Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Notes on 'Capitalism as Religion'

This fragment was written by Benjamin in 1921, and, as usual for Benjamin, I find it both highly suggestive and deeply enigmatic (in fact any offers on interpretations. further analyses, gratefully received). I understand Michael Lowy has a forthcoming article on exactly this topic, which may well certainly provide more detailed contextualisation and analysis than i can offer).

Benjamin argues that capitalism is not so much inspired by a religious spirit, but an actual religion addressed to the same anxieties as actual religions. Capitalism as a religion has four elements:

1. 'capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed'.
Capital is a system of religious beliefs and practices with 'no specific body of dogma, no theology'. We could link this to the arguments of Zizek, Pfaller, and Santner that capitalism qua cult is a materialised set of ideological rituals. As the pure mechanism of accumulation it can have no theology or dogma per se (although it may have temporary forms of such theologies), because these would potentially disrupt a purely cultic veneration of objects - as objects of production / consumption. Capitalism is concrete (captured in Don DeLillo's anecdote, in White Noise, concerning the sense of feeling blessed when one's estimation of the balance of our bank account is revealed as accurate by the ATM.)

If we realise that religion did not originally serves any higher or moral purpose but was 'severely practical', then we can see that 'religion did not achieve any greater clarity then about its "ideal" or "transcendental" nature than modern capitalism does today.'

2. 'the permanence of the cult'
There are no "weekdays." There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper."

Rather than the usual model of capital as abolishing or rationalising the sacred - making everyday a workday - Benjamin reverses this to argue that everyday is the feast day. What capitalism imposes is this unremitting requirement for its own worship without mercy. I'm reminded of Blanchot's quip that we have prisons to try to remind us that we are not all living in a prison (although whether Blanchot spent any time in a US supermax prison I can't say). Capital's lack of particular festivals / churches / places of worship makes everywhere a place and time of worship.

3. Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.

Although this appears obvious, here is where things become particularly enigmatic for me. Benjamin argues that this sense of guilt generated by capitalism is caught up in a larger movement that attempts to make guilt universal, 'to hammer it into the conscious mind' and 'to include God in the system of guilt and thereby awaken in Him an interest in the process of atonement.' It would appear that we have here a moment of potential reversibility - in which 'total' guilt could open to 'total' redemption:

[C]apitalism entails endurance right to the end, to the point where God, too, finally takes on the entire burden of guilt, to the point where the universe has been taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope.'

The difficulty, however, is that capitalism cannot provide tis atonement of reformation, it has not 'stable element' from which to launch this project. Capitalism offers no reform of existence, but its complete destruction. It appears that capitalism itself has its own redemptive, or even messianic project: 'It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation.' How this messianic 'promise' crosses over with Benjamin's own thinking of the messianic redemption by the proletariat in the 'Theses' is, to say the least, unclear to me. The Nietzschean ubermensch is the realisation of this transit through despair - the absolute immanence in with God has been incorporated into human existence.

4. 'God must be hidden from it and may be addressed only when guilt is at its zenith.'

Capitalism, as 'pure cult', celebrates an 'unmatured diety', which is the secret of capital.

In a surprising twist Benjamin identifies Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, as all operating within the hegemony of this conception of capital as religion. Again as far as I can grasp it this appears because they all encrypt this conception of perpetual guilt, the ciphering of God as the unmatured diety, and the same measure of transcendence or appearance of God at the moment of absolute guilt / despair:

'[Freud's theory] is capitalist through and through. By virtue of a profound analogy, which has still to be illuminated, what has been repressed, the idea of sin, is capital itself, which pays interest on the hell of the unconscious.'

'The paradigm of capitalist religious thought' ... 'The idea of the superman transposes the apocalyptic "leap" not into conversion, atonement, purification, and penance, but into an apparently steady, though in the final analysis explosive and discontinuous intensification.'

This point seems to critique avant la lettre the kind of post-Nietzschean 'accelerationist' positions found in Lyotard and Klossowski. This 'intensified humanity' has not escaped religion, but merely generalised the sense of guilt; this is the truly capitalist religion of 'pure cult' that escapes transcendence through a cultic operator of practices of intensity. This would seem to imply the crippling of arguments for the intensification of humanity as rupture.

'the capitalism that refuses to change course becomes socialism by means of the simple and compound interest that are functions of Schuld (consider the demonic ambiguity of this word [it means both "debt" and "guilt"]).'
Perhaps I am "forcing" this commentary, but it seems that here Benjamin is implying a critique of accelerationist positions of reversibility in which absolute guilt becomes the 'gate' of redemption. What is implied, and taken-up again in the 'Theses', is the necessity to make capitalism 'change course'. In the 'Theses' Benjamin remarks on the fatal error of German Social Dmocracy that:
The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. (my italics)
To go with the current would be to follow the cultic dimension of capital and its own internal ubermensch.


Alex said...

Obviously, Philip Goodchild's work in Captialism and Religion: The Price of Piety and Theology of Money are instructive here for a lengthy and systematic account of this relation.

Benjamin said...

ah, thanks, one for the reading list

WH said...

my view on Capitalism as Religion is not because it has all the standard practices of Religions (Sins and attonement, worship, etc) - but because it is based totally on FAITH.

Paper money is worthless unless we have FAITH in our Government to maintain its value; Trade will not happen unless we have FAITH in each other and in the power of Law not to screw us over.

Keynes pointed out that Capitalism requires "animal spirit" to get itself out of depression. But I think what he mean is that in depression, people lose faith in the carrot and stick of capitalism.