The Market as God

The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan

The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan

Harvey Cox, a professor of divinity at Harvard, writing in the March 1999 issue of the Atlantic:

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.

Since the earliest stages of human history, of course, there have been bazaars, rialtos, and trading posts—all markets. But The Market was never God, because there were other centers of value and meaning, other “gods.” The Market operated within a plethora of other institutions that restrained it. As Karl Polanyi has demonstrated in his classic work The Great Transformation, only in the past two centuries has The Market risen above these demigods and chthonic spirits to become today’s First Cause.

Initially The Market’s rise to Olympic supremacy replicated the gradual ascent of Zeus above all the other divinities of the ancient Greek pantheon, an ascent that was never quite secure. Zeus, it will be recalled, had to keep storming down from Olympus to quell this or that threat to his sovereignty. Recently, however, The Market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament—not just one superior deity contending with others but the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must now be universally accepted and who allows for no rivals.

Divine omnipotence means the capacity to define what is real. It is the power to make something out of nothing and nothing out of something. The willed-but-not-yet-achieved omnipotence of The Market means that there is no conceivable limit to its inexorable ability to convert creation into commodities. But again, this is hardly a new idea, though it has a new twist. In Catholic theology, through what is called “transubstantiation,” ordinary bread and wine become vehicles of the holy. In the mass of The Market a reverse process occurs. Things that have been held sacred transmute into interchangeable items for sale. Land is a good example. For millennia it has held various meanings, many of them numinous. It has been Mother Earth, ancestral resting place, holy mountain, enchanted forest, tribal homeland, aesthetic inspiration, sacred turf, and much more. But when The Market’s Sanctus bell rings and the elements are elevated, all these complex meanings of land melt into one: real estate. At the right price no land is not for sale, and this includes everything from burial grounds to the cove of the local fertility sprite. This radical desacralization dramatically alters the human relationship to land; the same happens with water, air, space, and soon (it is predicted) the heavenly bodies.

At the high moment of the mass the priest says, “This is my body,” meaning the body of Christ and, by extension, the bodies of all the faithful people. Christianity and Judaism both teach that the human body is made “in the image of God.” Now, however, in a dazzling display of reverse transubstantiation, the human body has become the latest sacred vessel to be converted into a commodity. The process began, fittingly enough, with blood. But now, or soon, all bodily organs—kidneys, skin, bone marrow, sperm, the heart itself—will be miraculously changed into purchasable items.

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6 Responses to The Market as God

  1. VoxMagi November 8, 2010 at 5:08 pm #

    Far more relevant than the weak content of the article itself…far more telling…is the fact that we now have educated people in this world who would bother to make the attempt to associate in any fashion the Machiavellian motivations of market philosophy with Christian theology. There is no comparison…despite all the wriggling and ivy tower doublespeak…there can be no two things which are farther apart in nature…and only the fact that an attempt would be made to compare them in a similar light marks our era as one of surpassing venality…but with an undercurrent of shame that hungers to rationalize our basest impulses and their reflection in the ‘Market’.

    • Haystack November 8, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

      It’s the antithesis of true Christian theology, but the way we behave toward the market does beg comparison to the way civilizations behave toward their gods. The bailout is like a sacrifice we made to appease the market. We are exhorted to practice good consumer values (e.g., go out and spend your stimulus check) to ensure prosperity in the coming season. We’re even starting to use credit rating as a job hiring criteria, as though it were a reflection of your value as a person.

  2. VoxMagi November 8, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    Far more relevant than the weak content of the article itself…far more telling…is the fact that we now have educated people in this world who would bother to make the attempt to associate in any fashion the Machiavellian motivations of market philosophy with Christian theology. There is no comparison…despite all the wriggling and ivy tower doublespeak…there can be no two things which are farther apart in nature…and only the fact that an attempt would be made to compare them in a similar light marks our era as one of surpassing venality…but with an undercurrent of shame that hungers to rationalize our basest impulses and their reflection in the ‘Market’.

  3. Haystack November 8, 2010 at 10:00 pm #

    It’s the antithesis of true Christian theology, but the way we behave toward the market does beg comparison to the way civilizations behave toward their gods. The bailout is like a sacrifice we made to appease the market. We are exhorted to practice good consumer values (e.g., go out and spend your stimulus check) to ensure prosperity in the coming season. We’re even starting to use credit rating as a job hiring criteria, as though it were a reflection of your value as a person.

  4. Liam_McGonagle November 8, 2010 at 8:00 pm #

    Good stuff.

    In the past I’ve wondered whether opposition to Mammon was hopeless, ’cause I thought they had the advantage of an internally consistent philosophy (dull and spiritually impovrished as it is) that had inescapable consequences in the objectively measurable world, whereas religion’s claims are overtly supernatural.

    But lately I’ve personally undertaken some statistical examination of the most popular Myths of Mammon (e.g., lowering income taxes invariable grows the economy; increases in taxes are always passed on to the shoulders of the masses, etc., etc.). Utter and complete fucking bullshit: lower taxes correlate to MORE unemployment; correlation between increases in tax and CPI is basically ZERO.

    So this writer’s comparison between objective non-factuality of the ur-stories underlying the marketplace and religion is particularly apt.

  5. Anonymous November 9, 2010 at 12:00 am #

    Good stuff.

    In the past I’ve wondered whether opposition to Mammon was hopeless, ’cause I thought they had the advantage of an internally consistent philosophy (dull and spiritually impovrished as it is) that had inescapable consequences in the objectively measurable world, whereas religion’s claims are overtly supernatural.

    But lately I’ve personally undertaken some statistical examination of the most popular Myths of Mammon (e.g., lowering income taxes invariable grows the economy; increases in taxes are always passed on to the shoulders of the masses, etc., etc.). Utter and complete fucking bullshit: lower taxes correlate to MORE unemployment; correlation between increases in tax and CPI is basically ZERO.

    So this writer’s comparison between objective non-factuality of the ur-stories underlying the marketplace and religion is particularly apt.

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