Mike Smith
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11 June, 2012

Book Review

Cowshed revolution needed for a downwardly mobile capitalism

The Cowshed Revolution by Ray Simpson

Reviewed by Michael Smith

The Cowshed Revolution by Ray Simpson
The Cowshed Revolution by Ray Simpson
In The Cowshed Revolution, Ray Simpson, an Anglican priest who is the founding guardian of the international community of Aiden and Hilda at Lindisfarne, calls for Christians to be 'downwardly mobile' as an antidote to the ladder-climbing ambition of money-making and materialistic success. He does so as a lead-in to the need for a downwardly mobile capitalism, reaching towards the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised though social enterprises and other social organisations. The need, he says, is for 'a capitalism of conscience'. The book divides neatly into the two sections.

There are of course many stories throughout history of downwardly mobile Christians, from St Francis to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and including Christ’s own example of servant leadership demonstrated through his washing of the feet of the disciples: 'He who would be first must be the willing servant of all.' Simpson tells in brief the stories of other examples, including the desert fathers, St Aiden, and St Martin, the Bishop of Tours, who insisted on living in a wooden hut in a field rather than the bishop’s palace, after whom the church of St Martin in the Fields at Trafalgar Square in London is named.

What makes this book fascinating is the way that Simpson has extrapolated the early example of such saints to draw lessons for today’s consumer culture, in his call for a 'downwardly mobile society'

'The networks between people, which hold a community together, are sometimes referred to as its "social capital", by analogy with financial capital,' he writes. 'An area which is economically rich can still be dysfunctional if it lacks this quality. Social capital is increased through use; it is depleted through neglect. It can be, and must be, replenished, but this requires our society to rediscover the centrality of personal responsibility and the gift of service to others. In other word it requires us to be downwardly mobile.' There are clues here for making Prime Minister David Cameron’s 'Big Society' work in practice. We can’t of course all live a hair-shirt existence but we can all have a spirit of service towards one another in our communities.

Simpson is particularly tough on bankers and their behaviour, though he develops his thinking on the constructive, service role that banks could play in society, even suggesting that 'bonuses could be used in a way that could be celebrated rather than castigated', such as investing in local communities and in charitable projects. 'The greatest challenge,' Simpson writes, 'in moving from a selfish to a relational economic system is to shift the focus from the pursuit of profit at others’ expense to pursuit of profit that brings good and right relationships with God and neighbours.'
Profit, then, is not bad per se, but 'a downwardly mobile model of society identifies moral, social, economic, ecological, cultural, technical, planning and political infrastructure for the common well-being, restraining evil and curbing violence.' Millions of people need to be motivated by a new grass-roots dynamic and 'businesses need to increase the quality and number of their social responsibility programmes.'

A sustainable civilisation, he concludes, is built on natural, financial, social and spiritual capital, 'but even an increase in our spiritual capital will not save the world unless enough of the spiritually intelligent choose to be downwardly mobile.'

I’m left wondering what effect downward mobility would have on jobs for the unemployed. If buying our way out of recession through a consumer culture is not the way, then we need export led growth, to help meet the needs of the poorest people on the planet. I would like to see Ray Simpson develop his thinking on this.

Oh, and the Cowshed Revolution? It was, of course, the place of humility where Jesus was born and the revolution he brought into the world.

The Cowshed Revolution: a new society created by downwardly mobile Christians, Ray Simpson, Kevin Mayhew Ltd, 200 pages, paperback, ISBN 978-1-84867-467-7

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