Sacrifices to the Financial Markets
By Pamela Haines, Quaker social justice educator with a concern for economics and the environment
Most of us would see the ability to choose to sacrifice as a good and human thing. I can sacrifice immediate pleasure for a longer-range goal. I can sacrifice what I want for myself in the immediate situation because I see the more pressing need of somebody else. I can sacrifice a cherished dream that is no longer possible without contaminating my future with bitterness. I can cheerfully sacrifice convenience and comfort when community wellbeing or justice calls for it. I can even sacrifice my life, if necessary, in service to a higher good. Though not limited to our species, this seems to be a very human quality.
Of course sacrifice can go to extremes. There is a habit of self-sacrifice, of never acknowledging our value and always putting the perceived needs of others first, in a way that is ultimately helpful to no one. But in general we would choose to hang out with people who have the capacity to make sacrifices; we can trust that they have the larger picture—of not just themselves, not just this moment—in mind.
All of these, however, are examples of people choosing to make sacrifices. It can get a little trickier when the sacrifice is being called for by someone else. If you feel part of that body, it can still work. When the US entered World War II, for example, most people saw themselves as part of that effort. They were willing to make sacrifices—as civilians with fewer amenities and more work, as soldiers with their lives on the line.
But, as our sense of connection to those calling for sacrifice gets thinner, the enthusiasm wanes. At the far end of this spectrum is human sacrifice in the literal historical meaning of the term, where people are thrown into the gaping maw an all-powerful and angry god. Probably few of us would see anything noble or human about this.
It’s not pretty. Those who call for human sacrifice in these situations rarely offer themselves. They are the high priests, claiming to have the ear of the gods, who have gained enough ascendancy over the population, either through sophisticated psychology or coercive threat, that such sacrifice becomes an acceptable part of the religion.
Luckily that’s all way in the past, not something we have to worry about in our enlightened modern era. Or is it? A friend recently suggested—and I have to agree—that we are in the midst of just such a time. The new gods are the financial markets. These “markets” demand billions of dollars from governments to keep them fed, and more and more austerity measures in more and more countries. They must be not only obeyed but placated.
The high priests are the economists and Wall Street gurus. They claim that only they can understand the language of the gods. If we are to have any kind of future, we just have to trust them and do what they say.
The human sacrifice is… us. There may be others in front of us in line—those facing mortgage foreclosures, the unemployed and the poor in our richer countries, and almost everybody in the global south. But the line seems to be speeding up, and the call for human sacrifice on a larger and larger scale is growing. We are being called to sacrifice our jobs, our health, our homes, our very capacity to care for our families, all on the altar of the financial markets. Whole countries are being required to dismantle their safety nets. With gods and high priests like this, no one is safe.
We all do it because this is our religion, and when such big gods are angry, what other choice to you have? The pivotal scene from The Wizard of Oz seems uncannily apt. The Emperor of Oz, the Great and Terrible, is booming terrible commands and smoke is swirling and everybody is shaking in terror, when the little dog pulls back a curtain at the side of the great hall, revealing a little man at the controls of a fancy image-making machine. That clever little man, with the ominous pseudo-reality he has created, is willing to sacrifice everybody else in single-minded pursuit of his own self-interest. Are our high priests of finance any different?
This would be a really good time to pull back the curtain, shake our heads free of the illusion that seems so real, discredit those high priests, and refuse to sacrifice to those gods. Then we could get down to the business of deciding what kind of common good we’re willing to make sacrifices for.