Monday, June 1, 2009

Is the credit crunch the new Black Death?

Sometimes I find myself studying random and frankly weird subjects. My most recent foray has involved delving into the history of the Black Death. This makes me appear macabre, but I stumbled across a radio programme on the subject and it pricked my interest.

From 1340 onwards, the Black Death killed some 75-million people across the globe. In Europe it is estimated that 25-million to 50-million people died, meaning that one-third of the European population was wiped out. The scale of death had sweeping social consequences.

For example, the disease, or cluster of diseases, had a major impact on the Catholic Church. Not only were swathes of the church leadership infected and killed, with some sources putting the estimates as high as 40%, it also led to a decline in faith and religious allegiance. Many felt God had forsaken them. For others their loyalty to the church dwindled because promises by the church that the righteous would be saved, or a divine cure could be found, never materialised.

The result, as Samuel K Cohn, professor of medieval history at the University of Glasgow, has noted, was that chroniclers of the plague turned from supernatural and religious causes to considering social, political, and even evidence-based medical causes. He argues this provides new insights into how the Renaissance came about.

Put another way, traditional orthodoxy, assumed knowledge and power, which at the time was monopolised by the church, were challenged and this led to innovation. Further, some argue that the decline in numbers of available workers resulted in improved wages and was one of the factors that contributed to the end of the feudal system.

Of course, I am simplifying a complex history, and there are many competing versions of what I have outlined above, but the point I am trying to make is that disaster can lead to progress. Obviously, pestilence and horrific disease is not what anyone would choose as a way of advancing society. But any process that challenges, for whatever reason, unjust power structures merits interest.

The current financial crisis is a case in point. For the last 20 years, the financial system has been the high church of Western society. Investment bankers were treated as demigods and free market radicals as purveyors of an ideology that was unquestionable. The market, as a self-regulating force that rewarded those who knew how to play it, was an irrefutable belief system.

But many bankers have been proven incompetent and some corrupt, and the world’s largest banks have had to be ‘regulated’ and bailed out by government cash. Financial orthodoxy has been shaken to its core.

However, another consequence of the Black Death in the 1300s was the tendency to scapegoat individuals as the impact of the disease spiralled. For example, Jews, and other minorities, were persecuted across Europe as rumours spread that the plague was caused by them, with some thinking they were poisoning the water.

Applying this to the present, I believe it is only right that the financial crisis should lead us to question perceived economic wisdom, but we should also show restraint and resist attempts to look for easy answers or assume only a handful of people are to blame. Most across the globe bought obediently into the system hoping to make a quick buck.

There are individuals who milked the system and large pension payoffs for those who failed to prevent the collapse are distasteful in the extreme. But campaigns to go after specific bankers miss the bigger picture.

There is a need to find a new economic order and energy should go into that. The system has failed not just individuals.

So, just as the Black Death led to change, the current financial crisis should be about finding new ways to diagnose and run a socially responsible economic system while curing the rampant disease called greed at its core.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, March 2009. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 13 March 2009.