Why Not a Christian counter movement to neo-liberalism?

Recently I was sitting with friends on the back deck when the topic of neo-liberalism came up.  Somehow, each had heard the same podcast about neo-liberalism and were pondering its implications. These friends are not academics who read economists or social theorists but ordinary people who, looking at what is happening in their worlds and to their children, are getting scared. They sense that they’ll, probably be alright but their children and grandchildren? This fear now runs deep. My friends are also Christians who, in the privacy of the deck, expressed their frustrations about the churches they attend. They see them as irrelevant when it comes to their fears of a society falling apart or the parlous nature of what seems to lie ahead. They see their churches introducing new programs for bible study and discipleship or new techniques for connecting with their neighborhoods or another round of mission statements but nothing that signals, in the midst of liturgies, worship songs and culture wars, that their churches grasp the crisis of our society.

The conversation caused me reflect about our response as Christians to this socio-economic unravelling too many of us are experiencing. I know Catholic thinkers (focused on God’s agency and the common good or their arguments for a civil economy[1]) who engage with these questions in their parishes. In the run-up to the US mid-term elections, for example, a bus of sisters (nuns) travels across America stopping at rallies to ask candidates how they are seeking the common good rather than the economic security of the few. What is troubling about this back-deck conversation is how a majority of Euro-tribal churches are lost in questions about their own identities and survival. The “mood” of people is that of confusion, anger and fear (“…outrage that the world as we know it has been allowed to self-destruct merely conceals fear about not knowing where to go next” (Heinz Bude[2]) while the mood of the Euro-tribal churches is on how to fix and reform their loss of identity or growth.

In this context I read Michael Brie’s Karl Polanyi in Dialogue where he discusses a question raised by the feminist theorist, Nancy Fraser,[3] in a 2012 lecture. Fraser wanted to know why there is no ‘Polanyian’ counter movement for the protection of society against neo-liberalism?[4] Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) was a Hungarian émigré to England (1933) and the USA (1940). His book The Great Transformation continues to shape our thinking about the nature of capitalism and the forms of a just economic community.[5] Fraser represents a growing body of thinkers wanting to understand the effects of neoliberalism on contemporary societies. The conviction is that those effects involve the unleashing of forces that are undermining democracies and the common good of societies. There’s an urgent concern across multiple segments of society about finding ways of protecting growing numbers of people left out of the social and economic world that neo-liberalism has created[6] and our current backlash of resentment.[7] Movements of resentment are being turned into pantomime by leaders with no idea of what is actually happening. It’s sobering because the resentment hasn’t gone away, neo-liberalism is still in place and liberal elites still believe they can fix the old story.

Meanwhile, the churches continue trying on various fixes that will restore them. Why isn’t there a groundswell from the churches to these plainly visible forces of social destruction when one of the most compelling question before us is that of how we transform the economic basis of our lives and, therefore, the social structures? Western societies are unravelling in scary ways. The social contracts that held these societies together following the end of W.W. 2’ unprecedented economic boom (social safety nets, labour and capitalist cooperation or the enlarging of a bureaucratized state) have fallen apart. A neo-liberal economics was convinced the invisible hand driving capitalism was far better suited to benefit all members of society when freed from the constraints of the state. This experiment has resulted in the undoing of social safety nets and the throwing of increasing numbers of people onto their own means.

As people are increasingly cast upon themselves, economic and social life in bureaucratized and individualized societies has resulted in a deepening sense of isolation from one another and an alienation from government that does not bode well for democratic processes. In the local, loneliness grows apace with diminishing means of cultivating belonging.[8] The precariously established roots of community and neighborhood that always require constant tending have been clear cut. Younger generations can no longer afford to live where they were born and grew up. Young people, right into the pre- teens, express anxiety about whether they will be able to afford a place to live or belong. These are not overblown statements, but the raw reality for increasing numbers across our society. In a Guardian article (“Theresa May faces a new crisis after mass walkout over social policy”)[9] Michael Savage reported on the social inequalities confronting citizens in the UK where London and its environs functions as an economic zone at odds with the social and economic realities of the rest of the country. Over the last thirty years in the US (not just since the 2008 meltdown) the real incomes of a majority of citizens have remained flat or declined while the top 2% experienced massive economic surpluses not seen since the Gilded Age. Something is terribly awry. The arguments outlining the effects of neo-liberal economics with its politics of minimal engagement with society are now legion as is evidenced by the growing number of books and podcasts. In this unravelling of social life people don’t see their political or economic leaders addressing these challenges or, more disturbing, they are seen as incapable of grasping what is happening. The unravelling has created the fear that there are no alternatives.

In the light of this unravelling I want to redirect Fraser’s question toward the Euro-tribal churches: Why isn’t there a Christian counter movement for the protection of society from neo-liberalism?[10] Engaging this unravelling needs to become a priority for the Euro-tribal churches. They need to move beyond their ecclesiocentric gazing to address this question. It’s not the only question but right now it’s a terribly important one. This is not saying the churches must suddenly have social and economic solutions. But as Spirit-guided communities they are called to embody practices that form us for the common good, for discerning ways of engaging our economic and social crises. It is not about having answers but forming communities oriented toward the everyday amidst the people where they live. More than a call to “social action”, it’s about a way of life than can only formed out of a liturgical community rooted in the rhythms of worship.


[1] See, for example, Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni, civil economy (Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing, 2016).

[2] Heinz Bude, The Mood of the World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018). p 2.

[3] Louise A Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics at the New School of Social Research, NY

[4] Michael Brie, Karl Polanyi in Dialogue (Montreal, PQ.: Black Rose Books, 2017) 7.

[5] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation

[6] The following represents a small selection of recent books on this subject: Ari…, George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (London: Verso, 2017),

[7] See Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present and Nancy Fraser’s “Progressive neoliberalism versus reactionary populism: a Hobson’s choice” in The Great Regression edited by Heinrich Geiselberger.

[8] See New York Times, Ceylan Yeginsu, “U.K Appoints a Minister for Loneliness” Jan. 17. 2018

[9] The Guardian, Sunday, 3 December 2017 Michael Savage see http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/dec/02/theresa-may-crisis-mass-walkout-social-policy-alan-milburn?

[10] There remains a good deal of confusion around what is neoliberalism. Along with the numerous books cited in footnote #4 CBC Radio Canada has an excellent pod cast on this subject. See, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/is-neoliberalism-destroying-the-world-1.4839399 and https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world

4 Replies to “Why Not a Christian counter movement to neo-liberalism?

  1. Totally on board with opposing neoliberalism but what alternative r u proposing? I am a fan of David Harvey’s analysis of neoliberalism and of Tim Jackson’s economics. So should we organize a conference?

    1. Thanks, Chris for your response and question. As you might guess, your question is about continuing conversations rather than a big alternative economic theory or a nice set of 5 principles. What we’re dealing with here is a deeply embedded social imagination. This means engaging the question of how social imaginaries change. Further, when people ask me this question of alternatives it often comes from within a sense that there are no real alternatives, there’s no way out, or, the one’s being offered are unrealistic (which, of course, if its about challenging a regnant social imaginary, that is exactly how any alternative proposals will sound – crazy, impractical and unreasonable. All of that said let me offer some pointers:

      1. In the post I pointed to some ways of engaging this question – Catholic social theory is one such place. I noted the book civi economy as a good place to start.
      2. The practice of subsidiarity is critical. I don’t look for, nor expect, alternatives to come from professionals or experts. These are not the places where social imaginaries are going to be transformed. Creating, for example, a “Center for innovating economic change” (strategies) is a royal waste of time, energy and money. Its about how people on the ground, in their local settings, initiate “tactics” (and, by the way, you can’t create an organization or a center that will train ordinary people to develop tactics – that’s another mode of power that misses the point).
      3. What is starting to happen is that a lot of people are learning how to dwell in the local, participating in the stories that are fermenting all over the place. My back deck story was an attempt to get at this. As people find safe spaces to talk there is the possibility of such tactics emerging. I know of people, for example, who have deliberately chosen to live life in and with the local – these are ways in which people test and practice alternative economies. Here is how the refounding of economic life takes place – when enough people stop believing in the dominant story (which is happening) and, in their local contexts, start small experiments testing out local economies. This is how it begins.
      3. I am noting, for example, in the travels I’ve been doing in different parts of the world over the last several months, the ways in which those under something like the age of early to mid 40 are choosing to live in ways very different from those over that age. They’re getting out of cars, limiting the time on social media and screens, changing eating habits, buying local and reconnecting with “craft” movements. The later is, itself, a sign of some kind of significant ferment that is pushing away from neoliberal economies.

      So, this isn’t about proposing some big alternative economic theory to neoliberalism but something totally different. What I am suggesting might seem naive and simplistic but its what I’m starting to see and, I hope, learning to participate with. My regret and sadness remains: the majority of churches, and books about churches, of which I am aware are outside this ferment of the Spirit.

    2. The church is significantly contributing to the protection of society from neo-liberalism. This tends to happen off the grid of church programming and entertainment gatherings. Most often happens in the smaller churches who are ‘family’ rather than ‘business’ models and provide the social support to weather “at-will employment” aka modern day slavery. While it is popular to focus on off-shore and globally proclaimed problems or mission projects, it fails to bless the neighbour living right next door or in the vehicle parked on the street. We have modern day slavery in our own communities when employers have control of you even on your time off. It does not require academic arguments to define what the church is experiencing. This article displays an elitism that fails to recognize what the church in action does without the interference of academia or national boards. The nature of neo-liberalism is that is does not care what research says unless it creates wealth. Does that fill your belly? No and neither will a conference or glossy production. You are missing the grass roots activities as communities serve their family members who are just as worthy of service as the highly lauded and visible activities of the church in the media. It is still relevant to stay local and the counterculture church is doing that. No board required. And age is not a factor.

      1. Laurie – completely agree with your observations. I will be posting further on this in the coming week as a response to you and several others who very appropriately pushed back at some of my comments. Thanks.

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