I have blogged before about the theological underpinnings of the contemporary discourse on the economy. Here’s an excerpt from a 1999 article by theologian Harvey Cox where he discusses the religious aspects of free market ideology:
“A few years ago a friend advised me that if I wanted to know what was going on in the real world, I should read the business pages. Although my lifelong interest has been in the study of religion, I am always willing to expand my horizons; so I took the advice, vaguely fearful that I would have to cope with a new and baffling vocabulary. Instead I was surprised to discover that most of the concepts I ran across were quite familiar.
Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustine’s City of God. Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. But here they were again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt tightening along the way, especially for the East Asian economies.
The East Asians’ troubles, votaries argue, derive from their heretical deviation from free-market orthodoxy—they were practitioners of “crony capitalism,” of “ethnocapitalism,” of “statist capitalism,” not of the one true faith. The East Asian financial panics, the Russian debt repudiations, the Brazilian economic turmoil, and the U.S. stock market’s $1.5 trillion “correction” momentarily shook belief in the new dispensation. But faith is strengthened by adversity, and the Market God is emerging renewed from its trial by financial “contagion.” Since the argument from design no longer proves its existence, it is fast becoming a postmodern deity—believed in despite the evidence. Alan Greenspan vindicated this tempered faith in testimony before Congress last October. A leading hedge fund had just lost billions of dollars, shaking market confidence and precipitating calls for new federal regulation. Greenspan, usually Delphic in his comments, was decisive. He believed that regulation would only impede these markets, and that they should continue to be self-regulated. True faith, Saint Paul tells us, is the evidence of things unseen.
Soon I began to marvel at just how comprehensive the business theology is. There were even sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and what theologians call an “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.” My curiosity was piqued. I began cataloguing these strangely familiar doctrines, and I saw that in fact there lies embedded in the business pages an entire theology, which is comparable in scope if not in profundity to that of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. It needed only to be systematized for a whole new Summa to take shape.
At the apex of any theological system, of course, is its doctrine of God. In the new theology this celestial pinnacle is occupied by The Market, which I capitalize to signify both the mystery that enshrouds it and the reverence it inspires in business folk. Different faiths have, of course, different views of the divine attributes. In Christianity, God has sometimes been defined as omnipotent (possessing all power), omniscient (having all knowledge), and omnipresent (existing everywhere). Most Christian theologies, it is true, hedge a bit. They teach that these qualities of the divinity are indeed there, but are hidden from human eyes both by human sin and by the transcendence of the divine itself. In “light inaccessible” they are, as the old hymn puts it, “hid from our eyes.” Likewise, although The Market, we are assured, possesses these divine attributes, they are not always completely evident to mortals but must be trusted and affirmed by faith. “Further along,” as another old gospel song says, “we’ll understand why.”
As I tried to follow the arguments and explanations of the economist-theologians who justify The Market’s ways to men, I spotted the same dialectics I have grown fond of in the many years I have pondered the Thomists, the Calvinists, and the various schools of modern religious thought. In particular, the econologians’ rhetoric resembles what is sometimes called “process theology,” a relatively contemporary trend influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. In this school although God wills to possess the classic attributes, He does not yet possess them in full, but is definitely moving in that direction. This conjecture is of immense help to theologians for obvious reasons. It answers the bothersome puzzle of theodicy: why a lot of bad things happen that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God—especially a benevolent one—would not countenance. Process theology also seems to offer considerable comfort to the theologians of The Market. It helps to explain the dislocation, pain, and disorientation that are the result of transitions from economic heterodoxy to free markets.”
Now Cox’s analogy isn’t just a case of simple sophistry. There’s good reason to trace the very idea of the free market as a naturally occurring phenomenon back to the Christian notion of natural law.¹ Some have also argued that Adam Smith originally conceived his famous invisible hand as literally the hand of God.² It’s no coincidence, then, that free market ideology is littered with such mythic elements.
I’m not pointing this out to ridicule those who believe in the free market myth. On the contrary, I think myths often have an element of truth in them. Indeed, myths may be even necessary for us to fully understand the world. But it’s when we fail to distinguish between myth and reality, and designate some particular myth as the Universal Truth, that we end up with fundamentalism. This is, I think, something we’ve been witnessing in the recent decades with the uncritical application of neoliberal policies, regardless of the destruction they’ve caused to civil societies and nature. What ought to be done now is to step back and evaluate the rationalisations we use for our economic activities in terms of their consequences in the real world, rather than in terms of ideology, and then start rebuilding the economy from the ground up with ecological and social sustainability in mind. The economy is not going to fix itself, no matter how much we believe in it.
¹ For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves, which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness… (Romans 2:14-15)