Monday, 12 August 2013

The middle class revolt against fundamentalism?

The BBC has just finished its series about the rise of the global middle class, but every few weeks there is more evidence of the middle class revolt emerging – first the Middle East, then Turkey, then Brazil, and then...

It may be premature to interpret this as one phenomenon, though that has hardly stopped some commentators – and it isn’t going to stop me today either. 

What appears to be happening is that the global middle classes are emerging, only to discover how far the current economic system renders them powerless – and how far it threatens their continued existence.  They lose public park in Ankara, or a bus fare in Rio, but these are just symbols of an underlying powerlessness.

What makes this a middle class revolt is not that they are defending middle class privileges. 

It is that the global working classes no longer have the time, the space or the power to organise any kind of uprising.  They are measured and controlled by tyrannical employers when they work, and – when they don’t – they are pre-occupied with the business of survival.

The prolific critic Slavoj Zizek has drawnparallels between the democratic reformers in the Middle East and the economic reformers in Latin America, arguing that they are both making a stand against fundamentalism that denies the importance of their humanity, and that they recognise the parallels.

It may be religious fundamentalism which clings to a bizarre belief in the literal truth of every sentence of holy scripture.  Or it may be market fundamentalism, which clings to a bizarre belief in the objective reality of market values and the bottom line.  It is at heart the same thing.

I find this idea compelling.  It points to a similar crisis in economics and theology, and demands a humanistic response to both these kinds of spiritual impoverishment.  Neither of them see the world as it really is.  In theological terms, both put narrow simplifications above complex truth – which theologians used to call ‘idolatry’.

To make this comparison doesn’t mean rejecting genuine, complex religion, any more than it means rejecting markets.  It means rejecting inhumane simplifications, single bottom lines, one-dimensional measures...

Perhaps it also sheds some light on one of the things that has been confusing me.  Where is the spark of revolt against the market fundamentalism which is impoverishing the UK, where the middle classes are cowed, the working classes are powerless, and where political debate is so staggeringly narrow and constrained?

Because, watching the new pope, developing his pro-poor mission in Latin America, I have been wondering whether the spark of change is going to come from the Church.

I know this is anathema to the kind of positivist liberalism represented by Richard Dawkins and others.  But it may be that only the Church is independent enough to see the problem clearly – and to recognise fundamentalism when they see it.

Then, there was the Archbishop of Canterbury weighing in to the payday loan companies, in a Church Militant tone of voice which we have not heard for a century or so.

He may have stepped back from this rhetoric in the days that followed.  But it was so brave and clear, and tremendously hopeless, that I can’t get it out of my head.

Because we need that tone of voice, uncompromising, determined and human – threatening to drive the payday loan companies out of business.  Aggressive on the side of what is right.

There is something going on in this space and I welcome it, and I am looking forward to the next intervention.

Incidentally, I am speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival at 4pm on 19 August.  If you want to debate these issues, or argue with me about my book Broke:Who killed the middle classes?, please come along...!


Anonymous said...

What the Church has now, students used to have, and some politicians had in an age gone by, was the rare luxury of being able to pontificate without consequence. OK, I'm pontificating now, but so many former sources of sense and protest in the past are now absorbed by the need to perform and meet rigorous targets etc. For politicians, I imagine it is the relentless focus groups, polling, and ever-watching media. Like many others, they feel their opinions are confined, forcing them to stay on message with their critiques. It means that dominant ideologies, including market fundamentalism and scientific fundamentalism have fewer people able to challenge them.

(From Iain King)

Brian Jenner said...

I've been working through the books of the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He's very good at explaining how we have to show a commitment to society by taking action.

He also emphasises how important 'freedom' is to the Jewish people.

That's why I'm self-employed. You can't really be free working full-time for big organisations without compromising on your values.

Organisations like political parties want to create certainty by strict discipline, but that doesn't seem to be in the nature of political parties. If you can't contribute your opinion or challenge others, what's the point of being a part of them?