BHS and the rest: Is capitalism doomed without God?


11,000 jobs lost. A pension pot under threat. A British institution hasn't gone down in flames. It's collapsed with a whimper.

British Home Stores (BHS) was a flagship on the High Street for generations. Families bought clothes, gifts, home goods and more from BHS. It employed thousands of people directly, and of course, many thousands more in its supply chain. Now it's gone the way of Woolworths, MFI, Littlewoods, and other High Street mainstays. This week it was announced that BHS would be liquidated only a year after being sold by Sir Phillip Green, the retail magnate whose other brands include Topshop, Burton and Dorothy Perkins.

The details of what went wrong at BHS have been chronicled elsewhere ("he sold it to a previously bankrupt racing driver with some business but no retail experience whatsoever"). For those not directly impacted by the collapse of a retail institution, the question remains about whether this is indicative of a deep malaise at the heart of the British economy. This question could be applied to the USA and other Western capitalist economies. To put it another way, is capitalism doomed without God?

This may seem like a dramatic non sequitur. Many in contemporary western societies presume the system of free market capitalism we live with is somehow 'natural' or at the very least just the default setting for us as human societies. It isn't.

The Capitalist system which developed in Europe via the Industrial Revolution has dominated the Western World ever since. A key driver of its development was the religious environment in which it happened. Max Weber's defining work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was published in the early 20th Century. In it, the German sociologist argued that the development of the Capitalist system had its roots in the Reformation – namely that worldly success in the marketplace was some kind of sign of God's favour, which was no longer assured by the Church, as it had been under Roman Catholicism.

It's a theory that has its detractors, but it has remained incredibly powerful and persuasive in the century since its publication.

Weber shows that the milieu in which Capitalism emerged was fundamentally shaped by Christian belief. Although that era brought with it many downsides to capitalism – poor treatment of workers, bad pay, dangerous working conditions, even slavery, there were counterbalancing forces that came from within the Christian worldview.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs fought for better working conditions and for ordinary people to be allowed to organise and demand rights from their employers. Their Christian beliefs powered their campaigning – and their certainty in the righteousness of their cause saw them deported as criminals.

In the 19th Century, many of the most successful business people took their faith so seriously that they began to care for their workers in new and profound ways. While they had faults, and are now viewed as overly paternalist, the great evangelical, Quaker and Anglican business owners achieved many things. Elizabeth Fry demanded prison reform. The Cadbury family built a model village for employees. The Rowntrees "were pioneering analysts and workers against poverty." The list goes on.

As Will Hutton writes, "Quaker forefathers felt a genuine sense of responsibility to their workers. [Cadbury's] family believed in capitalism for a purpose – innovation and human betterment."

In the 20th Century, Christians were at the forefront of social and political campaigns which expanded the rights of workers and made sure capitalism worked for as many people as possible. Not all of them were successful (the temperance movement didn't take off in the UK and was a failure in the US) but the reforming zeal which inspired earlier generations was still present and continues today in areas such as the Living Wage campaign – founded and fueled by churches.

All of this is under threat from crony capitalists who seem to value profit, and personal gain, above anything else. Leading economic thinker Hutton shows how firms such as Amazon have abandoned the 19th Century ideal of the Quaker industrialists in favour of short-term gain. "Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, would regard the Cadbury family as crazed," he writes. "His relationship with his workforce is entirely transactional: they are to give their heart and soul to Amazon... Ultimately, long-term value creation can't be done by treating your workforces as cattle. It's the great debate about today's capitalism."

A prostestor against the sale of Cadbury's.Reuters

Cadbury's itself has now been sold off. Simply another part of a global corporation, the model village of Bournville still stands, but what of its founders' Quaker ideals?

Sir Phillip Green stands accused of a "lamentable failure of behaviour" by the Institute of Directors. While BHS collapses, Green has reportedly bought a third yacht, to be moored in Monaco, a tax haven. Christian MP Frank Field says, "There's nothing wrong with people who make fortunes and sail around in expensive yachts, provided they pay taxes and don't leave mega-holes in pension funds. But Philip Green is different. He should be regarded as a pariah."

There are more examples of crony capitalism. Take Mike Ashley – 90 per cent of his workforce is reported to be on zero hours contracts. His football club, Newcastle United are sponsored by payday lenders Wonga – leading lights in an industry which profits from low paid, unsecure workers. This is an industry whose business model was based on some customers not being able to pay back the loans on time. According to the Economist, "Fees and interest from rolling over loans generate about a half of the revenues in the £2 billion industry." Thankfully, churches and other civil society organisations have helped to curb the worst excesses of that industry through campaigning for a cap on the total cost of credit.

The Christian foundations of our capitalist system only work if we keep the Christian moral convictions at the core of the market as well. Runaway crony capitalism that disregards communities, workers' rights and their pensions has lost the Christian vision, and lost its way. "The worker deserves his wages" Jesus tells us in Luke 10. Pope Francis has railed against crony capitalism, suggesting the current global economic system, "has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature... This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, labourers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable."

It's time for us to rediscover the Christian framework for our economy. The framework which values profit, hard work and creativity, but which also values the dignity of labour, the importance of family and community life and the inherent worth of each person not to be exploited by vultures masquerading as businesses. We've had enough.