Usury: and the Long Road Back to an Ethical Economics

Odd – that we should have, so frequently, to go back in these blogs to the basic meaning of words; though less surprising when we remember how much of the negative and cruel impact of our prevailing and long-standing neo-liberal regimes has been the hijacking of our language and the suppression and distortion of its true meanings. Trumpism is a contemporary, pre-eminent example of this phenomenon – but it has a much longer, more disastrous history (see my July 2016 blog ‘Market- Speak and the Erosion of Truth’).

Usury’ is tersely defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest”; but, as David Hawkes reminds us in a book review (‘Culture of Debt‘ TLS, July 2017) the word, with its pedigree going back through biblical to classical (Aristotle, Leviticus, Mohammad, Buddha, Aquinas and others) times, has been progressively edited out of mainstream economic discussion in favour of the blander ‘credit’, ‘debt‘, ‘interest’ and other terms less prone to any subliminal risks of an inconvenient ethical connotation.

The need to suppress the ethical component in mainstream economic ideology is, of course, no accident. As Hawkes suggests, the concept of usury was fundamental to the social, cultural and ethical evaluation of every previous historic era before the banishment of ‘ethics’ to the field of metaphysics at the time of the ‘Enlightenment’. Luckily, we have the countervailing testimony of our Shakespeares, Dickens ,Dostoevskys and others; and the incomparably rich, accumulated legacies of our shared social histories.

The UK’s own vertiginously steep descent into US style fetishising of ‘money’ and ‘markets’ was flamboyantly signalled by Mrs Thatcher’s so-called ‘Big Bang’ de-regulation of the old institutions of the financial City of London in October 1986, when the London Stock Exchange shut down its ‘Open Outcry’ dealing room and switched on its computer screens. The smaller, more prestigious City firms were quickly ingested by US investment banks and old European rivals. At the time, the BBC’s ‘Money Box’ programme asked me to try to capture the vortex of jostling greed released by this revolution.

Down in the City something’s stirring,
Most unlikely partners pairing,
Jobbers, brokers, bankers sharing
  In the rapture of romance;
Clearers, merchants and insurers
Raise their passionate bravuras,
While the Stock Exchange procurers
  Lead the orgiastic dance.

Lambs are lying down with lions,
Propagating monstrous scions,
Cartelised by mis-alliance,
  While the City Watch-Dog beams;
Now’s the merry month for mating,
Season for de-regulating,
Bids and mergers consummating
  Fantasies beyond our dreams.

‘Passion in the City’
Ralph Windle 1986

The continued financialisation of every aspect of our societies has infected our individual psyches as well as the many collective aspects of our cultures ; where everything has a price, so soon may we. The moral dimension of our individual and collective economic choices remains central to the way we live our lives and relate to one another. ’Economics’ needs to face up to Michael Sandel’s chilling question – Do we want a society where everything is up for sale ? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy ? (‘The Moral Limits of Markets’ Penguin 2013)

We have much distance still to go. The necessary reinvention of a ‘moral economy’ demands more urgency than we have shown since- and in spite of – the palpable inadequacies of the institutional response to the 2008 ‘banking crisis’. It’s a shameful fact that it has taken almost nine years – to June 2017 – for the first 3 top Barclays bankers to be called before a court; and who yet believes they and their uncountable accomplices world-wide will get their appropriate come-uppance?

So shame on us as well as them for our slow response to their insidious languages of mortgage default, leverage, securitised risk, collateralised obligations, swap options and sundry other esoteric sleights of monetary legerdemain; designed to camouflage a narrow, illiberal concept of an ‘economics’ shorn of all the fuller personal, cultural and aesthetic necessities of our shared social lives.

‘Economics’ without this moral dimension was the bane of many generations of our ancestors and progenitors; but also implied in the very Greek word from which it derives; and ‘usury’ became the centuries-old term invented to guarantee that this social, as well as monetary, dimension might surface in any well-functioning political, social and cultural dialogue. Whatever name we give it, the moral dimension of our individual and collective economic histories means there must be no giving up on the long road back to an ethical ‘economics’.

Institutions, hell-for-leather,
Leaping into bed together,
Posting banns to tie the tether,
  Bigamy no bar to sex;
City men in stripey trousers,
Hung about the Discount Houses,
Propositioning for spouses,
  Brandishing their furtive cheques

In among the heavy breathing,
Frenzied foreign limbs were heaving,
Adding to the shapeless, seething
  Paroxysm of their greed;
Lovely orgy! Such a pity!
In their fun they raped the City,
Carved her into not-a-pretty
  Parody of what we need!