We live under the heel of an orthodoxy as domineering and cruel in its way as that of the Spanish Inquisition. The doctrine to which we are now all expected to submit, however, springs not from an implacable definition of god, but from the theology of the market place. Liturgies that speak of heaven have given way to those that preach the imperatives of laissez-faire economics, the gospel of privatization, and the sanctity of profit as a uniquely efficacious promoter of human welfare. The splendours of Rome, Mecca and Jersualem have faded before the great modern cathedrals of finance: the World Bank, the IMF, the European Union; and the central and private banks of the capitalist world. All of these are engaged in a non-stop campaign of proselytization through their countless publications, university endowments, foundations - and hotlines to the political and business hierarchy of every major country.
Equally committed to the new religion are most of the authoritative organs of political and economic discourse. All the important business and financial newspapers as well as the serious daily press (with one or two honorouble exceptions) chant the same refrain. The basic text of their mantra runs something like this:
1. Capitalism is the supreme engine of human welfare.
2. Central banks should be entirely independent of government and should be answerable only to themselves.
3. Efficiency - i.e. the capitalist system - is more important than democracy. Its invisible hand knows better than people what is good for them.
4. Free trade across international borders leads to specialization, cheaper products and greater wealth.
5. Private capital is more efficient than public capital, less regulation preferable to more regulation,
extravagantly-paid executives more important than equity and social justice.
Variations occur in the music according to local tastes, but the gospel is one. Politicians trumpet it over the airwaves, professors bludgeon their students with it, editorial writers use it to belabour their readers. Who, after all, dares to argue with the market place? No one, certainly, with any claim to understand the modern world. Some of us may not like it; but that’s how things are in this best of all possible econocracies.
It is left to the naive and uneducated to inquire why a majority of the world’s people are impoverished, why North Americans live in terror of poor neighbourhoods, and why the destitute, the homeless, and the unemployed stubbornly refuse, by their very existence, to acknowledge that the free hand of the market operates in their best interests.
An all-too-common mistake is to believe that good things are necessarily compatible with each other; that freedom of capital, for example, inevitably coincides with and promotes the well-being of the people. History shows, rather, that the interests of these two are often opposed and that unfettered capital has been responsible for much human misery. A little more regulation might have averted the crash of 1929 with all its attendant misery. A little less licence would have made it impossible for South African mining companies to force appalling conditions for years upon their black employees. Some lessons on the indifference of the profit motive to human needs might have led many governments to think more carefully before selling off their countries’ social infrastructure - and putting essential parts of it out of reach of their own citizens.
That capital has no feelings constitutes one of its most conspicuous advantages over mere humans. Another is its mobility: it can move into countries and out of them at the press of a computer key, whereas we, by and large, have to stay put. Yet a third advantage is that it employs most of us; not the other way round. Only a tiny elite wields capital in any significant fashion, just as, in former days, the pope and his inquisitors wielded the sword of God. Separated by time, capitalists and inquisitors are joined by a common belief that they alone carry the flame of enlightenment; and that unbelievers can - and perhaps should - go to hell.