Friday, August 3, 2012

Capitalism as a Religion

Capitalism has become a religion. It is not just a good idea that people follow for rational reasons. It is now defended as a religion, by people who feel personally shocked and offended by the suggestion that Capitalism could ever be questioned.  One who feels compelled to criticize Capitalism, either in its principles or in its consequences, is regarded suspiciously and distastefully by the Capitalist believer.

Just as a good Soviet would have wanted to excommunicate anyone who thought too hard about the principles of Communism, so a good American Capitalist would wish to deport anyone who casts doubt on the sanctity of the Free market.  The religiously-tinged faith of the Soviet and the faith of the Capitalist are consistent in their irrationality and equally dangerous in their zeal.

For the American Capitalist anything that can be brought under the heading of "Free Enterprise" is categorically good, even if the it goes against common sense and tradition.  "Greed is good" according to Gordon Gekko's eloquent homily in Wall Street.  Every day on the floor of Congress, someone is standing up and espousing the glory of the Free Market and the beauty of the Capitalist Spirit, often in order to defend some proposal that they are making. And (for the most part) I do not question the sincerity of their belief.

But then I think of the actual system that we live in and its actual consequences and I wonder if we might benefit by considering a less dogmatic, less hard-line attitude toward capitalism (with a small c).  Back in the 80's it was easy to appreciate Gorbachev's large-minded reconsideration of Soviet Communism from American soil.  He greatly helped his country by prying it away from its slavish devotion to Communist principles.  But what American politician would be brave enough to question the sacrosanct Free Market Principles in this way?

All of this I say, only because it was brought to mind by reading Lewis Mumford, a cities scholar who described American life in this way:

"Life for the everyday American, under a compulsive economy of expansion, is essentially a gadget-ridden, goods-stuffed emptiness, puffed up for profit." 
                                                                       - Lewis Mumford, The City in History, p. 226

... which reminded me of a similar quote by Thomas Merton, a modern American monk who anticipated Mumford in 1948 when he wrote...

"We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest... There is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money." 
                                                                         - Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, p. 133

I close by considering the obese, video-gaming kid of today (constantly plugged in, constantly eating something, constantly asking for this-or-that cereal, this-or-that snack). The ultimate product of unbridled capitalism.  That kid makes me think about how parasitic capitalism can be in practice and how seriously we should question its principles, even if our questions may be viewed as heresy or sin by the Joseph McCarthys of the 21st century.

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