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Capitalism's ingenious immunity to the guilty conscience


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 twentieth 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 ‘humanize’ its world-wide dominion, to place the world economy back in the service of the greater good, and thus temper its lust for unregulated growth, has not only failed, but has been assimilated. Almost inevitably, it has been 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-globalization’ rhetoric by designer labels and marketing firms, or the current wave of chic enviro-fundamentalism. In both cases, there has been a convocation of dialectical opposites. Trends that are logically opposed — popular consumerism and radical conservationism, for example — are accomodated in the same space. The exemplar product of global capitalism are T-shirts made in Chinese sweatshops bearing the ‘World Without Strangers’ motto.

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

Perhaps the greatest achievement of global capitalism is to have made choice an 'inalienable' human right. The notion of democracy is now married to a right-to-excess; freedom is measured in economic or consumptive terms, by a 'Big Mac Index' amongst other things. DeLillo grasped this 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 become the true object of human longing, a longing that goes right down to our genes. Karl Marx was right: the vision of capitalism just described – embracing the entire globe, generating more money, ex nihilo, through the mysteries of financial derivatives and futures speculation, bringing 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 Hillsong’s slick corporate image and the ridiculous platitudes of 'prosperity theology', the conspiring of God with Mammon is much, much older. Max Weber, in his Protestant Work 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.

Capitalism's ingenious immunity to the guilty conscienceBut 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 secularized motivation for work, the function of religion today more closely resembles those mediaeval rituals that provided sinners with the means to atone for their sins.

We all have our own forms of penance – like tithing, charitable donations, watching SBS – 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 co-habitate. The one lets you indulge, and the other lets you get away with it. The problem is that Christianity traditionally has geared itself to dealing with the guilty conscience of the West. No wonder it has so readily been accommodated by capitalism as its ideal religious accessory.

If one person can be blamed for consolidating this state of affairs, it is the bull of Wittenberg, Martin Luther. It was Luther who provided capitalism with a formula through which it could co-habit with religion – simul iustus et peccator – or, "By faith, the Christian is at once righteous and a sinner."

Luther thereby secured the place of a corpulent religiosity, in which ethics is invisible, but guilt has been assuaged by some deeply held conviction or meagre act of charity.

When Marx claimed 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 to live differently.



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Existing comments

Peripheral - but Marx didn't think criticism of capitalism had to begin with criticism of religion. He started as a critic of religion and came to think that he had to switch to a criticism of the economy. And the "if one person can be blamed" is a nonsense: no one person can. Historically, the affair between the Church and Mammon seems to have arisen from the growth in the financial and political power of bishops ("overseers") who controlled the collection and distribution of alms in antiquity (see Peter Brown's analysis): a foreshadowing of what would later go wrong with communism. Finally: those who are so confident that theirs is the only "properly Christian perspective" scare the innards out of me.

john fox | 20 February 2007  

Scott, I enjoyed this article, but it raises a couple of questions. I thought that Luther's form of christianity was more focussed on self-reliance, a 'gathered' congregation, and an end to paid-for, hierarchically organised pews in churches. Furthermore, I thought that Luther rejected the existing order, wherein clerics and nobles (particularly in France/Germany) had possession of the massive majority of property, the mercantile class was small, though growing, and was looked down upon as undignified, and finally, a system in which disenfranchised peasants made up the vast majority of the population.

Finally, if we are honest, the Catholic church was hardly a paragon of virtue, vis encouraging/ennabling social justice, equitable society and the economic rights of man. it was not until the late 19th century that the church got it's act together with regard to social teaching.

Thomas D | 20 February 2007  

I hoped that it would have been noticed that I'm not trying to produce anything like a 'brief history of the confluence of capitalism and religion' - instead, this is a deliberately provocative 'notes toward a genealogy of our contemporary moral malaise'. I myself, alas, am not Catholic, and I am most certainly not defending the Catholic church's track record regarding justice and equity. And on this point, it is interesting to note that the real origin of this confluence of capitalism and religion is, in fact, the origin of capitalism itself: the massive legislative reforms of Pope Gregory VII in the 12th c. who essentially 'incorporated' the Church as a means of protecting the Church's assets and interests against the predatory activities of the State. In so doing, Gregory created an autonomous legal/economic domain within which mercantilist activity could flourish.

All that aside, my real question here is 'capitalism on the inside', its infiltration and adaptation of contemporary morality. And I must disagree with John Fox at this point: Marx's earliest research, to be sure, was on Feuerbach and Luther (often pitting both against the vagaries of 19th liberalism), but hat became increasingly clear to him (apparent in his early philosophical and economic notes) is that the criticism of religion IS the criticism of capitalism because capitalism has already taken on a theological form. To this extent, his 3 volumes of Capital are, in terms of genre, a kind of systematic theology of Capital itself!

Scott Stephens | 21 February 2007  

Scott, I agree with you about capitalism's remarkable ability to assimilate its opposition, and it's also true that charity can be a means of keeping the downtrodden "in their place"rather than liberating them. However, I think you're being a bit harsh when you say that people give to charity in order to assuage their guilty consciences. Most people are genuinely compassionate towards those who are suffering, and I believe this tendency is innate. As a result of having children of my own, as well as doing voluntary work in a creche, I've observed that very young children can be very caring and compassionate towards each other, and that without any prompting from an adult.

Likewise, the fact that people conform to the values and expectations of their culture doesn't necessarily mean that they totally support these values. We are social beings, and life is very difficult for those who don't conform to the social norms! I believe the only way to bring about the changes you mention, Scott, is to form networks so that like-minded people can provide their own support for each other. (Not that that is always easy to do either!)

Cathy Taggart | 21 February 2007  

Scott, I think your diagnosis here is spot on. The question is not: are all those who give to World Vision/help out at kinder/have shorter showers secretly self-serving. The question is: at a social level, have such practices been co-opted by capitalism as a pressure valve for releasing the guilt and anxiety produced by being part of a deeply oppressive system. I think you are right to answer yes! I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Christian alternatives, though.
Even, dare I terrifyingly suggest, 'properly Christian' alternatives?

Joanna | 21 February 2007  

Alternatives are always the tricky part, Jo, but one can simply not claim even a degree of ethical substance without putting one's head on the block! So, here goes:

I am more and more aware of the complicity that now exists between the solipsistic drive of Capital and the most elemental 'stuff' of mammalian life (Dawkin's 'selfish gene', if you like). That capitalism is 'on the inside', as the substance of deepest human longings, and thus that any kind of distance from this system is becoming increasingly problematic.

The most recent of Michael Bay’s (truly awful) films, The Island, expresses this point particularly clearly. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansen) are two survivors of an alleged nuclear holocaust, who now live, along with hundreds of others, in a sterile, asexual, infinitely regulated environment – part fitness-centre, part preschool, part prison. But a deep desire grows within these innocents, a spontaneous genetic mutation that craves the corrupting excesses of life (in the form of five strips of bacon at the beginning of the film, and the ‘lots and lots of sex’ that causes Lincoln’s liver failure at the end), leading them to break out of their prison and find their own ‘garden of earthly delights’ on the streets of Los Angeles. The terrifying, but all too actual vision we get in The Island is of capitalism that has gotten into our genes and colonized human nature itself.

What I remind myself of, however, is that those moments of actual cultural rupture have occured when the prevailing world-system or order is sensed or felt to be intolerable. When, out of sheer necessity, people have achieved some distance, not just from the order, but from themselves as already complicit. Freud is a wonderful guide here: 'anxiety' is the only affect that doesn't lie! I wonder if we simply do not allow ourselves to reach that point of 'subjective intolerability' because of our constant indulgence in penance as a way of relieving the pressure. Perhaps, strangely enough, the first 'properly Christian' alternative is to allow the situation to be, so that the true contours of our depravity become clear, rather than being muddied by superficial charity. In other words, the battle lines of our time need to be drawn much more clearly.

The next step would be finding, as Christian communities, those forms of charity that are 'pointless', unrecognized, 'hidden from ourselves' (as Bonhoeffer put it) - those forms that highten our anxiety over the nature of our situation (working with the severly under-cared-for mentally ill in our communities, assistance in the snowballing problem of domestic violence, intervention in the back-breaking problem of child poverty in Australia, etc.).

I am often reminded of that old Puritan maxim: 'A man preacheth only well unto others who preacheth first unto his own soul.' I am sure that the first intervention to be made in our time is to strike at the heart of our own narcissistic complicity in the fake morality of this cultural order, by (and I'm sorry for the hackneyed expression) in fact being that change we wish to see in the world.

Scott Stephens | 22 February 2007  

Scott, You seem not care for capitalism, free enterprise or freedom of personal choice. You also apparently revere Karl Marx whose philosophy and system have contibuted nothing but misery and failure wherever it has been implemented. I find it problematic that you equate capitalism (an economic system that has improved the standard of living by any measure wherever it has been implemented) with "mammon" and set it up as being in direct opposition to Jesus, which is absurd. Finally, what is this obsession to somehow reconcile "evil" capitalism with charity?

Here it is: those who make money have money to give away, and often do so. Here's another: IT IS NOT A ZERO SUM GAME. Capitalism and free enterprise add to overall success, rather than merely re-distributing it under the mighty hand of whoever supposedly knows how to do it better.

Conservatives (less government, more of your dreaded freedom) are far more generous and charitable than bigger government, less freedom-advocating libs suffering from acute class envy.

Yes, there are many poor and underpriveleged in this world, but no, getting rid of capitalism and free enterprise will not do one thing to fix that.

Russ | 24 February 2007  

Scott, while I agree with Joanna that your analysis of capitalism is spot-on, I still think that you are being too negative. To get involved in charitable endeavours which
"heighten our anxiety over the nature of our situation" seems to me to be just another form of penance! What I think we need to do is to reclaim our charitable and compassionate impulses from capitalist manipulation. In other words, whatever social justice or charitable activities we become invloved in, we need to simply keep at the forefront of our minds how this can genuinely promote people's (or the planet's) well-being, rather than reinforcing "the system". This will also involve "consciousness-raising"-type discussions with other activists, as well as offering mutual support. So really I'm agreeing that we need to "become the change we want to see", but via a much more positive and affirming path!

Cathy Taggart | 24 February 2007  

I feel that the real problem we face is the so-called "Consumer Society" which uses "Greed' and "lust" and other vices to sell products.

The "underbelly" of the misuse of "Capitalism" are various forms of addiction, obesity, anorexia , lack of self esteem etc. We as churches can help people deepen their spiritual committment and growth and provide support through a loving and caring christiasn community. John Ozanne

john Ozanne | 25 February 2007  

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