Any social limits to markets - thoughts on the riots in UK #dmingml


After so much rhetoric about the riots mostly of the 'water cannon them, and shoot them all', there was something sensible on the BBC breakfast news TV this morning.  Too many questions about, why is this happening are drowned out with the immediate response 'don't you dare justify the violence'.  As if to explore the larger issues of why means to condone the violence.

The BBC team were essentially asking what are the social limits to a consumer and capitalist society?  In essence I heard them asking has consumerism (and by implication capitalism) set the limits of life for people, instead of society setting the agenda for consumerism.  They looked at the breakdown of family in the UK, the worst in Europe for family troubles, and the increasing number of young people trained to desire a way of life that was now out of their grasp.

Karl Polanyi in 1944, in his work The Great Transformation, asked why for the first time in history, did we have the situation where markets were independent of the boundaries of social relationships.  For most of history, family, and the values of society set limits to markets, but now relationships serve the market, which is now free from the boundaries of social limits.

What Polanyi determines is that the idea of 'free markets' is a myth.  For it takes laws by societies to establish markets as independent in the first place. They are not independent at all, but get their status from society.  Then secondly societies will live with markets being being free from social limitations until enough people are disenfranchised, civil unrest occurs and governments have to step into protect people from the markets.

With a sweep of economic history from the 16th century until the 1930s, to establish this view, Polanyi then reviews the credit crunch that precipitated the civil unrest of Europe and the subsequent wars that happened.  He goes on to predict future credit crunches and how civil unrest and protection by governments of their people from the markets would reoccur.  Despite this he was surprisingly optimistic about the possibilities of markets.

So here we are with the largest credit crunch since the second world war, recession, loss of jobs and reductions in incomes.  We can view the violence as something to exterminate; that's one thing societies and governments have done in history for similar uprisings.  Or maybe our society might take a step back and instead of trying to get back to normal, ask what are the limits to a market society, and stop trying to get back to where we were 3 years ago.

Is there any way to live as a country and society, that binds us together beyond earning as much as we can, to live on our own away from each other with all the latest experiences that are deemed to make life worth living.

The riots demonstrate that the consumer dream is a nightmare.  Sadly I suspect most people rioting are not doing so for a better society, but to get what they see everyone else has and they do not.

And can we as Christians live differently?  Assuming credit crunches are here to stay that the consumer dream is unsustainable, and that never ending growth is at an end, things will get worse than this, again.  If our society paused and asked, has anyone lived differently, has anyone been able to live as a group of people, where social relationships and values set limits to how they lived within the market, for a way of life that does not depend on the consumer dream, would they see anything amongst Christians to capture their imagination and turn to as a way of life?

I fear that so often Church is about providing support to Christians who are pursuing the consumer dream as a way of life, and even new forms of Church are embedded in the logic of the market.