The religion of capital

Capital image

In February 2012 I attended a lecture by professor Gerrie ter Haar, who had devoted many years of her career on the topic of ‘religion and development’. She started her lecture with a comparison between the workings of religion and our present day dealing with economics.

“Today we face a global financial crisis that necessitates all of us to rethink some of our fundamental assumptions about the world and the way it is governed. Or, to be more precise, the forces that are believed to govern it.” She said. “While religious believers generally ascribe significant power in this regard to spiritual entities of some sort - whether gods, deities, spirits or other invisible entities - secular believers too tend to ascribe power to invisible forces, such as those often referred to as market forces or, most notably, to the invisible entity known as capital (not to be confused with money or with physical objects such as land or buildings, as these are only the form in which capital becomes visible). In both cases - religious and secular - these invisible forces are believed to affect our material world.”

Professor Ter Haar knew that what she said might sound a bit strange to some people so she quickly added: “Before anybody becomes disturbed by this comparison, let me make clear that I am not claiming that the invisible forces that are supposedly governing our world - whether conceived of as economic or spiritual in nature - are similar in every respect. What I am suggesting is that in both cases we are dealing with a belief in transcendental agencies that manifest themselves in ways that vary according to the history and culture of a given society. Both emanate from particular ways of viewing the world, in the one case expressed in religious terms, in the other, in economic terms. In case of the latter, modern government and business are based on the assumption that the invisible entity called capital can (in principle) be accessed by anybody, though at the highest level, access is mediated through a range of techniques operated by specialists such as bankers and economists, in the same way as for religious believers access to the transcendental is mediated by religious experts such as priests and theologians, who have their own techniques. In modern societies, we may say, economists have replaced theologians as the people who predict and calculate the future, or claim they can do so.”*

This interesting comparison can in fact be taken a couple of steps further. Big skyscraper bank offices can easily be seen as modern temples build to impress with their magnitude in order to give people feelings of awe; the high level specialists she speaks of do not only have certain ‘techniques’ but in fact also decide how certain rules and rituals have to be performed (like how to trade on the stock-market, how to pay loans, how to decide about the interestrates, etc); there are many missionaries of the capitalist system such as the neo-liberal politicians, who see the spread of capitalism as a good in itself because they believe it will make the world a better place; and, last but not least, the religion of capital believes in the basic premise – its Truth with a capital ‘T’ so to say – that capitalism is a universal system and above all an inescapable future for the whole of mankind.

So no matter what many staunchly secularist neo-liberal people think, they themselves can, in many ways, be considered to be extremely ‘religious’. And they often ridicule or oppose those that try to ‘convert’ to another system. For with capital as its God, capitalism became a seemingly self-evident reality and most of us can’t even think of any other possibility of dealing with our economic world – just like many mono-religious cultures could not think outside of their religious system to deal with their social affairs.

Yet there is one big difference between real religion and this new global socio-economic ‘religion-like’ worldview: real religion has a form of ethics at its core while at the centre of the religion of capital lies greed. Admittedly, the initial drive behind capitalism was to offer as much happiness as possible to as many people as possible. And most liberals certainly still see it that way. But the means to bring about this happiness is quite different. How does the religion of capital aim to bring about more happiness? Through money and consumption. How does spiritual religion aim for it? Through ethics.

One might say: “but often religion hasn’t led to higher ethics. Religious believes have even been the root cause of very unethical practices.” This is most certainly true. But the same can be said for the capitalist religion: the god of capital is said to bring wealth to all, while in reality he has brought richness to a few and quite some poverty to many.

At least in truly religious contexts there is always the possibility of prophets and sages standing up and confronting the behaviour of their society with a mirror of spiritual ethics. But when the ideal of wealth and greed becomes our mirror, the ‘prophets’ and ‘priests’ of the religion of capital can only come to the conclusion that present state of the world is fine the way it is and in accordance to their god for overconsumption became a virtue, the survival of the economically fittest became a social norm and war that kills poor people but brings richness to others became justified.

Of course there is nothing wrong with trade and economics as such, but when they are treated like gods, they are more dangerous than any religion has ever been.

Once more then, I need to stress the importance of a revival of ethical spirituality in our contemporary global society. For we need spirituality to change this ‘new’ religion of capital. That is to say: to change this focus on greed and wealth we need to refocus on a deeper spirit. And that spirit will inspire and strengthen the existing and coming alternatives and they will show that small can often be more beautiful, that fulfilment is not only possible in material terms and that peace is not a matter of cost or capital but of love and devotion.

* transcript taken from ter Haar’s speech notes, The Hague, 9 February 2012

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