Religion in the critique of capitalism



The enchanted and the disenchanted exchanged places; the apparently enchanted has now become disenchanted and vice versa

This article intends to briefly expose the thesis of the Freudian-Marxist philosopher Adrian Johnston about the place of religion in the last two centuries in the face of the secularization produced by the exponential growth of mercantile relations. He wants to know, to put it another way, how religion occupied social space as capitalism developed. His exposition is found in an extensive article published in the magazine Philosophy Today, in 2019: The triumph of theological economics: god goes underground, a title that can be translated as: The triumph of economic theology: god went underground.

Johnston is inspired by a speech by Jacques Lacan left on the lines of his famous seminar on The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, 1964: “the true formula of atheism is not that God is dead… the true formula of atheism is that God has become unconscious”. If so, it shows that the deity's rule over society is so powerful that it can only be abandoned in appearance; when this occurs, when believers become non-believers, it will survive hidden in the unconscious of those who are now “atheists” – including in this category those who assume themselves to be agnostics and those who are due to their social behavior, but do not assume as such. More than that, Johnston maintains that the belief in an all-powerful being, when it becomes explicitly or implicitly disowned, becomes even more energetic, since now it begins to reign over social “subjects” without them knowing it.

Here is what he himself says: “My intervention (...) is especially inspired by Jacques Lacan's sober consideration of the “triumph of religion”, a motto that challenges Freud's expectations that secularization would widen and deepen [with the development of capitalism]. I argue that the socio-political phenomena of recent decades testify that religious superstructures have infused into economic superstructures. I argue that this dynamic has gone so far that contemporary humanity is now largely secular when it believes itself to be religious and religious when it believes itself to be secular.”

As psychoanalysis makes claims about the psyche of individuals and the thesis maintained by Johnston refers to society as a whole, the passage it makes from one level to another requires justification. And this seems immediate to him: as religion exists simultaneously as a personal and collective reality, it can be the target of a historical-materialist critique from the perspective of the critique of political economy. This is why the consideration of the interaction between religion and the capital system is important – as will yet be seen – to understand both the historical resilience of capitalism and certain degenerative developments of liberalism in the field of the right.

In any case, this continuity challenges not only Freud's expectations regarding the disappearance of religion, but also those of many others who lived in the historical period in which the hopes of “progress” incited by the advent of the Enlightenment prevailed. It was believed, then, mainly in European intellectual circles, that scientific and technological development would make the cult of a divine being, little by little and more and more, an exception, or even a relic of history. In any case, it is known that religion ceased to subsume society in an inescapable ethical totality, to become a matter of individual jurisdiction.

Even the young Marx and Engels did not escape believing in a progressive desacralization of society and, thus, in the overwhelming advance of secularization with the development of capitalism. And this is implicit in the way they treated the transforming role of the bourgeoisie in the Communist manifesto; behold, this social class, in their view, would be the bearer of material and cultural progress of great value to humanity: “The bourgeoisie, historically, played a very revolutionary role. Wherever he gained power, he put an end to romanticized feudal and patriarchal relations. It ruthlessly severed the different feudal ties which bound man to his 'natural superiors' and left no other link between men but cold self-interest, the unfeeling 'payment in kind'. It has drowned the holiest ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of petty-bourgeois sentimentality, in the icy waters of selfish calculation.”

Roughly speaking, in his critical work on political economy, Marx treats religion as a social reality external to the system of capital relations and, therefore, as foreign – a mere inheritance from the past – to the superstructure of the capitalist mode of production. However, it is already possible to recognize in the Smithian notion of “invisible hand”, the transmigration of God’s “visible hand” – a central element of the superstructure of medieval society that seeks to maintain itself in modernity – to the economic system in the form of a “spirit” who divinely governs it for the benefit of general prosperity. However, as is known, Marx considered the invisible hand argument as ineffective since the opposite could be deduced from the premises, but he did not see in it the insertion of the divine in the logic of the functioning of the economic system.

We floorplans, he wrote: “The reciprocal dependence is expressed in the constant necessity of exchange and in the exchange value with the mediation of everything. Economists express it as follows: Everyone pursues his private interest; and thereby favors the private interest of all, the general interest, without even wanting or knowing it. (...). Likewise, it is possible to deduce from this abstract sentence that each individual reciprocally blocks the affirmation of the interest of all the others, so that, instead of a general affirmation, the war of all against all produces a general negation”.

It is notable, however, that a mention of religion appears in the section on commodity fetishism in the first chapter of The capital. The old Marx says there that the commodity, despite appearing to be a trivial thing, contains “metaphysical subtlety and theological trickery”. However, this more than empirical character of the product of work in capitalism does not point to the concealment that is intended to be presented here. For, if fetishism indicates an enchantment of the world of commodities, this does not come from the internalization there of a divine being that formerly lived in heaven.

Differently, it consists of a real illusion that occurs in the social practice propitiated by the generalized mercantile economy, because there the agents invariably confuse the form of value with the support of this form, that is, with use value. Note, in addition, that Marx himself distinguished between the case where the products of the human hand themselves assume a “ghostly form” and the case where “the products of the human brain seem endowed with a life of their own”. Only the latter – but not the former – belongs, according to him, to the “nebulous region of religion”.

However, as Johnston notes, it is possible to argue that fetishism is a clue that leads to something that is more hidden. This is an indication and he points out that a subtle sacredness seems to be inherent in the capital system itself. Well, the latter operates through the functional actions of the individuals that compose it, but according to an objective logic that is independent of the conscience of these same individuals. Here it becomes a system that has the property of self-organization, but which does not cease to produce successive crises, which, moreover, are immanent and necessary for the process of capital accumulation to continue. In any case, it is in him that “things of value” are constantly produced.

He will, however, be an author punctually influenced by the work of Max Weber, Ernest Bloch, the first Marxist to refer to capitalism as a religion. According to Michael Löwy, in the steel cage, Bloch, in his book Thomas Münzer: theologian of the revolution, Bloch accuses Calvin of wanting to destroy Christianity by introducing a new religion precisely because he presents capitalism itself as a religion. However, it was Walter Benjamin, based on the reading of Bloch's work, who first tried to transform this accusation into a critical attribute applicable to the capital relation system itself. Behold, for him, as he recorded in a draft, it is necessary to consider capitalism as a true religion: “Demonstrate the religious structure of capitalism – that is, demonstrate that it is not just a formation conditioned by religion, as Weber thinks, but an essentially religious phenomenon – would still lead us today to the subtleties of a disproportionate universal polemic (…) Christianity, at the time of the Reformation, did not favor the advent of capitalism; it became capitalism”.

The young Marx predicted a growing desacralization of modern society, but what happened – mentions Johnston – was the opposite. What its critic par excellence conceived as a source of estrangement, became an object of mystical respect. The religious character it assumes towards alienated individuals has manifested itself in the ideology of contemporary right-wing and extreme right-wing movements. As is well known, neoliberalism, on the rise since the 1980s, deifies the economic system in order to isolate it from democratic demands.

The freedom that capitalism itself requires for its functioning is defended with religious fervor. Austerity is assumed as a duty of the State, regardless of its functionality. The system itself ceases to be seen as a natural order to be taken as a moral order by contemporary political economy. Behold, God, in Johnston's words, fell from heaven and became "underground."

To understand the sacralization of economic life itself by these movements, Johnston believes that it is necessary to rethink, without eliminating, the classic separating distinction made by historical materialism between the economic infrastructure and the social and cultural superstructure. Behold, it is not enough to identify the mode of production through its specific social relations to subsequently discover the superstructure that corresponds to it, as if they were opposite faces of the same reality. For it is not true that the first alone determines or conditions the second, but that both mutually determine each other. It can be metaphorically said that the infrastructure and superstructure of society are porous – or not complete.

In particular, the maintained traditional religion never ceases to be affected by the normativity of capitalism and this, as a system, cannot survive without assuming some character of a sacred sphere. Marx, punctually, sometimes seems to detect – says Johnston –, even in the capitalism of his time, “a supranaturalist sacredness, subtly disguised, which seems to him to be inherent to capitalism itself”. At the same time, even a fusion of economics and religion is currently manifesting itself with great convincing force in the poorest fractions of peripheral societies through the so-called “prosperity theology”. On the other hand, religion merges with politics in identity and nationalist movements that grow in developed countries.

Johnston now detects, in contemporary society, an amplification of signals that are still weak, but which were already manifested in the mid-nineteenth century. If, on the one hand, traditional religion increasingly lost the condition of normative totality that involves society as a whole and determines behavior in general, the very sphere that produces this change and engenders the dominance of utilitarian relations and, thus, materialists in the vulgar sense, that is, the growing importance of the economic sphere in social life, will become increasingly sacralized. Its normativity is secretly imperative. According to the Freudian-Marxist philosopher studied here, “this 'de-steologization' of religion and the related 'theologization' of economics has gone too far”.

Here's what he says: “At the beginning of the XNUMXst century, religion is fully present in both the infrastructure and the superstructure. An obscene and profane God inhabits the earth wearing the two faces of belligerent culturalism and arrogant neoliberalism. In an inversion – of the “turning upside down” (verkehrtes) type – between this world and the other world, contemporary humanity is now secular where it believes to be religious and religious where it believes to be secular. The enchanted and the disenchanted exchanged places; the apparently enchanted has now become disenchanted and vice versa”.

As a result, he believes that the critique of political economy must also undergo a reversal of orientation. If it was born, as is known, from the rejection of the critique of religion, maintained in Germany by the Young Hegelians, now this rejection has to be rejected. It can no longer confine itself to criticizing economic policy, the misunderstanding of capitalism's trends or ideology in favor of the market, as it also has to achieve the sacralization of the economic; not only of the double production/circulation, but also and especially of the State. “We are not yet, but we need to become economic atheists.”

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of Complexity and praxis (Pleiad).


See this link for all articles