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The Market as God

14 June 2010

I have long maintained that among the “principalities and powers” that Christians are urged to be subject to (Romans 13:1) and to struggle against (Ephesians 6:10-12) are the economic forces that shape our lives. They, like the Sabbath, were made for man, and not man for them. But for many they have become idols, worshipped with religious fervour, and when that happens, capitalism and communism are merely two denominations of the same religion. For the latter the name of the deity is “The Dialectical Forces of History”, while for the former it is “The Market Forces”.

Harvey Cox has analysed this in more detail at The Market as God:

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.’

This idolatry of the economic powers is quite recent in human history.

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.

But there are also differences from other religions:

The traditional religions and the religion of the global market, as we have seen, hold radically different views of nature. In Christianity and Judaism, for example, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein.” The Creator appoints human beings as stewards and gardeners but, as it were, retains title to the earth. Other faiths have similar ideas. In the Market religion, however, human beings, more particularly those with money, own anything they buy and — within certain limits — can dispose of anything as they choose. Other contradictions can be seen in ideas about the human body, the nature of human community, and the purpose of life. The older religions encourage archaic attachments to particular places. But in The Market’s eyes all places are interchangeable. The Market prefers a homogenized world culture with as few inconvenient particularities as possible….

There is, however, one contradiction between the religion of The Market and the traditional religions that seems to be insurmountable. All of the traditional religions teach that human beings are finite creatures and that there are limits to any earthly enterprise. A Japanese Zen master once said to his disciples as he was dying, “I have learned only one thing in life: how much is enough.” He would find no niche in the chapel of The Market, for whom the First Commandment is “There is never enough.” Like the proverbial shark that stops moving, The Market that stops expanding dies. That could happen. If it does, then Nietzsche will have been right after all. He will just have had the wrong God in mind.

Go on — read the whole thing here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 June 2010 11:25 pm

    An excellent article by Harvey Cos. Written in 1999 but still makes interesting reading.

  2. 18 June 2010 5:26 pm

    This is an interesting one if you can get hold of it

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