Why Capitalism (1): The Pre-Capitalist West

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Oct 292023
Capitalism as Religion is a serialization of a book-length argument that capitalism behaves like religion. And there's something to take from that.

The development—creation and evolution—of Capitalism was hardly preordained. But it is too easy to look backward and conclude that where are now was inevitable. Nothing is inevitable. So why then? The question warrants a look at conditions leading to the birth of capitalism.

     We will eventually need to dedicate time to capitalism’s evolution to the present. But before we can begin that important journey, we must return to the context from which capitalism sprung as a response. As an added benefit to understanding something of the human imperatives behind capitalism’s birth, we may come to appreciate that it, too, was (perhaps) a momentary oasis of stability in a long tidal development of human organization, structure, and conduct.

     So what were the conditions that incubated what would become capitalism? Before exploring that, a provisional description and definition of capitalism is in order. Provisional because we only need it now for perspective and will elaborate (maybe materially) when the time comes. Moreover, to keep things as contained as much as such a topic can possibly be, we will focus on Europe as the primary Petrie dish for the emergence of this new philosophical, logical, and—as best known and understood—economic ideology.


     Capitalism is an economic system characterized by private ownership of the means of production and the pursuit of profit through market exchange. It is a system in which individuals, rather than the state or collective entities, own and control resources, businesses, and property. This is the original definition. What constitutes a “collective entity” has shifted somewhat. (Yes, I’m looking at you NASDAQ or NYSE-listed share capital corporations.)

  1. Private Property – Individuals and businesses have the right to own and control property. Private property rights allow “individuals” to use, trade, and transfer their property as they see fit, within the limits of the law.
  2. Market Economy – Market mechanisms allocate resources, determine prices, and facilitate economic exchange. Supply and demand forces, not centralized planning, largely determine production levels and the distribution. Buyers and sellers voluntarily transact based on mutual benefit.
  3. Profit Motive – Individuals and businesses are motivated to engage in economic activities to generate income, maximize financial gains, and accumulate wealth. Profit is the incentive for innovation, risk-taking, investment, and entrepreneurship.
  4. Competition – Competition fosters efficiency and drives innovation. It provides consumers with choice and incents producers to improve quality and lower costs.
  5. Limited Government Intervention – Limited government intervention in economic affairs means the state focuses on maintaining rule of law, protecting property rights, enforcing contracts, and ensuring fair competition. Individuals and businesses are free to make economic decisions and engage in voluntary transactions unencumbered by government interference.
  6. Profitable Investment and Capital Accumulation – Savings and profits are reinvested in productive enterprises, leading to increased productivity, technological advances, and expanded economic activity. Capital accumulation fuels economic development and higher living standards.
  7. Economic Freedom and Individual Choice – Individuals are free to choose their occupations, enter into contracts, start businesses, and engage in trade. With such individual rights, including the right to own property, one can pursue economic self-interest and enjoy the fruits of one’s labour.

     Note that today capitalism can take various forms, accompanied by different degrees of government intervention and regulation. Different countries and societies—and even tribes within societies—may adopt different models of capitalism, combining market principles with varying levels of social welfare policies and regulation. The implementation and characteristics of capitalism can vary across nations and over time.

     The development and movement to the capitalism we know were gradual processes over centuries. Many factors and changes in economic conditions contributed to that evolution of capitalism. For now, we shall remain in the pre-capitalist period in Europe and focus on the original version of capitalism.

The Enlightenment

     Specialization makes for isolation, which goes a long way to explain why the historical context for capitalism tends toward one that is improbably predominant: economics. I concede that viewing capitalism solely in economic terms is sensible. Capitalism is an economic theory and therefore the forces and conditions that spawned it must also be economic. This is, of course, right. Yet abjectly superficial and, thus, wrong.

     In the academy, it apparently required both the development of “interdisciplinary studies” and pioneering work of psychologists that wouldn’t stay in their own lane to wrench economics from its self-exalted pedestal.[1] All that work, and more, conclusively provided one insight if nothing else: to understand people and economics requires looking beyond economics. And so it should be in a consideration of this economic philosophy called capitalism. Particularly to understand how it came to be.

     While there can be no serious dispute that capitalism was a recoil against mercantilist policies in post-Feudal Europe, that part of the story is far too pat. It is insufficient in the same callow way as pretending to understand a 15-round prize fight TKO based on the final round or appreciating Romeo & Juliette solely from Act V.

     The big story is that capitalism was one of the final major intellectual outputs of the Enlightenment. This would necessarily support the oft-overlooked aspect of capitalism as philosophical foundation much broader than mere economics. Moreover, that it was built on, reflects, and owes materially to the long period of evolution in thinking that led to it. Any exploration of capitalism and its emergence that gives short shrift to the defining impact of the Enlightenment should be immediately suspect.

     There is insufficient space or need, frankly, to interrogate the fulness of what constituted the Age of Enlightenment. For our purpose, here, much of it resolves to a few critical evolutions of “common” thought and attitude that made all the difference. So our survey of this era that arguably began with Descartes (ca 1637) or Newton (ca 1687) and persisted through the start of the French Revolution (1789) will be brief and focused.

Enlightenment Ideals

     In hindsight certainly, and maybe even at the time, the dominant developments of the Enlightenment centred on certain obvious ideals. These were generally thwarted desires that bubbled to surface in nearly every aspect of life: political, social, personal, religious, scientific, artistic…

     Enlightenment ideals included human happiness, knowledge—both by reasoning and experience, tolerance, fraternity, separation of church and state, constitutional government, progress, natural law, and so forth. So embedded are these in our (Western) daily thought, it is hard to conceive a time when they were impossible dreams and quests. Foremost among these ideals, informing not only Western culture generally but setting the table for capitalism particularly, was liberty.

     Liberty can be a malleable word and concept, and served many purposes in this period—as in our own. It tended to be the catch-all expression of desire for freedom of some sort. Freedom from religious dogma; freedom from oppressive monarchy; freedom to rise and achieve; freedom to do as one pleased. It said, as many small children express it, “You’re not the boss of me.”

     The millennia preceding the Enlightenment had been one of control and dominion of one sort or another, be that by religious or secular princes. The scientific revolution and both development and dissemination of thoughts and knowledge revealed the artifice of these structures. Liberty was the cri de Coeur that found a place or made a place for itself in all aspects of life of all sorts of people.

     There are those who continue to propagate the bankrupt notion that there was a Dark Ages of effectively no forward movement for humanity; that this ended with the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and ultimately with the Enlightenment. They are wrong. But that’s for another time. Their underlying point, however, is that the centuries leading to the Enlightenment were a foundation for an evident explosion of thinking.[2] Thanks in no small part to Guttenberg’s machine, these thoughts were broadly disseminated and fed even more thoughtful advance during the Enlightenment. It’s arguable that this, itself, was liberty and liberating.

Enlightenment Legacy of Ideas and Power Structures

     Among the works and authors whose broad contribution to and expansion of Enlightenment ideals is especially notable for our purpose are:

  • David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature (1740)
  • Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
  • Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth (1766)
  • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)

     Notice particularly in this radically abbreviated list, two Scots disciples of Frances Hutcheson—Hume and Smith—whose foundational education is humanism not economics. Also, give credit to the many others not on the list that are undoubtedly known to you, but are too distant from capitalism specifically. Thinkers such as Diderot, Voltaire, Kant, Rousseau… All of whom were standing on the shoulders of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and whose underlying purpose, treatise, and intent was yet generally foundational to capitalist thinking.

     For instance, from Locke we inherit, “Life, liberty and property,” which is of a piece with Hobbes’s focus on individual rights. It was, however, Spinoza who undergirded the members of the “Radical Enlightenment” that fomented for individual liberty and democracy. Such was the temper of the time. By the tail end of the Enlightenment, governance and economics that did not harmonize with this burgeoning expectation would have been truly without credit: a wilful act of extreme and broad force to preserve a system or systems ready to be retired.

Conditions In Europe Before Capitalism

     If the age of capitalism can be tied to a date, 1776 would be it. This conveniently, but completely independently coincides with the birth of the United States of America. Is there a connection? No doubt on many levels, if not only that they seem to be related outcomes of a universal social recoil.

     “Recoil from what?” one might ask.

     In a word: plenty. Europe during the 17th– and 18th-centuries was a fizzing Petrie dish of resentments and reactions, ambitions and antagonisms. There was a slow rolling change to the zeitgeist economically, geographically, technologically, in governance, in religious faith, industrially, demographically, and—perhaps most importantly, in ideas—or ideologically.

     Circumstances such as the decline of feudalism, migration off the farm and its urban centers growth corollary, the emergence of a money economy, and advancements in technology were fertile ground for the development of capitalism. Layer atop that a legal and institutional framework supporting property rights, contract enforcement, and the rule of law to provide stability and security for economic transactions. There was bound to be change, maybe of a predictable type and direction.

     This is, of course, not all. The Age of Discovery was barely over. The ideas behind capitalism and the establishment of the USA were children of the Enlightenment. Let us now briefly, thematically survey the most proximate and relevant features of Europe before capitalism.

Agricultural Changes and the Enclosure Movement

     This process, which accelerated from the 16th to the 19th-centuries, forced small farmers and peasants off the land, concentrating land ownership and helping propel an eager labour force into employment in emerging industries. It also played a crucial role in breaking down the feudal system.

     The agricultural revolution in Europe started in the early 17th-century and brought unprecedented advances in agricultural technique and productivity—certainly in England. Crop rotation approaches, soil restoration and drainage, and husbandry techniques such as selective breeding, as well as other means of expanding arable land were all developed and put to use during this period. The first major wave of mechanization also shook up agriculture during this period. Ploughs, for instance, were advanced materially. The seed drill, too, was advanced by the Europeans. And, in 1786, the threshing machine was invented.

     All of this led to increased food production. More food had an accelerating effect on population growth. And, ultimately, surplus labour became an issue on the farm. Surplus labourers, no longer needed for agricultural activities, moved to towns and cities to (eventually) form a new class of wage labourers. Urban migration supported, if not propelled industrialization. (More about this dynamic later.)

Feudalism and The Power of Land

     In the European context, Feudalism was the dominant socio-economic system prior to the emergence of capitalism. Feudalism was characterized by a hierarchical structure where land and resources were owned by a small noble class, while peasants worked the land in exchange for protection and a share of the produce. This system weakened as trade expanded and new economic opportunities arose, but it persisted.

     The feudal system had its heyday from the 5th through 12th-centuries, arising during a period of weak central authority and nascent (at best) legal structures. The fiefs held by local lords were petty “kingdoms”. In the 17th-century the actual feudal construct was developed. These property-centric seigneuries made the fief-holder (the peasant) an extremely dependent man. Not a slave, but one unfree beyond the bounds of fidelity owed to the landlord. Or at the very least, one whose liberties were truncated and opportunities limited.

     In England, the feudal system was laid to rest by Parliament in 1645 and subsequently by Charles II in 1660. In France, however, the system persisted until eradicated by the National Assembly ca 1793.


     Returning to the Agricultural Revolution, a key driver was the so-called Enclosure Movement. Predominantly in England, this involved consolidation of common lands and their transformation into private property. While at first blush this would seem to be a boon to feudal landlords, one need focus on the precedent for property privatization.

     The Enclosure Acts, in England, spanned the period from 1604-1919. At least in the earliest of its period, Enclosure can be said to have been an unwieldy and misguided attempt to address the Tragedy of the Commons[3] by attempting to eliminate the Commons. No commons, no tragedy. People being people, however, the tragedy persisted (and persists) anywhere there is a commons of any sort. Enclosure, it can be argued, had unintended, unanticipated consequences. Nobody could have or would have perceived that these decrees tilting toward private property would (partially) catalyze the advent of what would be called capitalism.

The Urban Shift

     The shift to urban living was pronounced in the time leading to the breakthrough of capitalism. There were various, interrelated reasons for this change. The privatization of the commons, mechanization and industrialization, trade and discovery, and money all played a part. Ultimately the shift was from rural and agrarian to urban and industrial. To put a finer point on it, many people were driven to a situation that did not lend itself well to independence and self-sufficiency of any sort. Rural people are, irrespective of scale, producers. Rather, urban dwellers were to be a factor of production, or wage labour, as it would come to be known.

     Irrespective, the pre-capitalist urban shift was only the start of an ongoing change. People moved off the farm to survive; urban-centred industry survived because of labour; discovery and trade continued—or accelerated—with the availability of people. The arrows of causality are unclear except that they point the same direction generally. It was, in any case, sufficient to be an obvious factor in the pre-capitalist circumstance.

Commercial Revolution and Mercantilism

     The fullness of the Commercial Revolution is arguably from the 11th through the 18th-centuries.[4] It is a period of significant import to us because through this period commerce became a fundamental expression of human desire or ambition; or at least a primal conception of the game of life. The period witnessed a surge in (overseas) trade, colonization, and the growth of merchant capitalism. One after the other, European nations sought to amass wealth and power through exploration, colonization, and the establishment of overseas empires—colonies providing access to new resources, markets, and investment opportunities. Mercantilism, the economic doctrine dominant during this time, was geared to maximize a nation’s wealth through government intervention, protectionism, and the accumulation of precious metals.

     Much less well publicized than its more recent sibling, the Industrial Revolution (see below), the criticality of this development—for our purpose, anyway—can’t be overstated. It is here the ideas of commerce, money, wealth, and the power that flows from it all took hold. This is not to say such motivations did not exist before. They did: Croesus was not a Florentine banker, after all.

     During the Commercial Revolution the structures to support a non-militaristic expression and pursuit of these desires fell into place. For a number of reasons: from technological to social innovation that would tame the seas and defray financial risk; from demographics to geopolitics, the stars aligned and commerce did not just flourish—it rooted deeply. To explore all aspects of every element is worthy of its own volume(s). Moreover, many interdependent drivers such as the rural flight to the city are noted in other sections. So we will satisfy ourselves with a survey some important facets of this revolution, noting how they express if not amplify the human propensities that led to capitalism.

     That the Commercial Revolution began in the Italian (maritime) city-states of Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Lucca, etc. would suggest two things. First, trade over the Mediterranean was instrumental and created wealth. The disequilibrium and chaotic tentativeness of the petty feudal lords—or the absence of central (monarchical) government—was surely causal to some extent. Throwing off overlords requires means, which trade afforded. Second, the petty anarchy of the small protectorates (mostly dedicated to protecting the protector’s position…) is naturally subject to entropy. It falls apart—fast.[5] Abject poverty with no protection is undesirable. So what would make a false equilibrium on that foundation crumble? In the Italian and European experience, the answer is regional government and power: the city-state.


     Mercantilism may be the single-most important and obviously-connected element in the environment that spawned capitalism. That it is an economic system is evident. What it says about the people behind it and the environment it helped spawn may be more instructive.

     Mercantilism emerged during the transition from feudalism, which was characterized by a rigid social hierarchy and an agrarian-based economy, with wealth primarily derived from landownership. At least two significant forces in Europe at the time contributed to the shift from feudalism into mercantilism. First was the development of city-states and then nation-states. These larger, more complex, and wealthier political entities required a non-agrarian means to maintain and grow wealth. Second, (recent) growth was built on trade that flourished because of discovery, financial tools, and entities that could accept trade risk at the necessary, growing scale.

     As capitalism, in the hands of Adam Smith anyway, is a recoil from mercantilism, one would be safe assuming mercantilist policies were bad. But not all of them. In fact, characteristics of mercantilism were seminal to the development of capitalism. The capitalist response (from Smith) was arguably one of:

  • ideas that exposed failings and shortcomings, such as zero-sum trade, and consumption-driven economics; and
  • objection to a system tuned to sustain existing wealth and power, while inhibiting others.

     Consider these key features of mercantilism with an eye to where and how they echo in capitalism.

  1. Focus on Trade and Accumulation of Wealth – Mercantilism emphasized trade and wealth accumulation as essential elements of economic prosperity and national power. Capitalism preserved the general sentiment. Alas, mercantilist policies aimed to maximize exports and minimize imports for a positive balance of trade. A trade surplus was believed to result in the inflow of precious metals, especially gold and silver, which were then considered the basis of wealth. It was the zero sum notion: “our” loss was “their” gain and vice versa. Governments implemented protectionist measures—tariffs, quotas, and subsidies—to foster domestic industries, protect them from foreign competitors, and secure markets for their own goods. The goal was to safeguard local industries, create employment opportunities, and reduce reliance on foreign goods. Though generally considered poor policy (at least publicly), this focus on trade and economic nationalism laid a foundation for developments in international commerce and economic theory.
  2. State Intervention and Regulation – Mercantilism relied heavily on state intervention and regulation in the economy. Governments played an active role in promoting and protecting domestic industries, often granting monopolies, subsidizing and privileging favoured industries, and implementing regulations to control production, trade, and colonial ventures. They established guilds, controlled production methods, and enforced quality standards. Again, the aim was to protect and promote domestic industries, maintain a favorable trade balance, and increase the nation’s revenue, wealth, and economic power.
  3. Colonialism, Exploration, and Resource Extraction – Mercantilism coincided with the era of colonial expansion and exploration. European powers sought to establish colonies and extract valuable resources from overseas territories. Colonies provided access to raw materials, cheap labour, and captive markets for goods. Establishment of colonies and exploitation of their resources were key mercantilist policies. The wealth generated played a significant role in the accumulation of capital.
  4. Accumulation of Bullion – As noted above, mercantilism emphasized accumulation of precious metals, particularly gold and silver. Possession of bullion represented a nation’s wealth and power. Policies were designed to increase exports and generate a trade surplus specifically to bring more precious metals into the country. This emphasis on bullion reflected the prevailing economic thinking that metals were the primary form of wealth.
  5. Economic Nationalism – Perhaps most significantly, mercantilism was marked by economic nationalism. The interests of the nation-state were prioritized over individual economic freedoms, full stop. The aim was to strengthen the nation’s economic power and self-sufficiency.

     Over time, the limitations of mercantilist policies and the desire for economic progress led to a gradual shift towards the principles of free trade. Mercantilism’s emphasis on state intervention and protectionism was increasingly challenged by thinkers advocating for the benefits of open markets and international trade. Modern economic thinkers branded and challenged the heavy-handed protectionist aspects of mercantilism as unproductive “rent taking.” All the centrally-accumulated wealth and human desire projected by mercantilist thought was arguably the ideal set up for a truly revolutionary push back. As we will see.

Money and The Commercial Source of Wealth

The Decline of the Landlord and Ascendance of the Commercial Baron

     In these city-states, where power was based on wealth detached from land ownership, there was a degree of liberty unknown to the vassal of a landlord or king. The city-states were decidedly commercial. From Italy to the Netherlands and Belgium, Germany, and Spain, trade (in goods and knowledge), banking, and finance were the primary endeavors.

     All the discovery, innovation, liberty, and ability to endeavor was enabled and fueled by… money. In the simplest sense, the gold and silver from the New World and the trade that went along with it created a large and growing “middle” merchant class. This striving centre propelled change by the force of base desire.

Financial Innovations and Institutions

     Money! The Commercial Revolution formalized and institutionalized money unlike and well beyond anything since the Roman Empire. Modern banking took hold in the 16th-century when the (Catholic) Church became satisfied that charging interest was not, in fact, sinful. (No doubt, swelling tithes and the grace of banking families helped.)

     Dramatically oversimplifying: if you are the Jeff Bezos of your time, eventually it dawns on you that there is a limit to the pace and scale of wealth generation by (mostly) exploiting gold/silver acquisition directly. And, you may have that limit in sight. But others have ideas to explore, exploit, trade, and create wealth. Moreover, they are willing to undertake the dangers that go with it. Critically, they need (investment) money to make money. Since yours is doing nothing—except supporting artists and building churches—it makes sense to invest. But investment in this kind of venture is a long-odds bet. The better choice is to lend at interest. It’s much safer and almost as lucrative.

     Banking and the institutionalization of money as an exchange medium and moreso as influence on the Commercial Revolution cannot be understated. Except, of course, when compared to that other Leviathan of the period: the joint stock company.

     The joint stock company developed as one of two ways to manage (financial) risk during this period. The other was insurance. The risks these institutions were created to offset or mitigate were legion, nearly all arising out of discovery and trade. From the natural risks of travel on the sea, mostly owing to weather and ignorance, to risks of war and piracy, trade on the high seas did not always pan out. But when it did, it worked out very well. The monied and striving needed means to defray the risks and pursue the spoils.

     The idea of sharing risk, like the idea of money, was not new. During the Commercial Revolution it was, however, institutionalized. Discovery and trade rapidly evolved to be the purview of the wealthy that financed a founder’s company for a (substantial) piece of the action. (Sound familiar? Today we call it venture capitalism.) Its beginning is often tied to the London Royal Exchange, founded in 1565 and becoming a stock exchange by 1801. But trading exchanges, called bourses, actually date back to the 13th and 14th-centuries depending on the geographic location. The Amsterdam Bourse (stock exchange) is dubiously honoured as listing the Dutch East India Company, the first company to issue stocks and bonds, in 1602.[6] As for insurance, Lloyd’s of London was created at a coffee shop in 1688. Its underwriting and new service systematized the notion of risk quantification for sea venturers and others.

Colonialism and Trade

     Ironically, not unlike our own time, it was a climate change at the end of the 13th-century that forced innovation. This happened geopolitically, in technology, and in the drive to discover. The ensuing Age of Discovery helped shifted the economic centre of Europe farther west (toward the Atlantic) from Rome and the east end of the Mediterranean. When the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, overland trade route to the east became cost prohibitive at the very least. Once again, voyages of discovery were propelled on the back of trade and commerce.

     Which came first: the explorations and discovery or the technological advances that supported and sustained them? Capitalism would phrase this as demand v. supply-driven. On the waters alone, sail rigging designs and lighter weight hull crafting were matched with the navigational tools and techniques that were directly the result of Isaac Newton’s (Leibniz’s) calculus. It’s arguable they were complementary—as always. A discovery of some sort opened the way to an innovation that could fulfil a developing but struggling demand. Or, seen through the other end of the prism, a nascent demand being proven sets off a race to discover/innovate a means to fully exploit it.

Industrial Revolution and Capital Accumulation

     The Industrial Revolution, by which we’re referring to the British experience of industrialization through the second half of the 18th-century and most of the 19th, was another essential catalyst for the development of capitalism. A common description is that the Industrial Revolution was the time and process of changing an agrarian and artisanal world to a mechanized one. By good fortune or as an unremarkable next step to the ideas and progress that preceded it, the Industrial Revolution supercharged what was begun by the Commercial Revolution.

     The change in production at the time—both how and what—pushed forth a profound change in economy. That change in economy, in turn, altered society and individuals even more profoundly. As noted earlier, money and greater opportunity for individual advancement unleashed desires held down by the landownership-as-wealth structure. That was largely the Commercial Revolution’s doing. It took the Industrial Revolution to give those desires form and purpose beyond seafaring trade.

Invention and Innovation

     Accepted wisdom is that the Industrial Revolution began with Hargreaves’s spinning jenny (1770), Watt’s steam engine (ca 1780), Cartwright’s power loom (1785), and even Whitney’s cotton gin (1793). That’s not wrong—limited, but not wrong. There were many other, less notable but equally purposeful uses of mechanization that began appearing about this time. These bellwether inventions—and the others—created the means for and proved out 5, 10, 50X increases in productivity, directly driving industrialization and economic growth for British fabricators. Development and expansion of the basic ideas of mechanized work was applied to drain mines, build a railroad transportation construct, and alter the pace and scale of locomotion on land and by naval routes, and so much more.

     But to focus solely on mechanization or even industrialization is to expose only part of the story. The Industrial Revolution was a piece with the temper of the times. For instance, consider the rural-to-urban shift. Did industrialization incite migration from country to city, or was it merely a sop for all that newfound labour? Did mechanization contribute to starting that migration or was it merely an accelerant atop Closure and mercantile policies? The machinery invented was obviously the outcome of a long period of technological innovation. It did not arrive fully formed as a gift from God—maybe Mammon. Something else was elemental to those those inventions, derived from initial mechanization that advance over decades, caused them to bloom at that particular time? One has to at least speculate that it had something to do with the many other changes during the 18th-century.

     Dissecting the Industrial Revolution is an effort worthy of shelves of space. Let us, however, make emphatic the point that the Industrial Revolution did not stand alone. The Industrial Revolution was a fact of and outcome from the crucible of intellectual, spiritual, moral, economic, and political (social) ferment of the preceding centuries: the Enlightenment and Commercial Revolution for instance.

Efficiency and Productivity (and the end of the Artisan)

     Evolution to the factory system, a natural outcome of bringing workers to one place to support mechanized equipment that prefaced orders of magnitude greater output than they ever could, was a more material outcome of the Industrial Revolution than mere mechanization. (Again: whether this started, resulted from, or merely accelerated forces of urbanization is a parlour game.) Factories could be even more purposeful alongside “industrial” modes of transportation such as rail and steam ship. Productive facilities no longer had to be adjacent to raw materials or the market. Both the inputs and outputs could be readily delivered from/to locations much farther afield. Factories led to specialization of labour skill, further over-matching and undercutting artisanal production capacity and cost.

     Of course, the Industrial Revolution would displace some and create horrible inequities that might take as long as a century to sort out (i.e., labour exploitation) every bit the same as the Age of Discovery had done before it (viz. slavery). This is not to diminish but, in fact, to extoll the value and impact on progress. But because it is not our central point here, we’ll leave that be.

Capital Accumulation

     Perhaps the most continuous and significant aspect of the Industrial Revolution, together with mercantilist thinking, trade, and the full panoply of Commercial Revolution impacts, was wealth accumulation. The descriptions provided for each show the cumulative and exponential impact of how:

  • trade and trade opportunities led to a non-agrarian merchant class;
  • discovery and colonialism created wealth for explorers and plunderers;
  • the Commercial Revolution, particularly the concomitant Closure laws, reoriented the notions of success away from the landholding precedent;
  • mercantilist policies created trade winners from venturers and pooled wealth; and
  • industry solidified the shift from land assets to money and capital assets of all sorts as the basis of wealth accumulation and investment.

The Industrial Revolution fueled capital accumulation, as entrepreneurs and capitalists invested in new industries, machinery, and infrastructure. As we noted earlier, capital was essential to full discovery and trade at increasing scale without state intervention (control).

The Birth of Capitalism

     The “birth” of capitalism is complex… and debated. There was no particular crystalizing moment. It developed gradually over several centuries as an outcome to the prevailing circumstances that included not only conditions at hand but forces of change as presented previously.

     To the extent that capitalism was born, it was an idea made manifest by events and the actions of numerous people. It was, as the contrast between its fundamental principles and the circumstances of the day would prove out, a recoil marked by increasingly powerful individual and societal forces for individual freedom and rights, by exploding desire to acquire and amass wealth, by the search for political power and autonomy that had been withheld but obviously driven by wealth. It would be justifiable to say capitalism was not so much a new ideology as the codified unleashing of primal desires in an economic context.

     Even for a long hatching such as I suggest, there are events, ideas, and individuals to mark the moment. This section surveys only a small few of those.

Social and Political Transformations

     The rise of capitalism was not driven solely by economic factors but also by social and political transformations. As noted above, the Enlightenment, an intellectual and cultural movement of the 17th and 18th-centuries, emphasized reason, individualism, and the pursuit of progress. Enlightenment thinkers challenged traditional hierarchies and called for social and economic reforms that aligned with capitalist principles, such as equality before the law and the freedom to engage in economic activities.

     Throughout the preceding assessment of conditions and forces of change, the shifts in thought and thinking play an outsize role. This brief section is a synthesis of those effects on the moral, internal, and external perceptions among the masses.

Philosophical Elements

     Philosophical or moral shifts are important because they inform everything else. These moral sentiments of what is “right” and “wrong” operate sub-sonically. That is, they tend—especially as they become more ingrained—to frame the more obvious and noisy thinking and debate. Among others, these particular philosophies informed the environment that led to and that has existed for capitalism.

  • Individualism – Individualism emphasizes the value and autonomy of the individual. John Locke among other contemporary and later thinkers of the Enlightenment championed individual rights, including the right to own property and pursue one’s own interests. Individualism recognizes individuals as the central agents of economic activity and supports the idea that they should be free to make choices based on their own self-interest. We, in the capitalist West to be sure, take this as a natural law.
  • Liberalism – Liberalism, as a political and philosophical ideology, underpins capitalism. Liberal thinkers advocated for limited government intervention, protection of individual rights, and free markets. They argued that individuals should be free to pursue their own economic interests and that government interference in the economy should be minimized. Again, today we argue about degree, never about the inherent rightness of this proposition. Principles of liberalism, including individual freedom, equality before the law, and the sanctity of private property aligned with the core tenets of capitalism.
  • Utilitarianism – Utilitarianism, a consequentialist ethical theory associated with thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, influenced the development of capitalism. Utilitarianism focuses on maximizing overall happiness or utility in society, which obviously aligns to the forces of the Enlightenment. Capitalism, with its emphasis on individual self-interest and competition, is usually seen as compatible with utilitarian principles. According to utilitarianism, capitalist pursuit of self-interest, can lead to greater overall social welfare and well-being. Utilitarianism lasts.

Psychological Elements

     For our purpose the prevailing psychology of the time is (as always) a clear expression of the dominant philosophical tendencies. Two particular feature of the changing psychology under capitalism are worth noting.

  • Self-Interest and Rationality – Capitalism assumes that individuals are primarily motivated by self-interest and act rationally to maximize their own well-being. This psychological assumption aligns with classical economic theories, such as those developed by Adam Smith. According to this perspective, individuals in a capitalist system are expected to make rational choices based on their own perceived benefits.
  • Incentives and Rewards – Capitalism relies on the psychological principles of incentive and reward. The pursuit of profit and the prospect of economic reward (aka, greed) serve as powerful motivators for individuals to engage in productive activities. The belief that hard work, innovation, and entrepreneurial risk-taking can lead to financial success and social mobility serves as a critical driving force in a capitalist society.

Sociological Elements

     Capitalism recognized and amplified weak or constrained imperatives such as the naked desire to throw off the real and figurative shackles of servitude. Such sociological developments became codified in the Western (economic) ethos. Consider only three of these changes that are fundamental as air today but were unheard of pre-capitalism.

Division of Labour

     Division of labour, a fundamental aspect of capitalism, is associated with the work of Adam Smith. Smith specifically illustrated the efficiency of making pins with several specialists doing a part rather than the artisan creating from start to finish. It speaks directly to increasing overall productivity and efficiency. Capitalism implicitly is about advancing productivity as a means to succeed, grow wealth, secure freedom, etc. This sociological legacy spawned the assembly line, personal improvement, and so forth. Moreover, the division of labour promotes interdependence and the exchange of goods and services, fostering economic growth and the development of market systems.

Market Exchange

     Nothing is more central to capitalism than market exchange. Smith memorialized it with his butcher and baker. Voluntary transactions between buyers and sellers based on (hopefully) mutually beneficial agreements serves all good from allocation of resources to comparative advantage. It is of a piece with the concepts of freedom and liberty, meritocratic success, and wealth accumulation. The market, an impersonal arbiter of value—instead of a king or state—opened the door to imagination and innovation by anyone. Identification of and supply to an unserved demand founds capitalism and removed opportunity from the stranglehold of the landlord and regent.

     Market exchange is an understanding of markets as social institutions, where individuals interact and play. Its “rules” become institutionalized democratically because participants are free to join and play by the rules or break the rules and be ostracized. This is a legacy notion we hold dear even as it wears thin.

Social Mobility

     Capitalism offers the potential for social mobility, allowing individuals to move up or down the socioeconomic ladder based on personal economic success. In the feudal and even mercantile society this was rare. While “merit” can be argued and there is a long debate to be had over what basis of success is rewarded, there is no denying that under capitalism it is feasible and has at times been common. The prospect of upward social mobility, achieved by individual effort and merit, has been an important element supporting the legitimacy and acceptance of capitalism.

     Capitalism, of course, harnessed the Enlightenment cause of freedom and liberty in which economics so fundamentally plays a part. Freedom of the sort most people want is in no small part enabled by wealth. Accumulation of wealth is a core principle of capitalism. So in effect, capitalism harnessed this ideal of freedom and liberty by attaching it to wealth accumulation—and farther backward to individual merit and success.

Proto-Capitalist Thinkers and Writings

     Many prominent thinkers and writers contributed to the development of capitalist ideas. Some we have already encountered in our survey of the Enlightenment’s relevance. These thinkers, among so many others, challenged prevailing economic doctrine to lay the intellectual foundation for capitalism.

  • Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) – Colbert was King Louis XIV of France’s finance minister. He implemented mercantilist policies to encourage domestic industry, trade, and export promotion. His advocacy of government intervention and protectionism influenced economic policies across Europe during the early modern period. And, while purists may argue that this is mercantilist not capitalist, the focus on industry, trade, and wealth creation would cast a long shadow for this protocapitalist.
  • John Locke (1632-1704) – John Locke, an English philosopher, contributed mightily to political theory and the ideal of individual rights. His writings on property rights, including Two Treatises of Government (1689), laid the foundation for the concept of private property and protections for individual ownership. Such ideas were critical to the emergence of capitalism, which would be hollow without private property rights.
  • Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) – Mandeville, a Dutch-British philosopher and economist, published The Fable of the Bees (1714). He proposed and argued that individual vices, when combined, can lead to overall social and economic benefits. Mandeville’s ideas challenged traditional moral and ethical assumptions, highlighting the role of self-interest in economic activity. It would not be a big leap to Smith’s market forces and the self-interested butcher and baker.
  • Adam Smith (1723-1790) – Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher and economist, is often referred to as the “father of capitalism.” His seminal work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), provided a comprehensive analysis and postulation of the value and relevance of market economies. Smith emphasized the importance of free markets, division of labour, and self-interest, arguing that the pursuit of self-interest, guided by market forces, ultimately leads to the betterment of society as a whole.

Free Trade and Liberal Economic Policies

     The development of capitalism was closely tied to the advocacy of free trade and liberal economic policies. The concept of laissez-faire economics, championed by thinkers like Adam Smith, argued for minimal government intervention in the economy. This shift away from mercantilist policies toward free trade and liberal economic practices created an environment conducive to the growth of capitalism. Trade and liberal economic policies tilted toward private owners as opposed to being the domain of states. Without state power to compel mercantilist desires, capitalists changed the focus to allow for more benefit from the elemental give and take of trade among market players. The repeal of protectionist measures, the dismantling of trade barriers, and the promotion of open markets demanded—then rewarded—greater competition, innovation, and the expansion of economic opportunities.

Capitalist Empires and Colonialism

     The growth of capitalism was intertwined with the expansion of colonial empires. European powers, such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and England, pursued colonial ventures for economic gain. Colonies provided access to valuable resources, including precious metals, agricultural products, and labour. The exploitative economic systems established in colonies, such as the plantation economies in the Americas, generated immense wealth for the colonizers and contributed to the accumulation of capital that fueled capitalist development.

     The birth of capitalism was a multifaceted process driven by a combination of economic, intellectual, social, and political factors. The Enlightenment, Commercial Revolution, and Industrial Revolution were key catalysts. The principles of individualism, private property, and free trade were its core underpinnings. In any case, the temper of the times made some sort of evolution inevitable. Arguably, capitalism best served thte needs and desires.

This is part of a series of essays exploring the idea of Capitalism as Religion.

Transformation of Capitalism, an introduction

Religious About Capitalism

Timothy Grayson is a Canadian (digital) transformation consultant, coach, and writer. Among other things, he has provided thechangeplaybook.com as a practical resource for change and project managers. Find him at institute-x.org.

[1]   I am referring to Tversky and Khanneman, and all those that followed their path to flesh out the field of behavioural economics.

[2] The only disagreement being the degree of discontinuity represented by this “enlightened” period.

[3]   This tragedy represents a common circumstance where a number of individuals acting in their own self-interest, on an open and apparently infinite resource, where no individual act would seem to have material impact, end up collectively depleting and/or destroying the resource for everyone. Originally the commons were public grazing lands for sheep. As a side note, this tragedy overlays nicely to one of the most typical oppositions to climate change action in the West: Our actions will have no effect compared to China and India (ergo, carry one carrying on).

[4]   Only on a geologic time scale could anything that took 400-700 years to fulfill be considered a “revolution” and not an “evolution.”

[5] Or, more probably, consistent with Hemmingway’s maxim: “Gradually, then suddenly.” (The Sun Also Rises.)

[6]   Again foreshadowing today, the Dutch also pioneered short selling, options, debt-equity swaps, merchant banking, and other speculative instruments.

Religious About Capitalism

 Business, organization, Religion, society  Comments Off on Religious About Capitalism
Jun 292023
Capitalism as Religion is a serialization of a book-length argument that capitalism behaves like religion. And there's something to take from that.

This piece was completed in 2018, before the pandemic. The other essays in the serialization of “Capitalism as Religion” are descendants of this essay. It’s contextualizing references—Brexit and Trump—are a little stale. Also, its argument tilts very heavily to defining religion for the first half of the essay, all in service of the argument that maybe capitalism is (like) a religion. For those uninterested in such things, you can probably search for and skip to the section “Capitalism’s aspects of religion”. I think you’ll miss something, but it’s your time and choice.

This essay is cross-posted on my Substack.

Inexplicable events routinely happen. The unfathomable crowd actions of Brexit and the American election, both in 2016, demand explanatory gymnastics if not wholesale suspension of disbelief. What possesses millions of people to decide by all reasonable measures, on balance, decidedly not in their own best interest? What rationalizes such thorough irrationality? Super moons? Late onset millenarianism?

     To say these throngs were cajoled or coerced into self-defeat by demagoguery or were fed up enough to “cut off their noses to spite their faces,” is to presume naivety and even stupidity on the majority of those voting, and willful negligence on all who did not. Perhaps satisfying to say, but unsatisfactory as an explanation: among Brexit and Trump voters are many articulate, educated, and arguably successful people—and MBAs.

     So much of the West woke up after those electoral reveries to the stark realization there is no morning after pill. Joy and celebration were offset by equal parts of fear and loathing. And so the whole world struggles with “Why?” Despite gallons of ink and petabytes of pixels devoted to well-argued theories from economic and social despair to political disgust to (white) nationalism, none seems sufficiently robust to stand scrutiny. None feels exactly right, begging a meta-explanation to hold together the explanatory shards.[1]

     Such a meta-explanation, or at least the one I propose, does not directly answer the question, “Why?” It contextualizes and frames the other answers to cohere. It presents a tide within which these currents of socio-political change flow. As befitting anything “meta,” it could explain a lot—at least loosely. The explanation that I suggest fulfills the job best is religion.

     This paper presents the idea that religious thinking—its psychology—pervades the most significant secular ideologies of the West: Capitalism and Democracy. The point is not to litigate the merits or drawbacks of Brexit, nor to project success or failure of Trump’s possible policies and actions as President. So, for the purpose of this essay I accept the broad consensus opinion that Brexit will have a generation’s negative economic impact on Great Britain. As for America, project forward Trump’s rapacious first 69 years of self-aggrandizement at the expense of others who presumed he might live up to his many words. Reckon by the Trump campaign’s flagrant lying, policy flopping, and juvenile petulance. All of which at least suggests that the vast majority of Americans will not benefit from Trump’s presidency. In other words, they voted against their own self-interest. We will accept these as premises.[2]


     To be clear, for this purpose religion is not simply a system of belief in a divinity and an answer to the question of purpose. It does not narrowly refer to sects or cults of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or any other past or prevailing religious system.

     Religion, as exposed it here, is a means of communing with the unknown. Because at some point even the known was unproven and possibly unknowable, I stand with the view that all religion is an explanatory system developed in the absence of proof. For religion, the unknown is essential. Once institutionalized, religion is a construct for social organization and a robust tool for control among what would otherwise be thoughtless, irrational, unconsidered, random, disorganized human behaviour.

     According to some, the most fundamental and essential—arguably only—part of religion is the duality of sacred and profane. These, within an explanatory teleological story, with or without a divine presence, create a morality. And a moral system, whatever it is, intrinsically motivates the believer to behave as if controlled by this unseen, possibly irrational force.

     The notion of religion in general, but specifically for this purpose has nothing to do with divinity or codified faith. To help suspend the reflex to rebut the core theses based on some Abrahamic equating of religion with God and/or organization around this premise, dispel the image of popes and prelates, imams and rabbis by thinking about Zoroaster or the Aztec, Maya, or Inca. This helps reveal the human imperative toward religion without the emotional baggage of the proximate organized religions of the past two millennia.

     That important, human imperative is for answers to the unknown. In many forms, the imperative leads to systems of beliefs that rely on a form of sacred as lodestar with its profane and telos as navigational bearings. Such systems of belief need stories that can be decomposed into a catechism of some sort. It needs pithy self-confirming affirmations. It needs a formal schooling and instruction program. Above all, over time it needs for its believers to become unflinching. For that, the believer’s identity must be entangled in the goals and objectives of the religion’s moral universe so that to not believe is to challenge one’s own worth if not purpose or existence.

     Many ideologies qualify within these parameters. For instance, based on how politicians and party members behave, it’s arguable that Republicans and Democrats are two sides of a schism in American, democratic political religion that hold forth as articles of faith and belief a founding mythology and enumerated commandments amending a given scripture.

     But this is not where I choose to go. The religion I believe to be the foundation for all the right and wrong that has reached a recent nadir, is 21st-century Capitalism. Moreover, within the broadly understood persistently diminishing religiosity in Western nations, I would propose that the surveys miss the point.[3] Those who are distancing themselves from their traditional religion may be doing so only because they’ve found a new place to worship.

     Before exploring that contention, we would do well to define and expand upon the features of both capitalism and religion, unpacking them from some of our more biased, flawed, or simply irrelevant notions.


     Let’s be clear, capitalism is not a replacement for spirit-quenching trips to the holy places. It is, or at least it was an organizational framework for a competitive economic philosophy. Some would say that capitalism is an ideology, full stop. That is fine and I have no truck with the notion of capitalist ideology.[4]

     Capitalism, standing alone, is not a religion as we commonly understand it. As an organizing paradigm, capitalism was conceived and evolved on a simple premise that competition and demand are a stronger organizing driver than anything else. It has proven to be effective and resilient. Certainly moreso than Socialism or Mercantilism. The beauty of capitalism is that it aligns to and harnesses human nature. For better or worse, the butcher and brewer provide their wares in their own self-interest.

     Capitalism has religion in its DNA. The creators of capitalist philosophy were religious men—as were most Enlightenment and near post-Enlightenment philosophers. While undoubtedly the product of human nature, the butcher and the brewer proffered their services to satisfy their needs by serving others’ needs at a profit substantially driven by their religious beliefs. This heritage informs the original purpose of creating wealth not for its own sake, but for the greater glory of God to express one’s divine calling, as well as to benefit oneself and one’s neighbours. Keep in mind that at the time of its conception capitalists risked their own wealth. Profit and loss affected them directly.

     For these God-fearing capitalists, Monday was clearly separate from but not different than Sunday. Not until the complete ascendance of the limited liability, share capital corporation did capitalism evolve beyond those capitalists of old. The corporation was one key factor to shift emphasis from the greater glory of God, exposing one’s divine calling, and creating profit for oneself and one’s neighbours to profit for profit’s sake.[5] The effect of the share capital corporation on capitalism is well-documented by Joel Bakan in his book, The Corporation. For our purpose here, three things about this capitalist evolution are important.

  1. It created scale. Organizations now did much more, much more broadly and thus more impersonally than before.
  2. It demanded a class of professional managerial employees—even at the pinnacle of the organization—so day-to-day decision-makers were no longer “skin in the game” capitalists.
  3. Most importantly, it effectively reoriented the driving force for profit to a class of absentee owners (i.e., shareholders). The absentees, detached from the value the business provided, could value nothing as much as return on investment.

Public Company from Limited Liability

     It was only a matter of time for the institutional investor cadre to sever the last sinews of connection to the origins of capitalism and the early capitalists. The scale of institutional investment lets it wield the control of a proprietor. Except a proprietor has interest in all the stakeholders—especially customers and suppliers, let alone pride of accomplishment that the detached institutional investor does not. Without that background or skill, our institutional investor is not in business to make and/or purvey something the invisible hand determines to be of value. The closest (s)he gets is to satisfy some anonymous market of potential customers based on the impersonal metric of revenue. And because of the self-inflicted demand for ever-quicker proof of revenue-based success, the average institutional investor’s depth of vision is 90-days long.[6] Thus the institutional investor cannot be loyal to anything but return to shareholder: not to the customer, not to the employee, not to society at large. Along the way, capitalist thinkers and economists turned this aberration into a virtue. To the original capitalists it was not.

     This brief and rough description is not judgment. The intent is not to challenge capitalism’s value but to make clear that the impelling original notion of capitalism not only strayed from its philosophical root, it is, in fact, effectively rootless beyond making money through shareholdings.

     Making money to create wealth is fine: that organizing motive has served humanity—the West, anyway—well. But the turn from owner-operation toward investor ownership pulled down two foundational pillars philosophically grounding old-time capitalism: (1) glory of God and expression of divine calling, AND (2) benefit to oneself and neighbours. Apparently, this evolution hollowed out traditional capitalist values while leaving the organizing framework and desirous economic effect undiminished. By all outward appearance, to so many, these were advances.

Nature, meet Vacuum

     The Protestant Ethic, for those with only a hazy recollection, is sociologist Max Weber’s explanation for the rise of capitalism. To him, the Spirit of Capitalism is a set of values, the spirit of hard work, and progress.[7] While Weber argued it is best exhibited particularly among Protestant Christians (Calvinists to be sure), the universal values it identifies and extols are most important for our purpose. It’s important because when one denies the premise that the Spirit of Capitalism has a special relationship to Christianity—or Protestant Christianity specifically—the only thing left is a set of values that includes hard work and progress. Removing the religious values—glory of God and personal divine purpose—creates a void rapidly filled by a reverence for money.

     The imagination is not especially taxed contemplating the Spirit of Capitalism encountering the moral vacuum of the institutionally-owned, limited liability corporate business environment. Obviously, the need for purpose and direction satisfied by the spiritual is replaced by the “Godless” Spirit of Capitalism. The other parts—profit, hard work, and especially progress—are grafted to the natural human need for Telos. Profit as the means to fulfill God’s purpose turns into the purpose in itself. It’s our nature. And (our) nature abhors a vacuum.

Our Nature

     Telos is a Greek word that means end, in the sense of goal or objective. The idea is that we humans are self-starting, purposeful, and, once in motion, move toward something. That is our Telos.

     It alone does not explain why religion takes hold of us. That requires our special need for community atop our inherent curiousity.  Telos does, however, explain why, once we have an end in mind, we get so committed to it. Some would argue goal-orientation is an innate drive: a compulsion to seek, to be purposeful. Others point to the social pressure to conform, lest we be called lazy, unfocused, directionless.

     So we may be either or both hard wired and programmed with teleological motivation. The implication is that even if we don’t know what the end is, we seek resolution to the compelling tension created by it. Some psychiatrists postulate it is a root cause of crippling problems from addiction to depression and other dissatisfactions with life, because where we have purpose, we have satisfaction if not joy. Not coincidentally, a Telos underwrites both the original purpose of capitalism—to express one’s divine calling, as well as the multi-billion-dollar self-help industry. You see, purpose demands a reason.

     Without one or both of purpose and explanation, something has to fill the psychic hole. Nature—and our mind—abhors a vacuum. The unknown presents such a vacuum. It tends to confound our calculation. Whether lazy or just disinclined to ponder more than what keeps us alive day by day, the majority of people are unable to contemplate “why” questions that require more than quotidian information, experience, and mental processing. Thus are they happy with expedient and convenient, comforting, ready, and sanctioned answers. Lore and legend satisfy this need, as can scientific theory and proof—sometimes. It is someplace between these termini that we find religion and ideology. Both address the unknown to fill the void. Both rely on belief and faith. Both provide guidance and rules for adherents to follow. Both promise the right end if the believer commits.

     Setting aside divinity for the moment, where religion and ideology tend to diverge is in how they substantiate the underlying belief. At the highest level, religion is an allegorical story that demands faith to its accepted truth by the mystery of the narrative itself. Wisdom through aphoristic writing, allegations of divine perfection, and apparent successful application of its rules and lessons are told in stories to prove the religion’s veracity and social acceptance. Ideologies hold themselves as more high-minded. Proof for an ideology is typically logically reasoned and observable proof applied. More rigorously than religion, ideological proofs are comparative… to other ideologies (e.g., democracy v. communism, capitalism v. mercantilism), although phenomenological (i.e., experienced) proofs, today referred to as case studies, are also brought to bear.

     Be that as it may, it is mere shades of grey that contrast religion from ideology even when divinity, the sacred, and the profane are present. And without these features, it’s hard to distinguish where along the spectrum from “reason” to “faith” religion begins and ideology ends (and vice versa) since they have essentially similar features.

It’s Just Divine

     The divine is the first thing those with a common grasp but insufficient understanding identify with religion. To many, an ethereal, anthropomorphic divinity like God/Allah/Jehovah or Jesus Christ (after resurrection, obviously) is the hallmark, if not defining quality of a religion. To some superficial degree in the Abrahamic tradition, let alone those of the Norse, Indigenous American, and African, it’s true.

     In all these situations, irrespective of epoch and intellectual sophistication, the divine is the reduction of causal attribution into a form readily understood by the common person. The resilience of the idea of divinity is evident in what was explained as a god and god’s doing at any given time inevitably being revealed as unsophisticated if not foolish in light of a better causal explanation. Yet the divine persists.

     It’s worth noting the explanatory device—the divine—need not carry the baggage of the name “god.” Belief in the explanatory value of polling, market timing, astrology, or grandpa’s lumbago as a weather predictor is different only in degree. Even Einstein used the divine to express the idea of the unknown mechanism saying, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Notably Einstein, unlike many other luminaries of science such as Newton and Galileo, was an atheist.

     I’ve deconstructed this notion of divinity being a distinguishing feature of religion even though all but the most devout will acknowledge the divine as probably metaphorical. Reducing the divine to an embodiment of causal attribution can avoid some debate. The point is that inclusion of the divine idea is not by itself sufficient to separate religion from ideology. If it were, we ought to question to just what god’s body is the “invisible hand” attached?

Your Worship…: damned rites!

     Worshipping a metaphorical god would seem to make identification of and distinguishing religion easy. Even if the god is knowingly metaphorical, worshipping that god by thoughtless rites and offerings and so forth is certainly the hallmark of the irrationality of a religion as opposed to the common sense and reason of ideology, no? No.

     To classify then dismiss as religion any belief system that demands from or engenders worship among its followers is wrong. It confuses action with purpose. Are groupies or Apple consumers or post-season sports fans/players following some religion? Are the ceremonies carried out to bring political leaders into chamber, to convoke new degree holders, or to celebrate Octoberfest beer drinking religions? They have rigorous rites, some of which are centuries old, that they may even be superstitions. This hardly rise to the level of defining the underlying purpose as a religion.

     Worship of the deity in a religion happens on two levels. First, there is reverence for the deity’s omnipotent infallibility. This is fearful supplication: avoiding repercussion from an all-powerful and all-knowing power. The second level is in the performance of rituals, presumably to achieve the first goal. As Emile Durkheim noted, this element of religious faith does not serve so much a dogmatic purpose as a social one:

Thus is explained the preponderating role of the cult in all religions… This is because society cannot make its influence felt unless it is in action, and it is not in action unless the individuals who compose it are assembled together and act in common… A society can neither create itself nor recreate itself without at the same time creating an ideal.[8]

     Again, let’s not focus on the supernatural, but on that which is done: on the act of worshipping. This is known as the cultic aspect of a religion: the application of rites, rituals, and catechisms that anchor the idea and faith. We will attend to these features individually later. Try now, however, to erase the vision of subordinate employees supplicating to the all-powerful CEO in ways as trivial as gifting and laughing at bad jokes, and as far reaching as endorsing the boss’s (obviously) bad investment decisions. Beyond blatant careerism, this tableau recognizes the secular worship that goes on broadly even within an ideology from time to time.

     These are signs of deference and respect. Why call a judge “Your Honor,” or a mayor “Her Worship” if not for that? But as Durkheim suggests, those repeated acts reinforce behaviour and expectation. Actions and customs normalize. In their worst uses, customs and such repetitions of worship normalize even the most disgusting of an ideology’s aspects. The worship of the ideology and its all-powerful—god-like—leader was in full display in the 1930/40s Germany. Naziism was hardly a religion.

Sacré bleu

     Utter the word religion and divinity is instantly conjured. To those without religious faith, the entire notion of a deity is fantasy: a child’s conception of what moves the cold mechanics of the world. That makes it easy to dismiss religion out of hand as unworthy of reasonable consideration. Not so with things sacred, which are much less readily relegated to ridicule. So the sacred and its counterpoint, the profane, do the heavy lifting.

     Everything—even religions—needs scope, rules, boundaries. Without limits, a belief is aimless. So too do divinity and worship need scope and shape. Even in religions whose god(s) has complete, omniscient dominion over the universe, there are rules. Definitions of what is appropriate and not gives purpose, direction, and structure to the religion.

     The sacred is that which is unimpeachably right within the religious construct. It has special significance, may belong to, and certainly leads to the good or beneficence of the divinity. The genesis of what’s sacred may be metaphysical or something more prosaic. However it came about, as a relic or artifact or the ritual application of some once valuable action, that which is sacred is self-evident and to be obeyed. Even if its origin was reasoned and purposeful, at some point that which is sacred becomes immune to challenge. It passed into lore or common wisdom and needs no further substantiation—like a law of science. Because the sacred must not be transgressed, there is no acceptable means to disprove it. There is only heresy (or apostacy) at even having the notion to challenge the sacred.

     Thus a heretic is one who (purposefully) challenges the sacred. Practically, heresy provides the faithful with cause to repudiate, isolate, and diminish any challenge to the sacred. The heretic is punished, sometimes by shunning and isolation, maybe by banishment, and at its very worst, by death. The punishment signals to the faithful that the sacred may not be challenged without consequence. It also erases evidence of the challenge itself. This is critical because the divinity does not or cannot act to reprimand transgression. Besides, should the faithful see that good need not only flow from the divine and sacred, faith itself may be challenged. The sacred must remain self-evidently unquestionable lest everything else be subject to persistent reappraisal. Where that leads once started, could put the very objective of the faith at risk. A reasonable person could say this makes the sacred more important than even the divine.

     The profane, too, is a matter of faith: unquestioningly accepted and passed on irrespective of origin and original purpose. By definition, that which is not sacred is common and hence profane. More commonly, the profane tends to have one of two fundamental formulations: it is either a negative rule to protect the imperviousness of the divine/sacred (e.g., uttering “God damn” is a profanity because it takes the Lord’s name in vain) and thereby stifling larger possible challenges, or it is a rule that prohibits things, behaviours, or thoughts that may lead to group decohesion, harm, and injury. The Semitic prohibition on pork (meat of the cloven hooved animal) in Deuteronomy, for example, is a health protection measure and probably arose that way.

     Profanities—and dealing with them swiftly and strictly—are important to a religion because profanities challenge the faith. The power of the faith is the unthinking acceptance of the goals, structures, and rules. But since, practically speaking, there is typically no substance to the religion’s promises—they being answers to “unknowns,” there is rarely a direct line between the demands of the faith and its promises or threats. More plainly: there is no assurance that the faith leads to the goal and all non-faith does not. Disavowal of the sacred or application of the profane having no impact on the faith or faithful would be problematic to the central organization of the religion. It should be obvious why. Little flaws, once exposed, can expand into bigger flaws. So it is critical for any religion to very strictly enforce its definition and policing of sacred and profane.

Catechism: rites, rituals, and repetition

     Advertisers, teachers, tyrants, and organized religions know one thing for sure: repetition works. To be clear: repetition works. Advertisers, teachers, tyrants, and organized religions know this. The number varies, but seven is commonly accepted as the exposures to an ad needed before the message takes effect on a consumer. Writing lines on the board as punishment (something lost in the keyboard era), reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and so many similar instances of individual and group ritual are pure repetition of a thought. Why? Because repetition works.

     Repetition, a foundation of rote memorization, is a fundamental means for driving an idea first into conscious memory and then, more importantly, into the subconscious. It is also a key to skill mastery, where it goes by the name practice. Extensive research has been done on the effects of the repetition of ideas and actions, especially how they get driven into the subconscious. The psychological and physiological fact is: repetition works.

     The idea that becomes ingrained in the subconscious through repetition transforms into (a) truth and (b) an operating instruction of the mental firmware. Why do you think self-help programs make such extensive use of a small number of affirmations? Because repetition works. Would we remember so vividly that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream if he had not said it ten times in sixteen minutes?

     Religions are profoundly attached to the miracle of repetition. In the Catholic church, for example, there are the liturgy, prayer, and above all catechism. Liturgy is the ritual said by the priest. Though repeated at every mass, it is not nearly as powerful as prayer and catechism, which are repeated by the faithful. As Chinese proverb says: Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.

     Prayer, repeated everywhere, is a religion’s primary entreaty to the deity. In this respect, it could fall into that easy ridicule of anything to do with the supernatural. But at the end of the day, prayer is just a form of repetition with a particular expectation. Its repetition is no doubt a supplication before a deity, but it is also an insidious reinforcement of the rules of the religion. Regardless, because the red herring superstition aspects are hard to overcome, we’ll leave it out. Instead, let’s move to catechism, of which prayer is only one special type.

     A catechism is in no uncertain terms, the repeated exposition of a belief. Tied in Western culture by name to the Catholic Church’s Rites, catechisms actually appear everywhere. Any time a believer repeats a core doctrinal truth, it is a catechism. Instances of ritual repetition of the core logic of a belief are catechisms. The recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the regular rituals of Elks and Freemasons, and even memorizations of scientific and other laws would qualify on this basis. The whole point of catechisms is to capture those cornerstones of the belief system and turn them into truth and operating system instructions of the subconscious. When these foundations are truth, everything else about doctrine flows readily.

Religions are organizations

     Ultimately, religions are organizing frameworks. At one level, as we’ve considered, they represent the organization of an idea.[9] That idea is an explanation of the unknown with elaboration that provides purpose, direction, means, rules, and structures to survive an otherwise random life. While that’s all well and good, without a practical organizing structure to manage people a religion’s ideas would be a fanciful ideology at best. A practical organization is needed for people to codify central ideas, provide doctrines and policies, proselytize to the other, and teach, minister, and ultimately police the faithful.

     We have to recognize and accept that, irrespective of their righteous purpose, religions are about interests. Whose and what the originating interests were may be lost to time. Because religions are living political things, the original interests that inform doctrine and mythology evolve over time. They physically mould to the shape given them by those who, at any given time, control the religion for the purpose at hand. Unlike most secular organizations, however, the underlying precepts cannot wander without alienating the faithful. So doctrine changes slowly. It is much easier and faster to adjust the meaning of the doctrine to suit prevailing interests. The result is that by massaging definitions the stable doctrine evolves to suit contemporary needs through time.

     An ideology does not need an organization, let alone a hierarchy, to express, propound, and defend it. Ideas themselves cohere and sustain through intellectual debate. That there is an organizational hierarchy reflects the social control aspect of the religion’s purpose.

     Honeybees, hyenas, and human groups rapidly evolve into classes of leaders and followers. Nuance beyond this blunt fact is found in the purpose of the organization. For a religion, a closer view reveals a formal set of leader classes within a supporting structure of those who teach, minister, and police the faith and faithful.

Followers: the faithfilled

     Especially in religious organizations, followers have a very simple purpose. In addition to being the bulk and weight of the community, they provide the organization’s resource needs: acolytes to support and sustain the purpose/values/norms; benefactors to provide the money and capital to operate; labourers to perform needed work; missionaries to expand the organization’s domain.

     Followers are taught and trained to be followers of the religion by accepting and abiding by the dogma (the idea). Being part of the community typically from birth sets the path for all members being properly indoctrinated. This, of course, is all too simple. Religion fulfills individual psychic needs at the outset and in perpetuity that makes then keeps adherents. At first, perhaps, that need may have been the prime unknown the religion’s idea addresses. Over time, however, the idea expands to satisfy other wonderings likely to trouble followers as well. Psychology and history indicate many of these individual and social needs are met by the idea and the organization. As we’ve said, religions not only provide answers but also structure, comfort, and community. In many cases the (divine) telos even reduces or eliminates the burden of personal agency, which is truly a comfort to a large swath of humanity.

Leaders: the faithful

     How the religious organization parses itself to best stay atop its flock is, like any other organization, a function of its breadth and purpose. Not uncommonly, religions—especially larger ones—recognize geographic realities. Within or alongside that, they also have functional divisions. These functions, excluding those that constitute the typical overhead of communications, legal, accounting, governance and compliance, and so forth, line up to the objectives of ministering and teaching.

     Again, like in any other organization, a religion will have an overall leader who may or may not be a spiritual leader. Because during the last millennium or so gods have not availed themselves to the dirty work of operating religions, the human leaders and the god(s) are distinct. The human leader is, however, by some mysterious mechanics typically chosen/revealed/appointed by the god to hold the revered middleman position. Beneath this are layers of (sub)leader that get ever closer to the followers.

     Let’s start close to the followers with the priesthood. Priests have special knowledge of and proximity to the godhead and codes of the religion. They use this special awareness to coerce the faithful into performing roles demanded by their faith. Having been formally schooled in the ways of the religion, they are suited to minister to the faithful, support missionary work, uphold the creed and customs, and so forth. Priests hold tightly to the mysteries of the religion to ensure the faith survives any challenge. This usually involves both a single-minded devotion to the faith and a clear-eyed understanding of the power of ritual and mysteries over the masses. Moreover, the upper echelons of the leadership hierarchy come from the priest class.

     Asserting that the priests of any religion are not also the most faithful would be deeply cynical. To suggest that politics and personal ambitions within the religion may shape as much as the creed itself would, at the least, be not nice. Yet, it’s hard to not see this aspect of human social nature bleed through in current and historical examples, even—or perhaps especially—within a religion. As an organization with a goal or mandate to control or at least shape human affairs, the religious organization is innately political. Priests rise in authority, rank, privilege, and power no differently than in any other human organization. The Medici popes make this abundantly clear.

     Through a variety of means, the priest and near-priest keepers of the faith are, in no uncertain terms, indoctrinated for their roles. This is the cultic aspect of a religion.[10] Ultimately, because of their role to preserve the religion’s idea and grow the organization’s size, preserving orthodoxy is obviously critical and ought to bear no further explanation. Except this: unless the priest is unthinking and unswerving in propagating the faith, the priest is failing him/herself, let alone the religion.

     It should also be evident—perhaps—that growing the organization is an ongoing imperative and may validly be the only thing separating it from irrelevance or extinction. First, people get old and die. Their beliefs and faiths, unless passed on, die with them. At the very least, there is the potential for a generational loss of potency. Second, ideas—even those underpinning faith—are continually under threat from competitive ideas, particularly those that resolve the underlying unknowns and uncertainties upon which a religion is built. Ideas that resolve questions more simply and clearly demand less (mental) energy to sustain through extravagant and elaborate commitments. This economy allows them to naturally better survive and sustain.

Capitalism’s aspects of religion

     To summarize, when we abstract away the prejudicial connotations and our rationalist bias about the irrationality of religious faith, when we subdue any obligations we feel to our own religious faith, and we explore the facets of religion itself, all that’s left is an idea explaining some unknown aspects of our understanding made manifest in a structure for behaving and perceiving. It is, of course, an idea of another time locked in another level of sophistication. So by our reckoning here, religion typically has but would not be burdened by the absence of divinity except insomuch that worship is easier to justify when directed toward some (anthropomorphic, supernatural) deity. Religion codifies what is sacred to the idea and, conversely, what is profane. It propagates and extends the idea with explanatory stories or myths through an indoctrination, education, and persistent (repeated) enunciation and application of the core idea. All this is carried out by a mundane human organization of leaders and followers—haves and have-nots—that are ultimately a political entity.

     Earlier, I said categorically that I believe capitalism is neither a religion on par with those for which a supernatural divinity, holy buildings, and scriptural books for worship of a god are required. That stands. Be that as it may and whether moot or obvious, it’s of value to test capitalism against the qualities of religion as we’ve established them.

     The arguments that capitalism is a religion or not are neither new nor do they track easily without fairly esoteric elaboration. Among the more infamous is a fragment of an essay by Walter Benjamin.[11] The following is an attempt to summarize it without drawing on Marx’s counter-capitalist positions. As I’ve stated, the point is not to diminish either capitalism or religion. The point is only to illuminate how capitalism sufficiently aligns to religion in terms of its behaviour and effect on its adherents.

     Let’s first consider and dispense with the divine. In capitalism, there is no supernatural anthropomorphic deity. None of its creators or proponents qualifies either. Still, one has to wonder about the reverence given to certain elements of capitalist ideology. Most obvious is the anthropomorphic, supernatural invisible hand that directs commerce. While we are all sophisticated enough to believe Smith’s choice of words was metaphorical, that’s not obvious when observing the unthinking reverence given to this truism among capitalists. Moreover, why is it here metaphorical but other explanatory, anthropomorphic, supernatural instances are not? Then there is money.

     Once again at the risk of being dismissed as anti-capitalist, leftist, or whatever other “ist” conveniently deflects from the point, it is obvious that in capitalism one prays at the altar of money. This essay’s purpose is not to assess why money may merely represent good and valuable things—which it may. It would not change the fact that despite shows of valuing other things, capitalists must value money above all else. That may not be god, but it’s certainly worshipped.

Worship is another area where capitalism parallels religion as we’ve marked it out. For capitalists, not just the invisible hand and money are sacred and worshipped. To name a few in no particular order:

  • Credit. Credit is the essence and driver of both the good and bad of capitalism. While Christianity tends to frown on credit—or, more particularly, on lending at interest, it is the fundamental concept for everything capitalist, not least of which is fiat money. The word itself seems to derive from the Latin creditum, which is the past participle of the verb credere (“believe”). So credit is that in which we have faith; or, to be more blunt, in which we deposit our faith. It feels churlish to point out the obvious alignment to what, after a supernatural divinity, constitutes religion for most people: blind faith. But I suppose I did it anyway. More importantly this word choice and description elevates fiduciary responsibility to the level of faith.
  • (Self-)Improvement and Growth. The telos of capitalism parallels the progress Telos that temporarily usurped Divine Providence during the Enlightenment. Held to holy esteem in capitalist dogma is the notion of persistent growth and improvement. Ritualistic quarterly reporting season and stock market gyrations are the direct result of this sacred feature. It even bleeds beyond business into our personal mandates for personal improvement and growth. Though logically reasonable and natural, the notion of stagnation or even decline are admissions of defeat and hence profanities. This thirst for improvement blankets capitalism from Six Sigma and Kaizen at the organization level through to the billion-dollar self-help industry targeting only career and vocation improvement.
  • Worldly accumulation. The awe at and reverence for worldly accumulation is so pervasive it hardly needs explanation. But unlike the popular gawking of TMZ and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, displays and portrayal of wealth are not restricted to capitalists: they seem to reveal universal envy. As for capitalism, one instance provides indisputable proof. That is the typical annual listing and ranking of the “biggest,” “richest,” “fastest growing,” and so on that appear in business-directed media from Fortune down to the local business improvement zone newsletter. At the household level, larger houses that bulge with stuff to the point of driving a burgeoning self-storage industry ought to be more than abundant evidence of worldly accumulation down to the personal level… in the West, anyway.
  • Homo economicus. Few things are held in as much thrall by capitalists as the centrality of economics. For the economic man, nothing exists outside economics. Capitalists worship and project this core belief onto everything, permeating capitalist society thoroughly. It is an idea that may not be so much sacred as elemental, like there being no Christianity without sin. Homo economicus gives lip service to other redeeming qualities and values. But ultimately, everything boils down to dollar value. This doesn’t raise an eyebrow with the reader any more than saying, “Gravity makes things fall down.” In the absence of some heresy, maybe the lowest common denominator across domains and purposes is, in fact, dollar value. So be it. But that puts the idea on an unchallengeable pedestal. Given alternative approaches in other societies, however, this notion is not a universal. It is not actually a law or truth like those in the physical world. Yet Homo economicus and her ways are sacred. They are emulated as accepted wisdom. And in that respect, we revere and worship at the altar of economics.

     I certainly don’t want to come off as ill-mannered by taking cheap shots, but while they may not strictly be sacred, the bear and bull idols revered by capitalist stock traders certainly qualify. Maybe that bull was actually once a calf called Baal…

     While these are examples of things worshipped, without a formal and acknowledged divinity, it is hard to pin down sacred things that belong to the god. That makes it equally challenging to distinguish what is common, and thus by counterpoint, profane. Some who have weighed in say capitalism is a cultic religion and, moreover, one that by virtue of its objects has blurred if not erased the distinction between sacred and profane. Loosely, the logic is that it effectively eliminates the sacred and renders everything profane. There may be merit to the argument, but it neither contributes to this discussion nor (I think) does it matter except to a tiny coterie of academics.

     Irrespective of sacredness or profanity, all sects of capitalism have their holy texts. Not the annual deluge of words dedicated to recipes for growth, progress, or (self-) improvement, although some of these eventually rise to near canonical status. The holy texts are the ancient scriptures. In addition to The Wealth of Nations, a relatively small number of works deliver the basis and foundation for all capitalist faith. Because of its basic nature, much of it is in the form of economics theory. Economic laws—supply and demand, scarcity and diminishing returns, etc.—and the works of its pantheon, such as those by Friedrich Hayek, inform all capitalism. The application of theory to that foremost church of capitalism—the stock market—is found in various models of Benjamin Graham, Black-Scholes, and other lesser luminaries. The remainder of the capitalist corpus covers specific functional areas from management to operations to strategy to marketing, and on. For instance:

  • Frederick Taylor is appropriately revered as the father of scientific management, an evidence-based approach to primarily rooting out efficiencies in operations. In many ways, Taylor’s work was the “child” of originating theory of division of labour (another of the capitalist holy things) initially propounded by Adam Smith (a foremost apostle). On its formidable shoulders stand all other current forms of evidence-based management thought.
  • Henry Ford was both a practitioner and quasi-theorist who put the notion of division of labour into the practical environment of efficient production when he created assembly line production.
  • W. Edward Demming is often referred to as the father of quality and made his mark helping rebuild the Japanese empire after World War II before applying his theories of management to quality control that indirectly spawned TQM, Six Sigma, Kaizen, and so forth.
  • In the realm of strategy, none are revered as much as Harvard’s Michael Porter mostly for his theory of Five Forces. The framework itself is sufficiently lucid and simple for the inherent complexity of the commercial environment understood by many, and was an icebreaker for so many others with theories for strategic thought.

     There are a host of other luminaries of management thinking, categorized most typically by their areas of functional expertise. It is almost assured that I have missed critical developers of the system. And this is, of course, without adding the more contemporary chroniclers and popularizers such as Henry Mintzberg, Jim Collins, Tom Peters, Clayton Christensen, Stephen Covey, Michael Hammer and James Champy, and so on.

     Often, based on the arguments of such “theologians,” capitalism, like any other big tent religion, eventually splinters or—at least—propagates off-shoots and sects that may flourish for a while. If strong enough, these sects can even redirect the religion. Over the years, America has been the breeding ground for two, among the many, deeply influential sects.

     The first is the so-called Chicago school of economics. This body of thought that arose out of the work done by scholars associated with the University of Chicago particularly dominated capitalism in the 1980s. Among its many Nobel laureates over the years are Ronald Coase (Nobel, 1991), who wrote The Nature of the Firm and introduced the notional power of transaction costing friction; Gene Fama (Nobel, 2013), often referred to as the father of modern finance for originating the efficient-market hypothesis; Freidrich Hayek, who’s Road to Serfdom became a Libertarian testament; and, the highly influential Milton Friedman (Nobel, 1976) whose support of business-friendly laissez-faire government policy did as much as anything else to drive the radical perceptual shift toward commercial infallibility in the 1980s and 1990s as did anything else.

     The second is the more sinister/deviant Objectivist philosophy of dime store novelist, Ayn Rand. Until taken up by acolyte turned Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, the Objectivist philosophy of Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s other pulp usually overtook freshmen (and women) in college or university for a semester or two before being consigned to hold up dorm room shelving. Greenspan and the Libertarian movement that largely arose at the same time with the same fundamental philosophy, however, gave the Objectivist movement credibility and legs, entrenching the all-for-one, one-for-none philosophy of self-absorbed greed.

     It’s not our place to critique these and other sub-philosophies, only to note that they represent (cultish) branches of the main faith. More significantly, to greater and lesser degrees, they influence the capitalist faith temporarily or permanently. In these two cases, the written philosophies, aphorisms, and mentalité become acknowledged parts of the canonical literature.

     Earlier, we noted a rite or ritual of capitalism in quarterly earnings reporting. There are many others of greater or lesser relevance from place to place. Just within finance and the stock market, one can pick out initial public offering, reporting, the pageantry and spectacle of the stockholder annual general meeting, and analyst conference calls. Within the companies represented by those stocks are annual strategic planning rituals, the corporate retreat, all-hands meetings, and so many other gatherings of the fold. Less regularly a company will make a ritual sacrifice of some valuable part of the organization as a cost-cutting measure to appease the analysts—and maybe stockholders too—or to satisfy some other current pressure. When something really terrible happens, first there is ritualized denial, followed by an appeasing sacrifice of the most expendable executive. If that doesn’t work, the reigning high priest (CEO) must be cast out. All these genuflections to the stock market are in service of persistent growth and wealth accumulation.

     More broadly, the annual pilgrimage to Davos is a rite of the wider system and a ritual to feed attendees’ need for ego massage. It also is a great spectacle to show the broader audience of the faithful their faith is justified. After all, look at what the leaders are doing for them… in a luxurious mountain resort. So many other totems of the faith exist, it’s hard to choose those to include. So let’s stop here.

     Of course, capitalism spans the globe and has permeated all aspects of life. It comprises adherents in education, business, government, and everywhere in between. Admittedly, there is no formal, global leadership seat or structure like other religions, from Buddhism to Scientology. In this respect, strictly speaking, capitalism would not qualify. But that may be to put too hard a contrast on the picture. After all, the aforementioned Davos pilgrimage to the World Economic Forum is nothing else if not a capitalist United Nations or Synod. Never mind the other examples more on the nose, including the G20/G7 (particularly the Finance Minister and Central Banker sub-committees), the World Bank, the Organization of Economically Developed Countries (OECD), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and on even before recognizing that at least the world’s 500 or 1000 largest corporations bestride the globe like colossi. Each piece contributes of a part to the leadership centrality of an inchoate organization.

     Everything about global capitalism’s structure is arguably voluntary and informal. That does not by any stretch of the imagination make it any less rigorous or far-reaching. The system is distributed with each participant area contributing to the preservation and expansion of the beliefs and orthodoxy of the idea. Capitalist democracy is the link that permits politics to carry the faith, especially to other non-capitalist parts of the world. Thus faith in capitalism is carried forth by politicians within and beyond democracies. Interestingly, and supporting the contention it is effectively religious, capitalism remains a chosen faith despite both its own setbacks and failings, let alone the successes of other organizing or economic systems. “Live and let live” strains the radical capitalist mind that wishes deeply to convert the Other.

     Ultimately, the real distributed structure for the capitalist organization is the business firm. It should go without further explanation that these represent the domain of capitalism most and best. Presumably there is no need to describe the various organization structures of these component pieces. Regardless of their organization, it is here that hollow platitudes are made manifest. “The market is efficient,” is regularly espoused—even when bubbles and other irrationalities overcome the market and render it anything but efficient by any measure. But as testament to the faith that is capitalism and religious hypocrisy at work, the inefficiency-perpetuating examples of corporate welfare, tax forgiveness, grants, border duties, and so forth are overlooked or rationalized away (“trickle down economics”?) so they do not mar the faith or the full-throated Hosannas given to it.

     Remember: the essence of market capitalism is the clarifying value of unspoiled competition. Yet, the capitalist faithful use the tenets of the religion—from competitive advantage to tilted playing fields to overwhelming force—to seek and secure monopoly. All skilled capitalists want to be monopolists—and some get there—to the detriment of consumers, vendors, and—ironically—the basic creed of the faith. Everyone, actually, except shareholders. Remember that part of original capitalist dogma that said the motivation was to benefit self and the community? How exactly does hiding profits offshore square with the latter part of that?

     The corporate and government capitalist organizations derive their primary sustaining resource, the faithful, through the system of higher education. Universities, colleges, and trade schools provide the next generation of employees and supporting enthusiasts. While in the West, we are dominantly raised within the idea of capitalism from childhood, it’s not until children are prepared for their business careers that we are truly indoctrinated. The process is fairly common and well-understood by those who study cults.

     University business schools are, among the others, the dominant preparatory seminaries for the new priesthood. Irrespective of education and knowledge, it is an indoctrination. It is here the sacred texts are taught, where the rituals are passed on, that the incantations are memorized. These people will comprise, after all, the new leadership class and they must have the right grounding. Catechisms like the previously mentioned “market efficiency,” as well as others like the primacy of the private sector, cost-benefit, and the sacrilege of taxes begins here. If the schooling is successful, along with the other fashionable insights derived from psychology, statistics, mathematics, and so on the catechisms will stubbornly persistent even in the face of failure and contradiction to inform the faith-based worldview of the next generation.

     With the regularity of the seasons, CEOs ruminate about graduates that can think critically, have imagination, and a breadth of intelligence (or at least knowledge) like they don’t have among their most highly sought candidates. There is hand wringing and supplication from academia. Humanities graduates get excited. And the corporations whose CEOs pondered in the first place hire MBAs—ideally after some time fermenting at a major consulting firm. Why? They don’t mean it. While some such critical thinking, non-business school grads will gladly absorb the faith, it takes time. They have not been suitably prepared. Who knows what heresy they might propose?

     As for rites beyond those already identified and others that are doubtlessly contributory but dubious causally (e.g., competitive sports, first jobs, promotions, and performance reviews that carry informal “nudges” to support the faith and tow the line), baptism in holy credit is probably foremost. By credit one becomes both of the flock and obliged to it. It is a common tool of the legitimate and illegitimate to have others indebted. The credit card industry and Mafia are built on it.

     One could argue that consumerist culture springs from and remains rooted in the sacredness and worship of money. Reverence for money, at least by display of the things that represent it, must be done even at the cost of being indentured. A corner office, private parking, and the adoration of peers and others in the office, at confabulations like conferences, or on social media are also steps to higher status in the faith. I could go on with dubious parallels, but you get the point.

     These passages lead always upward to more privileged castes. Eventually, if lucky, the ambitious and most devout may end up near the top of an individual or global hierarchy of the faith. It should, at this point, be self-evident how all this is nothing more than a pedestrian political association. Like any other big tent religion.


     While this idea and argument has been entertaining and rewarding (not least because of the anger and disgust it is undoubted to cause among a certain cadre including many of my friends and colleagues, never mind the religious crowd that will claim I’m diminishing their faith), I believe there is value in this perspective that, once past initial recoil, astute people will want to embrace.

     If this exercise has the added benefit of being suitably insightful and holds, behaviouralist marketers who target a capitalist market audience ought to realize new lines of attack. They can and will be able to understand and align to their audience on a new basis. Those with an objective of challenging accepted wisdom of capitalism will be able to draw from history (and behavioural/cognitive theory related to religion) for precedents and patterns to influence change and development.

     Beyond capitalism, this admittedly coarse framework for analysis could also be applied to other areas such as party politics, sporting event hooliganism, and so forth. Maybe, in my wildest dreams, there would even be some small advancement in understanding religious thought and affiliation. It is, after all, nothing more than a means of understanding that has millennia of case study.

Instalment 1 of the series, Transformation of Capitalism, an introduction.

Timothy Grayson is a transformation consultant and writer who lives near Ottawa, Canada.  Find him at Institute X, a transformation leadership consultancy and transformation/change leader coaching firm. One of its online presences is The Change Playbook. Be sure to check out the abundance of practical and pragmatic guidance. Subscribe to be notified of new, fresh content.

[1]   This essay has been in the works a long time. As I add this note in mid-2018, the magnitude of late 2016 fear and loathing—especially toward America—seems to have been comically inadequate.

[2]   Again, massive underestimation as the collateral damage mounts around the world.

[3]   See the Pew studies, among others.

[4]   I choose to not capitalize the ideologies identified after their first appearance(s). This is purely an esthetic choice.

[5]   If “neighbours” is dubiously interpreted to mean “other faceless investors” in the public company, I suppose the shift is not so great as far as profit motivation goes.

[6]   Consumerism and conspicuous consumption sustain this evolution of capitalism. But that’s for another day.

[7]   Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 2001.

[8]   Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, George Allem & Unwin, London, 1976, p. 218-22.

[9]   Oddly, an ideology is an extended argument and philosophy around an “idea.”

[10]   All religions began as cults though not all cults are or become religions.

[11]   Benjamin, Walter. “Capitalism as Religion” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol 1. 1913-1926 (Jennings, Michael W. ed.) Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2004. P. 288.

Transparency demands are transparently opaque

 society, Privacy, stupidity  Comments Off on Transparency demands are transparently opaque
Mar 232023

Radical transparency is in demand; that much is obvious. Anti-vaxxers and the “Fredum” thugs, anti-business anti-government anti-[insert what bugs you here] and conspiracy theorists all demand greater transparency just in case (or because) somebody’s trying to pull one over on us.

     Of course, none of them actually believes the information provided. So there’s that.

Transparency is the new black

     I got to thinking about this again seeing Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene reveal classified information during a public committee meeting. Her unabashed reasoning was that she thought Americans should know [operational boarder information]… On another front, I’ve been seeing a lot of Sarah Kendzior’s book, They Knew (mostly as she promotes it). I believe—as I haven’t read the book—her theme is: you’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you, and I have the receipts. By her reckoning, there are provable (government) conspiracies in the USA with different, complicit participants in each instance. The conclusion is apparently that (a) “they” knew a tragedy was coming and (b) it was largely to “their” gain and at “your” cost.

     I’m not a fan of either. It goes without saying there will always be groups with privileged information they keep to themselves. In business, it’s called “trade secrets.” Investors hoard and use information for trading advantage and profit. In affairs of state there are countless reasons for keeping things opaque, shall we say. Military and defense activities among an alliance, such as NATO, is a good example. Justice is another.

     There are good reasons for this behaviour, which is perfectly reasonable and normal. Besides, information typically requires context to be meaningful and tracts of it requires skills, training, and comprehension that eludes most of those “doing their own research.”

     (Valuable) Information can resemble a Rorschach blot: (a) sure to be misunderstood; (b) revealing more about its analyst than the underlying subject; and (c) raw material to manufacture disinformation—rarely for a good purpose.

Information transparency is like a Rorschach blot, revealing more about its analyst and the subject.

What good is transparency if what it reveals is at best meaningless and at worst combustible?

Secrecy, Conspiracy, Collusion…

     Information itself and conspiring to hold it from others is not in and of itself untoward. It can be sane and sensible. We can’t all be polymaths and expert at every esoteric area of expertise. (Except, of course, Elon Musk and Donald Trump.) We don’t all have a direct say in how the government operates. We get our say periodically to elect representatives to represent us. We certainly get no say in the human resources and processes by which modern states operate any more than one-share stockholders can demand a say in corporate structure and operations. It has never happened before; it will not happen now, and; it will not happen in the future.

     The division of labour, a foundational Capitalist principle, compels us for efficiency and effectiveness to leave tasks and the necessary carrying out of those tasks, including choices about information (disclosure), to nominated or designated people.

     This bedrock principle upon which the Western, democratic world (and arguably every other part of the world) bases itself and its affairs is dependent on one of two things. In North America anyway, these are rapidly changing.

     The first is trust the second is fear. Fear, in this context, is much to fraught to tackle here, so let’s focus on trust. In a social context this is trust in institutions and the people that populate, particularly lead them. Social trust is in tatters on its way to being shredded.

     For some justifiable reasons, the populous has lost trust in the institutions of government and the representative politicians (of the other tribe). In the USA, the political tribes have fully separated and certainly the Republican party has done everything it can to actively drive mistrust of not only Democrats but government in general.

     Side note: Probably because it spends much more and has accumulated better PR, “business” luxuriates in higher levels of social trust. This is bizarre when a substantive record of how and why trusting “business” has failed the masses. But, whatever.

     Absent trust, credibility is an early relationship casualty so every institutional error is perceived as having ulterior motive. That leads to genuine withholding of information for good reasons. Thus the doom cycle commences and continues.

     Sometimes it behooves leaders of all sorts—business, government, families—to withhold information for the broadest benefit of the whole. Using a tired philosophical saw, yelling “fire” in a crowded auditorium results in pandemonium. People—in herds—responding to information they may not understand or have the tools to effectively address, are known to panic… regularly. The crowd will stampede and many will not make it out.

(This used to be axiomatic: given today’s level of “doing my own research” rejection of authority, who knows how many would rampage—perhaps for altogether different reasons—anticipating more palatable facts to surface.) A leader may not mention the fire, using a ruse or some other oblique rationale for orderly withdrawal. More people are unharmed. Is that so bad?

Transparency on what’s more cancerous than benign: Corruption

     One of those justifiable reasons for trust diminishing I mentioned earlier is the overwhelming evidence of corruption and (their tribe’s, of course) self-dealing. Withholding information, even as a syndicate, should be expected. What may also be expected but is definitely beyond the pale is self-dealing, benefitting unjustly, and harming others—those others who have given their faith to the “good faith” of those empowered. (Let’s also not restrict ourselves to politicians and governments; this applies to businesses and other organizations be they charities or labour unions or…)

     We have stumbled into the area of corruption, not conspiracy or secrecy or withholding information. The legal phrasing generally contains, “…conspiracy to….” The word “to”—not “conspiracy”—is the operative one here. The conspiracy part merely refers to a group; “to” leads to a crime.

     The issue is not conspiring or colluding or anything else until they become instrumental to implementing and executing a crime. At this point the rabble rousing and transparency demanding has a crisis: the choice forces many to create the artifice of crime out of whole cloth.

     When bankers, oil & gassers, other industrialists and oligopolists collude to maximize movement of wealth from the masses to the few, that warrants uprising. When chemical companies conspire to influence regulation or cover-up lethal toxic impacts of their making to avoid culpability, that might warrant pitchforks. When the government and the political leaders (of their tribe) self-deal by pocketing hundreds of thousands or billions of dollars by virtue of their privilege, that warrants blowback.

Competent, employed professionals entrusted with a particular division of labour, making good-faith decisions for the greatest good based on imperfect and shifting information, probably is not. Certainly anyone or any organization holding operational information without a criminal intent has no obligation to disclose all of it just because “one shareholder” wants to see it. Even government bodies.

     If there is a crime at hand, pursue the crime. Prove it. There are rules for information disclosure with provable probability of crime. (Caveat: Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s a crime. Corrollary: Just because you do like something doesn’t mean it it isn’t a crime. You know who I’m talking about.)

     Incidentally, Sarah, none of this suggests or recommends NOT being vigilant about potential crimes—especially coups d’état, which are inarguably social harms… and crime. But yeah, “they” probably or maybe definitely knew! They’re there and you’re not. And Marjorie: some things don’t need to be radically transparent just because you—loosely said—think so.

Get over it.

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