I have been listening again to an excellent podcast in the ‘speaking of faith’ series, where the theologian Harvey Cox explores how those who believe in capitalism, attribute to the market, the same beliefs that some call faith.
In 1999 he publishing a widely discussed article in the Atlantic Monthly in the States which he entitled ‘the market as God’. A friend had said to him, ‘if you want to know what is going on in the real world, you should read the business pages.’ So he did read the business pages, and to his surprise he found himself in the land of deja vous. The lexicon of the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and News Week seemed to make a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans and St Augustine’s great work, City of God. They revealed a strong sense of having a grand narrative. They analysed what was going wrong, and what was needed to happen to put things right again. A form of religion where the God was the market.
Followers of capitalism hold firm to a confidence or faith that the market will solve all things. Just leave it all to the market, and it will work things out; in the long run everything will turn out fine. They articulate a belief in Adam Smith’s belief in the market as the invisible hand, and nothing should obstruct the forces of this invisible God. Those in the business world don’t call it faith or belief – but functionally it is very close to the same thing. It has its own rituals, its own priests, its own transcendent framework. So the market becomes God, the great adjudicator for all things.
This all sounds very familiar. This is the language of my own father and his wife. To my Dad, the market is God, where the prosperity of humanity is subject to the greed, stewardship and decisions made on trading floors, in stock market halls and in banks. This is a secular God, where the wheels of divine providence are created in prices and exchange rates. There are, as we have seen recently (and to the shock of many), big floors in this religion.
Firstly, the belief is centred on fate, and the inability of people and governments to shape human justice or destiny in any form. In fact it is extremely dehumanising and oppressive, because humanity is little more than a pawn in the great wheels of the global market. The only thing to do is to face your oppression and seek to be entrepreneurial where there is no other power to contribute. This leaves people feeling extremely anxious in a consumer market, where the consumer becomes God’s representatives and at the same time an individual with no power amongst millions of other people.
Secondly, the system is dependent on growth, an endless context of demand and supply. But the truth is, we don’t live in an infinite environment, we live in a fragile world where what we take has a profound and serious affect on the social, political and environmental finite world. So a system based on infinite expansion in an finite planet is always going to lead us to trouble. No surprise then that we face environmental catastrophe, as Capitalists need to face the real world of limited and finite supply.
So in this credit crunch, many have had to face up to the fact, that this invisible God of the market, may be little more than an idol to a lie. A lie that threatens the very survival of our planet and our common humanity.
The Church has for centuries colluded with this infinite market. The protestant work ethic, after all, contributed to the creation of capitalism. So how do we live in a market economy but not of a market economy? How do we live responsibly valuing our call to stewardship of the finite resources of our world, but promote social entrepreneurialism? I for one would again raise the importance of a ‘mixed economy’. Of both non-market parts to life alongside those driven by the modified market – like, for example, the need for the nationalisation of water, electricity and gas – to decrease costs by the economies of scale, and better planning, whilst allowing a regulated market system.
So how do we do this? Well, I believe we can do this on a micro level, in the belief that bottom-up approaches will enable macro opportunities to develop. But – we need to get away from things like the National Lottery and the idea of the market as miracle working. These are fantasy, and by the way, create addiction for the poor who seek to escape poverty by a dream which statistically will never come true. No – the alternative is hard work, but one where balance can create a healthier world to live in.
So, we need to reveal the invisible hand of the market God, to be little more than an impostor and an idol, that can blind people to the truth of this semi-religious lie.