Is capitalism the true world religion

Capital and religion

Sociology claims to examine social reality as impartially as possible - a perspective that tries to free itself as far as possible from the valuations that are always associated with participation in life. Ethical values, including religious belief systems, should also be viewed from this external perspective. How is that possible? Even sociologists do not live on the moon, but in the middle of society; what they do is itself part of the social processes that they observe. This creates the problem of how we as sociologists can justify our claim to observe society "from outside".

Ultimately, this claim seems to amount to the self-contradiction that we cannot be observer and object of observation at the same time, that the eye cannot see itself. We are faced with the dilemma that we can never see our object of knowledge - society - as a whole. The perspectives from which we observe society are themselves always influenced by the respective historical and social context in a way that we cannot control.

Approaches to Overcoming Subjectivity

The monotheistic religions try to solve this problem by constructing a transcendent and transcendent observer. By taking God's perspective on ourselves, we are able to recognize our collective identity, our true selves, even beyond the limits of our individual lives. Of course, this solution amounts to a logical "leap" (theology calls it "faith"). Behind the idea of ​​God there is in fact nothing other than a society that cannot be observed for itself; our "guilt" towards God is nothing else than our guilt towards ourselves.

The observer and the observed are in fact identical, but this is not permissible according to the rules of normal use of reason. The core of the Enlightenment criticism of religion in the 19th century (Feuerbach, Comte, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) lay in the uncovering of the projective character of the divine being. Their understanding that with the human authorship of religion and its institutionalization, the highest earthly rulership interests of its bearers come into play. In addition, the world religions have in fact never lived up to their claim to represent the conceivably universal other of society.

Both Christianity and Islam make a universal mission claim. But their cultural creative power has in fact only penetrated to the level of civilizations; they have not yet been able to create a world society. Regardless of their missionary ambitions, none of the world religions can claim to represent humanity. They set themselves apart from one another and can create even more irreconcilable contradictions between the cultures and civilizations they have shaped. "For what applies to nations", as Friedrich Wilhelm Graf puts it, "also applies analogously to religions and denominations: no strong identity without a clear enemy image".

If it were up to the Enlightenment critique of religion, the way out of these conflicts is obvious: People should free themselves from false projections and reflect on themselves; they should learn to make their own story not only objectively, but also subjectively. However, as much is clear today, these slogans could not offer a solution either, because they only shorten the epistemological dilemma mentioned at the beginning to the other side. They don't change the fact that people depend on mirrors, on projections.

Who is "man", who is "society"? “The 19th century,” writes Helmuth Plessner, “tends to be unmasked because it has lost its religious hold on Revelation. Only it does not look for a hold on the new truth in a hereafter behind things, but on this side of things, in front of them, in people. All criticism of Revelation works in such a way that it places historical circumstances and historical authors in the place of the divine author and seeks the source of the initial deception in man. Every new attempt at unmasking digs in the same direction for an even more original source of deception, suspects every face as a mask and searches behind all masks for the real face «.

Marx's thesis of capital as a religious power

When the religious mirror falls, society must find new mirrors for itself: scientific, national, biological, anthropological, sociological. But Plessner does not mention the most important of these mirrors, namely money transformed into capital. My thesis, following on from Marx, is that money, which has become universal in modern capitalism, has long outgrown its supposedly harmless "economic" role. As capital, it has taken on the function of representing society as a totality, which in premodern religion belonged to.

With the concept of capital, Marx means, as is well known, the extension of the money nexus or the commodity form of finished products or services to the prerequisites of social reproduction itself: the soil, nature and above all free human labor. Markets for goods and services have existed almost at all times, but it was only in modern European times and especially since the beginning of the 19th century that labor (not slave) markets as well as land markets have developed on a broad scale. The social anthropologist Karl Polanyi later coined the expression "Great Transformation" to mark this epochal transition. The market and with it the commodity-money relationship thus acquire a comprehensive character that mediates the entire process of social production and reproduction.

The transformation of the labor force into a commodity is of particular importance. For Marx, work is not just an economic but a socio-theoretical concept. It does not only mean industrial work, but work in the broadest sense, just as we use this term in everyday language: physical and intellectual work, male and female work, manual, artistic work and so on. The series of working terms cannot be closed, because ultimately it is about the theoretically never catchable process of mediation between the physical and biological world on the one hand, and the symbolic world on the other, which first creates the social reality of human beings.

The two worlds do not simply exist side by side, nor can they be resolved either on the physical-biological or on the symbolic side. Rather, they are only constituted by their difference, their only processual center, which is what constitutes work. Thus one can read Marx's position, which is certainly incomplete and in need of interpretation, in the early writings, and this is how Plessner will later argue with his thesis of the "eccentric positionality" of man.

When this intermediary activity is currently or potentially subject to the regime of money - and not only objectively (as in the case of slave labor) but also subjectively in the form of modern wage labor - then money does indeed become something like a "mirror." «Of the social process of reproduction and, conversely, makes this process recognizable as human self-reproduction. Money that is not only exchanged for finished goods, but for free labor itself, and which also controls the land, which controls nature, becomes capital.

On the one hand, it makes the unity of the social process of reproduction visible, and in the first place allows us to speak of "work" in the general sense, as Marx emphasized in the introduction to the "Grundrisse". On the other hand, thanks to control over labor capacity itself, it becomes a universal "capacity". Everything could be different, the only question is, at what cost and with what profit. Georg Simmel will later speak of money as an "absolute means" which, precisely because of its indifference to any concrete end, grows into an absolute end. In other words: as capital, money assumes the same function of representing society as a totality that religion performed in the premodern era. In this sense one can speak of a "religious" function of capitalism.

Similarities and differences between capital and religion

The technical term “function” is used here for good reason, because its methodological meaning is that it enables comparisons and invites comparisons. So how do financial assets or capital and religion resemble each other in the way they represent the unity of society and how do they differ?

The problem of the self-representation of society is solved by capitalism in a different way than by religions: not by projecting a supernatural and supernatural reality, but by dynamizing earthly reality itself. Reinhart Koselleck has shown that the early Christians were still waiting the second coming of Christ and hoped that the waiting time would be as short as possible.

In modern capitalism, people take the shortening of time into their own hands. The dynamization extends not only to the time dimension, as Hartmut Rosa suggests with his concept of "acceleration", but also to the factual and social dimension. It's not just about efficiency, i.e. the manufacture of the same products in an ever shorter time, but about the constant invention of new products, new needs, new ways of life.

In order to remain intact as a social formation, capitalism must always produce new technical, social, cultural "revolutions". In order to prepare for these revolutions, he has to stage ever new consumption fashions, ever new production, organization and communication myths.

What drives these innovations is not the much-invoked economic "factual laws", but a kind of utopia: the utopia of absolute wealth, the exhaustion of the possibilities of social work. Capitalism is a religion of man who tries to find himself by overcoming existing forms of existence through ever new "creative destruction". Every generation has to prove again and again that it is we ourselves who create this world; even individuals have to keep "reinventing" themselves. Creativity is no longer free activity, but an imperative of religious unconditionality: Salvation is no longer in a transcendent goal, but in the process itself.

Like religions, capitalism also establishes a universal moral order, but again a completely different kind than that of traditional religions. The focus of capitalist ethics is not on compassion for one's neighbor and responsibility before God, but on an almost absolute individual claim to property.

This claim is linked to a utopia that could hardly be stronger: If I only have enough financial assets, then I "can" do everything that humanity can do; I can buy all the goods in the world, including health, education, beauty, maybe one day even immortality, as the biotechnology prophets promise us today. At its core it is an egocentric, not just "hedonistic", but even "narcissistic" ethic. To be sure, the capitalist owner is objectively by no means independent of the others - above all, of course, of those who have to do the work; on the contrary, this dependency is greater than ever before.

But the moral reflection of this dependency is reduced to the civilizational minimum of the elementary rights to life and property, at least the fictitious ownership of one's own labor. The global market is not a completely moral and legal free system; whoever exchanges does not kill the other person or simply takes his property away from him. But all further claims to justice are irrelevant at the level of the overall system. It is this indifference to local and national institutions and moral orders that has undoubtedly made the development of capitalism as a global order much easier.

But that's only one side of it. On the other hand - this has often been said - a society that is held together by nothing but the market would be unthinkable. Such a society would result in a "crass utopia" with destructive consequences in practice, as Karl Polanyi rightly emphasized. No society can function without the social and moral embedding of the economy. Capitalism therefore remains dependent on a core set of traditional moral and institutional orders, including traditional religions, which ensure a higher level of social integration in society.

But the problem with these orders is that they are almost without exception "subglobal", that their scope is limited to the level of states, at most state associations or civilizations. Therefore, they remain vulnerable to the global utopia of capitalism and the dynamics it creates. For the owners of capital operating at the global level, there is always the option of exploiting differences between local and national social systems to a profitable extent. This dynamic leads to an ever new undermining of these orders and creates a state of constant unrest in which even religious values ​​are only valid for a while.