Vol.6 No.19, 31 May 2006


Margaret Legum


Is economics a technical matter or a question of morality? Is it about logic (what is) or ethics (what should be)? Hardline global economists claim the current system is both technically inevitable and also benign, producing maximum growth and efficiency. Other economists say the opposite: the current dispensation is neither efficient nor just, and can be changed to meet any political or ethical ends.

You would expect the Churches to take an ethical position on economics. Issues of justice are at the heart of the scriptures; and economic injustice deepens globally. But perhaps you would not expect the Churches to involve themselves in detailed economic analysis. Yet that is what a group of theologians and others have done - working through the Diakonia Council of Churches in Durban.

The result is ‘The Oikos Journey: a theological reflection on the economic crisis in South Africa’ Its authors compare the publication explicitly to the Kairos Document, published in 1985, which played a pivotal role in demolishing any remaining theological, principled or virtuous justification for apartheid.

The Kairos Document made the case that government policies based upon race and separation of the races were simply inconsistent with the Gospel; and it demonstrated the resulting human economic and social suffering. It effectively split the Dutch Reformed denominations from the other Churches, and left them without the moral force to justify the government. Five years later apartheid was history: the Kairos Document played a role at a critical time in undermining the government’s confidence.

The Oikos Journey is presented as a similar challenge to the Churches, the state and all South Africans. It relates the continuing destitution, poverty, helplessness and human distress in which almost half our population lives, despite the democratic political dispensation and the undoubted goodwill of the ruling party’s credentials. The system itself is the problem.

The booklet starts by recording the small voices of poor people, young and old, urban and rural and refugees. It relates the economy to the meaning of Oikos as a home or household (Oikos-nomos) as well as the natural environment (Oikos-logos), in a society that would claim to reflect God’s purposes. The fact that the current economic dispensation can make no such claim is demonstrated in a punchy, cold-eyed analysis of the ways in which the global neo-liberal economy operates ‘to benefit the dominant interests of our time’.

Diakonia has produced not only a passionate plea for an equitable political economy but a concise introduction to the way the current economy works. Thus: ‘The myth of “unfettered”, “unregulated”, ‘uncontrolled’ market capitalism must be directly challenged. The reality is that markets and capital are highly controlled to secure maximum benefits for the owners of capital.’

Such a dispensation cannot be considered consistent with the Churches’ view of humanity, since it is ‘a political economy in which some people are considered less than others.’ It says ‘neoliberalism’s concern with material wealth above human dignity dehumanizes the human being and sacrifices life for greed.’

Unusually the Oikos Journey makes the case that the economic dispensation under which people live determines much more than their access to material goods. It affects the very essence of their humanity. It can require people to behave badly, to ignore the sufferings of others, to harden their hearts. ‘It would not be accepted by any religion or spiritual tradition’ that some people are chronically hunger while others ‘get sick from over-eating’ . Even the rich ‘are trapped in a protected but frenetic environment that they cannot afford to abandon, even if they knew how.’

The booklet compares the current global economy with ‘God’s economy’ as demonstrated in the Gospels. Shared prosperity is its goal. It ends with three linked strategies in which churches and their people must involve themselves. First, welfare and charity towards destitute people; second, supporting developmental projects that empower poor people; and third, the prophetic voice of right and wrong, truth above expediency, compassion above technique. That call echoes the tones of the Kairos Document.

The Oikos Journey presents a serious challenge to mainstream economists, most of whom seem unable to come up with an economic system that would end the tragic exclusion of some two-thirds of humanity worldwide. The following questions to that profession seem to leap from these pages.
•Why is wealth concentrating, so that the gap between top and bottom steadily widens? Should that change? How?
•Why does so much of national and international wealth accumulate in the financial sector? What effect does that have on buying power in all other sectors? Should that change? How?
•How could governments employ the people needed to develop education, health and housing systems, contain crime, produce a decent public transport infrastructure and so on? How come, in other words, millions of unemployed people exist alongside urgent need for workers? How can that be changed?

•How can local economies be protected, promoted and made to flourish?

In other words, how could the global economy be transformed from a vortex – in which everything is sucked from the margins to the centre – into a centrifuge, in which resources move from the rich minority to where they are needed by the majority? Finally:

•If you can’t answer those questions, what is the point of your profession?

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© South African New Economics Network 2006. Page generated at 17:07; 24 September 2006