It has happened before: the fall of the Roman Empire, the transition of the Middle-Ages into the Renaissance, the French Revolution, Marxist Communism the Great Depression and the Nazi hell. Now we seem to be looking at the end of capitalism and the present debt-based economy.
I am not an economist and understand little about what is going on in America except in the simple terms of most of us – we get into debt and our creditors can help themselves to our property if we don’t pay what we owe. I have read many articles about the possible collapse of the US Dollar if they refuse to raise the debt ceiling and default. The scenarios are indeed frightening because of the human cost to us all throughout the world.
In bygone ages money represented its value in gold, and more particularly the human work and produce that made of money a medium of fair exchange. I was always taught as a child that the world owed no one a living and that we had to go out and earn it. We could buy things we saved up for, and if it was really necessary to borrow and contract a debt, we would go ahead only if we knew how much we could take off our weekly wages for the repayments. People older than I remember such simple rules in life, though it must be said that the generation before me lived through the Great Depression as children. In a small economy, money is simply a medium of exchange with an agreed and objective value. You got paid for working or having something to sell, and you would buy what you needed with your own money. Money has been around for a very long time. Jesus speaks of the Roman denarius, saying that what was due to be paid in taxes to the Empire was to be paid, and man’s debt to God was in another order altogether.
At some point came another notion of economics which escapes the common sense of most of us ordinary folk. It is a notion of money that is unrelated to the value of property, precious metals and human work. It became abstract and an object of speculation. The modern economy is based on debt. Banks and business buy debts, whilst most of us struggle to pay them and be owners rather than debtors! I have a brother-in-law who is a banker. He once tried to explain to me the advantage of buying debt. It seemed like buying the right to get the interest from the debtor, so that’s where the profit is. I assume the usury interest is higher than the price of the debt! Cross that with all the “Chinese” we read and hear from stock exchanges and those charged with the finances of states and governments – and we get really confused.
The relationship between money and what it is supposed to represent (for convenience the gold bullion standard) is what separates different political tendencies between conservatives and socialists. Another huge problem is the staggering amounts represented by petroleum products and energy in general. We arrive at the end of the industrial age, which began by farming people being dispossessed and forced into the dark satanic mills of William Blake’s Jerusalem. That economy is an illusion, a bubble, the world of financial speculation. We have a whole illusory world of credit and debt, markets, hedge funds, offer and demand and many more terms understood only by economists. Above all we have obscenely big businesses and ordinary people being deprived of an honest livelihood.
Financial speculation causes untold human sufferings. If the price of an ordinary house in southern England in the 1930’s was some £30,000 in today’s value (£300-400 in those days), the present market price would be ten times that – £300,000 – ten times more than can be reasonably afforded by an ordinary working family. Energy is another victim of speculation, and we now learn that prices of necessities like water and food are being jacked up by speculation. Millions are plunged into poverty and starvation whilst those who can afford food are wasting it. Third World countries become so helplessly poor that a whole traffic of human persons wishing to immigrate into the western world becomes another subject of speculation and organised crime. Very few own the greatest part of wealth in this world. On one side, we look at the dying agony of a Promethean monster. On the other side, our very lives are threatened by the services we are used to being withdrawn: modern medicine and hospitals, old age pensions, unemployment benefits and income support (or whatever they call “the dole” nowadays).
I have been reading about what might happen in the event of a currency collapse and hyperinflation – what happened in Germany enabling Hitler to get into power, Argentina, England in the 1970’s and other places. In an extreme scenario, the country concerned descends into chaos as services are withdrawn, food and fuel are no longer transported and delivered, and the electricity is switched off. In the cities, there would be looting and the efforts of desperate people to find food. Those in need of medication would not get medical care. If that happens, thousands and millions will die. Is that about to happen in America and Europe? To some extent, it has happened. Some entertain the idea of surviving. During the occupation of France by the Nazis, those who lived in the country fared better than those in the cities, but life was still very hard. Would it lead to dystopia à la George Orwell? It is a good question but I have no answer to that one.
Whether we are looking at an absolute catastrophe in human terms as the world is depopulated either by the consequences of the downfall of the financial empire of the ultra-rich or some kind of evil consortium of psychopaths, or whether we already get a glimpse of a new world that awaits us after the pain and suffering, we are definitely seeing a change of civilisation. The most likely outlook is more than a lifetime of suffering and penance in a long dark night of the soul.
Apart from the suffering I will have to endure as much as anyone else, I welcome the end of the consumerist culture, supermarkets, overpriced housing, crippling costs of the welfare state and the evils of those at the limit between questionable business practices and organised crime. If something bust the hypermarkets and other monsters of big business, would it bring back opportunities for small traders and shopkeepers? Probably not for a long time, but one can dream. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be less reliant on our cars or pressured to move into a city! The dystopian visions are very depressing. Perhaps we in the countryside can barter – my woodworking skills for food and farm products – that is if the farm hasn’t been laid waste by hordes of starving city folk on the rampage. Most of us would not survive in a world of disease and starvation.
Nicholas Berdyaev wrote at length on a New Middle Ages, a notion of the period between the end of the Roman Empire and before the building of the cathedrals. He saw it coming after the demise of Marxist Communism or Nazism, but there was yet our own totalitarianism – of money – that had to run its course. In the past, there was no rotting concrete ruins, rusting wrecks of motor vehicles and Japanese nuclear power stations leaking their deadly radiation into the sea. The thought of it all is agonising. But, perhaps, nature has a way of recovering from us humans that we cannot imagine!
I have written a couple of sketchy ideas about the de-growth (décroissance) movement, but it seems not to be the aim of a political ideology but simply what is going to happen. We have technology but not the moral rectitude to use it for good. That is an old problem as speculated upon by Mary Shelley in her visionary novel Frankenstein. Using a computer is evidence of the use of technology and progress – but it can’t work without electricity or a communications network for the internet. If the basics go, my computer will be a useless pile of junk, just like my van if there is no fuel to power it. Christ warned his disciples that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The same could be said of our technology and our machines. When all that is gone, I hope we will still have our books and everything we had before we discovered computers and the internet. This blog will vanish, with everything written on it except anything that might be printed on durable and good quality paper. Printing itself will only be possible by the kind of machines that existed in the nineteenth century and before. Are there still people trained in the craft of traditional printing? It is harder to go backwards and lose what we remember than discover new things! One of the reflections that has been through my mind, over these weeks of “doldrums” and the dearth of churchy news, was that blogs and the internet are fragile and fleeting. Just imagine where they would be without electricity! Nothing!
It is going to be more difficult than most of us imagine. American-style survivalism – a gun, two bars of gold and three weeks of tinned food – is a complete illusion. If this civilisation falls, many of us will die – which should not be a matter of fear for Christians. We will die of starvation, get murdered or executed by some totalitarian regime, or of disease because there aren’t any more doctors or hospitals. Some time or other, we have to die, and if we have the faith, we matter very little as individuals.
For those who survive and have some human, moral or even Christian ideal, the new world will have to be something human, small and beautiful. There has to be hope. Much of our present technology would be forgotten and recognised to have been of little lasting value.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Saint Benedict came along and made something new of the monastic tradition – a civilising force and a drive to build a new world. At this time, I can see the slate being wiped clean (it will take longer than our lifetimes) and something luminous coming out of it. But, very few people would be influenced by monasticism. I think the greatest light will come from outside Christianity like the wisdom and medicine offered by the Arabs in the Middle Ages. Most of us are inclined to think that a new “social contract” could be built on a bartering economy, necessarily local and founded on honesty and moral instincts. Will that come about?
I rather look forward to the day when computers, cars and supermarkets will be a thing of the past, taken over by farming and fishing, working with our hands and preserving wisdom and knowledge through printed books and oral tradition.
If God grants me life and survival through the coming tribulations, I look forward to simplicity and innocence regained. One can but dream…