Revitalising The Economy

It is not particularly fresh news that religious institutions are first and foremost business institutions, engaged in the movement of money from some pockets into other pockets. We understand how all kinds of religious building function as tangible fixed assets for the purpose of generating a revenue stream, while for their part the customers, whether magnate or commoner, make pious donations as admission price or high-yield investment. To this end, the fixed assets known as churches, monasteries and shrines are bought and sold just like mills, bridges or customs posts, or else or divided into shares that are bought and sold likewise. Not exactly into thousandths of the capital, but the principle is the same.

We also understand how the question of how to run the collectively-owned businesses that we call medieval monasteries spawned a vast management literature, and how successful models were exported and copied, while models thought to be dysfunctional were forcibly reorganised or suppressed. Creative destruction, as Schumpeter would call it. Above all, those individuals thought to embody managerial prowess were headhunted from one location to the next. Such monks would have perfectly understood the modern invocation of “benchmarking”. It has also been suggested that a particular organisation within the Christian church, the Cistercians, were the pioneers of what would later be called factory production, standardisation and the multinational.

So far, so good. But that is all the more reason to take the final step. For, until the great age of the chartered town and its self-governing burgesses, the theologians and devotional writers were practically alone in thinking about how best to organise profitable corporate entities. We might therefore do well to enquire what would happen if, every time a twelfth- or eleventh-century writer talked about “the Church of God”, the “kingdom of heaven” and so forth, we were to replace this expression with our modern cant, “the Economy”.

If, we may often suspect, that modern hypostasis or abstraction, “the Economy” is really the name given by a particular class of people to their own extorted riches, well, the same may be true of the kind of people who spoke in proprietorial terms of “the Church of God”. If the substitution works, that does not prove that the twelfth-century writers consciously had producing and consuming, buying and selling in the forefront of their minds when talking about the Church. But it might nevertheless indicate that we have been missing something important.

The Norman Anonymous, to take just one example, would then be writing that, “The king ought, therefore, not to be excluded from the governance of the economy, that is, the Christian people, because the kingdom would then be separated from the economy and destroyed.” For the relationship between the secular and the ecclesiastic power was a perennial issue, and is perhaps not so very different from what we nowadays call “the role of the state in the economy”. We may have been in error in taking the rhetoric for a greater reality than it actually is, and vainly assuming that when they spoke of the body of Christ and so on, they were talking about something “spiritual”. If, in those days, most of the economy was in the hands of the collective owner caste that wore the cowl as their business dress, then what they might really have been talking about is the right to run the enterprise as they saw fit, free of interference by those claiming to represent the people in some different sense. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?
We might even find that the programme we call Gregorian, calling for the absolute autonomy of the clerics, might – if translated in the spirit of “follow the money” – sound like something not entirely unlike Ayn Rand.

Posted on April 20, 2017 at 16:37 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Spiritual Business

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