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Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin
25 November, 2014Posted by on
The allegation that Christianity worships money has a deeper meaning than the truism that the church is after money. Actually, it is the institution of money that needs the church.
According to Walter Benjamin, Christianity has reached the point where it has turned itself into cultic Capitalism. Contending against Weber’s thesis that Capitalism draws from protestant ethics, he held that, on the contrary, it is now Christianity that has become incumbent on Capitalism. “Capitalism has developed as a parasite of Christianity in the West…”, but now “Christianity’s history is essentially that of its parasite”. Walter claims that Capitalism as religion is purely cultic, and, therefore, capable of accommodating every particular dogma.
One has only to watch the ubiquitous ritual of tithe and offerings in order to ascertain Walter’s intuition across sectarian differences. The passing up of the collection plate mimics the passing down of the communion plate. Just like with the sacramental bread and wine, the money is consecrated by prayer and liturgical reading into an external sign of grace. The offertory is a parody of the Eucharist.
According to Emile Durkheim, the hidden purpose of any religious ritual is to seed the political ideals of the establishment into people’s minds. Far from being a response to grace, and a participation in its ministry, liturgical giving aims secretly at reinforcing faith in money as an absolute. Money is the Incarnation of God.
Back to Walter Benjamin: “Capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.” Nevertheless, in the era of bubble economies and shaking currencies, Capitalism can no longer accomplish this purpose without the aid of explicit religion. That is because, contrary to the classic thesis that Capitalism has substituted immanence to transcendence, a return to transcendence and faith has become essential for Capitalism today.
In order to understand this shift, let us first return to Weber’s classic definition of Capitalism as as the historical product of Calvinism. His favorite example was a quote from Benjamin Franklin:
Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.[…]Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and three pence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.
“Time is money” sounds like an ontological parody. After all, living in time is the very essence of being human. The same goes for the sentence: “Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature”. Money is extolled here as a creative power, with an allusion at the original blessing of Genesis: “be ye fruitful, and multiply”. Money is attributed the ontological predictions of God.
And yet, too many of our problems spring from that “prolific, generating nature” of money, so enthusiastically expounded by Franklin, briefly: Capitalism. The analogy that comes to our mind today is rather that of a virus attacking its host, rather than the Genesis blessing of all creation. Capitalism is destabilizing society and destroying nature. It is a virus that has infected the very core of human existence: time. Time is no longer the experience of conscious living. Time is money.
Paradoxically, it is exactly this new ontology that has turned economic discontent into existential anxiety. Far from satisfying “the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion”, Capitalism is now the object of doubts and blasphemies once reserved for God. A simple Internet search for the keyword phrase “does money exist” will show that demonstrating the existence of money has become as elusive a task as demonstrating the existence of God. Every argument for the existence of money goes down to the so called ontological argument, which relies on metaphysical reasoning rather than hard facts. Consequently, criticism of Capitalism is no longer the criticism of free market economics, but of its metaphysics.
Let us review briefly the ontological argument. The classic version was elaborated in the eleventh century by the Benedectine monk and Archbishop, Anselm of Canterbury. It consists in a syllogism based on the premises that, first, God is the highest being to be conceived and, secondly, whatever exists must be necessarily greater than its concept. The syllogism added up to the conclusion that God must be necessarily greater than what we conceive of him. So God cannot not exist.
Anselm was aware that the theological argument made no sense from the perspective of simply common sense. Therefore, he warned against using such reasoning outside the realm of pure ontology.One has to master the scholastic distinction between contingency and logical necessity. Something may or may not exist contingently. Ontologically, something is either logically necessary or logically impossible, like in Euclidean geometry. God is an ontological concept.
Now, let’s draw the parallel. First, money is defined as the highest desirable good. Secondly, money is argued to be pure necessity, beyond tangible currencies and fluctuations of buying power. Money cannot not exist. Capitalism is an ontological concept.Therefore, It is not by accident that Immanuel Kant substituted “money” for “God” as the variable in Anselm’s equation, as part of his demolition of metaphysics. “A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers” contented the German philosopher. Critics have accused Kant of ignoring Anselm’s distinction between the necessary and the contingent. Actually, he might have chosen his example exactly because money blurs such distinction. As Franklin says: “He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds”. Unlike Kant, Franklin thought that the real one hundred thalers represented much more more money than the contingent one hundred pieces.
Kant’s pecuniary illustration shows that, just like faith in God, faith in money cannot rely on metaphysics. The medieval Church did not preach the ontological argument but reinforced its beliefs through sacraments and rituals. Similarly, modern Capitalism needs a cult of money to reinforce faith in it. “Compare de holy iconography of various religions, on the one hand, with the banknotes of countries, on the other”, argues Walter Benjamin in Capitalism as Religion (1921). According to St. John of Damascus, an icon is a “channel of divine grace”. However, an icon is not an icon until consecrated by the church. The purpose of the ritualised collection of tithe and offerings is to consecrate money as channel of grace. In other words, the accidental dollar bill becomes consubstantiality with ontological money.
This sacrament of money is actually the reenactment of the dark side of the Lord’s Supper: the betrayal of Judas. The consecrating words would be in this case: “quod facis fac citius” (“that thou doest, do quickly”). In other words: “be ye entrepreneurial”. Just like in the gnostic Gospel of Judas, where Judas is selling Christ in obedience to his secret instructions, the entrepreneurial church performs the rite of betrayal as an expression of the Capitalist gnosis.
17 April, 2014Posted by on
Karl Marx is back. The specter is haunting again. The Capital appears to be vindicated by the crisis of global capitalism.
I will leave economics with the economists. My interest is only in one single aspect of the global market: the cancerously thriving market of postmodern religion. Like every other cancer, it progresses toward the destruction of its own host. The ultimate victim of commodified religion will be religion itself. In order to decode the symptomatology of this process, I will conjure – to use one of Marx’ favorite cliches – the ghost of the young Marx.
This brings certainly to mind the predictable truism ‘religion is the opium of the people’. Below is the full statement as it appears in the Introduction Marx’ project-book, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.
In the preceding paragraph, Marx notices that “the criticism of religion has been essentially completed”. This ‘criticism’ consists in a secular version of Christianity, attempted by Hegel and Feuerbach.
Hegel developed his religious philosophy around the concept of alienation. The alienated spirit represents human reason that cannot recognise itself in the authoritarian institutions and dogmas of its own creation. While Hegel defines alienation as a condition of every religion, he nonetheless discriminates among various degrees of religious alienation. In this respect, he notices that: “the objectivity of the deity increased in direct proportion to the increase in the corruption and slavery of man, and this objectivity is in reality no more than a revelation, a manifestation of the spirit of the age”. Once the age that has given birth to certain deities or canons passes away, they will turn more and more into abstract and authoritarian traditions. The alienated humanity is no longer able to recognise himself in his own creations.
Ludwig Feuerbach operated a sort of materialist inversion of Hegel’s concept of alienation. To him, the objective deity was no longer the universal spirit lost into externality. It was rather a psychological projection of man’s latent potential. Marx endorses Feuerbach’s inversion. “Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again”. Yet from this point on, he parts with Hegel/Feuerbach and develops his own theory of alienation.
To Marx, the origin of religious alienation was not to be found in religion itself, but in the state of society. “This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world”. One recalls the scene in “The Dictator” where Chaplin unknowingly flies the plane upside down. He cannot make sense of the anti-gravitational properties of his watch which keeps pulling up (actually falling down) from his pocket. The scene is an innuendo at the “inverted reality” of nazi Germany, where the ‘miracle’ of national resurrection was a distorted perception of the national catastrophe. Downfall presents itself to the upside down humanity as a soaring toward the otherworldly.
This raises the question of what has generated such an inversion of reality? Marx contends that human alienation is the byproduct of the division of social labour. Man acts only as an atom in the production of everything: food, culture, state, religion, ideas, etc. Consequently, he cannot recognize himself in the world of his own creation. He projects his creative powers on the gods that become the object of his disempowered petitions. On the other hand, he perceives himself as an object, rather than as a subject of this estranged world.
At that time, Marx could only advance his thesis on a speculative basis. We know better than him. Human nature has formed itself in Pleistocene. We have discovered its early imprints in cave art. Contrary to preconceived assumptions, cave art is not the product of shamans. It was created by people, mostly teenagers, of both sexes, without any religious connotations. It reflects pure curiosity and creative play. (Guthrie, R. Dale. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2005). It comes from an egalitarian society with no division of labour or gender segregation. The span of time covered by cave art is six time longer that the whole history of civilisation. Prehistory is the real history of mankind. It shaped what we are. The agricultural revolution, with its society based on class division, private property, institutionalized religion and family, was contrary to human nature. We are the alienated adventurers and cave artists of the paleolithic.
Marx transits from anthropology to political economy when it comes to capitalism. The problem with capitalism is, according to him, a process of production which is not subordinated to the real needs of the producer, but to the reproduction of the capital itself. The system has to create the market, the producer, and the need, rather than satisfy the real needs of the real people. The reality distortion consists in the fact that humanity objectifies himself in commodity and its abstract expression, money. The value of objectified humanity is given by the game of the marked, rather than by humanity itself.
The process requires religious faith in the ultimate value of money. “Compare de holy iconography of various religions on the one hand with the banknotes of countries, on the other” (Walter Benjamin. Capitalism as Religion, 1921). ‘In God we trust’ is such a profession of faith. Erich Fromm identifies the religious character of capitalist alienation in the Old Testament denunciation of idols. “The whole concept of alienation found its first expression in Western thought in the Old Testament concept of idolatry… man bows down and worships things… He has become estranged from his own life forces… and is in touch with himself only in the indirect way of submission to life frozen in the idols”. (Erich Fromm. Marx’s Concept of Man, 1961). It is in light of the cultic nature of capitalism that Marx’ gloss over religion as the opium of the people reveals its deeper meaning. His point is rather that of Martin Scorsese’s in The Wolf of Wall Street. “Of all the drugs under God’s blue heaven, there is one that is my absolute favourite,” declares Leonardo DiCaprio’s as Jordan Belfort. The rest of the drugs – and you see all of them in the movie – are only catalysts for the intoxicating effect of money. Erich Fromm defines this psychedelic effect “intense, yet cold excitement built upon inner deadness or, if one would want to put it symbolically, it is ‘burning ice’” (ibid). It is this ‘icy’ character that makes the other drugs necessary.
In the same way, false religion itself is acting as a catalyst, like ammonium in cigarettes, or calcium carbonate in crack. It provides theological legitimacy for the commodified illusions. Take tithing for instance. Behind the anti-materialistic facade of selflessness, tithing reinforces the mystification of money, as God himself needed it. Like paying for sex, paying oneself into a relationship with God is a form of human alienation. The prosperity gospel is itself the ultimate example of bubble economy.
“The imaginary flowers on the chain” the “fantasy or consolation” that make it bearable are no longer the otherworldly ‘fantasy and consolation’ of the Middle Ages. They are now the worldly ‘fantasy and consolation’ of the market. “Capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion” (Benjamin). This is true even when it comes to the otherworldly in our days. They are not relics of medieval faith, as commonly assumed, but rather commodified fantasies produced by religious assembly lines, to satisfy the scientifically surveyed and artificially engineered needs of the religious market. They are another bubble economy.
The implicit affirmation of true religion reveals itself in the the first line of the paragraph containing the ‘opium’ statement. “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering”. Unlike the ‘the imaginary flowers on the chain’ the palliative ‘fantasy and consolation’ that deadens the awareness of human condition, true religion is tragic. It embraces human suffering and the dilemmas of its age. Marx rejected the emasculated atheism of the Young Hegelians as inferior to the religion of common people because the latter was rooted in real suffering. “In then linking itself to suffering, Marxism made contact with and drew upon religion’s principal source of power, now making it available for its own development.” (Alvin W. Gouldner, The Two Marxisms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). The revolution originates in the same depth of human suffering as does the ‘opium of the people’.
The task of revolution is not to destroy religion but to liberate it. “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.” It is what Max Weber called ”religions of salvation whose central theme is the restoration of human unity through brotherhood”. The living flower is true religion. We will never pluck it unless we first destroy the imaginary flowers and breack the chain.