Andrew is minister of Cambridge Unitarian church and author of this very thoughtful blog. I said that I’d like to respond to his sermon this week via my own blog.
My snaky logic is going to appear shortly, for as I planned this I could see myself diving down other paths - for instance, that of diversity and the maturity of community where disagreement is well managed. And Andrew’s community is one of them. My usual congregation is another.
But diversity and management of disagreement is most pertinent because Andrew’s sermon’s subject is at the heart of what I think is wrong with our world. I’ve been considering this often: economics is one of the major bottom lines that I identified, and so is how we deal with those who differ. I met some that day, reminding me that even when you’re among likemindeds with respect and caring, there is dissent. So how do you associate collectively, let alone where that basic esteem and shared tenets are missing?
I thought that linking John 10:10 with the Ernest Bloch and Wendy Brown readings was brilliant. And I was almost completely in sympathy (though not with a human only Jesus). Yes, we have a thief among us, taking from real abundance. It is both saddening, maddening, and ironic, for abundance is the chief aim of the thief, to whom wealth is the only thing of value. Not just money, but countable, logical, provable, put it in a pie chart % wealth - and then write your reports and garner further investment.
A man told me that his church was the most successful in his city, because it was run like a business! But I believe that businesses should be run like a church.
I want to critique Wendy’s terms a little. I had forgotten about academic discourses being full of the suffix “ization”. It’s not a flowing, fun read - but her ideas are spot on. Almost.
I too hate that everything is measured and given worth by numbers, quite often financial ones. Everything we do is supposed to be a means to an end - usual lyfiscal. Goals, outcomes, ratings, lists. It’s why I won’t give marks and stars to things I analyse. The thief’s work is entirely quantitative and tries to make the qualitative also something that you can type on a calculator, but not a typewriter (word processor?! Clearly a symptom of the times!).
I would not choose “neoliberalism” as a name for this issue because I associate liberalism with a political group or Unitarian-like thinking - but Wendy presents this as a vice that most of the congregation were also against. Terms like “postmodernism” - lazy and vague as it is - seem more comfortable to apply across the board, but “neoliberalism” feels less like an appropriate name for a world view and a moniker for multiple disciplines.
I also felt that “economization” to most of us means spend less and save, not the habit and process of turning everything into being about money. And the use of “metric” is also for many of us connected to the more recent round of standard measurements, as opposed to being imperial (I rather like saying I am imperial!) Actually, imperialism is against the kind of beliefs I hold.
Of course, in Wendy’s view, this neoliberalism is also a global standard, and like her, I resist it. Kilometres as well - but not in favour of what came before. (Inches yes, but not the other i word).
My other, more serious issue with Wendy is that her alternative to her delineation of neoliberal, her idea of an authentic world, is one where... well exactly what does that last paragraph actually mean, Wendy? I think if someone with 3 degrees can’t easily summarise what you say, your expression is lacking; her ideas are not too clever but unclear. I get and concur with her point that the neoliberal idea of liberty is about free markets, not personal freedom, and that neoliberalism harms democracy. But I see these uncomfy phrases amidst her worthy critique - “...legal standing and participation in shared rule” “shared political deliberation and rule” “shared political understanding of democracy as the specifically political reach by the people to hold and direct powers that otherwise dominate us”. (My italics). So what is her idea of the alternative, right way for society? It seems that like many left wing people, she sees the society as a whole as being the driving force over the right wing individual. I saw a chilling version of the extreme of that whilst watching Doctor Zhivago. I will develop this more in other posts, but I again refer to my favourite, Hegel-inspired tenet of the three part path to maturity; thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Politics is stuck in number 2, not a Freudian phase, but the ping pong pendulum of capitalist and communist. But there are other options. Yes, even alternatives to democracy. Ones not developed, not tried yet, or not tried for a long time. Systems that don’t have the word “rule” (cracy) in their name. Ones where we move to the third stage of synthesis, bringing a new level from all the previous options, and that is not the rule of the rich or The People, the few or the one (sadly most of these merge into the same thing). Something where it’s not a choice between individual and society, the tyranny of community or a despot and their army, or being dominated at all.
So I suspect that what Wendy and I - and perhaps some Unitarians - would do instead of this system of countable values is very different. And then we come back to the diversity question and I think we need to allow for wheels within wheels - not secret wheels, but not requiring a one size fits all model and system. How we work out things and live with our other wheels - and even within our own - is a deeper question.
I’d like to move away from Wendy Brown and her izations to the sermon itself and the ideas discussed afterwards. I think it’s great to have conversations - real ones - as part of a church service.
There was a query over whether being metric per se is wrong. I don’t think that Andrew critiqued the need to measure - as one busy typesetting her novel, of course I can see the need to measure, as would architects. It’s not about doing away with numbers.
But for me, accountability is more important than accounting, and I wonder if I’m closer to Andrew, Wendy Brown (not related) and Ernest Bloch when I state that. It was interesting that machines and money kept appearing in discussions. By distilling it, we saw that although some of us had different mindsets - I preferred a body to a machine analogy of a group of people - which are all valid and needed, that really we weren’t so much talking about numbers and money but as token for value and.... now I am trying to avoid a term about machines and money. It is quite difficult - it has seeped into our language and thinking.
Money is used for punishment, as an incentive - better than physical ones, you might say, but it still uses fear and takes what is valuable which is damaging if we lose too much of it. Then we can’t do what we need, and that isn’t just the things that law would say are vital - such paying for our homes, bills, and food. Not a very enriched life, is it? (I argued about this in my Smurf Sermon also on here - that simple societies too are too concerned with those basic things). Pleasure, association, thought - the arts, sport, whatever it is you love - those things are not on your debt recovery sheet, are they? Try living without them and their importance is soon evident.
I also realise that I believe in paying for what is valuable and so I do not like volunteer activities. But if we lived in a world without money - or where the triad of homes, taxes and utilities were not fees to pay or risk punishment - would working without pay matter so much? But as we do live in a world where we have to pay for things, I resent that some jobs are to be paid for, some are “lifestyle” choices, and that those financially better off expect others to receive less on the understanding that love and helpfulness are the driving factor and reward, rather than money.
I will keep law out of this for word length, but money and counting quickly becomes a discussion on contracts and legality. Law and its lack of equality and true justice is another pillar which I have identified as needing rebuilding. I am saddened by how often contracts are expected to be signed and thrown at us in buying goods and in working with others. Sometimes, they seem necessary and sensible, but I am here focussing on quotas and expectations of payment and of punishment for not paying or behaving in a certain way.
We think too much about outcomes and “efficiency”, which is really about economization in both senses - we cut corners to save and say our machine is well oiled. But we don’t think of how it affects the corners. Law too is often about tangible monetary things. I heard a lawyer say that you can only sue for breach of contract over loss of income, not because of hurt feelings. We don’t recognise those in court, do we, or in business, which is synonymous with “hard headedness”; “business decision” is about numbers, at the expense of content. That could mean the cutting of interesting parts of a role, or it could mean culling our range of good books and music because it’s perceived that they won’t sell so well as something else.
Although it is reckless - a la the investments leading to the credit crunch - the money and number world is not adventurous; it is conservative in both senses.
The other conversation point was about accountability for charities. Accountable yes, but countable? If you’ve ever filled in a public funding form, you’ll be asked about outcomes. How many people will you help? How full will your theatre be? What equal opps boxes can you tick? I loved the example of the Samaritans, who by their ethos do not allow figures to be kept and published, but whose value is purely by perception. However, I do like to know where my donations go. I don’t like wastage and I like to know my money bought that goat or a course for the disadvantaged person, not went on photocopying and fat cat salaries. So again, I see that the argument of paying shows worth and responsibility (eg bills, I’m edging towards a post on utilities) feels different to me to checking that charities do what they say. But are they different? There’s not much trust in this counting thief system - but sometimes I want people to be accountable. I’m asked to account for myself if I want money or I say I can’t pay something, which I resent; but does the body awarding it tell me their costs and figures?
So I recognise my own contradictions perhaps, and also that inequality is at the heart of the figures first system. So again, I agree with Wendy. And Andrew.
But what about Thomas J? Well, I pinched the title from what Andrew called his service, rather than being the best title for what I write about, though it is apt as my final thoughts. I do like the concept of a declaration of independence. Often I have been independent of those that admired my independence of thought, but not from theirs. And that reminds again about diversity, and how to deal with people and even find harmony and belonging when you might disagree and want to critique.
The pursuit of happyness involves things that are enjoyed, like Ernest Bloch’s chess, for their own sake and won’t get you the outcome of a great grade, a star rating, or earn you money and contracts. (I am thinking about how I’ve spent today and even what my motives are for writing this).
I would like to more than declare independence from the counting thief, and more than to make a call to let the excellent founding words of the USA be lived, by us all. (After all, can’t a country built on ideals by immigrants be shared universally, and go beyond geography?).
My question is what to do about the thief. Not just to put him (will you allow him to be a he, for convenience sake?) far away from us, for the thief continues stealing from others, without them noticing. They may even be inviting him consciously.
Wonder Woman pops up again - for she changes minds (that’s part of the rational world which I think can also be part of the thief’s) - and hearts, which for me have no distinction.
It’s changing without bullying or brainwashing that interests me.
The question is - how to change the thief? How to meet the thief to be able to change him? Well, I am putting this up for people to read, anywhere. Some of you might be working in Cheltenham in something round, or a similar building. They are part of protecting the work of the thief. I welcome all readers for those who dissent most are those I most want to reach.
And as for my version of the world as it should be, and how to manage the thief... that will come another time. Mine is not a world where thieves are subjected to violence, or even silenced, as so many dissenters are.
But the only counting obsessed person I stand with is a puppet on Sesame Street.
We need a counter! stealth revolution to that of the thief, so that we receive Jesus’s true abundance. And to quote actor Mandy Patinkin, that’s not a Nielson number.
Related deliberations are to be found here