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Friday, January 12, 2007

Summer Series: Is Socialism Dead? What About Christianity?

Former WA Premier, academic and new NSW President of the Australian Fabian Society Geoff Gallop recently wrote an interesting article for The Australian about Kevin Rudd's particular brand of theology. Essentially, he argues that Rudd, while rejecting socialism, is embracing it under another name - the tradition of Christian social activism. It's a little known fact that this tradition helped spawn highly political and now totally agnostic movements such as the Fabians, so Gallop does have an intriguing point.

By sheer coincidence, the doorbell rang while I was composing this post. At the door were what are popularly referred to as `God Botherers' - two well-meaning gentlemen spruiking a religious magazine. It occurred to me that such people are not unlike the solitary souls who spruik the Green Left Weekly at train stations - doctrinal, insulated, unpragmatic but passionate believers, who are unlikely to win too many new people to either of their movements.

Socialism and mainstream Christianity are two things that began to decline in the early decades of the 20th Century, and perhaps for similar reasons. Priorities have changed, people became more questioning, less utopian, and more comfortable about the idea of profit for profit's sake during the post WWII boom years. As Pamela Bone suggests, also in the Oz, it's very wrong to suggest that religion is a precondition for functional society. However, I think she's put the cart before the horse. For all the depredations for which it was responsible, organised religion at least provided a `model' moral compass and a reason to work towards community and collectivism. Instead, individualism and social and economic liberalism became the key public mood and since then, popular psychology have always searched for replacements for whatever benefits religion provided. All, religious and irreligious, have recognised that the disintergration of community has left us a lot sadder and more confused as a society.

I often refer to the case of the poet, T.S. Elliott who, after the composition of bleak classics as The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, had a nervous breakdown and, to the surprise of all his acquaintances, embraced Christianity. It appears that Elliot embraced the church in the spirit that even if God didn't exist, it would be nicer to pretend he did, especially given the other benefits of belonging. It could be that one day - perhaps sooner, but probably later - people will embrace some of the tenets of socialism - benefiting, perhaps not believing, but at the very least, participating.

Much is made of the notion that a return to mainstream Christianity is already occurring. This is simply untrue. Evangelical movements have certainly made some ground - more so in America than Australia - yet such movements have objectives mainly contrary to the Christian socialist tradition: will God save me? If I pray, will God give me an easy ride and plenty of money? If I'm a Christian, it's only right that I prosper. Essentially, it's Christianity for the age of classical liberalism. It's notable that Kevin Rudd refers to `free market evangelism', because what killed socialism has a similar strain of fundamentalism. It's OK to do whatever I like because God said so. I have to fire workers, put the remainder under poorer conditions and move most of my production to a distant, impoverished country because the Market says so.

Thus, it's very difficult to convince such people that helping others is good just because it's good. If that's the case, it would be very difficult indeed to convince people to produce and share resources for the common good. As a friend recently pointed out, very few of the people who claim to espouse socialism today are fully aware of what it is. When asked, their position will usually prove a watered down, Social Democrat version of a doctrine which dictates that the state seize all personal assets in preparation for a society where the concept of state no longer exists. Pragmatically, this is something very few people would claim to be aiming for nowadays.

I've recently been reading up on the Great Depression. The economic conditions of today - as Ross Gittins outlined in a recent article - are alarmingly similar to those preceding the Depression. I'm certainly not saying that an economic downturn will see people rushing to church and then a CPA meeting, but it will be interesting to see when this downturn - and it will happen one day - will have on peoples' beliefs on collectivism. Will people withdraw; will it become dog-eat-dog? Or will the opposite occur?

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