Theatre in Action and the Moral Limits of Markets

As forecast in an earlier blog (‘Royal Court Theatre Takes on Climate Change’ 13th November) we were quick to follow up Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington’s recommendation of the Royal Court’s ‘2071’ dramatic initiative and it proved well worthy of a visit.

Here, out of a creative collaboration with dramatist Duncan Macmillan, was a distinguished scientist , Chris Rapley – Professor of Climate Science at University College, London – delivering a moving, highly credible but totally non-histrionic soliloquy on where we are at on this most threatening issue of our times.

This was not a lecture. Katie Mitchell’s direction, orchestrating a multi-media surround of light, video and music, enhanced the necessary sense of theatre without equivocation on the message. It was a massively impressive piece of good news on the Arts Social Action measure of need!

In the wake of David Hare’s 2009 ‘The Power of Yes’ at the National Theatre (on which we commented in detail), and a buzz of other contemporary dramas listed by Billington (The Guardian 2 Nov 2014), we are tempted to agree with him that “society’s mirror is now the stage” – though this should be a stimulus, rather than comfort, to other art forms!

From our beginning, Arts Social Action has ‘twinned’ the climate change imperative with that other great pressure of our times – deepening inequalities of income and opportunity – made more visible in the aftermath of the financial and banking meltdowns of 2008, and given more substance as widespread policies of austerity have deepened the fissures.

That these two dominant issues were causally-linked was first made explicit in our “Death and Resurrection of the Business/Market Model” blog (November 2013)…

“It becomes clear that the true causes of the melt-down go much deeper than the irresponsible behaviour of bankers, lenders and regulators, and into the very heart of a failed, long-standing business model … which held that ‘ the market ‘ knows best and is the optimum adjudicator of human action as well as economic performance. The tragedy is that this same failed model is now being wilfully spread, by Government edict, into the key areas of health, social, educational and other policies”.

So it was encouraging to see George Monbiot echoing these sentiments in the Guardian ( “Why despite failures so great and frequent have we not changed the economic model ?” 19 Nov. 2014).

He cites the ‘bonfire of regulation’ through which the pursuit of market growth is…

“breaking up the post-war settlement, our public health services and social safety nets, above all the living world … magnificent habitats, the benign and fragile climate in which we have prospered, species that have lived on earth for millions of years – all being stacked on to the fire as impediments to growth…”

And what irony – that the ‘model’s’ inherent capacity for destroying the environment should be confirmed by Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, in a little reported speech to a recent World Bank seminar ! Commenting on the fact that fossil fuel reserves on the books of oil and energy corporations , and ready for extraction and burning, stand already at 2,795 gigatons, five times the limits set by scientists within the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change, Carney is reported to have said (Jon Hay, 12/10/2014)

“The vast majority of these reserves are unburnable if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change” .

The real question is whether these corporations, their investors and their client governments understand and are prepared to act on these truths – so it must remain our mission (as well as Mr Carney’s?) to make sure they do.

However, given this essential link between climate degradation and market fundamentalism, it is a chilling reality that we begin to see ominous threats of a new, or renewed, financial crisis looming towards us, as Mr Cameron has now obliquely confessed.. We will need cool heads and even stronger resolve to keep Arts Social Action’s ambitions on these two key issues moving forward and gathering pace.

Ultimately, our appeal to compatriots in the arts is a moral rather than merely economic or political one. In this context, Michael J Sandel’s “ What Money Can’t Buy. The Moral Limits of Markets” ( Penguin 2013 ) is a highly recommended, almost necessary, read. It is the work of a Harvard professor of philosophy and former Reith lecturer (2009) who plots a Socratic path of clarity and conviction through the legacies of ‘market triumphalism’.

“The years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008 were a heady time of market faith and deregulation – an era of market triumphalism. The era began in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher proclaimed their conviction that markets, not governments, held the key to prosperity and freedom ….. Today, that faith is in doubt. yet the reach of markets, and market-oriented thinking, into aspects of life traditionally governed by non-market norms is one of the most significant developments of our time…”

Michael J Sandel ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ p.6

In Arts Social Action we think it’s time to marshall more clearly the moral, as well as the economic, social and political arguments for stimulating effective responses to the big questions of climate change and income inequalities.

So we will be progressively introducing into the dialogue some of Sandel’s, and others’, searching ideas and questions on whether we want societies where most things are up for sale; and why it might have special relevance to the arts.