In our latest installment of “Cabinet of Subversive Books,” we consider an unfinished fragment written by Walter Benjamin that compares capitalism with religion.
“Cabinet of Subversive Books” profiles fiction and non-fiction, both popular and underground, children’s and transgressive, poetry and tomes, comic books and even romance novels. And if you don’t see one of your favorites now, don’t despair, for it might well make an appearance in due time.
Reading these books won’t get you arrested, but they will bend and distort one’s mind with wonder and titillation, and hopefully radically shift one’s thinking about civilization.
Feel free to make suggestions—I will read them and report back. But some favorites will have to be kept to myself, folks (even if suggestions are made), because an artist never reveals his most important sources.
Nevertheless, the books to be found in this series will send readers off in a number of fruitful tangents, by which they might (might!) come across my more secret hoard.
In Volume 6, we take a look at an unfinished fragment written by Walter Benjamin entitled “Capitalism as Religion,” which will serve as a primer for a stand-alone article comparing capitalism with the characteristics of a cult.
“Capitalism as Religion”
The first time I came across Walter Benjamin it was in the form of a book called “On Hashish.” I’d just finished Thomas De Quincey’s ”Confessions of an Opium-Eater,” a surrealist touchstone that detailed De Quincey’s experiments and psychogeographic perambulations about London, and Benjamin’s title, while very much in the spirt of an essay, seemed rather perfect. Then, of course, I sampled “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and other Writings on Media,” which treated the effect of media on culture. In that sense, he was something of a precursor to Jean Baudrillard or Guy Debord.
Benjamin reveals himself to the reader as a very capable and dynamic thinker and essayist, and Death and Taxes readers would do well to seek out his writings.
One of Benjamin’s little known essays, perhaps because it is a mere fragment, is “Capitalism as Religion.” Benjamin might well have intended to extend this into a full-blown essay, maybe even a book, we do knot know for sure. As fragment, however, it still has a well of power that can be drawn upon by the reader.
He begins without equivocation, and this will certainly send a number of panties all a-wrinkle, and I’m guessing, not a few readers’ brains will short circuit on account of their passion, and not proceed. So be it.
Benjamin writes, “One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.”
What could he mean by anguish, worries and disquiet? Well, it occurs to me that Benjamin is suggesting the fear of poverty, of being driven into the ground by civilization, of life being terrible, meaningless, depressing, burdensome, etc., can all be neutralized by a very subtle form of worship of a system that can lift one out of the purgatory. That allows one to transcend from a lowly realm toward something approaching paradise. Where God once provided, capitalism now does, and with easily quantifiable results.
Benjamin provides three characteristics of capitalism’s religious structure.
“First, capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was.” Priceless. “Within it everything only has meaning in relation to the cult: it has no special dogma, no theology. From this standpoint, utilitarianism gains its religious coloring.”
Certainly, if we look back to capitalism’s early form in mercantilism (the birthplace of the corporation), and proceed up to our present time with mixed economies and state capitalism, we have five hundred years of capitalist religion applied to bloody effect. We often speak of the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, unleashing thousands of years of bloody conflict through warfare and religious genocide; but, we forget that nearly half a millennia of capitalism has wrought an equivalent level of blood and destruction, from colonialism to world wars and other lesser conflicts. Then, of course, there is the capitalism’s most extreme variant, fascism, as embodied by the Nazis, which was a response to communism—but capitalism at complete service to the might and glory of the nation.
Benjamin, however, might be wrong in suggesting that capitalism does not have dogma—private property would seem to be the exception here. Property, land or product, allows for all manner of acts to defend it and expand its reach.
We might also say that the idea of exponentially growing economies, with GDP as the scale, is particular to capitalism.
But Benjamin is right in saying that nothing has meaning except within the cult—all alternative theories, all complaints, all flaws, everything that does not serve and glorify capitalism, is rendered irrelevant and destructive to the religion of capitalism.
And Benjamin did not live long enough to see how evangelic Christians and their political candidates have sought to convince the masses—not that they need much convincing anyway—that Jesus Christ wants you to have abundance: wants you to have abundant money, property, possessions, etc. At the very least, it would have proven to Benjamin that capitalism had not truly discarded religion, but instead absorbed it and regurgitated it for its own ends.
However, he did suggest that Christianity, during the reformation, had transformed itself into capitalism, using many of its symbols, such as on currency.
Benjamin writes, “This concretization of the cult connects with a second characteristic of capitalism: the permanent duration of the cult.”
This is critical—anyone living within a capitalist system and convinced of its greatness cannot imagine an ending. Then, of course, there is Francis Fukuyama and all his acolytes who argue that the capitalist republic (I will not call it a democracy) is the endpoint of civilization; that is, there will be no further evolution. We have reached the most perfect form of civilization possible, even with its flaws. The battle for systems of living, of economies, is over: capitalism is endless and eternal.
It’s interesting to consider that God’s endlessness, his eternal state of being, is transmuted into a theoretically eternal economic system. We should at least give credit to the authors of the Bible who had the imagination to describe God as the alpha and the omega. To create a boundlessness to the narrative. Capitalism, on the other hand, can never claim alpha and omega status—like God, it was a creation of man, and a rather recent one at that.
As to capitalism’s eternal quality, my guess, no, the truth here is that the Earth will have something to say about Fukuyami & Co’s endpoint when it can no longer provide all that it has ever given us. The system will break down under the weight of its inherent flaws. Unless, of course, all these capitalist theorists can devise a way around the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Entropy, which states that perpetual motion machine don’t exist; or, to put it in layman’s terms, the fuel on which civilization runs will eventually run out.
“Third, this is a cult that engenders blame. Capitalism is presumably the first case of a blaming, rather than a repenting cult. Herein stands this religious system in the fall of a tremendous movement. An enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult, not in order to repent for this guilt, but to make it universal, to hammer it into consciousness and finally and above all to include God himself in this guilt, in order to fully interest him in repentance.”
It seems that Benjamin is suggesting that the worship of God is to blame for the despair in the world.
Benjamin adds, “Therein lies the historical enormity of capitalism: religion is no longer the reform of being, but rather its obliteration. From this expansion of despair in the religious state of the world, healing is expect.”
In other words: God will not heal—capitalism will.
And the fourth characteristic? “[I]ts God must be concealed and may only be spoken of in the zenith of his culpability. The cult becomes celebrated before an immature deity, [while] every image, every idea of it injures the secret of its maturity.”
Translation: Capitalism’s flaws must be concealed.
What could possibly be a truer indictment of its high priests?