Selling Religion: An Analysis of Capitalism as a Religion (SHORT VERSION)
10 years ago I completed a 4 year Masters Degree in Comparative Religion at the University of Edinburgh. My final year dissertation was a study of capitalism as a religion. The dissertation received the highest First grade of all the students in my year group. I was asked to continue onto do a PhD in topic by my Professor but decided it was time for me to become an entrepreneur instead.
Over the years I’ve mentioned the dissertation to a number of people and everyone has always been fascinated by the topic and many people have asked me for a copy. Given the insanity going on in the world, I thought it was time I published the SHORTENED VESION of my dissertation. The full version is here: https://medium.com/@luciant/selling-religion-an-analysis-of-capitalism-as-a-religion-bc6b20482fcd
Many people believe capitalism is the only economic system we can possibly have despite the fact Harvard University found 51% of American Millenials no longer ‘believe’ in capitalism (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/04/26/a-majority-of-millennials-now-reject-capitalism-poll-shows/?utm_term=.4323f8e76399). There clearly remains some ‘blind faith’ that capitalism is the only, and best, way to organize our global economic system. On January 1st, I will challenge this blind faith with the book I will publish.
Please bear in mind this was an academic exercise and all the points I argue here are not reflective of my personal beliefs. I hope you get value if you decide to read this!
Selling Religion — An analysis of capitalism as a religion
Capitalism currently forms the predominant means of subsistence for the majority of the world. Historically one’s means of subsistence has often been reflected in one’s religious or worldview. Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 capitalism has been proclaimed globally triumphant. It is highly likely that it has developed to become the most powerful and globally influential worldview in the history of society and provides many people with a source of meaning to their lives. In this blog I aim to assess whether capitalism can itself be seen as a religion. In order to do this I will systematically analyse to what extent capitalism fits into well accepted dimensions that exist in religions. I wish to demonstrate to what extent capitalism has shared characteristics with those typically found in the commonly accepted religions of the world.
In order to understand whether capitalism can be accepted as a religion one must analyse what a religion tends to look like. Indeed, religion holds centuries of association with power; it evokes both positive and negative images; it is constantly re-imagined and reinvented and provides a spectrum of ideas for assertions of power. Religious ideas shape cultural imagination and have the power to inspire people not only to make money and kill others but also to stand and fight for justice and build societies that care for the weakest members. However, to say exactly what religion is and what religion is not is a highly difficult and controversial task. This issue brings us to the first problem of finding a suitable definition of religion.
Religion is a highly contested subject and resistant to definition. Therefore, the ambiguity of the word ‘religion’ must be noted. If we look at the history of the term we find that it is by no means a global term but one created by the West that has been appropriated universally.
Religion is a powerful and politically loaded term. The act of defining religion in this or that way, exercises control on the part of the definer. There is certainly a high degree of misuse of the term in order to serve interests, which leads on to the politics of representation. One must ask who gets to do the representing through the control of language and whether this can ever be legitimate control.
From religion to ‘spirituality’
It is also important to make a brief note on the inherent difficulties in distinguishing between ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’. It is ‘spirituality’ rather than religion that is being promoted in twenty-first century capitalistic societies.
Conflicts about definition of religion often revolve around issues about what can and cannot be legitimately included within the boundaries of the term ‘religion’. In the case of the functionalist definition, the boundaries are often drawn too tightly, resulting in the exclusion of certain traditions. For example, the definition ‘belief in God’ will leave many traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism out of the category of ‘religion’. On the other hand, if the boundaries of the term are drawn too loosely, as in the case of the diluted substantive definitions, it is difficult to know exactly what is being referred to when it is employed, suggesting that just about anything and everything is a religion. Getting the balance right is therefore difficult; it is too easy to start to define religion as what one thinks it should be rather than what religion actually is.
It is useful, therefore, to begin with a working (heuristic) definition, provisional in character and subject to modification, in order to bring a critical eye to what counts as legitimate subject matter for religion. With these points in mind I do not propose a definition in a sentence. I propose that it is more practical not to think of what religion is in general but, rather, what a religion is. This can be achieved by looking at the characteristics of religion. The person that has done this with the greatest effect has been Ninian Smart with his seven dimensions of religion. From this point I propose to use Smart’s dimensions of religion as a working definition of what can and cannot be included in the category ‘religion’.
An introduction to Ninian Smart
Smart acknowledges the problems of finding a suitable definition of religion and in response argues ‘in undertaking a voyage into the world’s religions we should not define religion too narrowly. It is important for us to recognize secular ideologies as part of the story of human worldviews. It is artificial to divide them too sharply from religions’ (Smart, 1998: 10). Again, one must note that the distinction between religious and secular beliefs and practices is a modern Western one and does not represent the way in which other cultures categorize human values. This is an important point as phenomena can still be called a religion even if its adherents do not themselves see their practices as a religion.
Smart’s economic dimensions of religion
In his book Dimensions of the Sacred (1996) Smart maintains that religions have economic dimensions. He makes an important point about the transition from agricultural societies to industrial societies and some of the consequences this transition has had on the mystical aspects of nature. In pre-industrial society people regarded economic realities in cosmological terms (Smart 1996: 268). Indeed, God gave the necessary rain and sunshine for crops to grow, supplied the fish in the sea and the game to hunt. However, as industrial societies developed, human beings realized that it was they themselves that were the economic actors. As this process of thinking developed, social and economic power was ascribed to people and social structures as opposed to God (Mikaelsson, 2001: 107). Quite simply, people began to acknowledge their dependence on each other, rather than looking to God or the gods for their economic security. This development is highly important to the argument that capitalism is itself a religion.
Smart’s dimensions of religion
Smart created his seven dimensional model of religion in order to support his lifelong contention that religion should be understood beyond its doctrinal aspect, usually interpreted as belief in God or gods, which had so dominated the traditional Western approach to the study of religions. He preferred to describe religion as multidimensional and organic, which he demonstrated through his seven dimensions. The point of the seven dimensions is to provide ‘a balanced description of the movements which have animated the human spirit and taken place in the shaping of society, without neglecting either ideas or practices’ (Smart, 1998: 21).
Smart’s seven dimensions of religion and their application to capitalism
I wish to analyse Smart’s seven dimensions and then apply some examples specific to capitalism to each of the dimensions.
1. The Practical and Ritual Dimension
Smart explains that ‘Every tradition has some practices to which it adheres — for instance regular worship, preaching, prayers and so on. They are often known as rituals’ (Smart, 1998: 13). Often these do not refer only to ‘formal or explicit rites of religion’ but also to ‘practices’ that develop ‘spiritual awareness or ethical insight’ (Smart, 1998:13). This dimension could be applied to capitalism in various ways. For example, when one thinks of the opening ceremony of the NASDAQ Stock Exchange there are certainly ritualistic elements. Every morning the markets are declared open by the ringing of a “sacred” bell, often by some prominent figure or celebrity who may possibly be seen as some form of figurehead for capitalism. Furthermore, there is the obvious example of the transformation of Christmas in the twentieth century. Christmas has now become for many the ritual celebration of consumerism and excess.
Television: a ritual powered by capitalism?
One can find the creation of ritual communitas through the various television programmes that have become capitalist icons in modern society. From one perspective television within consumer culture can generate a sense of festive occasion and group solidarity. Television shows such as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘X Factor’ reveal the tip of the iceberg. Larger televised events such as the American Super Bowl and ‘Band Aid’ often create a sense of global communitas and a feeling of global unity to many of the audiences sharing in the experience.
The space race — a triumph for capitalism
The challenge between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s to be the first nation into space, and later to initiate the first lunar mission, is an example of the power of capitalism as a religion. Indeed, within the space race itself one can see many of Smart’s dimensions evolving, as well as the sense of communitas that the lunar mission created among the capitalist nations in the world. In simplistic terms the space race was a competition between capitalism and socialism. On 20th July 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon it was ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for capitalism’ (paraphrasing Armstrong). Capitalism was almost universally proclaimed victorious (www.thespacerace.com).
Retail therapy — the shopping pilgrimage
Smart’s ritual dimension involves activities such as ‘worship, meditation, pilgrimage, sacrifice, sacramental rites and healing activities’ (Smart, 1996: 10). One can see many of these aspects in modern capitalist consumer society. For example, many people go on ‘shopping pilgrimages’ to New York, London, Paris and other ‘capitals of capitalism’. Through ‘retail therapy’ individuals’ daily worries can be shopped away, implicating some perceived ineffable healing aspects achievable through the act of consumption.
2. The Experiential and Emotional Dimension
The experiential and emotional dimension point to ‘the emotions and experiences of men and women on which other dimensions of religion feed… It is important in understanding a tradition to try to enter into the feeling which it generates’ (Smart, 1998: 14). This perhaps more than any other dimension fully applies to capitalism, since it generates important experiences and meaning to the lives of the majority of people in the world. If one can see capitalism as a religion it would surely be the most successful religion ever to develop in numerical terms. The ideology of capitalism and consumerism has now spread to almost every corner of the world. Indeed, the Coca Cola and McDonald’s corporations claim that their trademarks are now more globally recognized symbols than even the Christian cross (www.brandchannel.com). Like an all-powerful missionary project, very few places are left lacking in the experience of capitalism and American ‘cultural imperialism’.
The globalization of capitalism
One can argue that globalization is one of the most prominent experiences of capitalism. ‘Globalization is the process by which a new social order comes about on a global scale, bringing culturally distinct communities into interaction with each other. To a large extent globalization has become a cultural icon in itself. I would argue that capitalism and modernity have become largely synonymous. It appears that globalization has enabled the spread of capitalistic religiosity.
Many have noted how global perspectives are determined by those in power. For example, the global media is controlled by a relatively limited number of people, such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. As a result there can be no denying the power imbalance and the unequal cultural flow involved in the spread of global capitalism. Furthermore, I would argue that the current political and economic structures encourage, and even demand, private worldviews to integrate with consumerism. To a large extent, it is globalization that is the driving force behind the development of capitalistic religiosity. There is little doubt that capitalism represents the most far-reaching experiential dimension.
The development of hyper-consumption
Consumerism can be seen as the ultimate social expression of capitalism and, therefore, fits into Smart’s experiential and emotional dimension. Indeed, consumption as a set of social, cultural and economic practices, together with the associated ideology of consumerism, has served to legitimize capitalism in the eyes of the majority of the population of the world. Even if people cannot afford to buy the goods they see portrayed in the media they can and do desire them. Whether it is a desire for jeans, television sets or cars these are things that people who are in contact with western media come to wish they could purchase, as long as the basic necessities are available to them.
Consumption has progressed (or regressed) to be based on desires rather than needs. No longer do people work to stay alive: rather they now work in order to afford to buy consumer products. This desire to become consumers has changed world history, not to mention creating the global explosion of debt. I would argue one of the reasons why communism failed is because it could not deliver effectively on the desire for consumption. This learning process can be seen as the conversion to the capitalist religiosity. Quite simply the world is trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Lau points out how in the West’s consumer culture, identities become commodities to buy, and like other commodities, there are competing identities on the market (Lau, 2000: 13). Indeed, consumer goods are part of the way in which people construct a sense of who they are: creating their sense of identity through the use of symbols in consumption patterns. An example of the move to hyper-consumption can be seen in the way female bodies are portrayed in many fashion campaigns, music videos, films and advertisements, often presented as just another object available to consume. The portrayal of women in the media shapes the identity of women in society.
The fashion industry represents a further example, as the ‘right’ kind of clothes and accessories to be sold are decided upon seasonally by the people behind the powerful brands. People are informed what the latest fashion is and encouraged to keep up with it. This drives the fashion industry, which constantly renews itself in order to ensure further growth. The powerful brands behind the fashion industry are in many ways worshipped by certain people. Interestingly, the 2006 Selfridges winter sale reinterpreted ‘cogito ergo sum’ as: ‘I shop therefore I am’. Ultimately, people gain an element of meaning and develop their worldviews through their experience of consumer products.
The Internet has developed over the last two decades to become the ultimate tool for capitalist consumption. People can now consume twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week if they wish. No longer are geographical boundaries an issue. The Internet has made the process of globalization more efficient. People can exchange goods easily with no need for personal contact: only a desire for consumption.
3. The Narrative and Mythic Dimension
‘Often experience is channeled and expressed not only by ritual but also by sacred narrative or myth. This is the third dimension — the mythic or narrative. It is the story side of religion’ (Smart, 1998: 15). This dimension can also be seen clearly in the case of capitalism. There are popular myths such as the idea that it takes more money to be happy, the myth of the ‘American dream’, and the myth of the hidden hand of the market. Each of these may be present within this dimension of capitalism.
Celebrity and idol worship
Modern capitalist society has developed the fascination, bordering on idol worship, with celebrities. I would argue that celebrities have been raised to the status of demi-gods in the capitalistic narrative. Rock and film stars and anyone with money or otherwise in the public eye, are eligible for “worship” and awarded the status of a sacred personality. Perhaps celebrities such as Paris Hilton or ‘P Diddy’ would be perfect figureheads for the twenty-first-century phenomena of celebrity worship, or even the ‘saints’ of capitalism. The phenomenon of ‘gossip magazines’ such as Hello! and Heat, develop this celebrity worship in popular culture. It is revealing that celebrities get more press coverage in the popular media than events in war zones such as Darfur. Celebrity stories provide many people with a face or personality that gives meaning to and develops the capitalistic world.
Corporations are communicating images and stories through the development of increasingly powerful brands. Jesper Kunde in his book Corporate Religion argues that companies need a brand ethos or belief system to be effective and efficient. ‘Brands will become religions and some individuals, who are seen as an expression of their brands, will themselves become religions’ (Kunde, 2000: 6). Such corporate religions include Virgin, Microsoft, Nike, Walt Disney and the Body Shop. Certain brands are on a corporate mission on the high street as if it was imperative to ‘indoctrinate’ every citizen in the country with a loyalty to their brand.
Business leaders as religious leaders
Furthermore, key people from within the business world are also sanctified as the twenty-first-century saints. Richard Branson, for example, is the representative of everything in the Virgin group. Other examples include Bill Gates, Donald Trump and Alan Sugar. If one looks carefully, charismatic business leaders are themselves beginning to look like religious leaders. The business leaders, popular brands and celebrities provide the stories behind capitalism and, more specifically, consumerism.
4. The Doctrinal and Philosophical Dimension
‘Underpinning the narrative dimension is the doctrinal dimension’ (Smart, 1998: 17). Doctrines refer to beliefs and ‘come to play a significant part in all the major religions, partly because sooner or later a faith has to adapt to social reality and so to the fact that much of the leadership is well educated and seeks some kind of intellectual statement on the basis of faith’ (Smart, 1998: 17). In a similar way to the great narrative religious traditions, capitalism also has a growing base of historical literature. Examples of these capitalist “bibles” are books such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), which presents the idea of the invisible hand of the market. This invisible hand represents market forces that are unexplainable and relatively out of human control. I would argue these areas represent the philosophical dimension of capitalism.
A further example is the idea of ‘free’ trade. This philosophical idea presumes that free trade means that both parties are mutually beneficial in the process of exchange. Unfortunately, in developing countries this is certainly not the case. Examples of free trade often make the rich richer and the poor poorer due to the purchasing power the rich have over the poor. This point is demonstrated by the fact that ninety percent of the world’s resources are held by ten percent of the world’s population.
Doctrines such as free markets, free trade, the idea of sustained economic growth and economic globalization are all seen as essential tools for maximizing the development of market capitalism. These ideas have been promoted so effectively by corporate economists, bankers, and many politicians that they are no longer contested in establishment circles. Market capitalism is presented as the only way to solve economic and social problems. Korten argues ‘these tenets have become so deeply embedded within our institutions and popular culture that they are accepted by most people without question, much as the faithful take for granted the basic doctrines of their religious faith. To question them openly has become virtual heresy and involves the risk of professional censure and career damage in most institutions of business, government, and academia’ (Korten, 1996: 184). In a similar way to the Christian Crusades, a major goal of capitalism is to suppress or eliminate any deviance from the authority of the model. There is the example of the car bumper sticker saying ‘America — Love it or leave it’. There is no room for options in the capitalist system. One must love it in order to get on in life. Despite this, it is obvious how global measures of growth often leave out the human happiness and ecosystem wellbeing.
Capitalist religiosity in the work place
Increasingly, corporations are using religious terminology and philosophy to publicize their work. Statements such as ‘the soul of the corporation’ and ‘corporate beliefs’ are often being used to describe a new phenomenon: religiosity in the workplace. In the USA an estimated four billion dollars is being spent annually by companies on transformational trainings (Heelas, 1999: 62). Through this development, the modern manager is imbued with ‘new’ qualities and virtues, which certainly represent Smart’s philosophical dimension.
As capitalist religiosity develops in the workplace many scholars have argued that the nature and meaning of work are undergoing a profound evolution. In short we have entered the Purpose Economy. Values based management, as many have called it, is making workplaces and business management wiser, more spiritual and ethically principled. Research suggests that the ‘Self-work ethic’ can be highly effective in motivating employees. Elmar Burrack advises his readers: ‘When the inner self connects to one’s work, work and the inner self seem to know no limits’ (Burrack, 1999: 284). Additionally Carrette and King point out how corporate capitalism begins to operate according to the traditional role of religious institutions in providing meaning and order. ‘Capitalism in effect is the new religion of the masses — the new opium of the people — and neoliberalism is the theological orthodoxy that is facilitating its spread’ (Carrette and King, 2005: 138). The appropriation of religious style and language by corporations therefore shows how capitalism itself has actually attempted to develop sacred qualities around the process of work.
The doctrine of Western secularization and Capitalization of the world
One can see Western secularism as a central doctrine in the development of global capitalism. For example, Western secularism arguably works as a force in the field of foreign relations to globalize human rights. In an article on American global power, Ignacio Ramonet, chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique writes: ‘The faithful gather to worship the new icons in malls — temples to the glory of consumption. All over the world these centres promote the same way of life, in a world of logos, stars, songs, idols, brands, gadgets, posters and celebrations. All this liberty is accompanied by the seductive rhetoric of freedom of choice and consumer liberty, backed by obsessive, omnipresent advertising (annual advertising expenditure in the US alone exceeds $200 billion). Marketing has become so sophisticated that it aims to sell not just a brand name or sign, but an identity, it is all based on the principle that having is being’ (Ramonet, 2000: May). This doctrine of ‘having is being’ is the doctrine or the philosophy which shapes the way capitalist populations give meaning to their lives. Indeed, as many scholars have noted: ‘One might almost say that the secular is sacred’ (Fitzgerald, 2000: 14).
5. The Ethical and Legal Dimension
‘A religious tradition or sub-tradition affirms not only a number of doctrines and myths but some ethical and often legal imperatives’ (Smart, 1996: 11). Smart combines ethical and legal dimensions to construct his fifth dimension of religion. Once again, this dimension certainly applies to capitalism. Smart saw that over time religions develop legal and ethical structures that inform practitioners on how to live their lives. In the same way capitalism has developed various ethical standards and legal or regulatory bodies such as the FSA (Financial Services Authority) in the UK. Traditionally it is the role of the government to set the laws. However, after years of a laissez-faire approach it is often the more powerful corporations that are setting the ground rules (or lack of them). Daily life is often being framed by the corporate world and its ideologies.
The multinational corporation
The most striking feature of the ‘Brave New World’ is the emergence of large multinational corporations. Business firms, especially transnational corporations, wield immense economic power, and have the capacity to influence political parties in their home bases and elsewhere. The largest transnational companies have budgets greater than those of all but a few nations. ‘Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations; only 49 are countries’ (Report of the Institute of Policy Studies, 2000: www.ips-dc.org). Enormous economic power is being concentrated in the hands of very few global corporations relieved of government constraints to their own growth.
Corporations have enormous political power, and they are actively using it to reshape the rules of the market in their own favour. Unelected organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (founded in 1995), remain intent on promoting a global deregulation of markets, which they call ‘free trade’, as well as implementing an ideology of unfettered global consumption, which they call ‘continued economic growth’.
However, the development Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Corporate Citizenship provides an interesting opportunity for capitalism, as many businesses are taking the ethical lead in their respective markets. In the same way that religion’s over time develop ethical and legal structures, the capitalist market appears to be developing legal structures and setting certain limits on trade policy and business practice.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
There appears to be a renaissance of values within the workplace as corporations and businesses commit themselves to becoming more socially responsible, more supportive of employees, and more humane in their approach to the marketplace. Individual business leaders, in partnership with consumers are making ethical demands on the market. These demands are being taken up by the CSR pioneers and, slowly, the ethical market tide is rising, which is leading to fiscal incentives and legal demands on corporations. I would argue that the situation of capitalism as a religion is developed even further when it is the corporate players that begin to shape the laws that they must abide by. CSR provides an element of hope that the capitalist market will set its own laws and ethical demands at an appropriate and sustainable level.
6. The Social and Institutional Dimension
Smart notes: ‘The dimensions outlined so far — the experiential, the ritual, the mythic, the doctrinal, and the ethical — can be considered in abstract terms, without being embodied in external form. The last two dimensions have to do with the incarnation of religion’ (Smart, 1998: 19). All descriptions of institutions and ideologies require an analysis on how they relate to the wider society. In this way one cannot begin to understand capitalism through a definition, one must understand it through the effect it has on people and cultural institutions. Indeed, capitalist society is made up of a variety of institutions and organisations all working for a mutual goal: to increase consumer spending and market growth. Like any religion, in the case of capitalism there are a variety of groups of people and industries that have different roles in embodying the capitalist faith. An example of one group is the direct selling social phenomenon that has developed across the world. David Bromley describes American direct selling firms, such as Amway, Mary Kay Cosmetics and Tupperware, as quasi-religious corporations that promote a family business and community ethic (Bromley, 1995: 135).
The advertising industry
A further example of an institution of capitalism would be the marketing and advertising industries. One could even go as far to call the people that form these institutions the priests of capitalism. The ideology of consumerism is spread through the promotion of products that you need in order to make your life more satisfying and these ideas are surreptitiously spread by advertising institutions through the vehicle of the mass media. The media can be seen as the choir of capitalism; it sings a constant hymn to consumerism. Interestingly, Young & Rubicam, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, have come up with a slogan: ‘Brands are the new religion’.
Smart assumes that we can apply the word ‘religion’ to both Buddhism and Taoism because each has a monastic organization and religious specialists. However, to some extent capitalism has pockets of monastic organizations and certainly emphasizes the role of specialists. Goldman Sachs, the world’s leading investment bank, encountered fame for providing beds within their offices so that their employees are now able to eat, sleep, work and live all under their one roof. I would argue sleeping in an investment bank bears an uncanny resemblance to a religious monastery. For this reason it is intriguing how one often hears of people ‘selling their souls’ to large corporations.
7. The Materialistic and Artistic Dimension
The ‘social or institutional dimension of religion almost inevitably becomes incarnate in a different way, in material form, as buildings, works of art and other creations’ (Smart, 1998: 21). It is obvious that capitalism fits into this dimension, as capitalism directly seeks to develop materialism and consumerism. Carrette and King argue: ‘God is dead but has been resurrected as ‘Capital’. Shopping malls have become the new altars for worshipping the god of money, and consumerism is the new esoteric knowledge’ (2005: 23–4). Artistic and materialistic expressions of capitalism have arguably reached every corner of the world.
Walter Benjamin argued: ‘Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, without dogma… Compare the holy iconography (Heiligenbildern) of various religions on the one hand with the banknotes of various countries on the other: The spirit speaks from the ornamentation of banknotes’ (Benjamin, 2005: 260). Indeed, money may well be the greatest artistic expression of capitalism. The worship of money is an obvious example of one of the ways capitalism can be seen as a religion.
The worship of money
As the saying goes, ‘money makes the world go round’; the worship of Mammon appears to be a global phenomenon. Marx has argued that the religion of money is a result of capitalism: ‘Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world — both the world of men and the world of nature — of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and experience, and this alien essence dominates it, and he worships it’ (Marx, 1975: 239). To a large extent, success and greatness is measured by bank balance in capitalist culture. It is interesting that in most countries it is illegal to burn money. In a similar way to a country’s flag, money represents something more than the paper it is printed on. I would argue that money could be seen as the flag or totem of capitalism.
Furthermore, payment and credit cards represent a new abstraction of economy. Vast amounts of money circulate between people and institutions without anyone ever having to hold a banknote in their hands. Mikaelsson has likened money to an invisible stream of energy in the world. ‘Money, in its unpredictable, fluent, global and abstract shape may be a more potent, religious symbol for our global world of multiple systems than God the Father in his stationary, pre-modern heaven (Mikaelsson, 2001:108). It seems that the flows of money in currency fluctuations and the various stock markets around the world are a mystery to the vast majority of the world. In this way money has developed a degree of mystery and transcendence, in a similar way to the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit.
The seven dimensions applied to capitalism
It has been shown that capitalism fits into Smart’s seven dimensions more than adequately. From this standpoint, therefore, one can begin to view capitalism, in certain circumstances, as a religion. My argument is not that capitalism is necessarily always religious in nature, but at times and with particular practitioners capitalism does demonstrate clear religious qualities. In this way capitalism can be seen as a religion for some, but not all people. The question of whether capitalism is more or less of a religion than, for example, Christianity, does not influence the debate on whether capitalism is itself a religion.
Capitalism as a child of Protestant Christianity
One can ask the question ‘what really separates the ‘real’ religions from the secular religions?’ When we explore the history of capitalism we can see its religious origins. Indeed, as Max Weber has pointed out, capitalism is a child of Protestant Christianity. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) Weber traces the historical and ideological relationship between Calvinistic Protestantism and capitalism. His bold claim was that the development of capitalism was rooted partly in religious developments at the time of the Reformation.
Weber points out how society changed from being sceptical about traders and financiers to viewing positive ethical and religious value in their work, and how people began to see the wealth in which it resulted as God’s blessing on their mode of life. The participant in modern capitalism became a believer in the ethic of hard work, of frugality in personal consumption, and of individual rather than collective responsibility in economic life. Through Weber’s sociology of religion one can therefore see how capitalism has come about as a direct result of Protestant Christianity and has over time developed its own ‘secular’ identity once it had separated from its parent tradition.
Weber argued that the ghost of Protestant Christianity is still present within capitalism. Perhaps this is why one could argue that capitalism is not entirely secular but is imbued with various sacred elements. As Benjamin has argued: ‘Christianity in the time of the Reformation did not encourage the emergence of capitalism, but rather changed itself into capitalism’ (Benjamin, 2005: 261).
Consumerism as the faith of capitalism ‘Focus’ of religion
if one could say there is a Focus within capitalism I would argue it would be consumerism. It is in consumerism that the ideology of capitalism manifests itself and becomes most obvious to the observer. Quite simply, for capitalism it is consumerism that is the Focus of faith. Despite scientific facts, people still believe that by consuming more products they can achieve greater happiness. Consumerism may therefore be seen to be the greatest expression of capitalism.
The history of the comparison between capitalism and religion
The comparison between religion and capitalism is in fact nothing new. Walter Benjamin, for example, argued: ‘One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion… Capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it everything only has meaning in direct relation to the cult: it knows no special dogma, no theology’ (Benjamin, 2005: 259).
The religious quality of contemporary capitalism has also been well articulated by the former Labour MP Tony Benn: ‘If I look at the world today it seems to me that the most powerful religion of them all is the people who worship money… the banks are bigger than cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues. Every hour on the news we have business news — every hour — it’s a sort of hymn to capitalism’ (Benn, 2002). The seeds of capitalist religiosity arguably were planted around the time when Adam Smith, writing the Wealth of Nations in 1776, declared that: ‘consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production’ (Smith, 1976: 179).
Consequences of seeing capitalism as a religion
In many ways, the argument that capitalism is a religion is somewhat bold. Indeed, many people would say religions are only religions if their adherents see themselves as following a religion. Despite this point several important issues are raised if one views capitalism as a religion. The consequences are severe: for example, George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ would in fact be a religious war. I would argue September 11th 2001 represented an attack on capitalism. The World Trade towers in New York were the most poignant symbol of capitalism. It is highly likely that the people behind the attack had this point in mind. In the movie ‘V for Vendetta’ (2005) we heard: ‘Buildings are symbols. Symbols represent people. Blowing up a building is an attack on the people it represents.’ Indeed, September 11th was such an important day not only because of the tragic murder of innocent lives but because it was a highly effective attack on capitalism: arguably one of the West’s most important source of meaning. September 11th also hit the pockets of the vast majority of the capitalist world. Global stock markets crashed affecting global economies on a mass scale. Meanwhile George Bush famously told American’s to go out and shop to show their support immediately following.
In many ways, this analysis has attempted to think through the eyes of the anti-west and anti-capitalists. Indeed, my personal views of the unparalleled benefits of capitalism have not been expressed in this dissertation. However, the point that capitalism lifts people out of poverty and is arguably the only real way to maximize human talent is irrelevant to this study. The real issue is the extent to which capitalism resembles a religion and whether one is justified in concluding that capitalism is a religion. This is, therefore, a self-reflexive exercise. There have and there always will be anti-capitalists in the world. Perhaps by trying to understand the ways they look at the Western nations worshipping the power of money and consumption one would be one step closer to achieving global understanding.
The ‘global’ has become a twenty-first-century catchphrase. Quite simply the most prominent worldview of our time is arguably capitalism and the ‘free’ market economy, achieved through globalization. Furthermore, I would argue that capitalism shapes all other Western worldviews and ideologies. Ideals such as democracy, freedom and the Nation State all depend upon the structure of capitalism. It is ironic that the threat towards capitalism, particularly since September 11th, has begun to limit Western society’s other ideals that depend on the market economy, such as democracy and freedom of speech. When governments go to war without their countries’ democratic consent, when one’s freedom to walk the streets is limited by the threat of ‘terrorism’, one must ask who is winning this ‘religious’ war that has taken many by surprise in the twenty-first century. By taking note of the ways Western worldviews such as capitalism have often been taken for granted, one can begin to understand the way others may interpret the ideologies that are central to Western identity. Indeed, by being self-reflexive about the religious nature of one’s personal worldviews one may learn an important lesson about religious ‘tolerance’ in a world that is quickly becoming intolerant.
‘Religion’ as has been noted, is a heavily contested subject. Indeed, to say what religion is and what religion is not proves to be a highly difficult and controversial task. I find Smart’s seven dimensions a useful starting point in order to understand the characteristics of what a religion tends to look like. I can therefore conclude, in certain circumstances, it is possible to view capitalism as a religion based on the way it fits into Smart’s seven dimensions of religion.
There is no doubt that capitalism provides meaning to many people’s lives; it heavily influences their worldviews and shapes their moral decisions. As this analysis has sought to demonstrate there are a variety of aspects to capitalism that do resemble those typically found in the commonly accepted religions of the world. I have argued that the reason for this is that capitalism has developed from its Protestant Christian roots since the Reformation, more specifically through the Protestant work ethic. Rather than resembling Christianity as a cousin or some other distant family, it has been argued that capitalism is a child of Christianity. Capitalism has therefore developed to become the new all-powerful ‘popular religion’ of the twenty-first-century, despite the fact that its practitioners do not see themselves as following a religion. Indeed, what Western society labels ‘religion’ remains deeply embedded in worldly institutions and social practices. The sacred secular dichotomy has resulted in a certain mould of what religion should be informing the vast majority of modern society. By appreciating this position and attempting to look at the data in a different light one can develop important insights on the nature of the interactions of different global worldviews. The next question one must ask is what consequences flow from this religious development of capitalism. Indeed, the recent enhancement of the global threat on the capitalist system is in many ways challenging the sovereignty of the nation-state and other ideologies important to Western society.
It is also important to note that there are counter arguments to many of the specific examples I have given, as well as capitalism as a religion generally. However, the aim of this dissertation has been to systematically analyse capitalism as a religion. The counter arguments could be developed in further discussion. This dissertation has, therefore, sought to demonstrate how this ultimate missionary project is developed through the mass media and educational institutions and by the power of advertising in order to create new desires for the latest consumer products. It has been argued that consumerism can be seen as the ultimate expression of capitalism and has grown as a global panacea to people’s individual problems.
Undemocratic and ideologically driven institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the G8 as well as the powerful multinational corporations effectively govern the world in line with the demands of capital. Society is at risk of the ‘bottom line’ becoming the only line, and the market becoming the main guiding force for all human relationships and actions as a whole. I would argue that an increased awareness of our mutual interdependence, economically sustainable lifestyles and the development of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), may yet prove to be societies best hope of resisting the capitalist excesses of neoliberalism and developing a sense of solidarity and global citizenship in an increasingly precarious world.