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Capitalism as a Cult

"The person is more than a mere homo oeconomicus. Egoism and economic opportunism are reductionist descriptions... Social sympathy and social recognition make persons into persons. These social attitudes must be developed...The global society has no future if a person is reduced to an economic actor."
Capitalism as a Cult

By Rudolf Maresch

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.microflash.de/rmaresch/texte/text26.htm.]

"... just remember that death is not the end"
(Nick Cave)

Modern capitalism is the fate of our age. All alternatives are dismissed. Alternatives are still controversial among observers. If Karl Marx identified "original accumulation" historically in the heart of England of the early 18th century, the sociologist Max Weber bound the "spirit of capitalism" to a very specific form of individual conduct. Although weighty reasons speak for the materialist version, why this form of economics occurred in western countries, old Europe and New England and not in Asia, South America or elsewhere remains unexplained. Pursuit of profit appears everywhere and at all times. However laws of exchange must be lived rationally and embodied by persons before the market can force employers and workers. Economic and technological developments always thrust on "grave inner resistances" (M. Weber): on traditional forms of life, dispositions of people or "magical and religious powers" which must first be removed and overcome.

Modern capitalism has finished this trick by translating religious motives in an economic language. Persons and groups were found who immediately understood and practiced its discourse. The sociologist makes certain varieties of Christianity responsible. Ascetic Protestants redefined the salvation promises pushed to the world to come in an earthly search for meaning and happiness. God's light strikes whoever stands the test of time in professional life. The most visible sign for this is the constant accumulation of material wealth.

Monastic virtues were necessary for this success, latent diligence in the vocation on one hand and a life free of sin on the other hand. Greed and profit-seeking were not vices any more for Puritans but expressions of the will for divinely ordained life. If the "acquisition of more and more money" is the obligation of individuals according to Weber, works of renunciation and multiplication of capital become the ethos of a rational lifestyle. Everything must be subordinated to this "summum bonum" for the person to find grace before God and acceptance in paradise. The parable of the talents illustrates this.

Long ago moneymaking was emancipated from theories of virtues (professional ethics, life practices or skills) and made an end-in-itself. Frugality, moderation and asceticism are qualities that only provoke incredulous shaking of heads in the western world or are represented by figures like Donald Duck. Wealth has generally nothing to do with good conduct, discharge of duties and self-control. Benjamin Franklin, the ancestor of puritan capitalism, already knew that time and credit are money and that money can produce more money.

Little has changed in these parameters. However the form of exchange, the circulation and distribution of capital and streams of goods, has become completely different. Global data networks accelerate communication and data transfer. The market is disposed of in the world market. Money slips off its material body, congeals to an information asset and is calculated in bit units. With the help of a worldwide data network, the bits and bytes of capital are now chased around the globe with the speed of light 24 hours nonstop and invested where the best profit is promised to investors and speculators. Access to high speed networks and advantages in time and information count like insider knowledge about the financial ups and downs of businesses or states and the withholding of this knowledge from the covetous glances of possible rivals or the conscious launching of this data in the general public.

Media technology, information and knowledge decide over who is in or out, who can or cannot participate in communication and who belongs to the winners and losers of the global society, no longer nations and institutions. Like cattle, jobs and their possessors become a fungible mass of money-breeding capital streams. This "raging" world capitalism seizing all human utterances, makes social bonds "flexible" and destroys character (R. Sennett).

This is only the global-technical side of the "new capitalism". The other religious sides are staged as worship, dance or a mere cult around brand-names and youthfulness, fashions and (western) lifestyles, illusions and myths on the print and screen surfaces of the world society and usually suppressed in debates around the social effects of globalization. Sixty-eight years ago, three years after the end of the First World War, Walter Benjamin devoted a little study to this re-mystification of the demystified world, the charging of material things with magical powers. In "Capitalism is a Religion", he translated what Max Weber once called the "most fateful power of modern life" in its religio-theological context.

Four characteristics make capitalism into an "essential religious phenomenon". According to Benjamin, capitalism already lost its outward profile in 1921. Neither a justiciable canon nor the removal of "anxieties, torment and restlessness" for which Adam Smith once hoped are manifest. Modern capitalism finds its substantiation and justification in its execution - in the accumulation of capital, the boundless maximization of profit. Not surprisingly, pursuit of gain and profit greed become cultic acts since every dialectic is silenced and "the time of hell" is set for the long-term. Without reflection and mindfulness, gain and greed are celebrated the whole week - notwithstanding the differences of weekdays, Sundays or holidays. The object of this cult is money. Illusionary values are sold, no longer goods of daily need.

Capitalism's "third structural characteristic" is a boundlessly "indebted" cult. The political theologian equates debt with debtor here. The debt of the borrower is seen parallel with the religious terms guilt and sin. Unlike many other religions, cultic capitalism no longer "atones". On the contrary, debt or debt consciousness has already become global with the universal speculation seizing the financial- and currency markets and pouring over all regions, nations and cultures of this world. Nothing is seen any more of the "wholly other" who interrupts the course of the world and dissolves the entanglement of the world and humanity in sin and guilt. The Redeemer God has departed from the world, withdrawn in the incognito of the mechanisms of borrowing, compound interest and debts.

The fourth and last structural characteristic of cultic capitalism corresponds to this absence of God. The "deus absconditus" is first demasked when indebtedness - religiously speaking the guilt of people - becomes universal and global. Whoever has preserved his sense for the messianic, apocalyptic tones and the semantics of disaster can recognize the first signs of this "god". The continuance of this catastrophic salvation economy is the condition that reversal will occur, a complete debt remission of humanity and atonement of the earth.

Walter Benjamin at the beginning of the twenties did not hope or expect deliverance either from communism or from the heroism of the personal project. In Benjamin's opinion, these world designs of the 19th century did not free people from their entanglement in punishment, atonement and guilt. These salvation doctrines precipitated in original sin and only lead deeper in disaster. In the 1924 Critique of Authority, Benjamin expected liberation from an authority of "another kind". This divine authority would "suddenly and immediately end" the "mythical authority" of capital and its market laws and establish "a new historical age".

In the fragment, there is no mention of this "divine" and "atoning" authority. Benjamin refers here to earthly powers, political designs and philosophical conceptions promising a more human relation to technology and aiming at the production of useful goods. Such an ecologically inspired policy is needy and helpless since modern capitalism is intent on leveling nation-state borders and cultural peculiarities and raising them to a gigantic user surface supported by western sounds. We post-moderns also know that no God will save us any more. We post-moderns know that this "new capitalism" no longer needs to be anxious about its atonement or the "atonement" of the world. The media takes away this concern from us.

Gestures of Exorcism

On Attempts to Tame Predatory Capitalism

By Rudolf Maresch

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.microflash.de/maresch/texte/text33.htm.]

Regarding the interface of the global society, the observer sees himself confronted with very different metaphors or interpretations: the information-, communciation- or virtual society. Interweaving, addressability and hybrid social relations are made the standards of reflections in the experience-, fun- or joke society, the post-modern pop-, body- and media culture, individualization, lifestyles, patchwork biographies, consumer- and leisure time customs and other individual amusements.

The expectation horizon generally darkens when the new tele-technologies are added. Big Brother, the fear of a universal observation-, surveillance and control society, appears on the horizon. On the other hand, there is the moral vision of a future democracy, mostly the hopeful word of the global responsibility- or civic society which in the visionary hope of the defenders will branch out sometime in a civilized and respectable society.

"There is nothing good; one must do the good."
(ancient proverb)

For a long time, no one has spoken of the "economic society". An anesthetizing of the "new capitalism" is seemingly involved with this term. The bankers of the Alfred Herrhausen society spoke clearly at their meeting on "Capitalism in the 21st Century" in Berlin, the new capital of old Europe. Jurgen Schrempp, chairperson of Daimler Chrysler, only praised the globalization of the financial- and capital markets as the "catalysor for more efficiency". His American partner and colleague Robert J. Eaton interpreted worldwide capitalism as another variant of the "extensions of the person" (McLuhan). The success of capitalism is so convincing or irrefutable because it corresponds to the nature of the person; its desires and abilities increase by leaps and bounds. In Bamberg, a little hip provincial city 60 kilometers north of Nurnberg, people avoid harsh words. The term "economic society" is created instead of speaking of global capitalism, the new flexibility and mobility of the person and capital.

This new term is interesting, particularly for the deconstructive reader who presumes myths, ideologies or will to power behind the semantizations and rhetoric. The ambivalence of the term "economic society" should be recognized. Whether the accent is put on "economy" or "society", the term triggers the most different perceptions and ideas embedded with expectations or fears which refer to the main work of the sociologist Max Weber and his writings on economic ethics at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Primacy of the Economy

The terror scenario is well-known. Carl Schmitt, the wicked lad of German legal philosophy, painted the horizon at the beginning of the 30s. Under the pressure of the world economic crisis and before Hitler's seizure of power, the worry was that the economy could conquer primacy over politics and dictate future political action. This presentiment which includes an admonition and warning for all political decision makers has long been a reality considering the worldwide interweaving and acceleration of streams of goods, capital and data. Through the emergence of global networks and the liberalization of world trade on the goods- and financial markets, the economy has created the conditions that evade the directing or regulating intervention of nation-state policy (legal regulations, skimming off and taxation of profits, increase of social and ecological standards... ).

The opening of markets and the extraordinary freedom of movement of capital force the political systems to a worldwide competition around efficiencies and values which individual states and nations enforce without regard to former partners or astonished nations (slogans: positional security, granting tax advantages, lowering tax burdens for businesses). The announcement of powerful American and British investment managers about forcing an international agreement (MAI = Multilateral Agreement on Investments) allowing compensation claims against states when expected investment profits are reduced by constitutional legislation will certainly strengthen this trend. Zbigniew Breszinski, former security advisor of the Bush administration, recently said in Vienna that American elites view Europe as their protectorate. America's backdoor begins already at the Balkans.

Political helplessness

How this economic dynamic sparked by the collapse of the planned socialist economies and the digital revolution can be politically cushioned, checked or even counteracted, how the social and ecological costs of worldwide capitalism can be avoided and how the fruits of its increased productivity can be used socially are among the most exciting questions raised by politicians and the mass media, economists and intellectuals up and down the country.

These concepts have accomplished nothing aside from being noble sayings, hollow phrases and nice-sounding words. The rhetoric about harmonizing social justice with the trimming of social security systems is the protestation of preserving the welfare state despite dwindling tax revenues. Nothing can be seen of competence in political decisions or solutions in this question vital for the survival of social democracy either in the government camp or on the side of the opposition. Even the "revitalizers of social democracy" (A. Giddens), the drummers for the "third way" or the "new middle" have changed little.

"Economic society" knows about this helplessness in the new Germany and attempts to formulate an answer to this paralysis of politics. Whoever follows its descriptions and prescriptions has largely lost confidence in the art of governing. Its adherents surprisingly await the healing of the evil from those who first caused this sickness or its ulcer: from corporations, businessmen and industrialists.

Developing immanent solutions

The idea and intention of interfering in market events to give a human face to predatory capitalism are not new. They moved people's minds when the first report of the Club of Rome reached the public, caused a great sensation and charged ecological consequences to the "economic society". Since then people reflect on "sustainability". Those unwelcome follow-up costs are meant that market fixation, competition and unbridled economic growth, financial speculation, profit-orientation and profit maximization have inflicted on nature and society. While politics first reacted to this news with amazement and later with shrugging shoulders, the society responded with ecological movements and the founding of Green parties or colorful alternatives. For lack of effective models, these were mostly oriented in leftist concepts and visionary designs of society. This programmatic was not even discussed as long as socialism was regarded as a serious and realistic alternative to the private appropriation and squandering of social wealth. According to their class position, political origin or conviction, they advocated the socialization of economic production or aimed at skimming off excess profits and social redistribution of privately gained wealth by the state.

These intervention possibilities disappeared with the loss or breaking down of the planned socialist model and the collapse of the unity of state-, economic- and social space through economic globalization. The outside pressure, the enemy in the sense of Carl Schmitt, which the communist model once represented for the profit-oriented economic system, has fallen away. Since then, the world society faces the problem of developing alternatives to its form of economics from within. This society is forced to develop possibilities of self-limitation and self-restraint that exclude the negative and disastrous consequences provoked by raging capitalism in society and in the environment (unemployment, migration, corruption, population growth, destruction of nature, organized criminality, racism, nationalism, terrorism... ). However incentives are created for profit-maximization and individual use of privately gained profit to promote the private initiative, innovation and creativity of the free entrepeneur. One thing is clear. Only the economy and the businesses, not the state, can create the necessary jobs providing the financial resources vital for subsidizing new markets, social distribution or the payment of state debts.

More Modesty

These ideas are well-known. In antiquity, the philosophers discovered the oikos usually realized the woman in the house. In the Middle Ages or with North American Indians, the moderation of goods and energies was often a motive and means for explosive orgies of waste. Since Max Weber, we know that capitalist economies operate with salvation expectations and future promises tied to individual works of renunciation and denial in the present. This capital success story, the wealth of the nations, could not have been written without this puritanical attitude and ascetic lifestyle, without the commitment of individuals to self-restraint and bridling desire in favor of otherworldly gratifications.

The recent history of capitalism is penetrated with appeals for moderation or with demands to sacrifice and tighten one's belt. What is new is that the other was always meant and not oneself when saving and economizing were emphasized. The neighbor, the colleague and the fellow citizen should be temperate and lower his excessive claims to the state and business. Ludwig Erhard, economic minister under Adenauer and short-term chancellor of Germany and father of the social market economy, is regarded as the republic's most prominent person of moderation. People occasionally remember him when politicians urge that the people show reason and lower their high claimant thinking, content themselves with no salary increases or inflation equalization in future pay negotiations, develop more personal initiative and personal responsibility with private provisions or accept financial cuts in state benefits. In those days public opinion reacted with much malice, mockery and scorn to the speeches of economists. Erhard preaching restraint was portrayed with a beer mug. This scenery changed when parodies or jokes about the new modesty broke down.

Whoever urges new standards today preaches a return to more moderation, more personal responsibility and commitment of individuals or admonishes careful relations with creation or the resources of nature can be sure of the applause of large parts of the general public. Admonishers are gladly interviewed or courted by the mass media. They have replaced the post-modern ironists and cynics who dominated public discourse at the beginning of this decade. This can be illustrated in the metamorphoses of the philosopher Richard Rorty.

Innoculating Prigishness

Economic society means "sacrificial society" but is hardly limited to that. It does not commemorate being content with the role of the onlooker, observing or publically complaining about the gulf between economic imperatives and solidarian works. "Economic society" intends more. It will use the reliable means and processes of civil society to actively intervene in economic conduct and influence business decisions so that businesses or traders are forced to orient their conduct to higher moral-ethical standards and social values which also protect ecological principles. The "economic society" profits from a trend that has gained acceptance for some time in politics. Ethics and moral standards fill the hole that politics cannot close. From them, one gains the innoculating material to chain the decontrolled powers of the market and combat or moderate unintended consequences. These could be parameters originating from the code of human rights, for example the prohibition or outlawing of child labor or forced labor. They could be forms of social intercourse derived from the demand for mutual respect and esteem on the job.
They could also be successful forms of the administration of justice as in American civil law. Whoever manufactures and transports products in America that injure groups or individuals must expect compensatory claims in the millions for victims, organizations or even states.

The tobacco industry recently experienced this when American courts condemned them to pay several billion dollars despite explicit warnings on their products and legal approval of the sale of nicotine products by the American state. An auto company that refused improvements on a gas tank construction had to pay billions of dollars for this negligence to accident victims although not causally responsible for an auto accident. Although these successes moved many American businesses to discipline and rethinking so that security standards for many products increased, the legal thinking in such cases continues ad absurdum when victims can appear before courts as plaintiffs and prosecutors.

However those who regard American civil law as exemplary are entangled in a contradiction when they proclaim a further Americanization while arguing elsewhere for respect of regional and cultural diversity and warn of an uncritical adoption of the American way of life. Jihad and Coca-Cola hardly go together. Waging jihad in the name of Coca-Cola already functions.

In the name of a higher law

On the other hand, agreement prevails that businesses which despise rules of social contact and minimum ethical standards or produce goods with an injurious effect on nature or society can be boycotted or outlawed by customers or publically denounced by human rights organizations, consumer protection associations and other social initiatives. This is sometimes difficult in the case of transnational corporations. On account of mobile and fungible capital, they can quickly set out to places and locations that appear more friendly to investments with a more advantageous judiciary. Nothing is left than to hope for the presence and intervening power of official non-governmental organizations. NGOs usually have both the technical possibilities for data network communication and the know-how for alarming or mobilizing the general public. Broad mass media attention was realized in the past with risky actions and spectacular pictures. Potential clients and consumers can be quickly alarmed with numbers, statistics and curves giving information about the limits of harmful substances, contaminated foods or genetically manipulated products. The truthfulness of such data can hardly be examined by the affected. Everything depends on the trust that citizens have in the credibility and legitimacy of such actions.

We are doubtlessly challenged here with an elevation of moral standards above the law. Consumer associations and other protective communities reconfigure their legitimate particular interests into generally binding values to force the international community to legislation, prohibitions or penalties against businesses. A free rein is given to value fundamentalism.

Assuring social values

The pressure produced by civil actors is in no way enough for this new social attitude to expand to the economy, culture and nature and for social values to triumph over individual egoism, benefit calculation and profit maximization and the global economy to be transformed into a value community. A fundamental change in mentality is necessary that must be engendered and assured militarily if necessary. Philosophical anthropology provides the necessary substantiation, confirming that the person is more than a mere homo oeconomicus. Egoism, economic opportunism and advantage assumptions are reductionist descriptions. Social sympathy and social recognition make persons into persons. These social attitudes and inclinations must be developed and strengthened. If a person is reduced to his/her role as an economic actor, the global society according to anthropological assumptions has no future.

The Pax Americana provides the other argument. The economic society needs perpetual peace. An eternal peace can only be guaranteed by a world-policeman with the right and means to enforce this command with force if necessary. Seen this way, an observer could get the idea upon hearing promises of western leaders to form a universal value community of interpreting the bombardments of Serbia and Kosovo by NATO as the first war waged in the commission of the economic society.

Economic leaders of the future

Numerous businesses already consider the growing moralization of the economy. They employ ethical officers who watch that sexual molestations do not occur on the job, social manners in public are cultivated, quota regulations are observed and environmentally-friendly materials are used in production and businesses have a correct public image. On the other side, expert business advisors have long instructed their clients in using social values for steering the business, for boosting the output and increasing efficiency.

Values in themselves do not create a social order. Someone must be there who embodies and lives them. Economic society relies on a qualitatively new type of entrepeneur. The economic leaders of the future will have social competence and moral responsibility both toward business and the public welfare. Environmental ideas are important; decisions should be committed to the life-world of citizens. The future economic leader will think in a planetary and interwoven way. When entrepeneurially active in other countries and continents, local and regional peculiarities will be considered and the cultural diversity of inhabitants respected. To his co-workers, he is a shining model of engagement, self-discipline and knowledge. The future business leader is the first to arrive at the firm in the morning and the last to leave in the evening. Traditional managers like to profile themselves with their shareholders by applying the hire and fire principle, first dismissing the socially irresponsible boss after hearing the objections of co-workers, considering their interests and following the rules of moral decency.

No one who pleads for the replication of social values in the economy and business is so na´ve to believe that economic captains will give their actions a moral orientation by themselves. Education is necessary where commitment or voluntary self-control does not succeed and the amalgam of moral standards, economy and law goes wrong because the manager follows the laws of the market, advantage calculation and the pressure of profit-maximization. The future entrepeneur must be educated so he executes what an ancient proverb proclaims: "There is nothing good; one must do the good."

Ethics from below

The solution of the future economic society can not consist in generally binding norms and rules when nations in the race around the colonization of businesses constantly deregulate and reduce social and moral standards in the hope of preserving and increasing the prosperity of their population. A top-down ideology can not function in a globally interwoven world. There are no general criteria valid for all cultures and nations. Ethical norms and principles can not be decreed from above. Rather ethical principles must arise and be developed bottom-up. These principles must be accepted by the co-workers, lived on all planes of leadership and negotiated from case to case in concrete situational problems. Directors have to be concerned with clarifying these questions. This is an actual task of their businesses. Co-workers must be heard, interests and claims considered and included in decision processes.

The State is outplayed

The demand that businesses orient themselves in social values is remarkable since transnational corporations operate worldwide, have headquarters in the world capitals and only debate about mergers and synergy effects, capital yields and efficiency enhancements. Demands to the entrepeneur to comply with social-ethical obligations, to be concerned about the public welfare or to be environmentally-friendly are problems to be discussed on local and regional planes.

That the "economic society" expects the conquest of crises and problems created by predatory capitalism from individuals or organizations and no longer from the state and its institutions is also remarkable. The state, an invention of the modern age, is outplayed. The advocates of the economic society are agreed here with other sociological or philosophical observers. The economic society is one address or one firm among and alongside many others. The role of the moderator, the task of removing the positional disadvantages that plague businesses and insuring equal starting conditions, is expected from politics.

Finally that ethics and moral standards, prospering genres, spread increasingly in the economy as though more ethics and moral standards were not fraught with risks is remarkable. The virus that politics experienced for some time, the smokescreen of power with the demands for political decency and moral correctness, now also infects the economy.

Not much imagination is required to foresee a great career for the term "economic correctness" after the immense success shown by the input of correctness in the political, sexual and moral intentions in western society. The helplessness and powerlessness of politics already insure that success. Whether it can give a bad name to capitalism must be doubted. Whoever experiences or observes global capitalism closely, its ability to adapt like a flash to changed conditions on the world markets, will speak more of gestures of exorcism. For that reason the economic society could also be described as an exorcism society.

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