Matthew Was Right

David Marquand, Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now

Allen Lane, 288pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781846146725

reviewed by Abigail Rhodes

The Bible tells us that ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.’ (Matthew 6:24) Mammon is personified in the New Testament as a demon and sometimes included as one of the seven Princes of Hell (Mammon is to greed what Lucifer is to pride). Over the centuries his name has gained currency as a pejorative term to describe unjust worldly gain and is interchangeable with the Semitic word for money or riches. In David Marquand’s latest book, it is invoked to embody the destructive spirit of greed and the deification of money that has characterised our recent history. Mammon’s Kingdom is an essay about money worship in Britain since the inception of laissez-faire Capitalism in the 1800s. The book depicts the main intellectual players (or ‘clerisy’ as the author terms them) of the Victorian and post-war period, such as Thomas Carlyle, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, JM Keynes, EP Thompson, William Beveridge, RH Tawney and Friedrich Hayek.

Marquand takes us on a history tour of the four moral economies that he has identified in the last 200 years:

that of [E P] Thompson’s crowd; a laissez-faire rival that gradually displaced the first; a solidaristic, partly social-democratic and partly-‘Middle Way’ conservative alternative that followed the second; and in our time another laissez-faire variety, which George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz have both termed ‘market fundamentalist’.

He begins his enquiry by asking two questions: how did the ethos of market fundamentalism, which provided fertile ground to enable the recent financial crisis, grow during the mid-20th century, and ‘why did Mammon worship become so fervent and widespread’ during this time? He answers both by explaining that once Keynesian economics lost favour in the late 1970s, the two new doctrines that emerged to guide laissez-faire capitalism were market individualism and moral individualism, and it was these twin beasts that devoured the moral and the ethical underpinnings of the market.

Market individualism sought to build an economic system based on unfettered competition and it can be thought of as the basis of modern neoliberalism. This doctrine developed from the writings of Hayek and in particular his book, The Road to Serfdom(1944). The main theme that runs through Hayek’s work is the notion of ‘spontaneous orders’ that are brought about by ‘human action but not by human design’. Some examples are the law, language and the financial market. The latter was thought of as irrational when it first came into being - making it, in Hayek’s opinion, the perfect place for human freedom to flourish. Any imposition of controls on the market, he thought, would restrict this freedom, and so he believed that the market should be unfettered by the State.

Moral individualism, on the other hand, was a little more complex. It was leftist in its approach to the market and was more concerned with an individual’s private morality than with the State. What mattered in this doctrine was the ‘unflinching private honesty’ of each individual involved in the market. The guiding light of this philosophy was GE Moore and his Principia Ethica (1903), and Keynes was one of his eager students.

Adherents of both market and moral individualism abhorred the ‘bonds of community’ and the constraint placed on the individual by the collective. However, underpinning both philosophies was the belief in an economy based on an inherent moral code that would be held by each participating individual. Market individualists assumed that economics free from controls would engender a respect of traditional moral rules in personal conduct, whereas moral individualists assumed that if economic life was ordered then the ethic of ‘doing you own thing’ would be confined to the private sphere.

According to Marquand, it eventually became apparent that this wasn’t to be the case. Social justice and the guiding moral law within us (to misquote Kant), combined with a free market economy, was a ‘mirage’. The market was unable to both adopt an ethical code and be free from constraints. It seemed that it was impossible to have a free market economy and morality. Matthew was right: ‘Ye cannot serve [both] God and Mammon.’ The market gave consumers whatever they wanted, and what they wanted was to satisfy their desires without any limitations. Gradually the hedonistic drive to consume more goods and a sense of entitlement to get what one desired championed the marketisation of society. The old notions of honour and duty toward your community as a whole were replaced with ‘money and celebrity’, and in turn these became ‘society’s chief yardsticks of merit and achievement’.

Marketisation, or market fundamentalism, turned out to be a successful tool for flipping Mammon worship on its head. Instead of being thought of as a negative thing, money worship became something to be admired. The voice of this new way of thinking was to be Michael Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, who embodied Mammon in the 1987 film Wall Street. He declared that, ‘Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.’

For Marquand, this dramatic change in favour of greedy market forces wormed its way into the consciousness of the public during the Thatcher/Regan years. The introduction of market norms into previously unmarketised activities or institutions, such as education, social services and, latterly, the National Health Service, has commodified what once freely belonged to all. The aim of market fundamentalism was to change society to benefit the free market and to change the way people thought about the market. It sought to encourage people to see the market as ‘natural’ and, thus, as part of the natural order of things.

Wage inequality and tax avoidance by the super-rich have, up until recently, been accepted as part of this ‘natural order’. But they are just a few of the symptoms of an unfettered and unguided market and they perpetuate the illusion that things are how they should be. Since the financial collapse of 2008, working people are seeing through this illusion and they are calling for change. A myriad of social movements have risen up across the globe to call for an end to the unjust worldly gains that have been procured by so few under laissez-faire capitalism.

Fittingly, Mammon’s Kingdom ends with a call to find a way to revolutionise the current system. However, as Marquand correctly highlights, ‘the trouble is we don’t yet know what to do’. Recent protest movements, such as Occupy London and UK Uncut, have been asking the right questions but they have as yet been unable to find any convincing answers. Marquand proposes that if all sections of society (conservative, liberal, socialist, religious and protest movements) engage in a constructive discourse with one another and consider the advice given by intellectuals from the past, then maybe a resolution can be found.

This is constructive guidance for a world that is searching for answers on how to change the prevailing social order. At present there is a distinct lack of alternatives for the mainstream voter and people are becoming ever more disillusioned with the transformative power that the political establishment can offer. The left, and particularly the Labour Party, would be wise to begin to engage in an egalitarian dialogue with the current clerisy, many of whom are asking the right questions. It is in this way that the normalising of Mammon worship can be exposed for the destructive mindset that it is, and returned to its former pejorative status.
Abigail Rhodes is an M3C/AHRC-funded PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham.