, but it is symbolically a pretty powerful one. We hear of international markets in organs for transplant and are, on the whole, queasy about it; but here is a routine instance of life, quite literally, being transferred from the poor to the rich on a recognised legal basis. The force of Sandel’s book is in his insistence that we think hard about why exactly we might see this as wrong; we are urged to move beyond the “yuck factor” and to consider whether there is anything that is intrinsically not capable of being treated as a commodity, and if so why.

The examples related show that in practice there is virtually nothing that has not somewhere or other (usually but not exclusively in the USA) been packaged as a commodity and subjected to “market” principles. Sandel lists a variety of schemes—some of which, thank God, never got beyond the drawing-board, some of which have become relatively uncontroversial—for marketing people’s time, health, legal liabilities and lifespan. From the almost innocuous practice of paying someone else to stand in a theatre queue for you, through the nakedly rapacious business in employers taking out high-level insurance policies on their employees’ lives so that they enjoy a “return” on their death far in excess of what the bereaved family might expect, to the ghoulish trade in purchasing life insurance policies for the terminally ill (and waiting impatiently for them to die, hoping there will not be some medical breakthrough that secures a few more years for them)—this is a world that at first reading seems completely surreal. Yet it is manifestly a projection of a philosophy that has already taken over vast tracts of our social life in the “developed” world.

It is a philosophy that regards any imaginable object or transaction as capable of being exchanged for measurable material. It is the philosophy that has radically distorted how we view public services and education for the last few decades; and it has had an extraordinarily easy run, all things considered. But what Sandel does, by taking some of the most grotesque instances of market exchange, is to prod us into asking whether we have any reason for drawing a line between what is and what isn’t exchangeable, what can’t be reduced to commodity terms. He quotes the reasonable and even eloquent apologias offered by financial metaphysicians for these practices so as to remind us that, once the principle of universal exchangeability is granted, we are going to have to work hard to establish any exemptions. If—to take the most extreme example—my bodily life is a thing that I own, like a car or a computer, what exactly is there that makes it unacceptable for me to offer it on the market, or for someone else to offer me a measurable profit in return for it?

The Book of Revelation is seldom quoted in studies of economics, for many reasons; but when we read of the fall of Babylon the Great (or imperial Rome), with all its variegated commerce, the climax to the list of its trading enterprises may strike us with a new force. The city trades—according to the old translation—in “the souls of men.” Sandel’s picture is of a modern Babylon, where, to use yet another biblical phrase, the question, “What shall a man give in return for his life?” has been provided with a possible actuarial answer.
For most of us, I suspect, the instinctive revulsion for the more extreme cases itemised here is still strong; but, given the skill and sophistication of apologists for the universal commodification of life, we need to do better than instinct alone. Sandel hints at the risks we run in not working out our objections, but the reader may be left feeling that there is another book to be written spelling this out a bit further—and perhaps also helping us see what it is that makes some things appropriate for the category of commodity. It is manifestly true, as he says, that all this demonstrates that markets are corrosive of morality to the extent that they define what is humanly desirable strictly in terms of material profit. But what might be needed to fill out the positive alternative?

The clue is perhaps in this assumption of exchangeability. The effect of this is exactly what Marx defined as the dissolution of everything that seemed fixed and settled in itself: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” in the famous axiom of the Communist Manifesto. And, to stay with the categories of the early Marx for a bit longer, this result can be characterised as “alienation”—but not only of the labourer from the products of labour. Sandel is describing an alienation of the subject from the body, of the will from the material world. What is lasting and “real” is the abstract ego, independent of its physical nature, its environment, even its actual history. The fundamental model being assumed here is one in which a set of unconditioned wills negotiate control of a passive storehouse of commodities, each of them capable of being reduced to a dematerialised calculus of exchange value. If anything could be called a “world-denying” philosophy, this is it.

And it is the protest against such a denial of the world that animates a crisp and pungent book by Robert Skidelsky, celebrated biographer of Keynes, and his son, the philosophy professor Edward Skidelsky. Intriguingly, their intellectual guiding star is not Marx or even Keynes but Aristotle: we are repeatedly brought back to Aristotle’s bafflement at the idea that money itself could be regarded as a sort of agent or a sort of life-form, let alone a self-explanatory goal for human activity. The starting point is the rueful acknowledgement that Keynes, for all his acumen as an analyst, was an indifferent prophet. His 1928 jeu d’esprit on “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (published in 1930) envisaged a situation in which growth had come to a full stop because we had arrived at an economic position where security and comfort for most people had been attained. There would be simply no need to increase our economic activity. That this now seems like a voice from another planet simply reminds us how deeply we have become committed to a model of growth that has long since stopped asking “what for?” And if we have stopped asking this, it is not surprising that so many of the vehicles of “growth” fashionable in the last decade or so have absolutely nothing to do with consolidating shared well-being, whether in any one particular country or across the globe. They have been, once again, essentially abstract matters, the piling up of indices of status for a small minority.

The Skidelskys write of a “Faustian bargain” presupposed by Keynes and many like him: allow capitalism to thrive for the time being and it will deliver a sustainable level of security for all, despite its rapacious and ruthlessly competitive aspects. Then, when this level has been reached, it can be honourably retired, and our convivial and co-operative motives can be allowed to have full play. But Faustian bargains have a history of turning out badly. “Capitalism, it is now clear, has no spontaneous tendency to evolve into something nobler,” write the Skidelskys. “Left to itself, the machinery of want-generation will carry on churning, endlessly and pointlessly.” We have moved from Faust to Frankenstein. And one of the many virtues of the Skidelskys’ study is that it makes it very clear how eccentric all this is in the broader light of human history and culture. We are the first civilisation to treat monetary accumulation as an absolute goal, and it has obscured the whole of our discourse about shared well-being, or the “common good.” Politics is trapped in discussion about efficiency and the maximising of choice; the west, at least, is dominated by the assumption that the state exists to protect choice and to do so by protecting financial competitiveness in every sphere—Philip Bobbitt’s “market state,” as he set out in The Shield of Achilles (2007). On the day I write this, the education secretary has announced an initiative to hand over some responsibility for A-level examinations to the universities, and the public reaction to and discussion of this has been cast almost entirely in terms of whether this will guarantee a “more competitive workforce.” That education could have some value other than improving profits seems to be unthinkable. But the Skidelskys firmly remind us that it is we who are the oddities in terms of cultural and moral history in so shrinking the range of political discourse.

“The idea of the good life no longer forms part of public discussion in the western world.” That is a strong statement, but it is not, in the context of the book’s argument, anything to do with facile nostalgia. Although we regularly speak as though government had no interest in “paternalistic” directiveness, the truth is, of course, that every administration continues to invest in highly directive moralising, about health issues and the limits of acceptable public speech, for example. But this is not predicated on the basis of a three-dimensional picture of what a good life might look like; it is defended on the grounds of protecting generalised liberties. The state must be neutral beyond these limits, and this entails neutrality about financial rapacity and the promotion of acquisitiveness by various means.

Belatedly, this has come to appear rather thin, and statistics which suggest no significant increase in the self-reporting of happiness over a period of material growth have begun to tell. Indeed, the statistics suggesting an inverse correlation between happiness and economic inequality might worry us even more. And so government and commentators have turned their attention to how happiness might be secured and maximised, exploring various measures of happiness. But the Skidelskys, in a particularly mordant and acute chapter, dismantle this in short order. The good life, in classical, medieval and oriental philosophies, is not a life in which we are guaranteed happy feelings, but one in which we “have reason to be happy”—one, that is, where our circumstances are such that we are in tune with our environment and have liberty in that environment consistent with the sort of beings we are. The argument is paralleled in a later chapter on “Elements of the Good Life,” where the authors note the degeneration of our thinking about health into an obsessive passion for unceasing improvement, rather than simply settling for being in reasonable working order in whatever way our age and circumstances allow. The deep anxieties about ageing that surface again and again in our culture are probably the most obvious sign of this. And, though the Skidelskys don’t say this in quite these terms, the social effect of this anxiety is to marginalise and demean the elderly in a variety of damaging ways, to encourage a set of public images and stereotypes suggesting that normative humanity is young and hyperactive.

The list of elements in the good life—“basic goods,” not reducible to other terms—is a sensible and realistic one, including an interesting section on “personality,” defined as “the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperaments and conception of the good.” The Skidelskys explicitly warn against elevating this into a principle of autonomy that can trump all other considerations, and rightly they emphasise not some maximal capacity to realise individual choices but rather the freedom to secure “private space” for reflection. A robust defence of private property—heavily indebted to Catholic social thought—follows from this, raising the crucial question of how to establish fairness in respect of property. But what is so intriguing in this bit of the argument is the assumption that the good life is in some degree “contemplative”—that is, it requires the space in which I can scrutinise myself, learn something of self-criticism and thus, potentially, of irony. And for a habit of ironic self-awareness to be generated, we need some concept or image of what is normatively human that does not simply become an oppressive stereotype—a good myth, you might say; we need the saint or hero to illustrate what the well-lived life might look like. This in turn requires, as the authors indicate without too much elaborating the point, a doctrine of the cardinal virtues—another bit of revived Aristotelianism. What are the habits and practices that will educate our passions and allow us to shape a credible narrative of the self, understood against the backdrop of some idea of what the “excellence” of human nature might consist in?

The basic question is how we most seriously and honestly turn our scrutiny on ourselves and how we become able to bear that scrutiny. In more traditional words, we need some vocabulary that evokes both repentance and absolution. The opposite is what the American novelist Walker Percy identified as the characteristic style of the late-modern consciousness, a blend of sentimentality and cruelty. And the Skidelskys are prescient in stressing that a focus on happiness as a goal in itself is completely inimical to any practice that involves clear and compassionate self-knowledge. The underlying imperative—if we hold on to the image of a “contemplative” good—is to find the time to look at things, including my own history and circumstances, patiently and clearly; to give them what Simone Weil famously described as “attention.” A world in which every object is instantly capable of being rendered in terms of what it can be exchanged for is one in which there is nothing worth looking at for itself, a world systematically “de-realised.” And that is what we are threatened with: Sandel’s examples converge with the Skidelskys’ thesis in putting before us a possible world of absolute commodification. If we want to resist this intelligently, we need doctrine, ritual and narrative: sketches of the normative, practices that are not just functions, and stories of lives that communicate a sense of what being at home in the environment looks like—and the costs of failure as well. Self-knowledge is not, in this framework, a matter of introspection, sifting over one’s emotional states; it is a capacity to assess, to measure oneself, a capacity on which both comedy and tragedy ultimately depend. Not the least problem with the commodified world is that its assumed picture of human subjectivity allows nothing to be either absurd or harrowing. Did the financial masters of the universe before the collapse of recent years ever find anything absurd?

So it should not be too surprising that both these books end with a slightly more than sidelong glance at religious language as one of the sources for resistance. Doctrine, ritual and narrative are the basic currency of religion; whether or not you believe the doctrines or find the rituals viable or tell the stories, it may be important to grasp what it is that these things conserve in human existence. To argue that one of the main social advantages of religion is that it preserves a rationale for finding some things funny is a bit counter-intuitive; but it is no more eccentric than the recognition that without a vivid sense of what is, non-negotiably, due to the dignity of any and every person, we shan’t find some things outrageous either. Solemnity, apathy and triviality are the default settings of a lot of current cultural discourse; which suggests that a reinfusion of the comic and the tragic is a basic aspect of what we need. Much more could be said about how the languages of faith contribute to this—but at least the door is opened in both these studies to seeing religion as something other than just a set of failed explanations or incomprehensible taboos. And religious qualms around some high-profile public questions (euthanasia, abortion) are best understood as arguments rooted in a deep aversion to anything that encourages us to think of our bodies as a form of property. The non-religious person may not share the believer’s convictions or conclusions on these issues; but it is important that even the non-believer grasp that arguments based on the right to do what I like with what I “own” need some hard scrutiny in a world where commodification has become so much the prevailing trend.

The Skidelskys’ final chapter offers some bold and lucid proposals about what the state can do to rein in the fever of reductive economism and toxic acquisitiveness, including firmer restrictions on advertising, some form of progressive consumption tax (a version of the old sumptuary laws) and a new approach to the global economy that will reduce the dependence of developing economies on export-led growth (implying a higher dependence in developed countries on local production, a point with major implications for the renascence of manufacturing and food production). I offer no detailed comment on these proposals (though it is clear that without some such structures the overall transfer of wealth from poor to rich countries in one form or another will continue), but remark only that it is not enough to claim that the state must be neutral in such matters: it is, as we have seen, quite prepared to be paternalistic about some supposed goods; why not others?

These are two deeply provocative and intellectually suggestive books. Sandel’s risks having its positive argument rather drowned in narrative detail, and the Skidelskys’ might have benefited from more analysis of the particular forms of power encoded in conspicuous consumption: rows of noughts on a bonus figure are in one sense economically useless, but symbolically effective in securing status. There is a brief summary of what is meant by “positional” goods which bears on this, but might have been built on further. We need a louder reminder of our continued susceptibility to magical thinking. But these are quibbles. The overall impact of these studies, amply researched and presented with exemplary clarity, is weighty indeed—little less than a wake-up call to recognise our desperate need to rediscover some intelligible way of talking about humanity, interiority, mutuality and—to use the word again—irony, before we are submerged in barbarism; a barbarism whose chief victims will, as ever, be the poorest, in the west and in the whole globe.

© Rowan Williams 2012


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