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UnHerd Book Club

Books to help make sense of a chaotic year

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December 28, 2020

Emmanuel Macron, former investment banker and capitalist par excellence, now declares that he is joining the “struggle” against the malign consequences of globalisation. 180 of America’s leading CEOs call for “an economy that serves all Americans” rather than just shareholders. The World Economic Forum believes “We must move on from Neoliberalism.” From Justin Trudeau’s plan to “reimagine economic systems” to Boris Johnson and Joe Biden’s shared “Build Back Better” slogan, the talk is of a new, fairer settlement: a fresh start.

Isn’t it boring? No wonder people prefer to watch bogus videos about voter fraud, or join their local Black Trans Lives Matter protest, when the alternative is this kind of technocratic tedium. Yes, we need 143-page think-tank reports and ingenious policy wonkery and “cross-government data architecture” and all that. But eventually you want something which inspires, something which treats socio-economic questions with the beauty, drama, tragedy and pathos they deserve. You want something like the historian RH Tawney’s 1926 cult classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.

We hear a lot at the moment about the prospect of a more communitarian society, which acknowledges that we have responsibilities as well as rights. In Tawney’s book this is not just a theory, but a vision. For the medieval mind, he writes,

The property of the feudal lord, the labour of the peasant or the craftsman, even the ferocity of the warrior, were not dismissed as hostile or indifferent to the life of the spirit. Touched by the spear of Ithuriel, they were to be sublimated into service, vocation, and chivalry, and the ritual which surrounded them was designed to emphasise that they had undergone a rededication at the hands of religion. Baptised by the Church, privilege and power became office and duty.

I too had to Google it: Ithuriel is an angel in Paradise Lost whose spear instantly uncovers the reality behind a disguise – “for no falsehood can endure / Touch of celestial temper”. For Tawney, the medieval order revealed the truth of social relations. The rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, are shown to be part of one human society, in which we owe each other justice and love.

Maybe this makes him sound like one of those sentimentalists who imagine the Middle Ages as an era of cheerful peasants, dignified craft guilds, virtuous monks and splendid cathedrals. Not so. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism describes the feudal system as “exploitation in its most naked and shameless form”. Guilds, Tawney writes, were monopolistic schemes, often corrupt, and the vast majority of workers weren’t members in any case. Catholics who want to praise the glories of Christendom will have to reckon with the fact that the pinnacle of financial immorality was the Vatican. As for the cathedrals, Tawney quotes St Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the greatest spiritual master of the time: “The Church is resplendent in her walls, beggarly in her poor. She clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked.”

And yet… there was, Tawney argues, “a certain tarnished splendour” to the Middle Ages. The Church, as its central institution, stood for “the ideal, at least, of social solidarity,” and upheld two fundamental points: “that economic interests are subordinate to the real business of life, which is salvation, and that economic conduct is one aspect of personal conduct upon which, as on other parts of it, the rules of morality are binding.”

Tawney admits that these lofty notions were endlessly flouted. But not always. Church law levelled heavy penalties, including excommunication, against usurers who exploited the vulnerable. Institutions like the Mounts of Piety enabled the poor to borrow money and goods without incurring ruinous debts. Social stigma and the law often worked on the side of economic justice: businessmen who formed cartels or drove up prices might easily find themselves in the courts — or in the stocks.

“At every turn,” Tawney writes, there were “limits, restrictions, warnings against allowing economic interests to interfere with serious affairs.” Of course, there are “limits, restrictions, warnings” that set the boundaries of economic life in 2020. But they hardly derive from a coherent moral framework. The World Economic Foundation, home of the “Great Reset”, may believe that neoliberalism should be abandoned, but it is also keen to assure us that “The Great Reset … is not a revolution or a shift to some new ideology.” (The horror — imagine, a new worldview!) “Rather, it should be seen as a pragmatic step toward a more resilient, cohesive, and sustainable world.” Not much moral, let alone spiritual, idealism here. For the WEF economic reform is just another way to “meet systemic global challenges,” to quote the soul-crushing bureaucratese.

The word “reset”, often used this year by both Left and Right, itself makes society sound like an electronic device, not a living, breathing community of people torn between passionate virtues and vices. Like so much political language, it colours the world in grey. Parts of Liz Truss’s speech on inequality the other day were quite sensible. But it was hardly inspiring. The government is committed, apparently, to “delivering fairness through modernisation, increased choice and openness”. Fairness is not an urgent moral demand or a dream of solidarity, but yet another solution to be “delivered” via the most useful apps.

A different idea of fairness appears in a prayer for landlords, quoted by Tawney, which was included in a prayer book issued by King Edward VI in 1553: “We heartily pray thee to send thy holy Spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds, pastures, and dwelling-places of the earth, that they, remembering themselves to be thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes after the manner of covetous worldlings; but so let them out to others, that the inhabitants thereof may… be able truly to pay the rents.”

A political question — housing inequality — is here treated both on practical terms, and as part of a cosmos illuminated by spiritual realities.

There are some hints at a moral and spiritual awakening today: in the urgent rhetoric of the new socialists, in the rise of quasi-spiritual leaders like Jordan Peterson, in parts of the environmental movement, in the increasingly blurred lines between religion and politics, even in the furious exchanges of the culture wars. But they are only hints. It’s been rightly said that the big question of politics today is Who are we? Another question lurks around the corner: What kind of universe do we live in?