On the Theological and Symbolic Value of Money within Capitalism
1. Three Peak Moments of Capitalism as a Religion
(1) The Gay Science: Liquidation of Christianity. In 1886, four years after the first edition of his book The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), Friedrich Nietzsche added a fifth book to the four that already constituted the work. During these years, capitalism began creating the first gigantic, transnational fortunes by means of various industrial and financial monopolies and cartels and, supported through English imperialism, became established and began to show its most triumphant face. We could say that capitalism is experiencing one of its highest moments. The first text of the fifth book is the extremely well known and oft-quoted aphorism 343 that states the following: “The most important event in recent times, that ‘God has died’, that the belief in the christian god has lost all credibility, begins to throw its first shadows on Europe.”[I will try to find the English translation of this] As is known, this is the first confirmation of the start of the purging of the concept of God in western, capitalist society. God is viewed as a dead, unusable product from which benefits can no longer be obtained. The void created by that concept within Western metaphysics and ontology was replaced by the concept of “man” or of “human life”; the long humanist tradition is being revived and its basic concepts are conserved, slightly renovated, within a series of incipient or clearly secular or atheist currents (protoexistentialism, neopositivism, phenomenology,etc.). Nietzsche’s text thus announces the triumph of atheist humanism over the theism that had been dragged along by capitalism with much incoherence and limited conviction since the end of the previous century.
(2) Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau, Mauthausen…: Liquidation of humanism. From 1934 to 1945 numerous concentration camps (Konzentrationslager) were operating. These camps were the most radical attempt within a capitalist economy to apply the laws of marketing, mass production and surplus value to the exploitation of the life and death of human beings, who were considered products or commodities. It was all about the absolute rationalization of the extermination process. Capitalism, from its insertion into practice, had here made a qualitative advance by considering prisoners of war and citizens in general as objects of economic and industrial activity, and by applying the principle of bookkeeping and management to the extermination of people. In one stroke, the nazi capitalist regime had discarded the idea of any possibility of humanism within capitalism. During the Nuremberg trials, Rudolf Hess, who designed and managed Auschwitz-Birkenau, and who took charge of the mass executions for the so-called “final solution” (i.e., he was a technocrat of capitalism), detailed with great professional pride the brilliant conception and the impeccable functioning of the concentration camp and the exterminations 1. From the point of view of economic management, the functioning of the Lager was exemplary. Capitalism had demonstrated that its dynamics of realization and profit management stood far above any humanism, and that its ethics of money and profit overshadowed any other obsolete, ethical conceptions.
(3) The “end of history” and the beginning of monetary theology. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama, an American neoliberal and neoconservative political thinker of Japanese ancestry, also highly influenced by Hegel, (or rather, by some of his late interpreters), and very close to certain American economic sectors, published the book, The End of History and the Last Man. Herein the idea that capitalist, liberal democracy (advocated by the conservative sectors of the United States), is defended as the final, necessary and irreversible stage of an inevitable, historic evolution whose fundamental landmarks have been liberalism/totalitarianism/liberal-democracy. Independently from Fukuyama’s blindness to the fact that liberal democracy also can persist as a totalitarian regime (his fundamental thesis, which paves the way for the so called “only thought” that dominates postmodern life, and which does nothing but reflect the real functioning of everything within the modern capitalist system), is that ideologies are no longer necessary and have been replaced by economic processes. Fukuyama claims to believe in humanism and in human rights, which is something absurd and in total contradiction with his own thesis and his defence of the Iraq war in the Clinton era. We will see later that such language addresses capitalism’s symbolic values, but none of its real values, which makes it belong to the most radical sectors of extreme capitalism. In any case, Fukuyama’s book opens a clear path for capitalism to rise as the dominant concept in all aspects of life, above any other ethical, religious or philosophical conceptions.
2. Walter Benjamin: Capitalism as Religion
In 1921, Walter Benjamin wrote a short essay titled Kapitalismus als Religion 2. This brilliant but brief work, which was not published in his life time, and with its simplistic character, starts with its thesis very clearly stated: “A religion may be discerned in capitalism—that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers. The proof of the religious structure of capitalism—not merely, as Weber believes, as a formation condition by religion, but as an essentially religious phenomenon—would still lead even today to the folly of an endless universal polemic” 3. Benjamin asserts that capitalism is a cultural religion in which there is only ritual or cult (economic praxis) but no dogma (ideology). This cult is permanent, such that it has no end and never has the time for rest or for the cessation of hostilities. And lastly, this rite does not have as its objective the redemption or atonement of guilt, but rather guilt itself: “a monstrous conscience of guilt that doesn’t know of any redemption changes into a cult, not in order to expiate its guilt in it, but rather to make it universal… and in order to finally capture God himself in guilt”. Benjamin is the first to see the true character of the capitalist religion as a praxis, and to understand its real scope.
However, Benjamin is unable to see that capitalism isn’t only a ritual but is also capable of creating a theology from of this ritual. Doubtlessly, the basis of monetary religion is economic transaction – the ritual – but for it to rise to the category of religion, it is necessary that something (in this case, money) occupies the ontological and metaphysical space left by god and man in Western philosophy. However Benjamin does in fact clearly see the relationship between money and myth, and how from this it could be deduced how and why money “could indeed attract so many of the mythical elements of christianity in order to construct its own myth”4. It remains clear from Benjamin’s explanation that capitalism takes elements of christianity, but ends up converting itself into its own and autonomous religion5.
3. The Value of Money: Money as Supreme Value
As we have seen, the continuous praxis of capitalist economics in increasingly extreme and global forms leads to a progressive theologizing of money as the absolute value, on which all other values are dependent. Money is in and of itself such an abstract, volatile, ethereal and evasive concept, just like that of god6: it has to do with the essential, symbolic construction of capitalism, which over time has established itself to the point of becoming a supreme being. Money doesn’t really belong to anybody: it isn’t possessed, as it may appear in principle, but rather that it does possess. Ultimately, it possesses or can possess everything, including human beings: if this is the new god, then in its name wars are being waged that cannot be called anything other than holy or sacred wars. In principle, it would seem that we are actively making use of it. In practical terms, it is money that makes use of us and of our lives, through its overly complex, incomprehensible and arbitrary oscillations, day after day, minute after minute. This is precisely the function and supremacy of gods in all religions: making use of its creatures and controlling each and every one of their movements.
In this new religion or monetary theocracy, believers are not even necessary. These are substituted by consumers, or rather, followers that are in communion with their god, whether they believe in him or not. As Benjamin already saw, dogma is replaced by ritual in the universal religion of money. In other words: the ritual (i.e. the economic transaction, the complete epiphany that makes manifest the supreme god of money) completely absorbs and devours any dogma or belief, and superimposes itself on them to the point of making them disappear. Money is the emotional depository of its consumer-faithful: hope, tenderness, hate, desire, all these feelings are steered towards money as the simultaneously abstract and concrete deification of capitalism. The act of buying and of selling is the true eucharist of this ritualistic religion, and from this, the god of money arrives and reveals himself as such the god that he is. And all gods, within any religion, have interpreters of their vague, incomprehensible and arbitrary wills. Money, always irrational and unpredictable in its oscillations, has its interpreters in the stock markets where its nearly unintelligible fluctuations are being analysed. Therefore, money, a truly all-inclusive hologram, like all deities, lives in the perpetual paradox that it is omnipresent and simultaneously, as Heraclitus would say, that it loves to hide. These stockbrokers, together with macroeconomists, ministers of finance and other various prophets are the ones who put into intelligible language the demanding will of the capitalist gods.
No doubt, this god imposes prostitution as a politically correct and universal form of relations between its subjects. Prostitution within capitalism is not an exception but rather a model and a norm. It is the actualisation of the monetary god’s power over human relationships. In the same way that the Holy Spirit guides every act of the christian religion, prostitution (the emissary or spirit of the god of money) guides each and every human transaction, whether public or private. It is, in a manner of speaking, the incarnation of god on earth, with his carnal and concrete realization. Capitalism as a religion, said Benjamin – and to the contrary of the religion that he encountered in his time, christianity – never stops producing guilt or debt (Schuld, in German) (“it is, probably, the first case of a non expiating but blaming cult”). Guilt and debt are the same word in German, and effectively, debt is the way of internalizing the monetary relationships between people, physically or legally. Debt or guilt is the foundation of a new morality of money, the moral imposed by this new god with an unknown face whose Twelve Commandments are being amplified within millions and millions of colourful bank accounts throughout the world. Thus for every action there is a debt: I have done this, you owe me this; i.e. I have done this, so you have to give me this, and this is worth so much (in cash). Debt (or guilt, that is) is therefore the cornerstone of the capitalist ritual, a religion that, as we already have seen, imposes ritual as dogma, with its own dogma being solely a ritual (economic praxis). In Benjamin’s words: “Precisely because it is striving with all its powers not to redemption but to guilt, not to hope but to desperation, capitalism as a religion doesn’t aim at the transformation of the world but to its destruction”.
The capitalist religion does not have to be eschatological: by itself it is pure eschatology. Always and forever, capitalism promises paradise in the here and now. Its believer-consumers can make use of the blessings and benedictions of that paradise at any given moment of the day. Money, as the supreme god, is the catalyst of that triumphant entrance into paradise on earth. Likewise, those who lack money, those who have deviated from the path of god, receive their immediate punishment in that hell on earth which is misery.
Today money is thus the god and the religion of billions of people throughout the world7. It is therefore the true “universal religion,” and its power is such that the other religions have become subordinate to it. Or to say it another way: no other religion can exist within capitalism which isn’t the religion of money; any other would be excluded from the realm of real values and relegated to that of nominal values.
4. Nominal Values and Real Values of Capitalism
We can distinguish nominal values within capitalism, i.e. a conglomerate of values inherited from earlier ideologies – christianity, humanism, etc. – which only function to embellish or soften those values or practices that we can call hard or functional, as well as the real values, i.e. those that work in practice. For example, a war whose aims are simply the plundering of certain resources within a certain territory (exploitation, real value) is hereby embellished as a defense of democratic or humanitarian values (nominal values). The dialectic between nominal values and real values confers a dynamic and an extreme flexibility to capitalism: it allows it to conceal its most brutal aspects and to hide behind a friendly face. This offers an essential advantage when the time comes to manipulate the masses, those who generally adhere to or are educated in the nominal values of capitalism, not in its real ones; or better yet: they are taught to give pre-eminence to the nominal values over the real ones. This allows the executors of capitalism (the owners of the means of production) to manage only the application of these real values of capitalism (the search for profit and surplus value, the exploitation of manpower, the predominance of capital over work). It also allows the existence of other religions within capitalism, whose function is only to control and domesticate the masses, since the system of beliefs, as we all know, is completely imbued with the cult and the adoration of money, and this both among the capitalists and the rest of the population, which we could call passive capitalists.
5. Towards a Society without Capitalism?
Humanity always lives under the oppression of its own symbolic creations. Money is doubtlessly the most prevalent, omnipotent, omniscient and urgent out of anything else in our society. It is obvious that only through the liberation from this symbolic creation could a definitive fissure be opened within capitalism as religion, as the prevailing system and entity. But is this possible?
The idea of a society without money presents itself to the imagination and to desire as an absolute utopia, and perhaps completely unreachable. This is due to the fact that our lives are so saturated with money from each and every one of its actions such that maybe we are incapable of imagining a life and a society without it. In other words: prostitution has been trivialized to the point of becoming an essential part of our lives. What would life be like in a society without money? Would we be able to live? These kinds of questions are surely similar to the ones a person from the Middle Ages would ask himself regarding an existence without the christian god. What is certain is that societies without money have already existed and that of course non-capitalist societies have already existed. This very simple fact – that other kinds of societies are and have been possible – ends up being impossible for us to accept on the subjective level, or in other words, on the level of beliefs. But beliefs do change and can change, and the first step, in this case, would be to understand (really understand with a total consciousness of the fact) that money isn’t anything other than a hologram created by ourselves, such that we have turned it into a god with all the unfortunate consequences that this brings.
Nevertheless, even more worrisome still is to consider whether it is possible, on the level of objective conditions, to put an end to this theocracy of money. That would imply the dismantling of a whole series of real structures and of forms of relation totally embedded within our society and in which money is the adhesive element. From my point of view, the first step would be to see the hologram as a hologram and nothing more, and not to allow it and the real values that come with it to impose themselves our daily lives. By dismantling and revealing the definitive, basic attitudes of capitalism – consumerism, exploitation, the merciless quest for profits, the primacy of the objective (capital) over the subjective, and of the idea (money) over reality – and understanding that capitalism is only an historic episode (and not the culmination of history and perfect society as its defenders maintain), we could arrive at the liberating phrase “Geld ist tot” (money is dead) as a parallel to “Gott ist tot” with which this text began. Starting from this demolition, there is the creative imagination. – that is, poetry – which needs to create other forms of relations and other types of society in which we can coexist in a much more livable and less miserable way.
This is a question of an operation for which there is no surgeon: every one of us needs to operate on ourselves first. And the surgery basically consists of abandoning the god of money, the religious adoration of money in each and every one of its petty manifestations, the god of greed, of avarice, of the desire to accumulate, of covetous ambition and desire. Once abandoned, it will be sufficient to observe what happens – what happens in everyone’s lives – to observe how that beautiful flower blooms all by itself (apart from the vileness and the decay brought on by the uncontrolled avarice for money), first, as I said, in the individual lives of people, and then in small communities that bring together those who really want an existence separate from the one that the slavery of capital (called capitalism) wants to condemn them to, and finally, in bigger communities that could function with a different type of basis for its human relationships.
(Published in Salamandra #17-18, 2008)
- 1. See James A. Owen’s interesting book Nuremberg, Evil on Trial, Headline Review: UK. 2006.
- 2. I used the German edition in Benjamin, Walter, Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt, 1985, p.100-103.
- 3. Ibid, p.100. http://backwardscity.blogspot.com/2007/04/capitalism-as-religion.html
- 4. Ibid, p.102.
- 5. Benjamin affirms, in clear opposition to Weber’s thesis over the influence of calvinism in the establishment of capitalism: “Christianity from the Age of Reform hasn’t promoted the emergence of capitalism, but has transformed itself into capitalism,” ibid p.102.
- 6. “Money, constituting itself as the sole and inexhaustible source of meaning, assimilates the formal determinants of the ways of considering tradition, transforms meaning into mathematical abstraction, and puts at its own disposal the structures of comprehension and of perception.” (Luis Navarro, Fogonazos, Salamandra, #8-9).
- 7. Luis Navaro talks brilliantly of the “nihilist monotheism of capital” (Luis Navarro, Fogonazos, Salamandra #8-9).