10 March 2007

Is Capitalism a Religion?

This is a somewhat parodic response to The Theist's recent suggestion that environmentalism is a religion. In it, he surveyed three major considerations of religion, which I'll mash up as follows: a religion is constituted by a set of beliefs, actions, and experiences, both personal and corporate, organized around a concept of an Ultimate Reality and offering a diagnosis and a cure with doctrinal, mythic, ethical, ritual, experiential, and social dimensions. So let's see: capitalism seems to fit this bill.

Ultimate Reality is survival, scarcity, and profit, nothing more; the problem is statist attempts to reduce scarcity and produce survival and profit; the cure is the free market; capitalist doctrines are provided by economists, who of course have split into various sects; the shared myth is the Invisible Hand; the ethics include "greed is good," theft is bad (and no, property ain't theft, nosireee Proudhon), and all the other propositions that make up "enlightened self-interest"; rituals abound: the shopping trip, going to the bank, buying a house, meetings with financial advisors, the job interview, the morning commute, opening and closing of stock markets, government release of economic data, Fed deliberations over interest rates, and really any purchase or sale, when you think about what's going on during a transaction; whether any of us have ever experienced "pure capitalism" is open to debate, but we've all felt the impact of some form of capitalism, in one way or another; Smith's discussions of trust (he was a moral philosopher, right?) indicate the social aspects of capitalism, as does the Cold War division between the "free world" and the "evil empire" and the debate over the relation between capitalism and democracy, among others.

Think about the way capitalism combines features of many world religions: the stock market is treated and spoken of as if it were the Oracle at Delphi; the capitalist priesthood of economists, financial analysts, stock traders, members of central banks and transnational institutions like the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund is as convoluted a hierarchy as any you'd find in Catholicism; its missionary impulse is as strong as any evangelical Christian church (or Mormon, for that matter); it has its saints and heretics, its saved and its lost, its debates over faith, works, and grace; it calls for a Buddhist detachment to live with the fear/greed overcorrection cycles of the stock market; it has its sacred sites--NY, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Las Vegas.... I'm sure our three regular readers and thirty googlers a day can come up with more examples on their own.

Here, following The Theist faithfully, as it were, although not quite as literal-mindedly as this guy, I'm going against the disclaimers of people like this guy, who concedes that a phrase like "market fundamentalism" is nothing more than a useful analogy.

To what end? I'm not sure. If you do a google search on just about any of the many clever phrases you can no doubt come up with on the capitalism=religion theme, you'll see that people have done any number of variations on it. In the interest of bloggy solidarity, I'll say that I am going for whatever The Theist was going for by arguing that environmentalism is a religion--until he clarifies what that is, and then I'll be against it. And against what The Objectivist is for. Because that's how we roll here, baby!


JP Stormcrow said...

Well "capitalism" may be the religion of the high priests, but I do not think that it has a mass following. However, it is complemented nicely by the folk religion of "transcendental materialism", which is concerned only with results, not the societal means to achieving them. The basic belief of "transcendental materialism" is that anyone who accumulates (and consumes) a sufficiently large enough combination of money and fame points ascends to OK-land and leaves all cares behind.

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