Segment 24B – Money and Capitalism

Could we say that capitalism is the religion of modernity? Or at least a part thereof? For the final topic of Rad Religion, we chatted about how money and capitalism could be ‘religious’. Hear us chat here:

We also played a couple of great money-themed tracks: ‘Money‘ by Pink Floyd (of course) and ‘I Need a Dollar‘ by Aloe Blacc.

Money itself is a matter of belief. If we didn’t believe it meant something, it simply wouldn’t. It’s a kind of collective fiction that we’ve made up, and as long as we all run along with it, behave as if it’s really worth something, then our societies function. But if we all stopped believing those little lumps of metal, scraps of paper, or digits on our computer screen were ‘valuable’, then the whole money system would end. Especially since our currencies were floated (that is, there is no pile of gold somewhere tying them to something of ‘real’ value) money is completely a social creation, a shared belief.

But we’ve gone a step beyond that. In capitalism, money comes to structure our lives. It is a system of organising our existence, our society. We become ‘workers’, ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’. We are forced to spend most of our days working, as units of labour, so we can get money to go off and spend on other things, vastly above what is required for our lives. Capitalism becomes a totalising system of belief and practice in a way akin to religions (and perhaps they used to do fulfill this role, thinking of the Catholic Church in medieval Europe). This system includes moral imperatives: you should do whatever makes you the most money. Everyone should do this, and somehow everyone will have more fulfilling lives. This is a religious-like tenet, just as the dreams of a classless society among early 20th Century communists were akin to religious, utopian beliefs.

The free flow of capital – that is, unregulated markets – was held by early economists to be very important for everyone to benefit in this way. Adam Smith coined to term “the invisible hand“, which he believed was a kind of transcendental force that would right a market and keep things in balance. This was an ethical hand, who would keep things best for everyone. Smith may have actually thought of this as divine design – and it’s too easy to see this as a kind of economic God! Later economists in the last 50 years have seen the fundamental reason for deregulation to be freedom. Personal freedom is ultimately the central tenet of contemporary Western ideology and society, and this is reflected in the fervent attachment economists have to free markets, which they see to be necessary for political freedom. Again, freedom here operates as a religious-like principle, the ultimate aim for individual and collective life.

So that ends Rad Religion! At least in its form as a radio segment. I might continue posting interesting religion-pop culture mash-ups on here when I find them. Thanks for reading and listening!