A volatile mix of populism and neoliberalism has been fermenting in politics in the last few years, most notably among United States Republicans and British Conservatives. This ideology feeds on the irreconcilable opposites of need and greed, arousing anger and resentment in struggling communities by blaming their plight on immigrants and refugees, stirring up nationalist and racist passions, while swelling the profits of private corporations which are held accountable to nobody but their shareholders. The influence of the private sector is not new in the United States; but since Brexit it has become a destructive factor in British politics, exacerbated by a Conservative Government that is lurching further and further towards extremism. Cherished publicly funded institutions of the welfare state such as the National Health Service are crumbling for want of funds, while vast amounts have been transferred from the public sector into private hands, with little or no transparency or accountability.
There was never going to be a way to reconcile the politics of populism with the economics of neoliberalism, and in Britain, the two are finally imploding. When Boris Johnson was ousted from office by his erstwhile supporters in July this year, a leadership contest saw Liz Truss emerge as our new Prime Minister in early September. Truss appointed Kwasi Kwarteng as her Chancellor of the Exchequer, and on Friday, September 24—a day that will surely go down in British history—he announced a mini-budget that the BBC described as “shock-and-awe tactics.” The budget was fuelled by an ideological commitment to “trickle-down economics”–the fantasy that the more rich people profit from their investments, the more poor people will benefit from the effects of their wealth.
It was immediately clear that the consequences would be spiralling costs for ordinary people and vast increases in wealth for the richest. The so-called markets (i.e. financial gamblers controlled by computerized algorithms) responded with a complete loss of confidence in Britain’s capacity to manage its economic affairs. Kwarteng was fired and replaced by the smooth-talking Jeremy Hunt, who abandoned most of Kwarteng’s tax reforms. As I write this, Liz Truss looks like a frightened rabbit caught in the headlights as the hyenas of her party come scavenging after her. By the time you read it, she may well be gone.
At last, populism and neoliberalism have collided head-on. The people who were promised so much by the jingoistic nationalism of the Brexit campaign with its racist and xenophobic undertones are waking up to the fact that they have been betrayed and deceived. Faced with spiralling fuel costs, rising interest rates on mortgages and rampant inflation, ordinary families face months—if not years—of hardship. It remains to be seen how this crisis will be resolved; but for now, it feels as if we Brits are living in a kleptocracy rather than a democracy.
All this has led me to wonder how any Christian who reads the Gospels and reflects on the fundamentals of our faith can possibly support such a system—though many do. Christians have less influence on British politics than they do in the States, but some of Britain’s most class-ridden elites are loudly self-proclaiming Catholics. Perhaps the most significant scripture for our times is Jesus’s warning that “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money,” (Matthew 6:24, NIV).
I heed Pope Francis’ warning that the Church is not a “spiritual NGO,” but that does not absolve the institutional Church from using its influence for good wherever it can. The Pope has a shrewd understanding of the ways of the world, a passionate commitment to those who are most marginalized and exploited by the present world order, a no-less-passionate commitment to environmental healing and sustainability, and illuminating all this a profound personal faith in the mystery and tenderness of God. This gives me food for reflection and inspiration as this crisis unfolds.
Francis has consistently spoken out against trickle-down economics, telling an interviewer: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger but nothing ever comes out for the poor.” In his semi-autobiographical book co-authored with Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream, Francis names two women economists—Kate Raworth and Mariana Mazzucato—who offer an ethos that reflects “a concern about the grotesque inequality of billions facing extreme deprivation while the richest one percent own half of the world’s financial wealth,” (p. 64). This month, Mazzucato was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life—a clear demonstration of Francis’s commitment to expand the horizons of the Church’s respect for the dignity of all human life, including those lives blighted by the injustices of modern economics.
In the Prologue to Let Us Dream, Francis writes:
This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities—what we value, what we want, what we seek—and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. What I hear at this moment is similar to what Isaiah hears God saying through him: Come, let us talk this over. Let us dare to dream. (p. 6)
Faced with the nightmare of British politics today, played out against the horrific backdrop of the war in Ukraine, and the looming threat of an environmental catastrophe, I draw comfort and hope from these words.
Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College.