Debating capitalism in Marlborough

Yesterday evening, I was very pleased to take part in a debate on “Can capitalism be made good?” in Marlborough. I argued “no”, alongside Stewart Wallis from the New Economics Foundation. On the other side were Will Morris, chair of the CBI’s tax committee and Anglican priest, and Hugh Pym of the BBC. The Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam, presided.

I received a warm welcome and a friendly approach from organisers, audience members, the other speakers and the staff and sixth formers at St John’s School who were involved in arranging the event. Sandwiches beforehand were very welcome.

I argued that capitalism could not be made good because three central aspects of it are inherently immoral: it involves a few owning the world’s wealth that rightly belongs to us all; it relies on ever-increasing consumption that is destroying the planet; and it based on usury, treating money and markets as if they have a “real” existence separate from how people choose to use them.

The question “Can capitalism be made good?” was put to the vote before we started debating. 71 people voted Yes and 36 voted No. Stewart and I were disappointed, but we pressed on. There was another vote at the end of the debate; this time 63 voted Yes and 46 voted No (there were several abstentions on both occasions). So, while we lost the vote, the opposition to capitalism increased during the evening, which I was really chuffed about.

One of the most surprising moments came after the debate, when two students from Marlborough College – an extremely expensive, elitist private school – told me that they had voted aganist capitalism.

Five years ago, I think it would have been highly unlikely for over a third of an audience in an affluent area of south-west England to vote that capitalism could not be good. Indeed, at that time, it is unlikely the debate would have been held. The economic crisis has caused immense suffering, particularly to the poorest (while the rich largely carry on as before). But it has made many people aware that we have an economic system that is immoral, exploitative and based on lies. Thank God for that.

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