In this blog, our Development Director, Tim Thorlby reflects on how deep some changes need to be if we are to build momentum towards the common good…
I was asked a lot of questions this week about the Living Wage – the independently calculated wage which people can actually afford to live on (currently £9.40 per hour in London). Why should an employer pay it? How will they afford it? Won’t higher wages mean that more businesses want to move abroad?
These are not bad questions. Debating these kinds of changes is important. But I really wanted to ask a different question.
Well, why not pay a Living Wage?
It is possible to have a logical, informed, economic debate about the Living Wage, and discuss the business case for and against, but in many respects this misses the point. Why is it acceptable for someone to work hard all day and be paid too little to actually live on? How have we arrived at a situation where we need to debate the ‘business benefits’ of a wage designed to keep people out of poverty? Isn’t the fact that we keep people out of poverty sufficiently important?
In my lifetime something deep has changed in the UK. The way we think, talk and act has become increasingly ‘marketised’. This is not just a question of politics or economics but it is something deeply cultural – something now so well embedded in our way of life that we often hardly notice it. We apply market concepts and market language to questions and areas of life which they never used to apply to. The UK has long pursued ‘economic growth’ as an objective but it has never reached so deeply into our thinking and our way of life.
When we have to debate whether or not there are business benefits from keeping our neighbours out of poverty then something has gone horribly wrong in our national life.
When a Chief Executive earns 100 times more than his cleaner for working the same hours, something has gone wrong.
When house prices are rising so fast that housing becomes a commodity for investors rather than a home to live in, something has gone wrong.
We need a deep rethink, not just of particular policies and programmes, but of our underlying beliefs about how our communities and our markets should relate to each other. We need a new language to talk about these things. We need a new culture, a new set of habits within which we can chart a different course. This is a huge undertaking but the good news is that it is already underway.
A recent book by a trio of American thinkers, including Walter Brueggemann, begins to construct a new language and suggest new habits which might form the basis for a new culture from which healthier ways of life might emerge.
In “An Other Kingdom: Departing the consumer culture” the authors call for a shift from a culture of contracts, where everything is measured, priced and exchanged like for like, to a culture of covenant, where we prioritise our relationships first. This does not remove the need for markets, but it seeks to put them back within limits, so that they might serve the needs of society rather than the other way round. They call it a culture of neighbourliness.
Such a culture is typified by practices which value relationships and hospitality (disciplines of ‘time’), community life and local production (disciplines of ‘food’) and listening, Sabbath and mystery (disciplines of ‘silence’). A culture of neighbourliness leads to the common good.
The book is very readable. It doesn’t provide all the answers- indeed some of its ideas are pretty conceptual to say the least. But I think these authors have one thing dead right.
Nothing much is going to change until we recognise how deep our problems are and how deep the response needs to be. The book’s key contribution is a recognition that we need to change not just our policies but our thinking and our culture. Out of this kind of deep-seated cultural change will come new ways of living and working. We don’t necessarily know what they will look like yet, but they are worth seeking out.
The only thing which is going to deliver deep culture change is a social movement of like-minded people who are prepared to take the plunge and think and act differently. The book’s authors compare this movement to the exodus of God’s people out of Egypt into the wilderness – a movement of people journeying from the familiar into the unknown, with all its risks and uncertainties.
Here at the Centre for Theology & Community we don’t have all the answers either but we have joined this journey into the unknown, exploring new ways of living and working. We encourage churches to adopt community organising as a counterbalance to the power of markets in our city and a way of introducing neighbours to each other. We are exploring what a ‘good business’ could look like through the launching of Clean for Good, an ethical cleaning business; a business about people not just profit. We have enabled a new lay community to live together at the church of St George-in-the-East, practising age-old disciplines of silence and eating together amidst the fun of community life.
It’s time to leave the culture of markets. Are you up for joining the exodus?
More information about Clean for Good can be found here.
More information on the Lay Community of St George can be found here.