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Philosophers Simon Critchley and Cornel West muse in this discussion on questions of faith, religion and politics, based on Critchley’s book The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (2012). Critchley puts forward a notion of a secular form of religion, in which religion is that force which binds people together in association. Thus, it also forms the basis of political action. As a means to this end, Critchley invokes Wallace Stevens’ idea of a “supreme fiction”, that is a narrative we know is fictive but which we choose to believe in anyway. This is the essence of faith. The discussion was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 7, 2012.

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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”

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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)

² See eg. Denis: The Invisible Hand of God in Adam Smith (2005)

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