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Protestant church on danger of neoliberalism

A buzzing bee is a symbol for enterprise and busyness. But bees, as we read in the papers, are endangered. Scientists warn of the possible extinction of bees and the incalculable consequences that this may have to the pollination and production of food.

Half of the forty billion bees living in the USA are needed just to pollinate the immense rows of almond trees in the Central Valley of California, for example. These are stressed bees, whose beehives are loaded in lorries which travel for three days and nights from one end of the country to the other, woken up at intervals that are vastly different from their natural cycles, often fed an unbalanced diet made up only of almond nectar, exposed to the aggression of the new neonicotinoid insecticides required by mono-cultures and obliged to fight viruses which probably become active because the bees are tired and exhausted.

All that is too much, so silence descends on the almond tree valleys because one third of the bees have died. Why carry on with that mass extinction year after year? Because from an economic point of view it is worthwhile. Fewer bees means the price obtained by bee keepers who rent out their hives goes up. The almonds of Central Valley are a 1.9 million dollar business. This seems to justify even the mass death of the animal without which natural pollination of most fruit, vegetables and cotton will not be possible. Perhaps we will be able to develop a mechanical buzz to do their work. But is that what we want? Because that is what neoliberal economics are about.

Neoliberalism is an economic approach where the private sector, rather than governments, controls economic life, characterised by privatisation of public services, the opening of national markets to multinational interests and severe limits on government spending.

Neoliberal economics wants to have a deregulated marked where the most powerful winn all"

Right now the underlying idea of neoliberal economics is to have a deregulated market where the most powerful win all. From the enormous riches thus created by the few, so the neoliberal belief goes, everyone will profit because the capital will be invested in the global market. Unfortunately, that assumption has been proven wrong time and again. The wealth ‘trickling down’ to more than 80 per cent of humanity from the riches and consumption of its richest 20 per cent is more like the crumbs that fall down from the banquet than a fair participation in the meal.

Economic Justice for All was the first explicit Church critique of the neoliberal economic assumption that everything is fine when profit is fine that I ever ran across. This document, produced at the Catholic Bishops Conference of the United States in 1986, was followed by the outstanding confession of faith which the Alliance of the Reformed Churches prepared in a processus confessionis lasting seven years and involving consultations on all six continents.

When the World Assembly of Reformed Churches met in Accra, Ghana, in 2004, it cried out its belief in the necessity of overcoming neoliberal economics, saying:

“The root causes of massive threats to life are above all the product of an unjust economic system defended and protected by political and military might. Economic systems are a matter of life or death… Neoliberal economic globalisation… is an ideology that claims to be without alternative, demanding an endless flow of sacrifices from the poor and creation. It makes the false promise that it can save the world through the creation of wealth and prosperity, claiming sovereignty over life and demanding total allegiance which amounts to idolatry.”

"More like the crumbs from the banquet than a fair participation in the meal"

The accusation of the churches towards the economic system could not have been stronger. Since then, all of the main churches of Christianity have published documents, encyclicals and resolutions on neoliberal economics and none of the ecumenical assemblies, no matter whether on the European or World level, can meet anymore without addressing the economic issue of life that is moving more and more towards the centre of discussion and becoming obvious as the root of the problems our globalised society is facing.

But the churches are not only reflecting, praying and writing about the economic question. They are joining in the widespread movements practising alternative economics. From German Evangelical churches using their influence as one of their country’s largest employers and changing their own economic practices, to Italian Protestants setting up ecological benchmarks and the Anglican Communion using its clout as an investor to challenge corporate culture, Christians are fighting neoliberalism in practical ways.

The economic disaster which produces ever growing disequilibrium between the majoritarian poor world and the small rich world (not any more to be geographically located in southern and northern hemispheres, but apparent in the so-called wealthy societies), is not a question of charity. It’s not about collecting money to share with the poor. It is a question of rules that can guarantee rights of participation in the global market for the more vulnerable players.

Christian leaders and movements have always been in contact with politics and global market players to discuss the economic order. This contact often fails to achieve the desired results, as with the talks held between the World Council of Churches, the World Bank and the International Monetary fund in 2002/2003. Talks in which the two global financial institutions asserted that their mission does not include the promotion of human rights and spelled out their conviction that any growth of the markets will bring relief to the poor as well.

On the other hand, especially in the United States, there are Christian movements opposing the main financial players not merely in spirit, but in financial activities. Meetings like the annual Christian Economic Forum want to counteract the World Economic Forum of Davos using the same ideology but wanting to create different power groups. Sponsored by organisations like Crown Financial Ministries, they make charity one of their arguments, propose biblical teaching for resolving people’s financial problems and teach wealth as a consequence of receiving God’s blessing. But they seem to be unaware of how the very same rules that permit their sponsors to sustain them are at the origin of the financial exploitation of the majoritarian world.

There is no doubt that the churches constitute one of the main critiques of the current economic system. Sometimes their voices are a prophetical outcry against the trend that measures any success only in financial profit. They are creating awareness of economic injustice in a manner that could be described as ‘capillary’ – at the local, limited level. From that consciousness-building grows alternative economic thought and action all over the world.

How might good economics look in the future?

The major Christian economic movement calls for rules. The Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites in order to decree that nobody had to be enslaved anymore. The rising power of a few should not become the stumbling block of the many. That’s why churches are demanding rules that guarantee the dignity of the vulnerable.

Jean Jacques Rousseau put it this way: “Between the strong and the weak, freedom oppresses and it is the law that frees.” These rules shall come forth from ecclesiastical communities that experience principles of communion as dominant over and against the ones of exclusion, that give weight to sharing over and against the imperative of possessing.

Christian action, local or global, can show working alternatives, live out economical testimony inspired by the biblical message, and create new ways of financial reasoning. As usual, it all starts off from spiritual change, it’s all a matter of a spiritual conversion.

Herbert Anders is the editor and co-author of Equomanual: a handbook for a spirituality of economic justice, member of the working group on Globalization and Environment of the Federation of the Protestant Churches in Italy and member of the co-ordination team of the Church Action for Labour and Life network of the Conference of European Churches.


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