Tag Archives: socialism

Book Review: The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek

Disclaimer: This is published under the Routledge Classics label, an imprint of Taylor & Francis, which is a wholly owned Division of the company that, at the time of reading and reviewing, I work for. I bought it at retail price and was not asked to review it by anyone I work with. As ever, I review it of my own volition and the opinions expressed here are wholly my own and should not be taken as indicative of the publisher or the parent company.

At the start of the year, I wrote a blog piece about books that would challenge my worldview. This was one I chose myself, rather than having it suggested to me by anyone else. Known as one of the fathers of neoliberalism, Hayek’s economics stand is stark contrast to my kind socialism. And I am a firm believer that one should, from time to time, read and engage with those who hold a vastly different opinions than you do.

Hayek’s opening premise is one that is a distinct product of his time. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944. As such, many of the horrors of fascist Germany were known to the world. An Austrian by birth, Hayek was living and working in England at the time. His opening assertion is that the rise of fascism was the natural outcome of socialism in Germany. He is here issuing a warning that England is in danger of following along the same path.

He speaks of socialism as having, as its essential feature, the idea of planning. i.e. that central government decides what needs to be done and then plans to do it. This view rather misses the point. He mistakes process for outcome. In order for the realisation of a socialist society (i.e. one where people are paid fairly, where none are left behind, where people are treated fairly instead of being exploited and where those who gain from the benefits of living in a civilised world pay their fair share of taxes) it is inevitable that some planning is necessary. But Hayek is too short-sighted and sees only the planning, not the goal. It like saying that the construction of a block of flats is all about cranes and heavy lifting. There is some truth in that, insofar as it is the means, but it omits from the narrative the idea that there will be homes where people will eventually live.

While it is absolutely right that any number of political/economic systems should come under scrutiny, there are further flaws in Hayek’s reasoning. Implicit in his writing that there are two possible systems: liberalism and socialism. He frequently puts capitalism into scare quotes, implying that there’s no such thing. This seems to be because he so keen to appropriate the positive connotations of the word ‘liberal’ that he wishes to push aside other, more accurate terms, in favour of a terminology that puts his own views in the most rosey light. In so doing he sets up the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy. He posits these two ideals and attempts to trash one, thus leaving only one left – Hayek’s neoliberalism. Yet this in itself is assumed by default. It is an early example of the ide of TINA (There Is No Alternative), yet the consequences of neoliberalism are not adequately explored in Hayek’s work. Like a mediocre chess player he considers possible moves, rules each one out in turn and opts for the one he has thought about the least, not examined with the same critical eye that he has applied to the others.

Hayek is, in effect, telling us a ghost story. It is the story of how evil has come to rise, and it is because of certain views that have been held in the past. Like John the baptiser, he calls us to repent of our socialist ways and make straight the way for free enterprise. But Hayek’s messiah is not Jesus, it is a certain kind of freedom. It is the freedom for any individual to do as they please. Here, he comes up with the ultimate statement of laissez-faire fundamentalism: “It is necessary in the first instance that the parties in the market should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction, and that anybody should be free to produce, sell, and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all.”

Wow, that sounds good doesn’t it? Yes. Until you think about it. If followed through, there is nothing here to prevent a manufacturer from making weapons of mass destruction and selling them to terrorist organisations or hostile governments, providing they pay the right fee. There’s nothing here to prevent the sale of narcotics to children, if they’ve got the cash on them and can negotiate a price amenable to all. There’s nothing here that protects the rights of workers, ensuring that they are given a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work or any legal protection as to whether they can rely on the ongoing nature of their employment.

Another underlying assumption that the kind of liberty Hayek is so desperate for exists and is readily attainable.

Here are just a few more quotes that demonstrate the paucity of Hayek’s thinking:

On individualism:

“…recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position.”

Here, Hayek shows his contempt for the rule of law. It’s no different in substance from the philosophy of Sheryl Crow (“If it make you happy, it can’t be that bad”).

On property & privilege:

“It would indeed be privilege if, for example, as has sometimes been the case in the past, landed property were reserved to members of the nobility. And it is privilege if, as is true in our time, the right to produce or sell particular things is reserved to particular people designated by authority. But to call private property as such, which all can acquire under the same rules, a privilege,  because only some succeed in acquiring it, is depriving the word privilege of its meaning.”

This misses the point by an almost unbelievable amount. We may have the same rules, but not all have the same means. Private property remains (and possibly more so than ever) the reserve the richest elite in the country. I’ve written before on the generational gap that those under the age of 34 will possibly never be able to own their own home.

Probably no part of the book turned my stomach as when Hayek came onto the subject of inequality. In it, he states that a person who loses their job out of sheer misfortune is bound to feel less hard done by than someone who has had their job taken away from because of the actions of the state. That may have some truth in it, but if we dig under the surface we find a level of denialism firstly that the state may be the provider of jobs and secondly that private enterprise is ever in any way at fault for causing people to become unemployed. It is merely attributed to market forces. Further, Hayek states a flat contradiction to a statement of Jesus that “the worker deserves his wages”. What Hayek proposes is that if a person, employed to do a job, does it, only for the end product to, for some reason or other, be rendered redundant, then the worker should not be paid. In other words, the worker should bear the cost of the labour, while his employer takes no financial hit. This is an idea that I find morally repugnant and should be shunned by any person who takes seriously the idea that workers should be treated with dignity and fairness.

Hayek acknowledges that his form of economic liberalism will inevitably result in ineqaulity. In effect, though, he says “[tough titty]” to this, as it is of little consequence compared to the dangers inherent in striving for a fairer society. For in Hayek’s view there is no such thing as moderation; any economic planning that is designed to curb the increase in, or reverse, inequality must be wholly totalitarian and therefore the temptation to go down this route must be resisted. In effect, Hayek holds the liberty of the individual to do act as they want is the highest, most sacrosanct of all things, and that inequality is a justifiable expense of maintaining this freedom, even if it is the freedom of the individual to economically oppress another.

In a chapter entitled ‘The End of Truth’, Hayek puts forward the idea of the power within narratives and that such narratives may be constructed as a post hoc rationalisation for the prejudices which one holds. In this, he is quite correct and I understand the theme was later picked up by the philosopher Mary Midgely in The Myths We Live By. For example, he states, “The need to rationalise the likes and dislikes which, for lack of anything else, must guide the planner in many of his decisions, and the necessity of stating his reasons in a form in which they will appeal to as many people as possible, will force him to construct theories, i.e. assertions about the connections between facts, which then become an integral part of the governing doctrine.”

Hayek is here speaking of the speck in the eye of his opponents. But the log is own eye is just around the corner. It is somewhat apt that immediately following ‘The End of Truth’ we catch Hayek doing exactly what he has just warned about. For he rationalises his dislike of socialists by stating, in ways that are designed to appeal to many, a theory that socialism is at the heart of Nazism. This is indeed the heart of Hayek’s doctrine. In so doing, he makes the foolish mistake that many on the right still make, by supposing that because the German regime was called National Socialism, that that is demonstrative of what socialism is. Such thinking would also lead one to look to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a model of democracy. It is sheer idiocy.

As he tries to make his case, one will note some absurd statements. For example:

“”The ideas of 1789″ – Liberty, Equality Fraternity – are characteristically commercial ideals which have no other purpose but to secure certain advantages to individuals.”

This displays a crass ignorance of the French Revolution. Equality is one of the things that Hayek denounces over and over in this work. As for fraternity, that is by no means a bad thing, but it is the very opposite of the individualism which is the hallmark of the society Hayek wishes to build. It should be plain by now to the reader that Hayek’s view of liberty is a rather warped one indeed; a kind of liberty where one individual or corporation should not be prohibited from economically oppressing another individual, a community or even a democracy.

“To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of commercial views.”

Frankly, this bullshit. To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of humanity and sense. Loss of life is far more important than loss of profit, but Hayek seems not to have grasped this.

In what passes for analysis, such non-sequiters are not in isolation. Though it is interesting to note what Hayek doesn’t say as what he does. In his account of the rise of Nazism, the figure of Hitler is barely mentioned. Neither are the crippling war reparations that were imposed on Germany after the first world war. Nor is there any sign of the great depression. These are all vital factors that any reasonable person would need to consider amongst the many circumstances of history, culture and geography that saw the rise of the Third Reich. So why might Hayek have missed them out? It seems that he has already found his scapegoat: socialists. Those democratically minded lovers of justice and equality must have been the cause of the the totalitarian, evil regime, convinced of its own superiority over other races that the 20th century ever witnessed.

These are but only a glimpse of the flaws in Hayek’s thinking.

So what became of his fears? Ultimately, Hayek was proved to be wrong. His warnings weren’t heeded and Labour ended up leading a socialist government after the end of the second world war, just a couple of years after Hayek wrote his thesis. Did this result in the inevitable slide into totalitarianism? No. It resulted in the most progressive government this country saw in the 20th century. It kick-started the rebuilding of the country, established the welfare state and the National Health Service, under the leadership of Clement Attlee and with the vision of Nye Bevan. It wasn’t really until the 1980s, under Thatcher, that we really saw the outplay of Hayek’s philosophy, though usually through the lens of Friedman. Mass privatisation and deregulation of the markets sowed the seeds for the 2008 crash, the biggest economic failure since Hayek’s time, which came about not because of socialist planning, but because of the neoliberal lack of good governance and oversight that is dismissed as “big government”.

So read Hayek, not because he speaks a warning from history, but because he is a warning from history. Sadly, it is a history that is still being played out today.

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Book Review: Socialism – Utopian and Scientific by Friedrich Engels

This is the third and final work in a single volume which also contains The Communist Manifesto and The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. This work was written much later in Engels’ life, and as such represents his more mature view, having noted that his contribution to the earlier two works took place when he still relatively young.

One might be hard pressed to call it a book in its own right, as it is more of an extended pamphlet, running to a little under 70 pages long; even then the introduction takes up over a third of its entire length! For the sake of familiarity, I will choose to continue to call it a book.

So what of its content?

The lengthy introduction is largely about materialism. Specifically, it is a statement of materialism’s superiority as an idea than anything that any religion has produced. It is not an argument as such, as there is no real reasoning put forward other than an appeal to a few named philosophers (including Hobbes and Hegel). If we put that aside for a bit and look at the points Engels is trying to make, it becomes clear that his idea of religion is little matured from when he co-wrote The Communist Manifesto. It remains a caricature of (predominantly) christian belief that is asserted, but not evidenced.

Getting onto the main substance of the book, Engels looks at what he refers to as Utopian Socialism. In particular he looks at the style of socialism advocated by Robert Owen, whose influence upon socialism, communism, the early labour movements and the trade unions cannot be understated. Engels states that Owen’s motivation, that of creating a better society, is flawed, that it is utopian and that instead another model must be sought.

I’ve yet to read any of Owen’s work, though what little reading I have done around him (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!) indicates to me that his motivations were far more similar to those that I knew when I lived and worked around the old mining towns of the north-east, whose input into my life have helped shape my socio-economic-political views. It is a socialism that is borne out of compassion, where all people are seen as and treated as equal. But Engels will have none of this.

The rest of the book is dedicated to the other half of the title: Scientific Socialism. Though this is a rather idiosyncratic use of the word ‘scientific’. It is rather dependent upon dialectic materialism, though Engels is at a loss to say what dialectic means, let alone his (and Marx’s) particular interpretation of the word. So Engels comes back to the opening The Communist Manifesto by stating that it was a great “discovery” of Marx’s is that history can be boiled down to a statement of class struggle. Opposed to the idea of all being equal, Engels maintains his view that there exists two distinct classes and that one is better than the other. That the working classes must rule and that the bourgeois must be smashed. This is not a view of socialism that I can agree with. I pointed out in my earlier review how flawed this historiography is, but its place here confirms it as one of the pillars upon which communism rests. Its unreliable analysis is one reason why I could not be a communist.

Another reason is Engels’ reliance on materialism. Again he asserts that is the right view, superior to others, but he does not engage in a critical argument, but merely assumes that he is right. Or rather, he assumes that Marx is right, as the main evidence for it seems to be in Das Kapital which, when referenced, is given all praise and no critique. There is no serious consideration for non-materialistic viewpoints, and as such there is no engagement with this. The argument, such as it, stands alone, in a vacuum. In other words, Engels urges us to adopt his point of view because there is no other. There is a place for putting forward one’s views in such a manner, as it might be impossible to take into account all relevant views, but it left me no more in favour of Engels’ flavour of socialism than I was before.

Ultimately, the book is lacking in arguing for a point. Engels relies too much on telling his readers that his points have already been proved instead of actually trying to prove them. In this sense, it is an attempt at persuasion by repetition. If you say something enough times, in uniformity, then that ingrains itself in your head. Such is the method by which shamanistic chanting, or liturgy, works.

This concludes the single volume work which contained this and the other two works of Engels noted above. In trying to educate myself as to the origins of communism, there remains one major lacuna my reading. The work reviewed here references it repeatedly, so it is to that work which I must turn next. It of course, Marx’s Das Kapital.

Book Review: The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 by Friedrich Engels

This is my first follow-up to having read The Communist Manifesto at the start of the year. These two are in fact in the same volume along with a third work (Socialism: Scientific and Utopian) which I intend to review later. Of the three works, this is by far the most extensive, though it falls significantly short of the length of Marx’s Das Kapital.

The title of the book gives a clue as to its nature. It is a book of observations based on Engels own experience, backed up by secondary reports from the locations and the times concerned. This edition, though, is prefaced by a much older Engels. At the time the book was written, Friedrich was 24 years old and full of the zeal of youth. So this preface is an old man looking back at his younger self. In so doing, there is an element of reproof, no longer convinced that the full force of the predictions made were wholly warranted, given the evidence presented. There is also an acknowledgement that many of the complaints have been, if not invalided, ameliorated to some extent. Yet he remains somewhat defiant, somewhat proud that some of what he prophesied came about.

Leaving behind the older Engels, we then move back to the man who wrote the first draft of the book in the 1840s. He begins with an idea of what he imagines history to be. It’s not a fantastic start, as he imagines some kind of golden past in the pre-industrial age. Full of sweeping statements and devoid of evidence, the very critically minded may well be inclined to throw the book down in disgust at this point. I would encourage against this, though, as much of what follows is far more creditworthy.

The book looks at a broad overview to begin with before getting narrower and more focused. Throughout, Engels peppers his work with citations, anecdotes and other references, each of which, to their own degree, add weight, colour and texture to his argument.

His central thesis is that the condition of the working classes is conducive to ill health and an early death. Yet the condition that they find themselves in is not by accident, but has been allowed, encouraged and maintained by the bourgeois classes. As such, the proposition is that it amounts to widespread state-sponsored murder.

He takes the reader on a tour of some of the cities in England, giving a vivid picture of life for the working classes in each of these. One thing that emerges is how the design of the cities has enabled the poor to be hidden away, largely out of sight from the middle and upper classes, as well as from visitors to the city who don’t look hard enough. The conditions described are horrific. Engels doesn’t write as passionately as one might expect, if one thought that this was a particularly polemical work. Of course, there are moments of polemic in it, but for the most part it is a very serious, sober-minded study. In effect, the facts are left to speak for themselves. I found myself trying to imagine what it would be like to live in such conditions and the only word that came readily to mind was ‘unbearable’.

After having done his initial survey, he brings together his observations together in a chapter entitled ‘Results’. For those who have read some Hobsbawm this style will be familiar. Here is where we find some Engels’ most damning statements, but he consistently backs up his more controversial conclusions with sufficient evidence to support the argument.

After this, we narrow in and look at some specific examples of industry. In particular, we look at the rise of the factories and the life within them, the agricultural working class and miners. In so doing, we also get to see some more of the politics that was going on behind the scenes to create the conditions witnessed. A fair discussion is made of the Poor Laws, the legacy of Malthus and the development of laws surrounding working hours and the employment of children.

For those who are dismissive of trade unionism and the labour movement in general, this should be essential reading. It is an excellent explanation of why they were needed in the first place.

For me, reading it in 2014, one cannot but help think in terms of our current political situation. Some significant caution is needed, though, lest our willingness to condemn the actions of our present government lead us to anachronisms. For while no reasonable person doubts the increase in the use of foodbanks and the link to current evil regime IDS*, the precise condition of the working class today is significantly different from what it was in 1844. Even Engels admits that they were improved by 1892. Yet the good work that the labour movement has had in determining better living and working standards is over. My personal view, though, is that the political party whose name best embodies that legacy no longer has policies which seek to continue progress in the same vein.

My proposal then would be that, in a similar way that Thomas Picketty has written Capital in the 21st century, as an updating of Marx, an updating of Engels may well be in order. There is certainly plenty of evidence that one could cite in support of an updated but similar hypothesis. As yet, though, I am not aware of any single author who has examined, collated and presented a case today with the level of rigour and passion as Engels did 170 years ago. If anyone might, my bet would be on Owen Jones.

Returning to the book in question, what might we say by means of conclusion? It is indicative of a sorry state of affairs that it had to be written, but necessary it was. Engels insists on viewing everything through the lens which separates all people into bourgeois and proletariat, which, as I commented on in my review of The Communist Manifesto, is not always a reasonable way of viewing the world. But to critique that aspect should not distract us from the heart of the book, which is well-researched, well-reasoned and passionately argued. At the time it was written, it was seen as an invective against the ruling classes. Now, it serves as an illuminating window into our past. We ought to put all resources we can into ensuring that we never slip back and allow the poorest in society to be subject to such conditions, though I fear that if we open our eyes to countries currently going through their own industrial revolutions, then the echoes may be all too clear.

*Note that I was requested by a conservative blogger (soon to be an ex-blogger) on Twitter to not use the word evil, whereupon I replied that to not use it would not be honest. Having no reasonable argument to use, given the weight of evidence against them, their petulant response was to unfollow me!

Confession of a left-wing christian

Introduction

What follows from ‘Background’ onwards is a post I wrote a few months ago, but have delayed publishing as it kept expanding and wish it was my intention to break into several parts and publish as a series later this year. Now, at the weekend, a report published by Demos proposed that there was a link between ‘religious’ people and left-wing viewpoints. This prompted me to think whether or not posting this article would be apposite. After asking an open question on Twitter, I was encouraged (and many thanks to those of you who responded so warmly) to publish this.

This is incomplete, I admit. I would need a thesis to firm up my arguments and I readily admit there may be many a good counter-argument to the case I make here. Be that as it may, here it is, warts and all.

Background

After my earlier post, ‘Should christians accept bonuses?’ a friend posted underneath the link I put on facebook the following comment: “I am fascinated by the statement that left = being a Christian. How left is left? Far left employs a system that stunts the need to work – benefit addicts, etc. Being a Christian is right wing too. Jesus confirmed all 10 commandments bar the Sabbath and even added to. I think it’s dangerous to get hung up with Christian = left, Linux, Prius. To the original question though – it depends is my answer. For 99% of us, I’d say “yes”. But abuse at the top makes this question more topical.”

Since there is far more to write than could be contained in a single comment, I’ve opted to write this post as a response. This will only be an overview, since to give full justification for the matter would require the writing of several books (maybe about 66 of them!) which I don’t have the time to do. I am already well aware that I have over a dozen blog posts that I have started but not finished for various reasons (lack of time, ill health, inability to find the right words to express myself).

Opening comments

In all of what is to follow, I hope to keep in mind two things:

1) Christianity predates the ideas of ‘left’ and ‘right’. So when I talk about myself being left wing, this is because there are ideas and values which I have taken from my understanding of christianity which I recognise as being more common to the left than to the right. So from the outset, I do not claim that “christianity = left” as was stated in the comment.

2) There are wide variety of opinions that fall under the scope of ‘left’ and ‘right’ making them very hard to pin down in any precise sense. In that respect, it’s not unlike trying to define a christian, which is a question I looked at in some depth last year.

So I have to define what I mean when I say ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ I know I often have a go at others about not being precise enough in their thinking, so I shall attempt as best I can to be precise. In these definitions, I won’t cover all ground, so I shall only try and get at the core values.

What I mean by ‘left wing’

When I talk of being left wing, what I have in mind is a system of fairness and equality, tempered by grace.

When I speak of being left wing, I primarily mean in an economic sense. There is an additional sociological sense to being left wing, which is tied up with the economics, though for the sake of not confusing matters, I prefer to use the term ‘liberal’ when it comes to the more sociological side of things. I will touch on that later but for the most part I will leave that for another time, as I think that is far more complicated to deal with in a short blog post.

To be economically left wing is to recognise that our economy (both national and international) is full of inequality. I know that I benefit from that inequality at the expense of others. Though it is not a scientific tool, there is a little gadget here which shows how highly ranked you are in terms of the world’s wealth. Take it with a due pinch of salt. While the recent Occupy protests talk about the 1% and 99%, these were initially meant to refer to those within a single country. Taken globally, I am probably in the 1%, though, as will many of those who read this post, I suspect.

The main principle of left wing economics is to ensure that as many people as possible are looked after and able to live dignified lives. If we then recognise that there is inequality, then corrective measures have to be taken. This leads onto the secondary principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That is, wealth redistribution. The emphasis has to be on the disadvantaged.

What I mean by ‘right wing’

As before this is a wholly inadequately brief summary, but I want to get at the core values from which all else springs. In economic terms, by right wing I refer to capitalism. The fundamental principles which drive capitalism are individualism and greed. The notion of supply & demand is inherently grounded on the idea of the individual person setting out to get the best deal for themselves. But this rapidly leads to an idea of “value” that is purely monetary and which loses any sense of proportion. This is most easily seen in the example of footballers’ wages. Here, there is a high demand and a low supply which pushes the cost up, but which, by its very nature, ignores the rest of society and fails to take into account anything other than a very narrow viewpoint.

One of the things that got me very angry in my accountancy training was when it was stated that “the purpose of a company is to increase the wealth of its shareholders.” There was no statement about creating employment or providing a valuable good or service to the public. It can be put into summary by saying that the pound is more important than the person.

One aspect of capitalism is often stressed is that of competition. The idea is that there should be several different entities in the same market, where the forces of supply and demand lead to each party trying to improve their products (which will therefore attract customers) and to reduce their prices, but without doing so to the extent that they lose money. This only works in a limited and isolated microcosm, which of course is not the kind of world we live in. Plus, it doesn’t remove from the fact that the fundamental motivation remains personal greed. This is something I find fundamentally opposed to my christian belief.

What I do not mean by left and right wing

There are some things which may have cropped into people’s minds during the above discussion in the form of “what about this” or “what about that.” It’s not a discussion that I find particularly productive or helpful. When I talk about left wing, I do not mean I am a communist.

Marx had some very good ideas, but I do not agree with all of them. Firstly (and you won’t be surprised by this), I don’t agree with his statement of atheism. Secondly, there are many examples of supposedly communist states that have veered a long way from what Marx envisioned. He is said of once uttered, “if that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist.” In fact almost every communist regime in the world has fallen, and for one very simple reason: greed. It is the very fuel of capitalism that is incompatible with a communist style of government. When the task of administering a redistribution of wealth is given to individuals and groups, time and again, history has shown that these groups adopt an approach akin to “one for you, one for me.” This has led to mass economic ruin often with greater levels of inequality than in the pre-communist days. So this is not what I am advocating.

Similarly, it may be common in some rhetoric to equate anyone of a right wing persuasion with the fascist extremism of Germany in the 1930s & 1940s. As Godwin’s law rightly points out, when you compare someone you disagree with to the Nazis, you have usually lost the argument. I would reserve the term “far right” for those individuals and organisations that advocate setting up one group as inherently superior to another, or prejudice against certain groups. These exhibit themselves is characteristics such as racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, theophobia, etc.

So by referring to someone as right wing, I am not trying to falsely align them with the likes of the British National Party or English Defence League. That kind of talk is far more provocative than it is productive.

The obvious justification: the early church

There is some very obvious justification for identifying christianity as a left wing group. This is evidenced by the early years of the church. The book of Acts gives us a couple of samples of what life was like in the years following Jesus’ resurrection. The two clearest passages are these:

“All of those who believed came together, and held everything in common. They sold their possessions and belongings and divided them up to everyone in proportion to their various needs.” (Acts 2:44,45; NTFE)

“The company of those who believed had one heart and soul. Nobody said that they owned their property; instead, they had everything in common. The apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great power, and great grace was upon all of them. For there was no needy person among them, since any who had possessed lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sale, and placed it at the feet of the apostles, who then gave to each according to their need.” (Acts 4:32-35, NTFE)

I think they’re fairly self-explanatory. One of the phrases that was often taken to sum up the thinking of Karl Marx was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” referred to above. Interestingly, this is found neither in Das Kapital, nor The Communist Manifesto, but in one of his lesser known works, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). Although the phrase is not used exactly in Acts, the idea is very much present, predating Marx by quite a few centuries.

In all fairness, there is no explicit instruction that this is the only way to conduct a christian society. Rather, it is a natural expression of the disciples (and by this I mean more than 12) who have spent several years following Jesus and his teaching, and who are now living in the light of his resurrection, carrying out their commission to preach the gospel to all the earth. It’s what they did as one of their first reactions now that they had the full picture.

From Jesus’ teaching 

Below is a selection of quotations taken from the gospel of Matthew which have influenced my thinking. For the sake of the wordcount, I have made them intentionally short. I would, of course, encourage you to read the wider contexts in which they appear, lest you think I am quote-mining.

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Gk: mammon).” (Matt 6:24; NRSV)

This is crucial to me. I struggle to understand christians who profess to serve both. This is later echoed in 1 Timothy 6:6-10 which includes the famous quotation “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” One reason is because I work in finance and as such, it is very easy to lose your priorities in that world. So I constantly have to remind myself that I do a good job because that honours God rather than allowing me any materialistic gain.

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake.” (Matt 7:9,10, NRSV)

This demonstrates to me the idea of meeting the need as it arises without prejudice. Jesus doesn’t ask for any form of means testing. If it asked for, it is given. I know that if I am in need the last thing I will want to do is to face an interrogation (c.f. Atos assessments for disabled people) before being given the help I need. Likewise, if I would like that for myself, then that is what I am obliged to give to others, as exemplified by the following quote:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12, NRSV)

One of the themes that runs through Jesus’ teaching is of turning conventional or ‘obvious’ wisdom on its head. The idea of each person getting what they ‘deserve’ is often described as a meritocracy, and at surface level is really quite straightforward and seems to make sense. Yet the gospels turn this on its head:

“At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’.” (Matt 11:25, NRSV)

Another example of this is the parable of labourers in the vineyard (Matt 19:30 – 20:16) which is bracketed by a parallelism of “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” and “the last will be first, and the first will be last” – here, I think the chapter divisions break up the flow and probably ought to be repositioned.

Then we come onto health:

“Great crowds came to [Jesus], bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute and many others. They put them at his feet and he cured them,” (Matt 15:30, NRSV)

Putting aside questions of the historicity of miracles for a moment, what’s the principle being shown here? I read it as one of generous compassion. In modern politics, the future of healthcare is a major topic. Jesus never asked for payment to heal others, it was done freely.

In the next quote we see another example of the topsy-turvy reasoning that permeated Jesus’ teaching:

“’If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’” (Matt 16: 24,25, NRSV)

Again, in the news recently has been the issue of tax avoidance. For honesty’s sake, I probably admit that I avoid some tax, via gift aid, pension contributions and an ISA. So I am uncertain as to whether I am actually living biblically given the following:

“When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’” (Matt 17:24b,25a, NRSV)

Though I shall not quote it in full, the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35) has a summary of the major subject of the gospel: forgiveness. Where the master has a debt, he is willing to be forgiving to his debtor; this is not the way of capitalism. It is far more compassionate than the cold laws of supply and demand, where payment is demanded from those who cannot pay, which is what the unforgiving servant does.

“’If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt 19:21, NRSV) In cross-referenced bibles, this is usually linked to the verses in Acts quoted above; thus demonstrating the link between Jesus’ teaching and the behaviour of the early church.

“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:23,24, NRSV)

Again, Jesus talks about the issue of wealth. I get the impression that it’s a fairly important topic as far he was concerned, and therefore it probably ought to be important to us. Note, he doesn’t say it’s impossible for rich person to enter the kingdom, nor does he condemn them simply for being rich, so neither do I. Instead, it is simply “difficulty.”

Then again, we come to yet another example of the upside down logic of Jesus:

“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matt 23:11,12, NRSV)

Note that these are just quotations from Matthew. My intention had been to do a complete survey of both the Old Testament and the New Testament but, as stated earlier, there is no space here. I leave it to you to fill in those extensive gaps and which is why I readily admit that this argument is incomplete as it stands.

Some caveats

There is the not entirely unreasonable argument that goes along the lines of “that’s fine for individuals, but this shouldn’t be reflected in government policy.” Where I believe this argument falls down is that if carried through to its logical conclusion, all welfare would be solely due to the whim of the a very small rich minority. Implicitly, this would then be dependent on each and every member of this elite minority to conform to the same set of values. But this has been precisely the problem with implementing communism; nice as an idea as it was, it failed because of the fallibility of people.

While the disciples in the early church don’t seem to have implemented a tax system, per se, I have yet to think of a better way of implementing a redistribution of wealth to those who most need it in a manner other than what we would recognise as a tax system in a society as large and complicated as ours.

I ought to point out that the gospel is not primarily a political manifesto. There may be some who consider it to be such but I think the broad consensus amongst christians is that the gospel’s primary purpose is one of salvation (or soteriology, if you want to be fancy). It does have a number of knock-on consequences, so do not think that I am stating that this is the whole summary of the gospel. I am not pretending it is, this is something of a side show. Of course, 1st century Middle Eastern politics does play an important part in the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and I would not seek to rip those out of their historical context. But for the sake of brevity, I shall have to leave this aspect woefully short of what should be an adequate treatement.

There is one very right-wing sentiment that Jesus expresses. “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have in abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Matt 13: 12, NRSV) Here, as with all the verses quoted above, we need to consider the context. Here, Jesus is explaining why he uses parables as a teaching tool. He refers not to material wealth but to, “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”. This takes us firmly away from the world of materialism and more into eschatology. Were this to be taken as a basis for socio-political rhetoric, you would have to somehow dismiss all that has been noted above; and I, for one, don’t know how to do that with any integrity.

The parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) and the parables of the pounds (Luke 19:12-28) provide food for thought in this context. I haven’t got space here to go into these in the depth that they deserve. If anyone wishes to write a counter-argument to mine (and I would encourage you to do so) then these 2 parables would make a very good starting point. All I would say here, is I think that Jesus is using the worldly wisdom as an illustration of the issues of sin & judgement. For the parable of the pounds, Kenneth Bailey has an excellent essay in ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ which is well worth a read.

What I do not argue is that wealth is inherently wrong. To the best of my knowledge, at no point in the bible is wealth in and of itself ever condemned. Indeed:

“When Joshua sent [the half tribe of Manasseh] away to their tents and blessed them, he said to them, ‘Go back to your tents with much wealth, and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze and iron, and with a great quantity of clothing; divide the spoil of your enemies with your kindred.’” (Josh 22:8; NRSV)

Deuteronomy 8 is a great passage that carries the core message “[don’t forget where you came from and who provided for you]” One of the key verses is the following:

“But you shall earnestly remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (Deut 8:18; Amp)

I would encourage you to read the whole chapter, as it carries a warning against complacency and lack of humility. This is what I think is at the heart of Jesus’ declaration that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (cf Matt 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) .

A breakdown

So with that said, let’s go back to the original comment and break it down. “I am fascinated by the statement that left = being a Christian.” I think I’ve shown that I made no such statement; and this is a misconstruing of what I did write. To quote myself: “…I am distinctly left-leaning. One of the main reasons this is because I am a christian.”

“How left is left?” As discussed above, there are a wide variety of opinions and viewpoints that fall broadly under such an umbrella term. I don’t think it’s overly helpful to always try and classify such subjective opinions and group them together; you can find yourself making bedfellows with those with whom you disagree on a large number of matters.

“Far left employs a system that stunts the need to work – benefit addicts, etc.” I’d be interested in the evidence to back this up as well as finding the definition of “benefit addict” is. While the tabloid press may love to find the odd exception and pretend it is demonstrative of an example of the failure of the welfare state, the silent majority who receive benefits do not live on them entirely and it is certainly unfounded to say that benefits stunts the need to work. Indeed, as things stand, I shall be on Job Seeker’s Allowance very soon, yet the amount that pays wouldn’t even cover half the rent on the 1 bed flat I live in, let alone any other living expenses. Frankly I find the comment as offensive as it unreasoned.

“Being a Christian is right wing too. Jesus confirmed all 10 commandments bar the Sabbath and even added to.” Here, I don’t think the assertion being made makes any logical sense. What I think may be meant is that being right wing is in some way identified with the rule of law. Now, provided that my reading of that is correct, it does show a subtle difference in terms of left/right when it comes more to sociological aspects than economic, the latter of which has been the thrust of my argument thus far and which was the subject of my original post. But even if one takes the more sociological ‘liberal’ aspect of ‘left’ then the comment still doesn’t make sense, as liberal values still have respect for, and demand the enforcement of, the rule of law. Precisely, how those laws are formulated is of course something up for grabs and a matter there isn’t room for here.

“I think it’s dangerous to get hung up with Christian = left, Linux, Prius.” As stated at the start, I do propose that christian = left and never did. As for the inclusion of Linux & Prius I am simply perplexed as to how they come into the equation.

Conclusion

In spite of going on for around 4,000 words, this has barely scratched the surface. There is much more that could be (and probably has been) said. I’ve given just a sample of scriptures that have influenced my thinking on the subject. The heart of the issue is the source of our motivation. My view is that the gospel is largely built around the notion of grace, and that this has far more in common with left of the economic-political spectrum. The economic right is dependent  upon, and actively encourages, greed. For this reason, I cannot, with any sense of honesty, reconcile this to a christian viewpoint.

Of course, this analysis has been dependent on my understanding, and I acknowledge that that may well mistaken. For the sake of brevity, I know have made some gross over-simplifications, but I hope that you can forgive me for these. If I have made any gross misrepresentation or have got the wrong end of the stick, I would encourage you again to post a comment with a due correction or to write a response post and let me know about it.

So, for all its flaws, that is my argument.

The guilt of jobhunting

This may seem like an unusual title, but it’s something I felt as I have been pursuing my next job. The fact is, as an accountant, those that are interviewing me are those that have “succeeded” as they might be seen by their peers. These are mostly finance directors of the various companies for which I have interviews.

So far, I have had 4. One has been very good and I liked the chap I spoke with a lot. I was also given reason to suppose that they were considering putting me forward for 2nd (and final) interview. The other 3 didn’t go anywhere near so well and I am not optimistic of going forward with those.

The thing is, though, that in my position, I’ve had recruitment consultants fall over themselves trying to throw job specs at me. One role has been put forward to me by at least 4 recruitment consultants, but to be honest I’ve lost count. My phone number has been given out by current colleagues and one night last week my phone barely stopped ringing from 5:30-9:00pm. But this is where the guilt comes in; I am not having to do much work to get these opportunities sent my way.

I put my CV on Monster and responded to a few emails and phonecalls, trying to keep track of who I have spoken to and what jobs I’ve said I’m happy to apply for. I’ve made a few meetings with people early in the morning, which has required getting the 5:30am train (not so easy now that the clocks have gone forward!).

The only thing vaguely sacrificial I have to do is wear my posh shoes all day. Normally I wear trainers with my suit and only change into my formal shoes once I’m at work. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to carry my trainers into an interview. Now my formal shoes aren’t the most comfortable for walking long distances in, so wearing them all day results in blistering and bleeding.

Yet if I weren’t as educated and qualified as I am, I really don’t know where I would go. It’s this that makes me feel like a useless numpty who gets stuff thrown at me that I really don’t deserve. Then we have to have to come on to the notion of salary.

For those who of you who don’t know, recruitment consultants make their fee as a proportion of the starting salary of the individual placed. Then each consultant gets an individual commission based on the fee. So it is in their interest to try and push for as high a salary as possible. Because I am a christian, I am a socialist. I will not let myself be motivated by materialism or greed. So I am perfectly happy to take a pay cut if it gets me a job that keeps a roof over my head. In this I agree with Paul when he wrote to Timothy:

But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Tim 6:6-9)

Yet this is a complete anathema when talking to consultants and other capitalists.

One chap I spoke to today (I wrote most of this on Monday night) went on a very long spiel about how he wasn’t interested in his commission, only to then go on immediately to start suggesting I aim for a salary that was £10k higher than what I am on now.

I am already paid more than the national average salary (which is around £26k, to the best of my knowledge) and so to ask for further increases would represent a seriously warped sense of priorities. Yet to play down one’s aims risks looking like you have no drive. Recall, though that I am meeting with finance directors; they only got to their position by having a significant amount of ambition and consider that anyone who is worthwhile will be just like them. So unless I portray myself as far more right-wing than I am, I run the risk of not getting a job in the first place.

This morning (Tuesday) I posted a short note on Twitter & Facebook that ambition is another word for discontent. Not one person agreed with me. One post suggested that the opposite of ambition was laziness. I would disagree with this; laziness is the opposite of hard work. My aim is to find a job that I am good at and can enjoy. I do not feel a need to try to climb career ladder or aim to be a finance director. Those who do are not the happiest people I know. Whatever they have, they always want more.

Living a contended lifestyle is completely alien in today’s world. But I’m content to swim against the tide of materialism.

Have you ever found jobhunting induces guilt, or felt pressured to put a different emphasis on your goals in order to get a job?