These are my opening remarks from a debate titled “Is money the root of all evil?”, hosted by the City of London Festival on 25 June.
It always makes me laugh when inanimate objects are described as evil. You hear it all the time these days. Junk food is apparently “evil”, destroying our children’s lives. Knives are evil, too, according to those who fret about a “knife culture”. Guns are always treated as evil, as awesomely powerful objects that are reportedly reducing whole nations to ruins.
It’s really quite medieval, this investment of inanimate objects that have no sentience or morality with the quality of evil.
It’s most often said about money. Money is apparently the root of all evil. It’s an evil force, warping minds and leading people astray. Really? Money is just a thing, a facilitator of exchange. Can it be used to evil ends? Sure. The man who uses his money to buy weapons which he intends to use against innocent people is using money for an evil purpose. But it’s him who is evil, not his money.
Today, the repetition of the age-old, religious idea that money is the root of all evil is really a way of chastising material desire, of censuring people’s longing for increased wealth and comfort, for a finer, nicer, richer life. The sniffiness about money is really a sniffiness with the perfectly natural human desire to have more and better stuff.
It’s very striking that it is always those who have money, or who come from money, who are the most anti-money. Being anti-money, being anti-growth, is a luxury that only those with money can afford.
Consider the class dynamic of the Occupy movement, which was based very near here at St Paul’s. Every time I visited the Occupy camp I was struck by the contrast between the impeccably middle-class campaigners, who worked to an extremely luxuriant timeframe and clearly had the means to sustain themselves for months on end in a radical camp, and the often working-class traders and bankers who would walk by each morning, people like my brother, who works as a trader in the City.
There is a long tradition of working-class wideboys going to the City in search of their fortune, and you would often see the middle-class Occupiers who came from money sneering or yelling at those who didn’t come from money and who had the temerity to desire more money, more wealth.
The Occupy camp echoed a longstanding prejudice of the modern left. Somewhere at the tailend of the twentieth century, a left that was once about demanding more growth and more wealth creation became anti-growth, anti-wealth, anti-greed, and very agitated by anyone who insisted on having a materially richer existence.
This became very apparent in the Thatcher era of the 1980s. It’s really then that so-called leftists became explicitly anti-growth and anti-wealth. They visited their ire mainly on the man in the street who had apparently been brainwashed by Thatcher’s evil free-market fundamentalism. They lambasted Essex man, with his mock Tudor home and his bling; they castigated Yuppies; they laughed at Loadsmoney, that crude caricature of a working-class man blinded and turned mad by his lust for cash.
It is fundamentally these prejudices against growth and material desire that survived the 1980s. The true ideological victor of the 80s wasn’t some mythical creed called Thatcherism - it was anti-Thatcherism, the idea that growth is destructive, greed is bad, and material desire is crude and unspiritual. You can see this prejudice everywhere today, in the green movement, in the Occupy movement, in the campaigns for “sustainable growth” in the Third World, in officialdom’s promotion of happiness over growth… One of the key ideological outlooks of our age is one which says growth, desire and money are bad things, and we should be happy with our lot in life.
This is now such a mainstream sentiment that it can become the theme of one of the biggest pop hits of this new millennium. In her incredibly popular song “Royals”, the nice, middle-class white singer Lorde rails against the bling and the crude wants of black rappers. Again, someone who comes from comfort mocks those who don’t come from comfort for daring to desire more and nicer things - a microcosm of what passes for radical politics today.
Fundamentally, the juvenile claim that money is the root of all evil is a call for people to learn to live with less. It’s a demand that we halt economic growth and wealth creation. We are always warned of the apparently terrible consequences of economic growth - it harms the environment, it makes people feel unsatisfied with their lot, and so on.
But what about the consequences of Western society’s abandonment of the ideal of growth? These consequences are infinitely worse than a bit of pollution in China. The consequence of the anti-growth outlook is implicitly to condemn billions of people to short, brutal, diseased, unsatisfied lives, to leave huge swathes of the world undeveloped and painfully poor. That, to my mind, is a far greater evil than greed or climate change or whatever else is said to have been caused by economic growth. To quote George Bernard Shaw, money isn’t the root of all evil - the lack of money is.