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Capitalism as a Religion

by Franz Segbers Sunday, Mar. 27, 2016 at 4:09 AM

"Capital is the only god that the whole world knows, sees, touches, smells, tastes and excites all our senses. It is the only god that doesn't encounter any atheists" (Paul Lafargue's little known genial satire "Religion of Capital" from 1887.



By Franz Segbers

[This article is translated from the German on Franz Segbers’ webpage. Franz Segbers ia a Protestant professor of theology at the University of Marburg and a prolific writer.]

I believe in

the market, the Almighty,

the creator of prosperity and happiness,

and in profit,

its only begotten son, our Lord,

conceived by liberalization,

arose out of the protestant ethic,

suffered under communism and regulation,

minimized, maximized and spared,

descended in the kingdom of recession,

rose from the bear market, and

ascended in times of boom.

Profit is rightly part of the market

of the almighty Father,

and will come

to judge the owners of capital and the wage-earners.

I believe in private maximization of advantages,

constant profitable growth,

the community of banks,

forgiveness of credits,

resurrection of shares

and the eternal business cycle.

[Dirk Kresler, The Forced Global Religion of Humankind, Notes on Religio-Capitalism. HTTP://WWW.LITERATURKRITIK.DE/PUBLIC/REZENSION.PHD?REZ_10-14504.]

A satire can first reveal the hidden and mad rationality of an economy that feels awkward like a conviction of faith in a secular society. The above satire recalls Paul Lafargues’ little known genial satire “Religion of Capital” from 1887. There we read “Capital is the god that the whole world knows, sees, touches, smells, tastes and excites all our senses. It is the only god that does not encounter any atheists…”

The other religions are nothing but lip service. Faith in capital governs in the depths of human nature (Paul Lafargue, The Religion of Capital). In a visionary way, Lafargue diagnosed: “Capital does not know any homeland or border, any skin color or race or any altar or gender. It is the international god, the universal god and forces all human children under its law (Ibid). A hierarchy of power is central, not the criticism of greed that is older than a millennium. No one can elude the pressure that starts from capital. The creed quoted at the outset formulates a conviction that is believed though not expressed. “It has taken over those functions religion had earlier for its billions of forced believers.”

In the following, I will explain how neoliberal capitalism is free4 of legal prescriptions and instead is guided by reliio-theological assumptions… It is normatively based on a religiously founded faith and in this sense is a religion.


Up to today neither the religion-disciplines nor sociology have formulated an acknowledged definition of “religions” since the dilemma persists of defining religion as a realm of the “holy” separated from society or the world or understanding religion “functionally” in the tradition of Durkheim and Parson as a complex that creates values, rituals or faith themes for the cohesion of society. Erich Fromm took up this religion term when he defined religion as any system of thinking and acting shared by a group that offers individuals a n orientating framework and an object of devotion.” [Erich Fromm, Having or Being, The mental foundations of a new society, 1976]. At the same time he formulated an ideology-critical task in showing “the nature of idols that were and still are worshipped to this day in the history of humanity.” [Erich Fromm, You will be like gods. A radical interpretation of the Old Testament and its tradition, 1989].

Religion then is in no way a system that is necessarily connected with an idea of God or recognized as a religion. In religion, the person is entrusted with an “object of devotion.”
This object of devotion could be animals, trees, an invisible God, a class, a party, money, success, the market or even a football team. Therefore religion is more than a conviction of dogmas. It orients thought and action. The all-decisive questions are political, social and ideological: What functions as religion? “Does it promote human development and the unfolding of specific human powers or paralyze human growth?” {Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, in: Collected Works, 1989}. Thus Fromm develops a criterion for clarifying what religion people confide in. Erich Fromm takes up a distinction between God and idols that was deeply at home in the Jewish-Christian intellectual tradition. “A religion that serves life worships God while a religion that serves destructive forces is idolatry” (Ibid). For him, “God” is a code for “love and justice” and “idol” is a code for a destructive “power over people” (Ibid). In the biblical tradition, the idol criterion acts as an immanent criticism of destructive religion and in no way refers only disparagingly to a foreign religion of another.


The “invisible hand” is the central metaphor for legitimating neoliberal capitalism. Only a market free from all incursions can produce optimal results. Whoever intervenes in the market – even with the best will – brings about the opposite. So the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung newspaper (FAZ) diagnosed Opel’s over-production crisis by referring to the effects of the “invisible hand” as follows: “The invisible hand cqaresses the one capiable of adjustment and kicks those who refuse adjustment” (FAZ, 10/28/2004). The US Senate subcommittee on the financial crisis concluded: “The crisis was not a natural disaster but the result of high risk, complex financial products, hidden conflicts of interest and the failure of monitoring authorities, rating agencies and the market itself” (United States Senate Permanent subcommittee on investigations: Wall Street and the Financial Crisis, Anatomy of a Financial Collapse).

Alan Greenspan who authoritatively defined American monetary policy from 1987 to the beginning of 2006 admitted this in 2008 gnashing his teeth before the congressional committee on explaining the financial crisis. He erred since he overrated the self-healing powers of the market and regarded strict regulation as unnecessary (Alan Greenspan, Zerknirscht im Kongress, In 2008 Frank Schirrmacher, editor of FAZ, uncovered the “bankruptcy of the metaphysics of the market.” The breakdown of basic convictions that theoretically and practically supported neoliberal finance capitalism is blatant.

However the paralysis over the market failure did not last long. Untouched by all criticism of the banks for causing the financial crisis, the chairman of the board of Goldman Sachs Llyod Blankfein proclaimed his faith in an invisible hand: “banks serve a social purpose and are doing `God’s work’” (Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfeinh says Banks do “God’s Work,” in: NY Daily News, November 9, 2009).

Ben Bernanke, chairman of the American Federal Reserve, remained deeply religious despite the crisis and unswervingly adhered to the marvelous effect of the free market. “When one teaches the economy, understanding the idea of the invisible hand is one of the most exciting moments… Markets are a marvelous thing” (Patrick Weiter, Federal Reserve chairman Bernanke “Markets are marvelous” in: FAZ, 8/9/2012). Colin Crouch diagnosed a “surprising survival of neoliberalism” with its “supreme creed,” letting the market mechanism rule without state or other incursions (Colin Crouch, the Surprising Survival of Neoliberalism, Berlin 2011). This surprising unswervability despite all crises can only be explained as an unswerving faith in the working of an invisible hand.


The demand for more market and less state is the real ideological center of neolIberalism. So Milton Friedman, George Stigler and Friedrich A. Hayek rising in admiration of the “invisible hand” is not surprising. So the Nobel prize winner and economist Friedrich August von Hayek urged “humility” toward market processes. “Whether people earlier submitted on account of notions that are often regarded today as superstitions is not important from a religious feeling of humility” (Friedrich August Hayek, The Road to Serfdom). The term “humility” according to its original meaning belongs to the dialectic of the relation of master and servant and describes an attitude of deep devotion and readiness to submit.

Despite all secularity of modern society, George Soros recognizes a “belief in the magic power of the market.” Some think “the public interest is best served by the unrestricted pursuit of self-interest.” How did the marvelous inversion from private interests to a public interest occur thought he “invisible hand”?


In 1926 John M. Keynes in his Berlin lecture “The End of Laissez-faire” called the principle of the “invisible hand” a “religion of economists” which served nothing but “the unlimited possibility of private moneymaking” and the “profit of the individual.” Keynes criticized the ignorance of economists. “National economists today have no relation any more to theological political philosophies from which the dogma of social harmony arose and their academic research no longer leads to similar conclusions” (Keynes, John M., The End of Laissez-faire). In his unfortunately largely unknown 1945 treatise titled “The Failure of Economic Liberalism as a religio-historical problem” called the emphasis on the “invisible hand” an “economic theology.” Trust in a universal Creator God who guides and preserves the world in his goodness with an “invisible hand” is an expression of a religiously grounded trust in a God who governs the world to the good. The theme of “trust in the invisible hand” was theological with Adam Smith and by no means merely metaphorical or pictorial.

Even if Adam Smith only used the metaphor of the “invisible hand” in two passages, this conviction occurs frequently in his main work “The Wealth of Nations.” Whoever wants to enlarge his own profit will be “guided by an invisible hand to promote a goal that he has no intention of fulfilling.” Thus a “providence” transforms self-interest into public interest since the rich “are guided by an invisible hand to accomplish almost the same distribution of vital goods that would happen if the earth were divided in equal parts among all its inhabitants and promotes them without intending this and without knowing the interests of society.” (Adam Smith, Theory of Ethical Feelings). Unhindered striving for private gain and advantages add up to the public interest through the providence of an “invisible hand.” A regime of selfishness is established that one can confidently trust. Whoever indulges his selfishness as much as possible also contributes to the social well-being.

Since the market is guided by an “invisible hand,” the ethical consequences resulting from the pursuit of self-interest are faded out. A tremendous revaluation process stands at the beginning of the modern age. People began to regard greed, that striving for material gain, as a harmless and even useful attitude. Greed or avarice was morally neutralized and even valued as personally advantageous. Therefore there was no reason to limit it. This de-stigmatization of greed broke with a barrier that all ancient philosophies and religions had erected since time immemorial. The vice of greed condemned since antiquity by the philosophers and religions was promoted to a morally innocent and even honorable occupation. Greed and the economic ally organized insatiability that we call growth today becomes a respectable motive. There is also no perpetrator or culprit. Everyone is only a little wheel in a big machine. No one acts. They all only reenact what happens anyway because a divine providence works in the world according to Adam Smith whose kindness and wisdom invented and guided the tremendous machine of the universe since all eternity so it brings forth the greatest possible measure of happiness at all times” (Adam Smith, Theory of Ethical Feelings). Since God’s providence governs, one can confidently trust the invisible hand and refrain from all interventions in the market. “The management of the great system of the universe is God’s task and not a human task” (Adam Smith, Theory of Ethical Feelings).

In his “Theory of Ethical Feelings,” Smith discusses the Stoa in detail. “The ancient Stoics were convinced every individual event was a necessary part of the world plan since the world was ruled by the providence of a wise, powerful and kindly God who promotes the general order and blessedness of the whole. The vices and follies of human are a necessary part of the plan – like their wisdom and virtue. Bringing the good out of evil is an eternal art for the thriving and perfection of the great system of nature” (Quoted in Hans Christoph Binswanger, The Faith Community of Economists. Essays on the Culture of the Economy, 1998).

A conflicting picture appears. Trust in the market comes out of the theologically established trust in the (deistic) God. But the market becomes an end-in-itself and is itself part of a higher order when the market as with Adam Smith is understood as part of an order guaranteed by God. The revival of the theory of the “invisible hand” shows neoliberalism has fallen back to the state of a religiously substantiated worldview. Binswanger points out Smith struck out all references to Christianity in the sixth edition of the “Theory of Ethical Feelings.” “Adam Smith was a believer in the sense of the Stoa, not in the sense of Christianity” (Hans Christoph Binswanger, The Faith Community of Economists). He calls economists who argue with the effects of an “invisible hand” a “Stoic faith community.”

A theologically established faith in the “invisible hand” returns with the acceptance of neoliberal capitalism. However the original context and the religio-theological connection of this idiom were not considered. Neoliberal capitalism is religio-theologically established. This means a criticism of capitalism with theological terms is appropriate and is not irrelevant or extraneous. Therefore a capitalism criticism that does not argue religio-critically ignores the central legitimation figure of capitalism and its effect. Therefore capitalism criticism as religion criticism is a mode of enlightenment. An economy based on an “invisible hand” argues religiously in an unenlightened sense, not scholarly or scientifically.


What John M. Keynes described in 1926 as the theoretical and practical refutation of the balancing effect of an invisible hand is still true. “An orthodox faith is in danger. The more convincing the argument, the greater the blasphemy” (Keynes, John M., The End of Laissez-faire). The supposed lack of alternatives in the religion of capitalism sacralizes capitalism. State regulation of capitalism amounts to blasphemy. Pierre Bourdieu also interpreted the theory and concept of neoliberalism as a utopian faith system. “Neoliberalism appears in the semblance of inevitabiolity” (Pierre Bourdieu, The `Globalization’ Myth and the European Social State, in Gegenfeuer. Resistance against the Neoliberal Invasion, 1998). People have no cjhoice. Bourdieu summarizes: “This is a religion.”

The system replaces the acting subject. This is clear in one of the statements of Milton Friedman, Hayek’s student: “Economic persons are ultimately nothing but marionettes of the laws of the market” (cf. Die Zeit, April 7, 1989). The market is determined by divine laws, not by humans as acting subjects. Milton Friedman transferred the responsibility of economic persons to the market. The market replaces acting persons as subjects of responsibility. Thus economic actors are ethically relieved as “marionettes of the laws of the market and does not act independently. In a countermove, the market is promoted as an acting subject. There is no causal agent for economic distresses or social injustices from this economic school of thought. The emphasis on “marionettes or practical constraints demoralizes and relieves from responsibility. Everyone must join in since there are no alternatives. The “invisible hand” legitimates an “irresponsibility that becomes a system” (Emil Brunner, 1932, Zurich). The market becomes the guarantee for ethically-normatively correct conduct of market actors. The economic ally-active person as a responsible subject has long abdicated. Thus the market acts like an active subject that can caress and kick and degrades the human subject to an object. The inversion of the person as historical subject to an object and the “invisible hand” to an acting subject means the abolition of the person.

Karl Marx’ criticism of religion as “opium of the people” refers to a neoliberal capitalism that demands a submission of the person under a pressure without alternatives. Capital should dominate and its central function, the infinite increase of capital, be made unrecognizable, unchangeable and unassailable. Capital should be promoted as the all-determining reality before which “the world makes a graven image and falls down before it” (Isa 44,15). Thus biblical myth criticism becomes actual in ideology criticism where people are ruled by a “work of their hands” (Isa 17,8). Criticism of idols turns against the subjugation of persons under self-created authorities like those of an economic system. The fetishism of capital can be compared with idolatry like the objective antithesis of the autonomy of capitalism and God’s liberating presence in history.

In the act of trust as a genuine religious act, a structural analogy appears between the tr5ust in God in religion and trust in money. This structural analogy occurs in the application of religious and theological terms by neoliberal theoreticians. Capitalism is religion and not merely like a religion. Its cult is capital multiplication.


Finance market capitalism is a formation of capitalism that has prevailed since the middle of the 1970s and took down previous market limiting institutions through privatization, deregulation and flexibility. The profit-mongering (Plus-macherei) was always the central desire: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!” What is new in finance market driven casino capitalism is that it wants to receive capital movements on the international capital market from dependence on the profits of real businesses. Karl Marx’ well-known formula G-W-G (money-goods-money) is shortened in finance market driven capitalism to a direct G-G (money-money) (Christoph Deutschmann, The Promise of Absolute Wealth. On the Religious Nature of Capitalism, 1999).

The economist Hans Werner Sinn said: “Germany must court business capital because innovation, growth and jobs can only be guaranteed that way” (WSM News, 10/30/2005). The financial crisis is the result of a policy that courts capital. The interests of shareholders become the only goal of economic transactions. This strategic goal ruins the profit exploitation goals for employees and “produces” precarious forms of employment like low wages, subcontracted labor, employment limited in time or mini-jobs to employment flexibly adjusted to the demands of the market. The alleged lack of alternatives to adjustment to the market reminds Christoph Deutschmann of atoning or expiating religious rituals. “As to the prescriptions of sacrifice (for example, here reduction of unemployment, there falling rain implored by the gods), the answer always consists in the demand for increasing sacrificial offerings, not in a testing of the functionality of the sacrifice (here: more wage- and social budget cuts on one hand, productivity increases on the other hand: offering additional sacrificial goods to finally pacify the angry gods). In both cases, the cause-effect chains are staged circularly and thereby are immune to empirical criticism (Christoph Deutschmann, The Promise of Absolute Wealth. On the Religious Nature of Capitalism, 1999). While capital profits are fixed at 16, 18 or even 25% despite crises, the employees become a flexible manoeverable mass for ensuring the fixed profit goal. This precariousness is essentially a social power of finance capitalist actors, not a consequence of a logic of the market that could be executed by very small businesses (Klaus Borge, Precariousness in Finance Market Capitalism, in: R. Castel/ K. Duerre (ed), Precariousness, Descent and Exclusion. The social question at the beginning of the 21st century, 2009). The pressure on the real economy and skimming off current profits have produced play money for the finance casino. In the last years, there was a massive redistribution of social wealth in many industrial states – benefiting capital profits and at the expense of mass income. The precariousness of work, the extension of working hours and the reduction of social security are real sacrifices forced on dependent employees for extra profits of shareholders.

According to Marx, the sacrifices in capitalism are wicked. The sacrificial cult does not belong to a past religious epoch. “An idol is made out of these metals (gold and silver)… to make them deities to which more goods, important needs and even humans are sacrificed than blind antiquity ever sacrificed to its false gods” (Karl Marx, MEW 13, 103). In the inaugural address of the International Workers’ Association in September 1864, Karl Marx addressed this sacrificial character of the religion of capitalism and quoted smug complacent scholars who said “every legal restriction of the workday must ring the death-bells of British industry that like vampires cannot live without blood, children’s blood. In all times, infanticide or child murder was a mysterious rite of the religion of Moloch. However this was only practical on very solemn occasions, perhaps once a year. At that time Moloch did not have an exclusive special liking for the children of the poor” (Karl Marx, Selected Writings, 1934). Thus for Marx, capitalism has become a system and the sacrificial cult is in no way an overcome pre-modern or unenlightened epoch of humanity’s history.

The trust in the “invisible hand” is a trust in a religion that has a money god. Capital and its multiplication claim an all-determining authority. The notion of self-regulating finance markets that function efficiently was refuted by the crisis. The central ideological motive of faith in the “invisible hand” is veiled. However the cynical conditions that bar alternatives and demand sacrifices can only be unmasked through a theological criticism of the religion of capitalism because the false fetishized worship of God makes possible and legitimates sacrifice for capital. At the beginning of the 1980s, theologians of liberation reacted to the disastrous effects of the neoliberal economy particularly in Latin America by unmasking capitalism as a false and destructive (church) service. Now it is time to air a theological criticism of the mechanisms of the religion of the market when the consequences are very clear in the economic and political centers.

Neoliberal capitalism is not only a religion in a metaphorical sense. It is a religion that demands real human sacrifice as inevitable. With this, religion criticism has another object. Not believing the supposed secularism of the world religion of globalized capital becomes the challenge of the enlightenment. Only an enlightenment about the economy with the means of religion helps against a capitalism as religion. In the Roman Empire, there was a Pantheon full of gods. Whoever refused the central cult, the worship of the emperor as God’s Son was persecuted like Christians as “atheists.” As Christians at that time refused the worship of the religion of the imperial cult, so they must resist today the religion of capitalism as atheists.

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