Sunday, August 21, 2011

Invisible Hand Revealed, Outstretched as Compassion!

"Standard and Poor"--sounds like a run of unimpressive high-school results. It is in fact an august institution which hands out these judgments itself, not on school students, but on business and financial entities, including national economies. (The name does not refer to valuations as such: it comes from Henry Poor who began compiling data on railroad companies back in the 19th century.) As anyone who has not been on a Trappist retreat in the past weeks knows, the US has for the first time slipped into the A- range, judged for lack of credit-worthiness.

The assessment followed the so-called debt-ceiling crisis in which Congress seemed to drive the world economy to the edge of a cliff, only at the last moment to swerve away. The whole performance did not make for confidence and it's not at all surprising that some symbolic authority would wag a reproving finger. But a final judgment on the situation cannot be restricted to the scholasticism of high-finance. Everything here has a theological bottom line. And far from allowing the mysteries of economics to deter comment, theology cries out for a hearing, like the blood of Abel itself.

To get to that we must first give a snapshot of the major players in the field and their ideas.

G.B. Shaw said that if all the economists to the world were laid end to end they would not reach a conclusion, and he was likely thinking of the debate between Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. Or at least between the division of thought their names have come to represent.

On the one hand, Keynes argued against the idea that supply magically creates its own demand, that if you give capitalists the chance then their spending on investment will create the wealth that leads to buying of goods. He insisted instead that in the midst of recession the government has to stimulate the economy by reducing interest rates, while increasing spending on things like services and infrastructure.

On the other hand, for Hayek, government spending impedes recovery by depriving the private sector of capital for investment, and moreover inevitably restricts human freedom. For Hayek the free price system is what keeps everyone free, but it is itself a bit of a mystery. Prices are a spontaneous order "the result of human action but not of human design."

And, again for people who've not been vacationing in outer space, there are distinct echoes here of the position of some Democrats and the commentator Paul Krugman on the one hand, and the newly minted Tea Party on the other.

So where's the theology in it?

Through the work of Rene Girard theology has discovered the crucial factor of imitative (mimetic) desire: it is a core biblical motif demonstrated at the heart both of human violence (Cain and Abel etc.) and of Christ's power to change us to compassion and love. What would it mean if we applied this anthropological and theological insight to economics? The results could be intensely illuminating and could possibly change the "dismal science" of economics into something filled with the possibility of light!

How is it that things have value? If we begin with this economic question Mimetic Theory can help considerably. It tells us that we always imitate the desire of another in relation to an object. We may think we desire the object spontaneously, but there is always the shadowy present of the other whose prior relationship to the object shows that it is desirable.

When something is brought for sale to market (or shopping mall) we can concentrate on the thing in question forgetting the human hand that has produced the object and/or is offering it for sale. But just because we don't pay attention to that hand doesn't mean it has gone away. In fact it is exerting an even more intense fascination just because it's hidden. The riot of advertizing that takes place around goods for sale simply displaces and amplifies the human relationship to the object in the original production. That beautiful model showing off that diamond ring, she's just a deflected substitute, a glamorous stand-in, for the miner who mined the ring and the dealer who brought it to town! We might think it's her good looks that makes us want to be like her and have her ring, but in fact her body-look, her clothes, everything about her, are themselves held out as desirable by a further chain of other desire-instilling-relationships going on basically for ever.

Consumer desire is a gigantic self-referring universe, a vast self-feeling nervous system with a billion billion synapses, all coming down to that single image that will make us want the ring!

But what happens when there is a breakdown in the system of desire? This is the crucial question Keynes and Hayek were dealing with, writing as they were at the time of the great depression and arguing about its causes and its remedies. Their classic version of breakdown was the boom or glut, the apparent over-production of actual stuff that no one wants and, therefore, no one gets paid for. A year when there is a huge harvest of tomatoes makes those enormous piles at the market less and less salable. In a situation like that no one shows any desire for tomatoes! Of course once you are in a recession the amount of goods goes down precipitously and looks nothing like a glut. But the economists saw that as its initial premise: a boom followed by a bust.

But there is also the situation much closer to home and closer to my argument. The market itself can create the conditions of "glut" by deliberately inflating it with stuff no one can actually pay for, as in the 2008 housing bubble and bad-debts banking crisis. In this instance it is not over-production, but the deliberate manipulation of money and desire to the point where one fuels the other and a moment is reached when people realize there is not enough actual material wealth in the system to sustain it, and the whole thing comes crashing down. It's the inverse of a glut; it is an unsustainable emptiness, a vacuum. And it can only be brought about by phantasmagorical desire detaching itself from the actual universe and expanding to infinity.

You see what I mean? The whole system is complex and fluid but from a Mimetic Theory point of view you can always be sure that desire or the lack of it will influence the value of goods and the overall value of the market in which those goods are traded. Certainly there are objective factors--there is the object! There are actual tomatoes and actual houses. But it's the subjective element of desire that truly drives the system. This is surely what Hayek was referring to in "the result of human action but not of human design." It's human desire which drives the thing but it is not recognized or planned in any way, still less is it willingly surrendered to any principle, rational or spiritual, other than its all-powerful self.

Sooooo, back to our dueling economists. Whatever its cause, when desire bottoms out in the system, and business grinds to a halt, what do you do then?

Simple enough. Each in his own way says you have to get desire working again, you have to get it back in the system. Keynes essentially believes you can cheat desire. You have to introduce more money and stuff into the system so people begin wanting it and working to get it and thus producing themselves. Then everyone will begin to want goods more and more, and so on. In a nutshell, you have to create demand (desire).

Hayek says, no, no, no, that will never work! If you just give people stuff no one will ever desire anything. What you you have to do is actually the reverse. You must stop government spending, you must get rid of easy money, you must stop taxing, in order to free up the capitalists to begin over the making of real wealth. That way goods will be desirable and the great avatar and icon of desire--namely money, mammon--will itself be desirable once more and and the whole system will work again. (Well, he doesn't precisely say this, but his insistence on the sacrosanct freedom of prices and their autonomous character can only mean this.)

Hayek 's viewpoint is currently being applied in Greece, Ireland, Britain and Spain, under the name "austerity", which implies a temporary self-denial for the sake of longer term pleasure. But then lurking in the depths of it all is the greatest inciter, the last infallible fixer of the system, the terrible dragon begetter of desire in its rawest purest state--war! Nothing is more guaranteed to rebirth the order of desire than war, telling us what is really desirable by destroying everything else! Therefore both supporters of Keynes and supporter of Hayek historically agree on this. It was the immense government spending on war industry that truly dragged Europe and the U.S. out of the depression era. And these days no member of the Tea Party seriously wishes to dent the huge share of tax revenue soaked up by U.S. military spending (+ or - 50%) for current and future wars.

What then is the theological conclusion?

Hayek and the Tea Party are essentially on the right side of desire. But they are on the wrong side of history. We cannot continue to run the world in this way. Everyone knows it. Everyone knows there are not enough resources for exponential desire on the part of seven billion people. Alternately you cannot pauperize a large proportion of these same billions in order to protect desire for a privileged few. Most of all, everyone knows that if you precipitate a major war in order to restore the productivity of desire there will ultimately be no productivity at all.

Keynes was right in a better sense . The government has to spend in the midst of a recession. But that cannot be argued for classical economic reasons, as if the argument can be won out of pure mathematics. We have to see that the strange work of desire is more and more exposed for what it is, and because of that be prepared explicitly to invoke a new principle.

The "invisible hand", the "not by human design" are shown for what they are, the endless shell game of imitated human desire. What is at work, and has made things work in an apparently magical way, is the unseen and spontaneous mediating power of the model. But once we reveal the trick, once we see that invisible hand, we are able and indeed called upon to realize the possibility and the promise of something new.

In this very moment, at this very time, because of this growth in human awareness a new generative principle is intruding into the human equation, into politics itself. Unconscious desire progressively is rendered implausible and is displaced by surrendered-to compassion, a changed internal scenery that allows the other to be, to live, by virtue of my being one with her in her humanity. As time goes on this imitated compassion can and will be as neurally powerful and generative as imitated desire.

Sounds impossible, absurd? Not if you see that we have no choice. Human history has been pushed to its crossroads. And those who claim that the Gospel is central to their lives have no other voice that to say, yes, this is possible, this is what our belief teaches us! The Christian churches and Christians in general are called by the very urgency of the time to put our capitalist culture on notice that it will only survive by a new economics of compassion. We say, Blessed are the Poor!, rather than All Hail Standard and Poor!

Tony Bartlett, Theologian-in-Residence

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