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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
- It created scale. Organizations now did much more, much more broadly and thus more impersonally than before.
- 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.
- 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
 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.
 Again, massive underestimation as the collateral damage mounts around the world.
 See the Pew studies, among others.
 I choose to not capitalize the ideologies identified after their first appearance(s). This is purely an esthetic choice.
 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.
 Consumerism and conspicuous consumption sustain this evolution of capitalism. But that’s for another day.
 Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 2001.
 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, George Allem & Unwin, London, 1976, p. 218-22.
 Oddly, an ideology is an extended argument and philosophy around an “idea.”
 All religions began as cults though not all cults are or become religions.
 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.