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Stratford Caldecott and How to Fight Economic Insanity

 

 

by Edward Hadas

It might be easier to list the topics which left Stratford Caldecott indifferent than to count up his concerns, fascinations, and spiritual loves. Economics was certainly on the latter list, but he never quite got to the bottom of it. The incompleteness can partly be excused by distraction—he had so many other, more pressing passions—but there is a lesson in this struggle, about the complexity of profound economic reform.

Economics was high on the list of topics to discuss when I first met Stratford, back in 2002 or 2003. The initial connection came through a common interest in the theology of communion, and the introduction suitably came through the theological journal Communio. We met during one of his trips from his Oxford home to London. I remember him sitting in the terrible café next to my office, kind but wary, sipping their cheap tea and taking notes as I tried to explain myself. Suspicion was certainly justified, since I was a sort of one-man Fifth Column inside the finance world, plotting an intellectual revolution while being paid too much for my largely unsuccessful efforts to understand companies and predict the changes in their share prices. I guess Stratford was persuaded of my intellectual credentials, as he asked if I would be interested in contributing to what he called his Sane Economy project.

That discussion began an economic dialogue which continued for the too few remaining years of Stratford’s life. The themes never really changed. We always agreed that the modern world suffered greatly and profoundly from a loss of community, virtue, and higher purpose, and that this modern turn had corrupted the inherent nobility of the essential human economic tasks of labouring and consuming. Later, under the influence of the Papal teaching and, on Strat’s side, the ecological work of his brother, we added agreement on the damage modern industry and the culture that spawned it has done to the environment, and to whole relationship of civilisation and creation. However, the debate was not limited to reinforcing our shared moans about the sad state of the world.

Indeed, we had two fairly profound disagreements. First, I thought he did not appreciate how much the anti-spiritual values of modern societies had actually contributed to human flourishing, through the technology, convenience and social changes which he admitted were valuable. To me, this paradox of good things apparently coming from evil idea was important both for understanding the past and for counselling how to act in the future. I worried how the chaff of soul-destroying materialism could be separated from the grain of genuine increases in the fullness of life for inhabitants of the City of Man. I think it is fair to say that he thought I had been at least partly seduced by modern values, and was basically making excuses for them. In his judgement, everything good in the modern world grew from Christian roots and everything good in the future required a rediscovery of the deep truths of Christianity, truths which could be found in fragmented form in many religious and spiritual traditions. From his perspective, the problems that so worried me were what might now be called fake. All good things came from God, and were somehow encompassed in the universal Church.

The second dispute was over what I would call his unrealistic ideas, and what I suspect Stratford would call my lack of imagination. Stratford loved the writing, thinking, and personality of G. K. Chesterton, a passion which I did not share. In economics, this difference took the form of a debate over Distributism, Chesterton’s never fully articulated idea of a fairer arrangement of property and a more human-scaled economy. The distributists wanted less industry, more agriculture, and the elimination of the modern business ethic of efficiency. To its many critics, including me, distributism dodged many crucial economic questions—once again, how to deal with the good plants that have flourished in the poisoned modern spiritual soil—and was tinged with useless sentimentality, inappropriate class prejudice, and distasteful anti-Semitism. To enthusiasts such as Stratford, any weaknesses were superficial. The key was a vision of a fairer, more humane, and more grace-filled economic organisation.

Our discussions were sometimes intense but always friendly. They became friendlier after I came to his first Sane Economy Conference, a year or so after we met. My memory of the details is a little fuzzy, but I have not forgotten the overall effect of a day or two of variegated presentations. Back then, before the financial crash cast doubts on the effectiveness of the economic system, few of the best cultural critics focused on the sort of economic issues which interested Stratford. Besides, he did not have many connections with dissident professional economists. So his speakers almost all came from some dark nooks and crannies of what might be called the economic resistance. They all seemed well-intentioned and some of them showed flashes of insight, but far too much of the thinking was muddled, if not simply erroneous.

Stratford and I took a walk together towards the end of the conference. I really liked this new acquaintance and was not sure what he thought of it all, so I said something vaguely positive about the event. He looked downcast. His answer was something along the lines of, “I never realised there were so many crackpots in economics”. My relief must have been visible, as we then started a long and fruitful discussion about why people who sensed the deep problems of the modern economy had so much trouble identifying and articulating them clearly, let alone proposing halfway rational solutions. Strat’s response was practical—he decided the Sane Economy project would be a long-term endeavour.

Not that he abandoned the idea. He dedicated an issue of Second Spring to the theme and we talked often about economics. During the early months of the financial crisis, when he was helping out at the Catholic Truth Society, we talked over lunch about just what was going on. Prodded by his sensitive questions, I gave him my best explanation, replete with moral indignation at a system which encouraged greed and then collapsed when greed did to human relations what greed always does to human relations. He declared with enthusiasm, “Just write that down and CTS will publish it.” I did, it did, and the result was the clearest essay I had written on anything. Stratford did that to people.

Somewhat grudgingly, he later wrote a Foreword to my book on economics. The reluctance was mostly logistical, as he was overwhelmed with projects and did not really want to read an ambitious and fairly large treatise on economics. There was also, I believe, some intellectual concern, as he demurred from my somewhat enthusiastic tone about the accomplishments of the industrial economy. He felt duty-bound, though, as he had promised the publisher, and I relieved the pressure somewhat by assuring him that the first and last chapters would give him all he needed to know. He read them, and came through with elegance and integrity, stating kindly that there was much to admire in the book and adding politely that there was much he did not agree with. The best sort of friend.

The global economy has moved on since Stratford first came up with the Sane Economy idea. The financial crisis demonstrated that something serious was not right, even by conventional standards. The development of China and other formerly poor countries raise new questions about global balance and responsibility, as does the slow pace of development in much of Africa. The plight of left-behind and not-taken-in workers in many developed economies raises doubts about the persistence of the up-to-now remarkable ability of developed economies to address their most pressing problems.

However, the underlying system has changed little. Its weaknesses are as blatant and as soul-sapping as ever. I think Stratford would have appreciated the economic critique of Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si, published just under a year after his death. “The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm” (section 106). It is a shame that Strat was no longer around to discuss this “technocratic paradigm”. He was uniquely qualified to describe the spiritual causes and implications of this crude but materially effective way of approaching the wonder of creation and the mystery of human life. Taught by Chesterton, and by our shared hero the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, he understood more than anyone I know of about the deep damage which the draining of cosmic beauty does to souls and to society.

Stratford, who himself loved new technological gadgets and caught on early to the potential of the internet,  had an almost instinctive disbelief in the standard modern argument—one I sometimes make—that the best answer to the problems caused by technology is more technology, new and improved and more carefully aimed. He believed that any such technical solution would inevitably cause some new and larger problem. Again, he would have agreed with Francis that the economy and the technology which drives it seem to have run out of human control, because people reject the spiritual prerequisites for human flourishing in the midst of creation. “[W]e stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint” (ibid 105).

In a way, the development of that ethics, culture, and spirituality was Stratford’s life work. I think it is fair to say that he found economics one of the hardest domains in which to find a sound spiritual way. I would say the “crackpots” at his conference help explain why. In the modern economy, the good is so entwined with the evil than a too simple description of what is fundamentally wrong and what is to be done to correct it is certain to be a bit insane. In a sane economy, we will correct modern disorders, a process which entails the rediscovery of the spiritual, the re-enchantment of the every day, and the honouring of the dignity of labour. But sanity also requires the preservation of the technological and technocratic accomplishments—extending lives, spreading knowledge, and encouraging the education and achievements of women.

It will not be easy to keep the good while discarding the bad. I deeply regret that Stratford Caldecott is no longer around to help us find a way, which would undoubtedly be his way of beauty.

 

Edward Hadas is a freelance financial journalist and Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University.

You can find the archives of the Sane Economy Project here. Stratford Caldecott’s book on Catholic Social Teaching, Not As the World Gives, is available for purchase in our shop.

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