Consuming Production: A Thought-Bubble

^Look how happy this guy is to be at work, in his lovely, bright, open plan office! 

Ever since Adam Smith, our economy has had consumption as its goal: production is geared toward the consumption of what is produced as the driver of economic growth. The result (combined with the liberal individualist cultural stream that capitalism is a part of) has been the consumer culture we now inhabit. It is largely the consumption habits of the developed world that drive the global economy.

Production = work, i.e., what most people spend most of their time doing to make ends meet and to find and define their place in human community. For the vast majority in the world, work is a hard grind that our consumer culture largely hides as far as it can (think of the conditions in Apple factories in China).

In the developed world, on the other hand, many of us have jobs that we quite enjoy (even if that isn’t the whole story of our work). And, statistically, we are spending more and more hours doing that work. Apparently, we can’t get enough of it.

So, here’s my question/theory—one that I’m sure someone else has had before. Has consumer capitalism cannibalised production? That is, has it succeeded in turning even our productive labour (at least in the developed world) into an act of consumption? Do we “consume” our work as a means to personal fulfilment and self-definition? It works out very well for global consumer capitalism if it has in fact managed to do just that.

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Work, Economy, and Theology

 

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I’m working on my final-year research project, looking at a theology of work. It’s been a fun little exercise in bringing together the theological and exegetical skills that have been developed throughout college, with some of my own interests in Christian theological ethics and political economy.

The first full-length draft (15,000w) is due this Friday (yikes!), and the looming deadline has given me a little more clarity about the logic of my argument. Here are two short paragraphs describing what (I think) the project is about (today).

The experience of work is intrinsically connected to our conception of the economy.A theological account of work must therefore engage the concept of economy; that is, in order to give us practical purchase on the lived experience of work in our world as a significant sphere of Christian living, we need to give an account of how work and economy are related. Such an account, if it is to be properly evangelical, will resist the temptation to be founded in a single doctrine—such as creation or new creation—but will instead be shaped by the whole sweep of salvation history as it coheres in the good news of the redemption of creation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Such an account is suggested by the interplay of economy (οἰκονομία)  and good works (ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς) in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. There we find an account of God’s economy of redemption, fulfilled in his Messiah-Economist and displayed in the redeemed humanity of the church. Within this economy, the experience of work in a fallen world—work cut off from its social function, exemplified by the extremes of thievery and slavery—is redeemed and reoriented as a gift received from God. Thievery and slavery provide categories for Christian practical reason in the sphere of work as experienced in our late-Capitalist  context, and a basis for engaging contemporary economic thinking about labour, motivation, and identity.

Along the way we’ll touch on some political economic theories about work/labour (Smith, Marx, Polanyi, maybe Keynes), interrogate three contemporary theologies of work (Karl Barth in Ethics, Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit, and Oliver O’Donovan in Entering Into Rest), outline some precedents for a theology of economy (via M. Douglas Meeks’ God the Economist, Sergei Bulgakov’s Philosophy of Economy, and Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory). Then — finally! — we’ll get to some bible stuff in Ephesians, before rounding it all out in a theological engagement with some recent works in economics (George Akerlof & Rachel Kranton’s Identity Economics and Samuel Bowles’ The Moral Economy.)

I don’t know about you—I’m excited. But that really might just be me.

Politics: Some Recent Articles

In the lead-up to the recent Australian Federal election I had a few short pieces published how to work out how to vote on Christian principles—and how to cope with it! They won’t be directly relevant for another three years or so now, but I thought I’d put the links up here anyway.

‘How to Vote When No Party is Perfect’ at the Bible Society—Thinking about how to weigh up (apparently) competing concerns as we decide how to vote.

‘Voting: An Exercise in Faith, Love, and Hope’ at Common Grace—Coming to terms with our disquiet about voting for people we don’t like all that much, with reference to the great Oliver O’Donovan and 1 Corinthians 13.13.

Assessing the Importance of a Plebiscite

Christian leaders across the country have called upon their congregations to make a  plebiscite on the definition of marriage a key issue as they decide how to vote on Saturday. These leaders have narrowed the concern from a general opposition to same sex marriage to the specific issue of a plebiscite. But is this concern really so key for Christians?I don’t think so. There are several reasons, but here’s just one to consider.

The claim has been made that not having a plebiscite means not allowing those opposed to same sex marriage the opportunity to have their voice heard. It has been implied that to deny the public a plebiscite on his issue is undemocratic. The next step, usually implicit—though barely—is to note that only one major party has committed to allowing us this democratic freedom.

This line of argument exposes a fundamental misunderstanding of the particular system of democracy we have implemented in Australia. In short: plebiscites are unusual. The government can out a plebiscite to the public on any issue that does not involve changes to the Constitution. Changes to the Constitution can only be made by means of a referendum, the results of which are binding. The results of a plebiscite are not binding. A plebiscite is not defined in the Australian Constitution, the Electoral Act, or the Referendum Act.

Throughout Australian history there have been a total of three plebiscites at a federal level. Two of these related to conscription to military service (1916, 1917). The third, non-compulsory plebiscite related to which national song should be played on non-royal occasions. States and Territories have also held plebiscites on various issues, including hotel closing hours, prohibition, and daylight savings. (See Antony Green’s blog for a fuller discussion of State and Territory plebiscites).

The reason for this history lesson is simple: plebiscites are an unusual tool in Australian politics, and especially in federal politics. They are, in effect, like a nation-wide opinion poll. Governments are not required to implement the revealed will of the people, and, if they do, it requires them to pass an Act of Parliament. A plebiscite is not the usual nor a major means of having the public’s voice heard in our form of democracy. The claim that refusing to hold a plebiscite undermines our democratic rights is simply absurd. To reverse the logic, if refusing a plebiscite were an undermining of democratic rights, then we should also be campaigning loudly for plebiscites on a whole range of other issues: for example, renewable energy, or immigration detention.

Rather, the way for the voice of same-sex marriage opponents to be heard on this issue is the same as on any other: to engage in public debate and the media, to lobby and write to our political representatives. This is a right we have already been afforded. The kind of “direct democracy” expressed in a plebiscite is not the foundation of our form of democracy. Rather, we elect representatives to make decisions on our behalf. If those representatives, and the public to whom they are answerable, aren’t persuaded, well, they aren’t persuaded. Welcome to representative democracy.

Christians are right to be worried about same sex marriage. But insisting on a plebiscite is the wrong way to go about it. Christians should instead revel in the opportunity to persuade. It is this “right” we should insist upon: not a plebiscite specifically, but a more general right to continue to be heard—as a minority within a secular (not secularist) pluralistic democracy. We should, remembering Jesus’ call to treat others as we would have them treat us, insist upon this right even for our opponents. We have the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, a free gift of grace, a compelling offer which we hold out with hopeful prayer that many will respond and be saved, and that the common good will be served. We seek to persuade.

 

‘God on Campus’: Podcast on ABC Radio National’s ‘Earshot’

Late last year I was privileged to be part of a conversation about studying theology in a secular culture. We talked about questions such as ‘What contribution does theology make to the common good in a secular age?’ and ‘Should secular governments fund education in private religious colleges?’

The program is brilliant. In addition to myself, a number of other theology students, and religious studies students, the podcast features theologians like James K. A. Smith and Sydney’s Michael Jensen, as well as religious studies professor Christopher Hartney from the University of Sydney. Producer Allison Chan has done a terrific job.

You can download/listen online here. If you have a listen, let me know what you thought in the comments below.

SOCIETAS 2014: Into All The World

Societas 2014 Cover ThumbnailMoore Theological College, where I’ve started studying this year, has an annual student publication named Societas. It’s an opportunity for students to do some writing, as well as acting as a prayer resource for the College’s supporters.

I have an article in this year’s edition, investigating the scriptural shape of Christian political witness: ‘Justice Spoken, Prayed, Embodied’. You can read it online here (my article begins on page 41). There are a bunch of other excellent articles inside, as well as profiles of my fellow first-year students (and the other years, too).

A Theological Reflection on the Legacy of Gough Whitlam

GoughThe Bible Society of Australia have kindly published a short piece I wrote on Gough Whitlam’s legacy and the Christian doctrine of common grace. Apart from the fact that he’s one of my favourite Australian Prime Ministers, the death of any political leader presents an opportunity not only to assess their political legacy, but to reflect on how God works for the good of his creation through the secular authorities he has ordained.

You can read it here.