Not “a cost of living crisis” but a crisis of the neoliberal project
|João Zeferino da Costa (1840–1916) The widow’s mite|
In order properly to address any particular problem we are experiencing it’s necessary first to see, and then name what it actually is in the most appropriate fashion possible.
If we see some problem and inappropriately name it, then the problem may not be addressed as well as it might, and the original transgression of using an inappropriate name will then simply help to create a further proliferation of words that only serves to make the original transgression of misnaming ever more damaging. As the writer of Proverbs noted, “With a multitude of words transgressions are increased” (Proverbs 10:19).
It strikes me that today we need to address just such an inappropriate naming of something that is causing huge and increasing amounts of disappointment and suffering to more and more people. That something is currently being named as “a cost of living crisis.”
Of course, this term has got some real traction among us because it speaks some truth — if it didn’t, then it wouldn’t have been used in the first place — but this inappropriate name is only serving to hide from view what is really going on.
Two millennia ago Jesus saw something shocking that can help us tease out what that something-going-on is. In the gospel of Luke (21:1–4) — with a parallel in Mark (12:41–44) — Jesus points to a deeply problematic and destructive asymmetry that has continued to grow until today. As I proceed, please keep in your mind the word “asymmetry.”
But first, here’s the story:
“And looking up [Jesus] saw the rich putting their offerings into the treasury. And he saw a certain impoverished widow there putting in two lepta [i.e. two coins of the lowest value], And [Jesus] said, ‘I tell you truly that this destitute widow put in more than all; For all of these donated their gifts out of their abundance, but this woman donated out of her poverty all the livelihood she possessed’” (Luke 21:1–4, trans. David Bentley Hart).
On the one hand, Jesus could see that the giving of the rich only came out of their abundance, i.e. out of their excess, which was way over and above that which was required to live a decent and reasonable life. In short, the giving of the rich had no tangible effect on their own substance.
On the other hand, Jesus could see that the widow’s gift was not given out of her abundance because she simply had no excess, only poverty. In her case, everything she gave to others out of her poverty had a real and direct effect on the substance of her own life since to give anything to another always resulted in foregoing some basic necessity of her own life.
As we are now aware, today, more and more people are being forced into the situation of the widow. Even though many of the worst affected still have jobs (and sometimes even two or three), their extremely inadequate wages no longer allow them to heat their homes, water or ovens, they cannot buy enough food to feed their families and, sometimes, cannot now even get to work in the first place because of the extremely high cost of fuel. And yet, despite having no abundance at all most are still giving selflessly out of their poverty, especially to their children. They are truly giving of their substance and, as a consequence, they are becoming ever more insubstantial, going hungry, losing weight, losing sleep and losing hope.
However, it’s important to see clearly that all this is going on while huge profits are still being creamed off everywhere and transferred into the tax-exempt, offshore coffers of already excessively wealthy companies, corporations and individuals. Yes, some money is here and there trickled down into the common coffer, but what little arrives from the rich comes entirely from an excessive, unnecessary, and obscenely still growing, abundance.
The truth is that the cruel, unjust and shocking asymmetry Jesus observed two millennia ago in Palestine has by now been monstrously magnified, so much so that, according to the World Economic Forum and Oxfam, it has enabled “the world’s 2,153 billionaires” to accumulate “more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population.” (See also this Oxfam report from May 2022).
What we are experiencing should not, therefore, be named “a cost of living crisis,” although it is that as well, but a structural crisis in the extremely asymmetric neoliberal project of wealth-creation and regressive wealth redistribution that has increasingly dominated our world since the end of the Second World War.
As an act of solidarity with those suffering most immediately from this asymmetric crisis we need, like Jesus, publically to point to it and name it for what it really is. Only after doing this can we hope properly to begin addressing this problem which, at heart, is not a financial or economic problem, but a moral and ethical one.
Let those with ears hear; those with eyes see.