Behind the fever of shopping.

  • Source: The Tablet
  • Date: 13 September, 2003
  • Author: Simon Nixon

Antonia Swinson thinks that the developed world's obsession with money has caused it to lose sight of what really matters in life. People in rich societies are all so busy get-ting and spending and borrowing and lend-ing that they have forgotten all those lessons from Sunday school about loving their neighbour, their duty to treat others as they would like to be treated themselves, and the obstacles that make it so difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven: It is Swinson's mission to set her readers back on the path of spiritual redemption.

She is an award-winning financial journalist, and she paints a vivid picture of a decadent society awash with record levels of debt, in which parents put their health and families at risk by working long hours to fulfil unrealistic lifestyle aspirations. She explains how leading such lives, empty of spiritual values, puts us at the mercy of unscrupulous banks and brokers, of market-ing men and brand consultants, and of an economic elite who know that debts are a form of slavery that keeps the lenders rich and the debtors docile.

But alongside this critique of society, Root of All Evil? contains long streams-of-consciousness that sometimes read like the testimony of a recovering addict at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. One is left with the impression that Swinson herself has had to struggle to wean herself off an unhealthy addiction to what she calls "unrighteous mammon". She admits that she was scarred by her family's sudden plunge into poverty after the death of her father; and she recounts how in adult life, she became so caught up in her glamorous work and lifestyle that she finally ended up sitting on the pavement outside her house, unable to face her children.

In response, Swinson has created her own equivalent of the 12-step programme to spiritual redemption. The answer, she says, is to do what she has done. Downshift: pay back the debts, cut up the credit cards, buy a smaller house, get an allotment, wrap up your Christmas presents in old copies of the Financial Times and spend more time with your kids. And while you are at it, transfer your bank account to an ethical bank, refuse to buy shares in tobacco companies and encourage your firm to be nice to its suppli-ers. Those who make it through to the final step of this course may even find them-selves, like Swinson, emptying out the con-tents of their bins once a month to conduct an audit of their lifestyle and seek out signs of extravagance and waste.

Many of Swinson's conclusions will be familiar to anybody who has kept abreast of the current debates about how to balance work and life, corporate social responsibil-ity and ethical investment. But where Swin-son does venture into new ground is in her discussion of land ownership. She recounts her fury when she first discovered that 99.9 per cent of Britain's population owns just 4.4m. acres or 7.5 per cent of the land, while 189,000 families own 40m. acres or two-thirds of the land. This, she says, is the real reason why property prices in Britain are astronomical and families are forced into such crippling debt.

In fact, of course, there are all sorts of reasons why property prices in Britain are so high, most of which concern urban plan-ning regulations and me finite supply of land in towns where people actually want to live. They have very little to do with the reluctance of aristocrats to sell their rolling acres of uneconomic farmland. But such is Swinson's indignation at the unfairness of it all that one fears she is about to advocate a Mugabe-style land-grab. Instead, her Big Idea is a property tax, levied on landowners every year as a proportion of the value of their holdings. This is not in fact such a new idea, since it is basically a wealth tax - and as such, a long-cherished dream of extreme socialists everywhere. Indeed, such a tax amounts to little more than state-sanctioned confiscation of property and is not so differ-ent from Mugabe's land-grab after all.

Nevertheless, this is a timely book with an important message. Human nature may be unchanging but human behaviour has a ten-dency to evolve in cycles. It is now clear that the last years of the twentieth century marked the peak of a cycle of extraordinary decadence in the West in which the Christian message was often obscured. Now we must redeem our debts. Christ deliberately used the language of finance to explain his mission. That is why today the word "redemption" has two meanings. It is only through one form of redemption, says Swinson, that we can begin to seek the other.

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019
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