Return of the Golden Calf

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

By Robert C. Koehler

’Tis the season to feel rage and heartache about the economy.

I feel hope as well, praise the Lord, thanks to Pope Francis and the alley behind my house, where nothing of value goes to waste.

I’m the kind of person who can’t throw anything away, but sometimes I have to anyway — an old microwave, a sewing machine that hasn’t been used in 20 years, a threadbare easy chair, tangled computer wires and other excruciating miscellany — and when I do, it’s usually gone within a day, if not an hour. When I can no longer find value in what I possess, others see it as a gift from the universe.

The alley economy flows through my Chicago neighborhood 24/7, a sort of gift economy that continually revitalizes one’s material possessions, in unnoticed defiance of the official, throwaway, money-profit-growth economy that has its claws around our world and is squeezing us to death. The alley economy is, in fact, part of a rudimentary social ecosystem, where forces collude for the common good and nothing is wasted.

This is the opposite of the official economy, where everything except growth and profit are held in contempt and the environmental and human commons are simultaneously exploited and polluted. Those who benefit from this system are just as trapped in it as the ones who are victimized by it, and will ultimately come tumbling down when sustainability collapses along with the rest of us, but in the meantime they are forced both to serve its perpetuation and ignore its hellish cost.

That last part — the tacit ignoring of what’s wrong, the blurred distinction between news and advertising, the erosion of integrity in most forms of public communication — is particularly distressing, because without clarity of discussion we can’t begin to address what’s wrong and begin making crucial changes, even if they benefit everyone.

So I join those who welcome the words of Pope Francis, whose apostolic exhortation on, among other things, run-amok capitalism, “Evangelii Gaudium,” was delivered from a global pulpit: “The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings.”

This slices to the heart of the matter in a way that can’t easily be ignored or dismissed. Income inequality, as Heidi Moore wrote last week in the U.K. Guardian, “has been locked out of the mainstream economic conversation, where it is seen largely as a sideshow for progressive bleeding hearts.” Yet the growing maw of poverty, the global spread of economic desperation, “is the biggest economic issue of our time — for everyone, not just the poor,” she writes. “. . . Into this morass of economic confusion steps Francis with clarifying force.”

She adds that the pope has managed to make the notoriously wealth-encrusted Vatican (just ask Rush Limbaugh) “an outpost of Occupy Wall Street” — as unlikely a scenario as any I might have imagined at the beginning of the year. Maybe such words of warning and compassion, from safely within the enclave of traditional power, will be able to withstand the public-relations onslaught that is sure to assail them. Maybe other powerful figures will step across the divide and begin speaking against the insanity of endless economic growth and the conversion of everything we value into commodities to be bought and sold.

Without that happening, fundamental change will remain no more than possibility, rage and heartache, and the erosion of integrity will continue until there’s no one we can trust.

“We are surrounded by advertising, from the moment we wake up in the morning, to the time we spend walking on the streets, to the very logos that we wear on our bodies in the form of clothing. Our media systems are almost exclusively commercial, and even countries with a history of public service broadcasting have seen that history slowly erased, replaced with a commercialized reality.”

So said Christian Christensen in a public lecture at Uppsala University, which was published recently at Common Dreams. Christensen was addressing the incursion of profit-making considerations into realms, such as the university, where independent thought and speech — and the freedom to challenge authority — were once established.

“. . . real critical thinking involves the questioning of power, the questioning of authority, the questioning of what we might broadly call ‘common sense’ ideas,” he writes. “The questioning of these areas is not something that usually goes hand-in-hand with profit-making ventures, or the maintenance of status quo power. The open questioning of authority simply does not lend itself well to closed structures: be they political, corporate or theological. On the contrary, the recognition and acceptance of authority is the cornerstone of these types of structures.”

We’re stuck in an economic system and a belief system in which money is no longer a mere medium of exchange but an end in itself, the accumulation of which is crucial to one’s individual survival but toxic to our collective survival. Emerging from this paradox feels terrifying. That’s because it isn’t possible unless we do it together.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at