by Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012
The central arguments of this book are that most of the world’s major religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism – took their forms in reaction to injustice, and that their powerful messages could be harnessed now in order to help address the numerous challenges we are facing today, including severe economic instability and the ecological crisis.
The authors believe that these problems have their roots in the development about 3000 years ago of money- and private property-based economies. They speculate that not only does money change the nature of economic transactions within a society; it actually changes people’s souls, encouraging them to think solely in terms of personal gain rather than the wellbeing of the overall community.
They argue that this is partly because a market system based on money is inevitably biased in favour of people who have access to money and against people who do not. The system of interest exacerbates this. Greed has become institutionalized, and as a result, over the past three millennia there have been recurring problems with unpayable debt building up over time, leading to an increasing division between haves and have-nots, which in turn tends to lead to major societal crises.
Such crises arose frequently in the Levant during what the authors call the “Axial Age”, between the eighth and second centuries BCE. The Bible refers to them numerous times and the Old Testament prophets along with Jesus and St Paul emphasized the importance and potential power of the powerless, often describing them as being blessed or in some way chosen by God. St Paul also seems to have recognized the problem with blindly following a system of law while not respecting the fundamental humanity of our fellows. Simply instituting a system of law does not always promote ethical behavior and it may actually make things worse if the law is used to uphold injustices caused by the economic system, as happened under the Romans in St Paul’s time.
In northern India during the same period similar problems arose with, according to the authors, the same root cause – the development of a new type of economy placing emphasis on private property and money that was supported by the monarchic powers. The book cites research by Buddhist scholar Uma Chakravarti which provides a historical context for Prince Siddharta’s decisions to abandon his privileges and meditate on the interrelatedness of all things in order to try to liberate human beings from suffering. In the present day, Buddhist scholars and monks in a number of countries are involved in movements that have much in common with the Western ecological movement, seeking to move away from the growth-based economic paradigm. The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, famously, has the goal of increasing gross national happiness rather than gross national product.
The book goes on to describe how some centuries after the advent of Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity the nomadic, non-materialist society in which the prophet Mohammed lived also began to be overrun by mercantilism. The authors make a credible case that the new religion of Islam took its form in response to social problems caused by these changes. The Koran contains heavy criticism of people who enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbours. Of all the major religions, Islam is the one which continues to place the clearest emphasis on economic justice, criticizing greed in very unambiguous terms. So the authors believe that it is no coincidence that it is subject to heavy censure from those in the West who wish to maintain the economic status quo.
The authors also recognize however that all of these religions’ messages have been misused at one time or another to perpetrate injustices and that they have all sometimes helped to prop up the very economic system that is causing the problems in the first place. An obvious example of this is the Crusades, which were ostensibly carried out in order to liberate the grave of Jesus in Jerusalem, but were really intended as a means to take control of trade routes to India and promote the interest of Venice in particular. No religion has escaped this type of abuse; even Islamic banking, which officially forbids the payment of interest, can be manipulated in such a way as to exacerbate inequality of power.
The middle part of the book is a lengthy discussion of rationality which I found rather heavy going and confusing, perhaps because of my limited familiarity with critical theory. At times it seemed as though the authors were challenging the scientific method in general – or at any rate, sidelining it – but while the method certainly has its limitations it’s hard to know what exactly could take its place in acquiring and integrating certain types of knowledge (although not all knowledge, and not values).
A more fundamental problem I had with the book’s argument was the idea that money is inevitably corrupting. As with many of the people involved with Feasta, I tend to believe that it is the type of money that we use – generally debt-based and created by private banks – that is causing problems, not necessarily money per se.
But even if money is as irreparable as described, it’s hard to imagine a practical way for most of us to escape using it, at least in the short term. The cash economy now affects a majority of people in the world and it does not seem very helpful to tell people whose lives would be considerably improved if they had access to a small amount of extra money – such as people with dependents who desperately need medical treatment – that that money will corrupt them.
The authors themselves seem to recognize this dilemma on some level. In the final part of the book they avoid taking the position that money should simply be abandoned. Instead they advocate the development of an international system of finance similar to that suggested by Keynes, using an international currency such as Keynes’ bancor that would discourage hoarding. They also support the development of local currencies (and in fact they cite a book that was co-authored by Feasta’s own Richard Douthwaite).
I found the authors’ explanation of how access to markets is affected by access to money very helpful in clarifying my own thoughts about the need to distribute money more fairly. Advocates of basic income will find much of value in the book, along with those who wish to promote a Cap-and-Share type framework for addressing climate change, in which the climate is considered to be a type of commons, jointly owned by all of humanity.
The concluding sections provide a useful overview of progressive social and ecological movements around the world including Buen Vivir in Latin America. Overall I found it to be a stimulating read, providing valuable insights into our collective history. It should help to strengthen vital links between those involved in different religious communities around the world and in the ecology and social justice movements.
Featured image: Private property: no trespassing. Author: Derrick Collins. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1288213
Caroline Whyte has been involved with Feasta since 2002. She studied ecological economics at Mälardalen University in Sweden, writing a masters thesis on the relationship between central banking and sustainability. She contributed to Feasta’s books Fleeing Vesuvius and Sharing for Survival. Along with four other Feasta climate group members she helped to launch the CapGlobalCarbon initative at the COP-21 summit in Paris in December 2015. In February 2017 she participated in the World Basic Income conference in Manchester, discussing the potential for climate action to contribute to reducing poverty and inequality worldwide. She is also an active member of Feasta’s currency group. She lives in central France, from where she edits the Feasta website.