Capitalism in the Faith Crisis

by Franz Segbers Monday, May. 08, 2017 at 11:05 AM

Trust in the "invisible hand" is a religious exercise ensuring a rule over people that is destructive and fatal. Christians and Marxists wage a common struggle against the spirit, logic, and praxis of the false money-god and its servants.


By Franz Segbers

[This essay published in a 2010 Rosa Luxemburg anthology on theology of liberation and democratic socialism is translated abridged from the German on the Internet,]

No one speaks any more of an "end of history" that was proclaimed twenty years ago with a victorious howl. Instead what was already immense at that time twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall was repeated intensively: the crisis-proclivity of capitalism breaks out in a severe economic and financial crisis. The economic system praised as victorious has failed. The traces of devastation can be seen worldwide. Argentina, Mexico and Southeast Asia were the first countries where the crisis-proclivity of finance-market-driven capitalism was manifest. Now the crisis devours its children in the US and Europe and from there infects the countries of the South. "Believers are running away from capitalism" (Freitag 47/2009). So Michael Kratke summarizes a worldwide study on acceptance of the market economy. The slim majority of the surveyed are convinced capitalism is shaken but can be reformed within the system and through more regulation. Turning to Germany, only a minority of 16% are diehards insisting capitalism is unbeatable – less than in the US but more than in Great Britain (13%) or France (6%).

How can it be explained that neoliberalism has even intensified in a black-yellow garb rather than withdrawn despite its obvious failure and disaster? Hans-Jurgen Krysmanski has analyzed the mechanisms and functions of the financial power complex by which a small minority of super-rich hoard wealth and power as in the times of feudalism: "In its center, there is a linked ultra-rich clientele that has grown historically. This clientele is surrounded by corporate and financial elites who explore and investigate new possibilities of capital accumulation benefiting this clientele. Political elites transport social wealth from bottom to top as quietly as possible" (H-J.Krysmanski). According to a 2008 study of the World Institute for Development Economies Research (WIDER) of the UN, the richest ten percent of the population possess 85.2% and the richest one percent of the world population 40.1% of the worldwide wealth. The citi-bank group speaks openly of "plutonomies," wealth economies that split humanity into two categories: "the plutonomies where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by a wealthy few." The neoliberal epoch represents a glittering time for the minority of the financial elite and its official classes and doesn't run disastrously for everyone. Why should they change anything?

The analysis of the financial power complex presented by Krysmanski describes the hidden mechanisms and functions of a global redistribution and acquisition caste. This analysis could be deepened through the fetishism analysis that Marx offered in analyzing the capitalist economy. Strikingly Karl Marx carried out the critique of capitalism with terms taken from religion. Marx used biblical or theological terms again and again. He spoke of "Baal," "the golden calf," "mammon" and "Moloch" to describe the nature of capitalism as the false service of profit and money. The most important term of the Marxian criticism of capitalism is a metaphor that refers to religion: fetishism (MEW 23). Marx' concern was to unmask the economic law of the capitalist production method and describe its so-called "natural laws" that actually make things into subjects to which the repressing subjects have to submit. Marx uses a term from the world of religions, fetishism, to characterize this act. A fetish is a dead object awarded qualities by people which then can gain power over them. Social relations of persons are inverted into a social relation of things. People submit to social conditions that they created themselves. Thus the fetish analysis can explain capital movements where economists speak mysteriously about inexplicable effects of an invisible hand.

The Latin American theology of liberation took up this criticism of the fetish character of social relations and accomplished two things. Firstly, the fetishism analysis was read in a new way with biblical traditions, especially of the prophets. Now where the crisis of neoliberal capitalism is manifest even in the North, it is time to take up this liberation theology re-reading of the fetishism analysis and make it fruitful for the Christian-Marxist dialog for a criticism of finance-market-driven capitalism.

My thesis is that capitalism criticism as religion criticism can explain the neoliberal intensification and the fact that "all believers do not run away from capitalism." The economic- and financial crisis is understood as a "faith-temptation." In this temptation, one must believe more robustly and attest to the imperturbability of their faith in the challenge and temptation in the economic and financial crisis.


An admission of guilt on the failure of political-economic concepts could be read in the "News of the German Association of Engineers" at the peak of the financial crisis. "This means the so-called invisible hand of the market has not taken hold. The invisible hand is a philosophy that is widespread not only with the economic elite." To explain the overproduction crisis that Opel had to fight in 2004, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper decried the deficient competitiveness in a 10/28/2004 commentary and also referred to the role of the "invisible hand." "The invisible hand strokes the one capable of adjustment… The market behaves like an active subject… and degrades the human subject to an object. This inversion of the subject to an object and socially-created relations to an acting subject describes exactly what Marx intended with the fetish character.

This idea occurs often even if Adam Smith only used the metaphor of the "invisible hand" so important for economic theory in two passages. In his main work "The Wealth of Nations," he says: Whoever wants to multiply his profit will be "guided by an invisible hand to advance a goal he did not intend to fulfill." "Providence" transforms self-interest into public interest since the rich are led by an invisible hand to carry out the same distribution of vitally necessary goods as though the earth were divided equally among all its inhabitants. So they promote the interest of society without intending or knowing it" (A. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments). Through the Providence of an "invisible hand," unhindered pursuit of private gains and benefits becomes the common good. A regime of self-interest is established that one can confidently trust. Whoever gratifies his self-interest as unrestrictedly as possible also contributes to the social welfare. The ethical consequences resulting from pursuing self-interest are faded out since the market is guided by an "invisible hand." There is no causal agent for economic problems or social injustices in this economic approach. There are no culprits or perpetrators. Everyone is only an executor without a will or a little wheel in a big machine. No one acts. Everyone only carries out what would happen anyway. Therefore everyone must join in since there are no alternatives. The system replaces the acting subject. In a countermove, the market is promoted as an acting subject.

Adam Smith did not only understand the term "invisible hand" in a metaphorical-figurative way. He saw a divine Providence effective in the world whose "favor and wisdom invented and guided the tremendous machine of the universe from all eternity so it produces the greatest possible measure of happiness in all times" (Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments). Honoring God and trusting his invisible hand now mean not intervening in the incidents of the market since God's Providence governs there. "The management of the great system of the universe…is the task of God and not of humans" (Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments).

So the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper) commented on the Mexican crisis with a shrug, referred to the "merciless governing of the invisible hand" and veiled the debacle of finance-market-driven capitalism that Marx analyzed with fetishism. The disastrous consequences of this crisis in whose course the real GDP fell seven percent and industrial production 15% caused thousands of believers to declare bankruptcy and hundreds of thousands of workers to lose their jobs. What is comically called the "merciless governing of the invisible hand," Alexander von Rustow in his, unfortunately, unknown 1945 treatise "The Breakdown of Economic Liberalism as a Religio-Historical Problem" already called an "economic theory." Trust in the universal Creator God who in his kindheartedness maintains and guides the world with an "invisible hand" is an expression of a religiously-established trust in a God who rules the world to the good. Smith did not mean the Christian God but appealed to the antique philosophy of the Stoa that experienced a renaissance as deism in the era of early capitalism and started from the notion that God created the world like clockwork that functions independently. Adam Smith's emphasis on "trust in the invisible hand" was established theologically and was not meant metaphorically or figuratively. Therefore a capitalism criticism with theological terms is very appropriate. A capitalism criticism that doesn't argue religio-critically misses the sub-theological justifications of capitalism and its operations.

Capitalism criticism as religion criticism is more an enlightenment approach to an economy that appeals explicitly or silently to an "invisible hand." It argues religiously in an enlightened sense. The Swiss economist Hans Christoph Binswanger concludes that neoliberal economists are a "stoic faith community and… a value-judgment community par excellence" (Hans-Christoph Binswanger, The Faith Community of Economists, 1988). This means whoever refers to the invisible hand today and speaks about neoliberal capitalism must speak about religion and faith. The conviction that Adam Smith believed imperturbably in the good effects of a free market where people could pursue their enrichment unhindered is completely unknown today in its religious substantiation but continues unbroken and unshakably in a secular form as the indefatigable "faith tenet" of the economic and political class shows in the financial crisis. The worldwide gambling casino continues spinning. Bankers receive salaries in the millions and stock prices soar. The greed for new fast money drives the culprits of yesterday back to the roulette table today – and no doorman controls them.

The financial power complex creates a power going beyond the expropriation-, exploitation- and distribution function with theological legitimation. Capital accumulation as a central law of capital is legitimated by a religion without being enlightened by that religion. The biblical distinction between a fetishized and humanized transcendence makes visible the religious substantiation of capitalism that makes its central function invisible and unassailable with the talk of the "invisible hand": infinite capital multiplication. Capital should be advanced to the all-determining reality "before which all the world falls down" (Isa 44,15). Thus religion criticism is necessary where the financial power complex wants to dominate people trough the "work of their hands" (Isa 17,8). Capitalism as a religion criticism has an enlightenment interest: "The mystery of multiplying money must be finally unmasked " (MEW 23). Not believing the alleged secularity becomes the preeminent task of enlightenment. Such enlightenment about the destructive religion of capitalism is legitimated by the talk of an invisible hand and at the same time evades rational legitimation and takes the bottom out of this faith system. The contribution that religion criticism could make to the church and theology is important because no system can survive without legitimation.


Absolutizing capital accumulation was only possible after a thousand-year-old philosophical tradition was removed that criticized avarice as a vice. The classical political economy began in the 17th/18th century top judge greed or avarice positively in the form of self-interest as a human drive in economic conduct and reinterpreting pursuit of profit to desirable social conduct. This revaluation broke with the philosophical and religious traditions since the rise of the money economy in antiquity. There were many complaints in antiquity about the negative consequences of the money system. Aristotle said, "All profiteers want to boundlessly multiply their money" (Aristotle, Politics). We read in the Bible: "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money" (Eccl 5, 10).

The biblical tradition goes beyond an ethical judgment against greed for money and criticizes replacing God (Mt 6, 24; Lk 16, 13; Col 3, 5; Eph 5, 5). With God and that power that replaces God, mammon, rival understandings of God are thematicized in the saying "No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and mammon" (Mt 6, 24). Only the relation of contradiction can exist by sharply differentiating between God and mammon. Who is the all-determining reality – the power of money or God? "Mammon" is a financial power complex that does not serve the life of everyone in freedom and justice and means more than only money or an unjust relation with money. In theological language and ethical judgment, usefulness to life and destructiveness are examples of the play of forces between God and the false god mammon.

In his theological thought, Martin Luther reflected on this question of money power in which people put their trust. He analyzed the early capitalist context and interpreted it theologically as a new possibility of having a god, namely a money-god… Luther pursued theology in the context of early capitalism and raised the question about God and mammon again. Martin Luther's Large Catechism says in the well-known interpretation of the First Commandment: "Having God means expecting everything good from him and taking refuge in him in all distresses. Having a God is nothing other than trusting him from the heart and believing. Only the trust and faith of the heart makes both God and an idol. A person can set his or her faith and trust in the "true God" or in a "false god, an idol." Whether a person believes in God or an idol appears in whom he actually trusts. Luther continued "One could think he has God and everything when he has money and goods but boasts so inflexibly that he doesn't give anything to anyone. He has a god, mammon, that is money and goods on which his heart trusts which is also the most common idol on earth. According to Luther, having a god is not enough. The question which god is worshiped is crucial. In what does a person really trust? Which does he make his god through his act of trust? Mammon and God are exchangeable in this act of trust… Thus "idol or false god" is a system-analytical category in a discerning theological language that criticizes that the money system of mammon rules when the permanent multiplication of money is accepted as the highest goal. There is a worship of the money-god in the midst of a religion with a different creed.


As Luther reflected theologically the context of early capitalism, reflecting finance-market-driven capitalism is vital today. "A compromise between Christ's church and the idolized state and money worship which is practically the religion of a capitalist society is just as impossible as a compromise between the church and the idolized state in the Roman Empire" (R.H. Tawney, Religion and Early Capitalism, 1946). At the peak of the economic crisis, the German chancellor Angela Merkel admitted: "Banks and bankers may no longer make a clean sweep with taxpayers paying the bill. We need rules so the state can never be extorted by the banks." Thus Angela Merkel admitted being extorted and noted a superiority of the financial markets ten years before Hans Tietmeyer, head of the German Central Bank, threatened the assembled heads of government and corporate CEOs at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "Most politicians today still do not see how much they are under the control of the financial markets and are even ruled by them." That the financial markets have such power that the most powerful governments of the world cannot evade their judgment is regarded as proper and in no way as problematic because the markets direct everything to the best and mercilessly punish malformations opposing their capital interests. Capital interests and public interests allegedly coincide.

Finance market capitalism is a formation of capitalism that gained acceptance since the middle of the 1970s and through privatization. Deregulation and flexibility dismantle market-limiting institutions. The strategic goal is the exclusive validity of the logic of the market. Directing business policy to consistent capital accumulation is the sole goal of economies. Profit maximization was always the central concern: "Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!" (MEW 23). What is really new in finance market-driven casino capitalism is that it wants to free capital movements on the international capital market from dependence on the profits gained in the businesses…

The pressure on the real economy and skimming off profits produce play money for the financial casino. In the last years, a massive redistribution of social wealth occurred in many industrial states – in favor of capital profits and to the detriment of mass incomes. In the year 2000, the share of wages in the gross domestic product was 72% and in 2008 it was 64.6%. For businesses and the rich, the neoliberal right of way for profits led to massive liquidity surpluses that poured on the financial markets and sought profitable investments. Surplus profits flowed on the financial markets. The precariousness of labor, the lengthening of working hours and the dismantling of social security are real victims. Extra-profits for shareholders are wrung from dependent employees…

"People make an idol out of these metals (gold and silver)…and make them deities to which more goods, important needs, and even people were and are sacrificed than the blind antiquity ever sacrificed to its false gods" (MEW 13). In his address to the International Workers Association in September 1864, Karl Marx emphasized this sacrificial character of the religion of capitalism and quoted smug complacent experts who thought "every legal restriction of the workday sounded the death-bells of British industry who like vampires cannot live without blood, above all children's blood. In all ages, infanticide was a mysterious rite of the religion of Moloch." However, this was only practiced 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. For Marx, capitalism became a system and the sacrificial cult was by no means part of a defeated pre-modern or unenlightened epoch of humanity's history.

The idea of efficient functioning financial markets was refuted by the crisis. The economic- and financial crisis exposed the lie and revealed the central ideological motif, belief in the "invisible hand." Norbert Walter, chief economist at Deutsche Bank, said the "invisible hand" has a civilizing function. "Ultimately the `cunning of nature' or the `invisible hand' is superior to clever monopolistic and interventionist tactics […]. These principles are so powerful they lead people to civilization, partly against their own will" (N. Walter, Ethics + Efficiency = Market Economy, in Roland Baader (ed), Against the Welfare Dictatorship, 1995). The "invisible hand" is equated here with a natural principle of the "cunning of nature" to which a civilizing power is ascribed. That did not hinder demanding massive support from the state in the economic crisis in a "financial state trick directed against the government and the population" (D. Harvey, The Financial State Trick, Its Crisis and Our Liability in Blaetter, the End of Casino Capitalism, Globalization and Crisis, 2009).

A market fundamentalism or radicalism is expressed in this ideological core, a trust in the invisible hand that definitively ended through the crisis. Even the Neue Zuricher newspaper, the "church paper of the neoliberal faith community," admitted a "breakdown of an excessive market ideology." This market fundamentalism is the belief that self-interest leads to the public interest, the epitome of ethical reason, thanks to the "invisible hand." The exaggeration of market logic to the principle of good life and just cooperative life generally not only in the economy failed. A structural analogy between trust in the liberating God of the Bible and trust in the money-god of capital, verified by neoliberal theoreticians through the use of religious and theological terms appears in the act of humble trust in this power as a genuine religious act. Thus Friedrich-August von Hayek marveled at the self-regulating market as a "miracle" (1952) and described the proper human attitude toward the market laws as "humility toward the processes of the market. The person has a model for his conduct toward market processes in the "humble reverence that religion…infused." The market was ultimately elevated into the realm of the gods. Liberation theologians call this the idolatry of the market (Jung Mo Sung, The Evil in the Ideology of the Free Market, in Concilium 33, 1999). The religion idea is an enlightened category for analyzing the all-determining market.

Trust in the "invisible hand" is a religious exercise as Alexander Rustow's analysis showed. It is a religious trust for a religion in its money-god that ensures a rule over people that is destructive and deadly. Capital and its multiplication claim an all-determining authority in the religion of capitalism. Therefore capitalism and the service of the money-god is a real worship of a destructive "false" god and isn't a substitute sociological religion. Biblical mammon criticism analyzes the all-determining financial power complex, judges it ethically and calls it theologically a "false god."

In its core, the speech of the "invisible hand" demolishes the enlightenment as a permanent process of the modern age. Seeing through the mechanisms of the financial power complex, uncovering the visible hands behind the "invisible hand" and decoding the mechanisms are all part of enlightenment. Today's world is ruled by an unenlightened belief in the free market economy. The creed of competitiveness has its evangelists, theologians, priests and – obviously – believers (cf. on the different classes, H/J. Krysmanski, Who Owns the EU?). The evangelists are those thousands of economists and other representatives of the knowledge elite from the US and Western Europe who codified and established the quasi-natural law character of the principles and mechanisms of the modern capitalist market economy on the strength of their academic authority. There are thousands of priests of the cult of competition all over the world. Business- and management advisors are the most credible and the best outfitted. The doctrine and the diffusion of the creed give them an extremely profitable source of income. The political elite organizes the distribution of the social product and determines the political victims of the system: sinking the social security systems, the labor standards, the wages, the social achievements etc… The close connection between capital accumulation and power accumulation constitutes a "new sovereign" beyond democratic legitimation…

The perversity of these conditions can be unmasked through the theological critique of the religion of capitalism because the false fetishized worship offers sacrifice for capital. At the beginning of the 1980s, theologians of liberation reacted to the disastrous effects of the neoliberal economy by unmasking capitalism as a false and destructive service. The affinities between the biblical struggle against false gods and the Marxist critique of goods-fetishism is vital now where the consequences appear ever more clearly in the economic and political centers. Marx cited religious metaphors for a scholarly analysis of capitalist estrangement and exploitation while these describe for theology an opposition between the true God of life and the false god of death. Despite this distinction, the religion criticism of capitalism can establish an alliance partnership across worldview oppositions because it has its ground in the common moral ethos and in the common humanistic indignation that people submit to a money-god demanding sacrifice and worship. In the struggle against this financial power complex, Christians and Marxists wage a common struggle against the spirit, logic, and praxis of the false money-god and its servants of the plutocratic financial power machine so people will never be humiliated and sacrificed again.


Franz Segbers, “Poverty Returns with Misguided Policy,” 2011

The state should represent the public interest and yet private or special interests are in the driver's seat with privatization, deregulation and liberalized markets. Trump's proposed 2018 budget is a sledgehammer with cuts to Meals-on-Wheels, school lunches, WIC food assistance, EPA, National Institute for Health, PBS, Legal Services Corp. and more. Majority rule must be balanced by minority protection (Lani Guinier). Indifference is love's enemy.

Social security would be secure for 75 years if the 8K cap on social security taxes were scrapped. Countermeasures are necessary for public spirit and trust between the generations.

Original: Capitalism in the Faith Crisis