The budget has come and gone. The public's interest in the budget has been mild, and its disengagement notable. One reason is that we still live in the shadow of the economic crisis and the revelations it brought about the lack of wisdom among bankers and the economic clerisy.
Many people still remember clearly their moment of illumination as they watched the economic order totter, and saw the play of ideologies, greed, stupidity and self-interest that had brought it to this point. They find it hard to take seriously prognostications about economic reconstruction by authorities who had earlier talked up investment in Gadarene swine right up to the moment they toppled over the cliff.
Talk about the economy needs to be set in a broader conversation about the values that underlie its workings. There is a space for deeper reflection on the human condition, which will help us understand why greed and fear so dominate in human affairs, and what hopes we may reasonably entertain for the betterment of humanity.
An interesting recent reflection on these sombre themes is found in a book by Richard Holloway, Between the Monster and the Saint. Holloway, once Archbishop of Edinburgh, and now a writer and broadcaster much in demand in Britain, structures his reflections as a redemption song. He begins by exploring what is wrong with the world, points out some of the reasons why things go wrong, and concludes with intimations of healing.
Like most preachers Holloway is more compelling when he treats human discontents than when he deals with human happiness. He draws on the insights of philosophical, religious and creative writers to describe a precarious world. The natural urge to survive and to propagate all too often expresses itself in sexual exploitation and violence. These drives are only lightly checked by social, religious and cultural inhibitions.
In developing this theme Holloway offers arresting accounts of the implications of the human maltreatment of animals. He also shows how the recurring campaign of the tabloids to punish wrongdoers appeals to the pleasure human beings take in inflicting pain. Newspapers inherit a long tradition of flogging seats at public executions.
In exploring the reasons why unreconstructed nature so often prevails in human affairs, Holloway points to the defects of theories designed to account for human behaviour. The appeal to a human soul in order to explain what is distinctive about human beings, for example, encourages people to disregard the importance of the body and also to dissociate themselves from the world.
The appeal to God to explain the world, too, soon confronts the reality of human suffering. All too often people emerge from this confrontation believing in a punitive God who then licenses cruelty within the world. Strong religious believers in the United States were among strong proponents of the use of torture.
In asking where healing and hope may be sought, Holloway dwells on the power of myth, of art and of sanctity. All these probe beneath the comfortable surface of life that most people are content to accept, and discover monsters there. But they are not mastered by them. He finds, particularly in the example of individuals who refuse to be complicit in the drive to treat others brutally, a source of hope for humanity.
From this perspective, earnest discussion of the budget would seem to be a waste of energy. At best it would fail to notice, and at worst would cover up, the human world of which economic relationships are part. It neglects the way in which human greed perverts apparently neutral economic settings. Monsters are not neutral players.
In Holloway's perspective, however, something is lacking, which also bears on management of the economy. The deficiency makes his signs of hope a little ethereal almost despairing.
He poises human beings between members of the mob, which is dominated by natural drives and controlled by power, and reasoning, sensitive individuals. What is missing is the importance to human life of relationships.
Human beings are shaped by their relationships to one another and to the world. Through these relationships they transcend their individuality and their brutishness. The health of society and the resistance to monstrous behaviour lie in the quality of everyday relationships in family, workplace and social groups. To develop this reflection might lead us to explore concepts such as selflessness, fidelity, solidarity, and their opposites.
Discussion of the budget rarely touches on what kinds of relationship it encourages and handicaps. But on these things the effectiveness and seriousness of the budget finally depend.
EVENT: Reader's Feast Booksellers invite you to An Evening With Richard Holloway, Tuesday 19 May 2009, 6.15pm for 6.30pm, at Reader's Feast Bookstore, Cnr Bourke and Swanston Streets, Melbourne. Bookings: 03 9662 4699.
Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.