I blogged earlier about the connection between free market ideology and religion here. Now I present an excerpt from an unfinished essay, Capitalism as Religion by Walter Benjamin, written in 1921 and published in the Volume VI of his Collected Writings (in German). Here, Benjamin characterises capitalism not as something that resembles a religion, but as an actual religious cult as such. The translation is by Chad Kautzer. You can read the complete text here. A useful commentary by Benjamin Noys can be found here.
“One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion. The proof of capitalism’s religious structure – as not only a religiously conditioned construction, as Weber thought, but as an essentially religious phenomenon – still today misleads one to a boundless, universal polemic. We cannot draw close the net in which we stand. A commanding view will, however, later become possible.
Three characteristics of the religious structure of capitalism are, however, recognizable at present. First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has a meaning in direct relation to the cult: it knows no special dogma, no theology. From this standpoint, utilitarianism gains its religious coloring. The concretization of the cult connects with a second characteristic of capitalism: the permanent duration of the cult. Capitalism is the celebration of the cult sans rêve et sans merci.¹ Here there is no “weekday”, no day that would not be a holiday in the awful sense of exhibiting all sacred pomp – the extreme exertion of worship. Third, this is a cult that engenders blame. Capitalism is presumably the first case of a blaming, rather than repenting cult. Herein stands this religious system in the fall of a tremendous movement. An enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult, not in order to repent for this guilt, but to make it universal, to hammer it into consciousness and finally and above all to include God himself in this guilt, in order to finally interest him in repentance. This [repentance] is thus not to be expected in the cult itself, nor in the reformation of this religion – which must hold on to something certain within it – nor yet in the denial of it. In the essence of this religious movement that is capitalism lies – bearing until the end, until the finally complete infusion of blame into God – the attainment of a world of despair still only hoped for. Therein lies the historical enormity of capitalism: religion is no longer the reform of being, but rather its obliteration. From this expansion of despair in the religious state of the world, healing is expected. God’s transcendence has fallen, but he is not dead. He is drawn into the fate of man. This passage of “planetary man” [Planeten Mensch] through the house of despair is, in the absolute loneliness of his path, the ethos Nietzsche describes. This man is the Übermensch, the first who knowingly begins to realize the capitalist religion. The fourth characteristic [of the religious structure of capitalism] is that its God must become concealed and may only be spoken of in the zenith of his culpability. The cult becomes celebrated before an immature deity, [while] every image, every idea of it injures the secret of its maturity.
Freudean theory also belongs to the priestly rule of this cult. It is thoroughly capitalistic in thought. The repressed, the sinful imagination, is, at bottom, still an illuminating analogy to capital – to which the hell of the unconscious pays interest.
This type of capitalist, religious thinking magnificently reconciles itself in Nietzsche’s philosophy. The thought of the Übermensch loses the apocalyptic “leap” not by changing its ways, atonement, purification, [or] penitence, but in the apparently continuous, but in the end, rupturing, discontinuous intensification. That is why intensification and evolution are incompatible in the sense of “non facit saltum.” The Übermensch is the one who without changing, arrived, who streaked through the heavens – historical man.
Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, without dogma. Capitalism itself developed parasitically on Christianity in the West – not in Calvinism alone, but also, as must be shown, in the remaining orthodox Christian movements – in such a way that, in the end, its history is essentially the history of its parasites, of capitalism. Compare the holy iconography of various religions on the one hand with the banknotes of various countries on the other: The spirit that speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes.
Christianity in the time of the Reformation did not encourage the emergence of capitalism, but rather changed itself into capitalism.”
¹ The translator suggests this should actually read “sans trêve et sans merci”