Tuesday, 16 October 2007

On Capitalism, God and Mammon

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

In his review of Don DeLillo’s highly acclaimed Underworld – whose sheer size and overall chutzpah established it as the last great novel of the 20th century – James Wood observed that “the book is so large, so ambitious, that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ”.

I’ve often thought that the same description could apply just as easily to capitalism. Every attempt to curb its voracious appetite, to “humanise” its world-wide dominion, to place the economy back in the service of the greater good and thus temper its lust for unregulated growth, has not simply failed, but has been assimilated, folded back into the existing economic order and turned into yet another expression of capitalism itself.

Take, for example, the wide-spread use of “anti-globalisation” rhetoric by designer labels and marketing firms, or even the current wave of chic enviro-fundamentalism. In both cases, there is a kind of coming together of opposites, where two trends which are logically opposed (like popular consumerism and radical conservationism) come to occupy the same space, and seemingly without contradiction. So, the exemplary product of global capitalism are T-shirts made in Chinese sweatshops bearing the “World Without Strangers” motto.

But my favourite instance of this absorption of a potential criticism of capitalism into the inert safety of pop culture can be found in the book version of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Its back cover features an endorsement, not from Sir Nicholas Stern, nor even from Tim Flannery, but from none other than Leonardo DiCaprio! (I suppose there is a connection between Leo and big chunks of floating ice – but wasn’t his problem that the ice hadn’t melted?)

Yes – capitalism, too, produces its own antibodies. And it seems that nothing is outside of its grasp.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of global capitalism is to have made choice one of those inalienable human rights, to have ensnared the very notion of democracy within an indiscriminate right-to-excess, to have transposed freedom into economic or consumptive terms. This is an achievement that DeLillo grasped in a remarkable way. As he put it in Underworld:

“Capital burns off the nuance in a culture. Foreign investment, global markets, corporate acquisitions, the flow of information through transnational media, the attenuating influence of money that’s electronic and sex that’s cyberspaced, the convergence of consumer desire – not that people want the same things, necessarily, but that they want the same range of choices.”

Choice itself has thus become the true object of human longing, a longing that has parasitised or colonised human nature itself. And so it seems that Karl Marx was right: the vision of capitalism that I’ve just described – which embraces the entire globe, which can generate more money ex nihilo through the mysteries of financial derivatives and futures speculation, which can bring together polar opposites in apparent economic harmony – is, in the end, theological. Or, to put it another way, capitalism is Mammon.

So, here’s my question: how can we take Jesus’ statement, “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” seriously when God and Mammon are now in cahoots?

Let me explain. While everyone loves to poke fun at the ridiculous platitudes of “prosperity theology”, the conspiring of God with Mammon is much, much older. Max Weber, in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, famously proposed that the capitalist disposition to earn and accumulate arose directly from the Puritan sense of calling which embraces all of life.

But now that the capitalist drive has shifted from thrift to choice, from prudence to indulgence, from accumulation to experience, the way religion operates within capitalism has also changed. Instead of a secularised motivation for work, the function of religion today more closely resembles those medieval rituals that provided sinners with the means whereby to atone for their sins.

We have our own thinly veiled forms of penance – like tithing, charitable donations, watching PBS – each of which makes us feel better about participating in decadent consumerism. And not only that, these forms of penance allow us to participate by relieving any sense of guilt.

And so it is that capitalism and charity can cohabitate. The one lets you indulge, and the other lets you get away with it. The problem at the heart of the matter is that Christianity traditionally has geared itself to dealing with the guilty conscience of the West, how to escape from the consequences of our wrongdoing. No wonder it has so readily been accommodated by capitalism as its ideal religious accessory. It was, of course, Marx that first recognised the inherent connection, the deep symbiosis between actually existing capitalism and various forms of religious belief and practice:

“Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal basis for consolation and justification. It is the imaginary realization of the human essence, because the human essence possesses no true reality. Thus, the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.… The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion.”

When Marx goes on to insist that a critique of capitalism must begin with a critique of religion (“the criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth”), wasn’t he simply repeating Jesus’ warning, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them”? Such expressions of disingenuous charity – performed for one’s own peace of mind and in the service of Mammon – are the oil in the capitalist machine.

Perhaps the best way of breaking today’s alliance between God and Mammon, then, is to refuse ourselves the false comfort of token acts of charity and fashionable faith, so that we can see our behaviour for what it really is and dare really to live differently.

Now just to be clear, so that no one can come back later and accuse me of coming dangerously close to Marcionite language, let me just confirm that I am absolutely a Marcionite! Radical Paulinism – as Barth recognised in the preface to the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans – represents one of the crucial resources for opposing capitalism, liberal democracy, and the inherent idolatry that sustains them both.


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