“The Business true-believer’s shrine
Is something called The Bottom Line;
All great religions need their Sign,
Some symbol of the Most Divine…”
“The Bottom Line” 1985 *
In the recent momentous weeks, over-shadowed by the Trump inauguration and our more local bumblings-towards-‘Brexit’, we could well ask again the eternal question – when will we ever learn? Since, for better or for worse, each of such happenings entails yet another inescapable period of delusionary self-harm; and – in the long run more important – further diversion from the known priorities of saner, happier societies.
This time-lag from unlearned human experience seems, in fact, to lengthen and grow. How else could we have so-soon forgotten the painful lessons of the Thirties, and yet still allowed an unholy alliance of greedy corporates and deluded politicians to pitch us into the repeat – and still unresolved – financial and economic disasters of 2007/8? Worse still, we know their failed neo-liberal market model still prevails, blocking the pathways to fairer societies and sustainable economies; while – an ever-present reproach to sanity and justice – the guilty banker untouchables still loiter, richly relaxed, in their impregnable safe-havens.
These devastating – and absurdly recurring – calamities have proved to be as much moral as money/market/economic failures. Their common roots, as the more perceptive commentators like Michael Sandel, David Marquand and others have shown, lie in the fast erosion of our ‘market economies’ into full ‘market societies’ where market values crowd out non-market ones, and the relationships critical to a well-functioning society are allowed to wither; everything has a price-tag by which its assumed ‘value’ is determined.
Since there is not, and never was, any empirical evidence for this pan-societal price / value equivalence, the tone of its assertion has always had connotations of a quasi-religious belief system, rather than a proposition at the leading edge of science… even “economic science”.
Which is why a review of two recent books in the Times Literary Review, (December 2016. John Plender: “Drawing a link between Christianity and the Capitalist market place”) caught my attention. Plender is a staff-columnist on The Financial Times and author of Capitalism: Money, morals and markets.
An interesting irony lies therein; for I, too – though in the long-ago days of the Eighties and Nineties – had also contributed a much-read weekly column to the Financial Times. In it (under the aka Bertie Ramsbottom) I had taken a sustained critical and satirical look at the changing mores of corporate business; and launched a first revelatory critique of its quasi-religious characteristics and behaviours.
“Until the Audit-Priests have read
The mystic runes as Black or Red,
Our futures, and the Chairman’s head,
All hang, suspended from this thread.”
Living, as I did, throughout those Reagan / Thatcher years, with unusual access through my work portfolio to the workings of political and economic decision-making in both London and Washington, I had found myself with an unexpected ring-side seat at the toxic injection into both environments of what has come to be variously labelled “neo-liberalism” or “market fundamentalism”.
It took time, and a considerable suspension of disbelief, to take seriously the potential of an obscure cult, propagated by a small cabal of evangelising economists from Chicago, to seduce Americans, the British and major tranches of a globalising world, into the embrace of a faith-based ideology and belief system posited on the unlikely worship of money and markets as the ordained drivers of all aspects of human society.
In this context, the books reviewed by Plender, for all their distinguished provenance, smack of too little and much too late, when measured against the deep and continuing social pain which the doctrine has so long engendered. The first, “The Market as God” by Harvey Cox, a professor of Divinity at Harvard, has come to the correct, though painfully late, conclusion that business is “the most powerful religion of our era, the one with its curia in the basilicas of Wall Street”.
In a more visceral sense, our worldly Pope has also recognised (in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium 2013) the ‘deification’ of the market. For the corporate priesthood itself, however, these are less the revelations of long-known bitter truths, but more the comforting confirmations of the holy money/market credo.
“Though heretics may think it thick
That mighty corporations tick
For little, but a line of slick
We – admen, labourer and boss –
All worship at its Omphalos,
And pray the magic lines may cross
At Profit oftener than Loss.”
The prevailing corporate priest-hood has become adept at expanding its secular political influence via the ‘revolving door’ – the device first pioneered by the prolific banker/pope Medicis in Renaissance Florence. The cosy interactions and mutual support between the key holders of power in business and government has become a cultist ‘third force’, subordinating key elements of our ‘democratic’ processes to the increasingly dominant ‘belief system’ of markets and money.
It has also, Vatican-like and largely publicly financed, built a sophisticated system of assured succession and theological compliance through a global network of “business school” seminaries; generally acknowledged to have failed badly in their supposed, original mission – which was to develop a ‘professional’ class of managers in the responsible mould of lawyers and doctors.
According to its own recognised authorities, most recently Harvard Professor Rakesh Khurana (author of ‘From Higher Aims to Hired Hands’) and many others, they have become mere purveyors of MBAs as passports to the sickeningly high corporate salaries which have helped breed such unsustainable inequalities in our societies.
Yet they also spawn an expanding novice priesthood, ready to go out into the globalising world to evangelise and bear witness to the good news of the Neo-Market message and the cleansing power of Austerity – particularly for the poor and less successful; who are, as the richer believers charitably concede, sadly always with us.
“Devout, behind the altar, lurk
We acolytes who do the work.
The Faithful Body of the Kirk,
All waiting on our Holy Quirk
He leadeth us – the lengthy line
From Board to Office, Plant, Design,
Who serve our Corporate Divine,
Somewhere behind The Bottom Line”
* Bertie Ramsbottom, ‘The Bottom Line’, Century Hutchinson 1985