Economy as Religion

    Written in 2004


    Economy 6. a method of divine management of human affairs or a system of laws and regulations, rites, and ceremonies; the holy scheme of creation and redemption; specifically, and particular method of divine government: the Mosiac economy



    One day while in line at the bank, it hit me: the faux-marble pillars out front, the velvet ropes, the omniscient eyes of the security cameras, the air of hushed reverence, the confession booth-like grating at the teller window, the sharing of my most personal financial secrets with the clerk (or was it cleric?) beyond, the word God on the money she handed me…This wasn’t a utilitarian, secular institution for the storage and withdrawal of currency. This was a temple.

    But a temple to what? To money? Or was money just the holy water – blessed into existence by some supremely authoritative official — of a much wider pseudo-religion? If money serves a higher purpose, it’s to the system of exchange we call ‘the economy”. Has the economy been deified?

    The signs are there. Economic indicators are the modern omens; we anxiously seek the mood of God by scrutinizing the data – GDP, productivity, trade balance, stock market indices, investments, inflation – longing to know if He is pleased or wrathful with our earthly efforts. Alan Greenspan is our high priest, his announcements greeted with the rapt attention befitting a pope. And we listen to market forecasters with all the hand-wringing apprehension of ancient Greeks trying to divine the future from bones scattered on the ground.

    Maybe it’s not that bad. Economics is hard science, after all. But then again, consider the role of faith in modern economies: if enough people believe a company or country is doing well, they’ll invest and their belief will become self-fulfilling. Likewise, if people have a crisis of faith in their jobs outlasting the year, then consumer confidence will suffer and so will the economy.

    To believe in the economy is to believe in something larger than any one person, or even one corporation. It gives our individual efforts meaning in a larger sphere, and allows us to gage our collective success or failure against supreme and objective standards. Money is God’s love quantified. Affluence is next to godliness.

    The dogma of economic growth, repeated as endlessly as the Lord’s Prayer, is our sacred cow. And just like the Indians who put up with the meanderings of millions of cows, defecating and blocking traffic, we remain devoted to growth no matter what the consequences.

    Whereas before we worshipped the Prophet, now we prostrate ourselves before profit of a different kind. But just in case His second coming isn’t nigh, we keep paying our papal indulgences – RRSP’s – to secure our place in the paradisiacal afterlife of retirement.

    Harvey Cox, a professor of divinity at Harvard, noticed the parallels between our conception of God and of the economy after he started reading the business pages of his local paper. “The market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament,” he wrote, “the only true God.”

    And this God requires the occasional sacrifice. “Like one of the devouring gods of old,” wrote Cox, “the Market – aptly embodied in a bull or a bear – must be fed and kept happy under all circumstances. True, at times its appetite may seem excessive – a $35 billion bailout here, a $50 billion one there – but the alternative to assuaging its hunger is too terrible to contemplate.”

    The economy requires sacrifices of other kinds too. At least, that’s the excuse government and business leaders give for their downsizing or cutting back on social spending and regulations: We can’t fight market forces. It’s God’s will.

    The likeness between the way we think about the economy and how we think about religion is most evident in the preachings of the neoliberal econo-pundits. Both Christian and liberal economic theory claim the existence of a force – be it God or the market – that can cure all ills and right all wrongs, if we’d only let ourselves be guided by its invisible hands. Both prophesize damnation — fiscal or eternal — for unbelievers.

    These free-marketers are economics’ fundamentalists. Like religious fanatics throughout history, their faith is derived from a selective interpretation of their Bible, in this case Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. And if Smith is their Jesus, then Milton Friedman, founder of the Chicago Church – er, School – of Economics, is their St. Paul.

    Their answers are absolute: either let the miraculous healing spirit of the market into every corner of your lives, and be saved, or go against its commandments and suffer the curse of uncompetitiveness. It’s a prescription for the world, to be spread with evangelical zeal for the good of the infidels who have not yet realised the value of their IMF-imposed structural adjustment package.

    It’s little surprise that the man who ushered in this economic reformation, Ronald Reagan, was a staunchly religious man. With his famous moral clarity he also brought an economic clarity: serve God, cut taxes. The elder Bush called Reagan’s economic policies “voodoo economics”. And indeed, the idea that governments can get more taxes by cutting them is as miraculous as the Immaculate Conception. But apparently the voodoo magic was so powerful that Bush later signed on with Reagan, and now his born-again Christian son casts the same tax-cutting enchantment on America.

    This is not to say that the discipline of economics actually is a religion, that its theories are theology, or its practitioners witch doctors. But it is to say that the popular view of this abstract entity we call “the economy” is very similar to the way we view God. We tell ourselves the same old story about the world, just with different actors.

    Religion likely arose to explain and, it was hoped, influence the mysterious forces of nature upon which the human species depended for their survival. The thunder boomed and crashed and we prayed to the gods. Now, we perceive a new master – the economy – that during a “boom” can bestow great prosperity, yet during a “crash” can rain destruction upon a community as devastating as any Great Flood. The economy – vast and inscrutable – often seems to act with the same despotic caprice as nature, personified by the gods, once did. The forces of both have radically impacted our lives, and we hungrily turn to those who claim to know how to win their favour.

    These economic clergy serve us well when they illuminate the challenges and potentials of economics, but, like the clergy of old, they fail us when they become blinded by dogma or corrupted by power. Like the medieval alliance between Church and state, the modern one between the corporate cardinals and government serves the interests of the most powerful by keeping the citizenry hard-working, God-fearing, and accepting of their lot.

    Using old mythologies to make modern economic arguments is like using the fairy tale of Cinderella to justify a midnight curfew. We need to awaken from the old economic fairy tales of absolute, divine authority and make new stories for ourselves, stories that empower local communities to patiently create the kind of the economy that suits them. The economy is not a creation of God, but of women and men. As such, we can change it.