The almost sacredness of capitalism

Interview with John Milbank, Anglican Theologian of the University of Nottingham

by Luigino Bruni

John Milbank ridMy first question is, do you think that the present capitalism, the 21st century capitalism, which is quite different from the 20th or 19th century capitalism, presents some religious dimension? When you look at what is going on in today's society, there are some religious foundations or religious roots what we see in very secular terms, because capitalism is strangely presenting itself as a sort of rationality, civilisation, post-ideological theory, but if you look really carefully, you find a lot of irrational, or, at least, religious “stuff”. What do you think about the religious dimension and nature of our capitalism?

That's a very interesting question. I suppose that the capitalism we have today is ever more extreme, in the sense that it is dominated more and more by finance and by debt even though it can be argued that those structures were endemic to capitalism at the outset - it's just that they are becoming ever more prevalent.

In addition to that, we've got a further extension of commodification, so that I think today, also, knowledge, information is being turned into a commodity. or, rather, knowledge is being commodified, one could say, in the form of information. Thus the rise of the information economy, the shareability and reproduction, which was always incredibly important to capitalist technology, has exponentially increased, as well, so that you can now reproduce things very cheaply and, in effect, give things away. So it's not even just the matter of the buying and selling of information - in some ways, information appears free. But the monopolisers of distribution of information, like Google and Amazon, use that to make profits and to trade at a completely different and awfully visible level. I think these same tendencies tend to encourage a further merging of market powers with state powers, of owners with rulers, so to build up ever further a very remote, very rich international oligarchy. So those would be, roughly, the features which are at once new and yet, maybe, exaggerations of things that have always been there.

And so you're asking me about the question of religion and capitalism today, and I'm not so sure I can completely understand it, or what the answer would be to that but, broadly speaking, there seem to be quite good arguments for saying that, to begin with, capitalism was encouraged by certain religious factors, both Protestant and Catholic. In particulal, theologies that took a very gloomy view about human nature, tended to encourage the idea that an economy can be run on amoral principles, and even that an economy run on amoral principles is the way in which God keeps order within a sinful world and in general, then, a kind of despair of natural goodness, and seeing the exercise of natural goodness as more and more irrelevant to human salvation - I think that lies in the background. Of course then, eventually, if you encourage an amoral process, and if you encourage the idea that nature and our life in this world is not very relevant in religious terms, that encourages secularisation, to put it quite simply. People forget about the God pits, and society, economy and politics become independent and inherit, to some degree, this sense of an amoral self-regulation.

So the interesting question, I think, is, does that mean that religion is simply left behind? Today, there is some evidence that that's not the case, that we have things like the success gospel within various sects; in developing countries, we see people converting to forms of Protestant Christianity, as if there is a need to recapitulate western history in some sense. But even then, is it only that? In the case of the United States, the most advanced capitalist country, Protestant Christianity is still very much alive, and there are many Protestants (and some Catholics) giving a theological apologia for capitalism. I think that raises a quite interesting question of whether, if there is a link between Protestantism and capitalism, or, shall we say, more broadly, between a certain kind of theology, is that always likely, sometimes, to return and is that returning today because we've advanced towards an even more extreme phase of capitalism? Does that mean that there's something quite insecure about purely secular legitimations of the capitalist economy?

What do you think are the most relevant issues in the domain of the economic life and religion today? Or, more precisely economics and theology. What issues do you think are crucial for the quality of our democracy today apart from the emphasized Islamic issues?

Well, I think that the issue I've already mentioned is whether there can be an adequate secular legitimization of capitalism. I think it's significant that people still see this as a providential process or at least give quasi-theological accounts of why capitalism is realistic. It deals with human nature so people want to link it to an account of human liberty and they want to see human liberty as sacred. So, especially in America, they want to give an account of capitalism that sees human liberty as something sacred and I think that raises the issue of whether rationales for capitalism remain somehow latently theological or can become specifically theological and whether, therefore, they can only be challenged by alternative theologies that have a less grim account of human nature, or through an understanding of human freedom in a slightly different way as being freedom for rather than freedom from. Freedom to discover the truth. Freedom to develop for yourself what is an objectively good way of human life.

I also think, that much more deeply than that, though, lies the question of whether capitalism is inherently linked to disenchantment of the world and to desecularization. Yeah, so that, I mean the irony may be that this disenchantment of the world is encouraged by a certain theology that ones see as simply the instrument of God. That the world is simply the way it is because God has arbitrarily made it the way it is and runs it according to certain mechanical procedures and that the world in itself doesn't have any symbolic significance and therefore if you've completely disenchanted reality, you can reduce everything to a commodity. nothing is sacred, therefore everything can be enclosed, altered, bought, and sold. You can do what you like with anything, the only restrictions on that, the only way of altering that anarchy tends to be then the order of the markets. But then once disenchantment has become wholly secular and the theology that lies behind it is forgetten, then almost inevitably in things like ecological and new age movements people discover what the world is in itself a source of enchantment. There are things to which they wish to give a sacred attachment. There are things that are valuable quite beyond the market price or in the the way they happen to reach private needs. People start to discover for themselves the inherence sacrality effect and then you get a sort of paganism.

I was about to say that that was actually what was going on before the Jewish experience. Then nature was considered to be sacred. Our bible, God, is different than the natural

You run the risk of losing the gain made by the Bible, the unique sacredness of the human person and you get various ideologies that want to subordinate the human to the Earth just like another kind of animal and you get a revival of a pagan secularity. So I think in some ways the challenge is to recover what I would call in the broader sense the "Catholic Balance" where the world is not in itself ultimately sacred but it is sacramental and there is also a hierarchy within nature such that we should value all life, but human life supremely but at the same time if we don't value life other than human life, we won't have a fully human existance and we will end up devaluating human life as well in the end.

Let me ask you -- what are the differences between what you called the sacrament vision of the world and the market -- a huge importance has been given to things, to commodities, as a new form of sacrament but where do the differences lie?

In a way a part of capitalism is a spectacle. It doesn't just commodify things. It also turns things into spectacles and these are quasi-iconic realities. Instead of being surrounded by statues of saints and heros all the time, we're surrounded by shoes, bags, cars, images of goods or images of fashionable people and so on. These images don't really present anything above us, but nor do they represent something to which we could aspire. In fact, they confront us with defeat at every turn because in order to make us want more they always present us with the unattainable and it's not really any desirable goal or anything that is going to improve the real quality of our human lives, so they're not signs of hope in the way that the statue of the hero or the saint is.

But once one's understood all that-- the way capitalism calculates and desacralizes, the way it also produces things that are quasi-sacred-- I think at that point, this is where religious people meet to confront people of the secular left more and say: "Look. How can you have a purely secular critique over the capitalist order?" If everything is only material, if everything is disenchanted, then capitalism will always remain the most advanced form of emancipated modernity. That's the problem. Yeah?

We know from Max Weber but also from Fanfani that there is no capitalism without spirit. You think that today, it is possible to have a form of capitalism without any form of spirit?

Perhaps what I would say is that the procedures of capitalism and the spirit of capitalism are very much the same thing, but this is why Marx talked about fetishisation, for example, but it's not just an economy, it is in itself, a quasi-religion. It's not just a question of exploiting people's labour, but inherently of exploiting people's desire, the dimension Marx didn't make enough of. That profit proceeds not just from not paying people fair shares, but also from overpricing or making people endlessly want surplus goods. So the manipulation of desire and the appeal to both accumulation and fascination is the quasi-religious element. So I think capitalism, in that sense, remains a religion of a matter of spirit as basically any new factor is such as the rise of automation, but automation is something that we as human subjects are encouraged to be fascinated by but increasingly the rationale is defined by what can be automated.

Interesting. My last question is-- as one of the most important theologists of our generation, which kind of changes you would recommend to the business community to achieve common goals today? If you were to address your words to economies, to businessmen, which kind of changes would you call for as a theologist?

Well, I think that-- but I wouldn't begin by assuming that businessmen don't ask themselves these questions. I think they do sometimes in all sorts of ways, and I think I would ask that they rethink the purpose of the firm or the corporation, which to some degree, they're beginning to do and I would encourage them to think of the modern firm as having such an enormous degree of social influence, it needs to think of itself as not just an economic organisation, but it needs to think of itself as pursuing social value, social purpose, even political purpose, as something that integrally belongs with its economic purposes and that the separation of these things is essentially something very artificial. We need to recover their integration so that if you could say that the economic, in a sense, has purely economic purposes of too much influence, the only way to correct that is not in the end through the states, which often lately has bureaucratic purposes. But, in fact, often through corporate economic bodies themselves, really thinking what they're all about. But they need to think of themselves as not just making money, but as producing certain goods and services that are inherently valid and that if they pursue more genuine purposes, in the end, that can also give you a market advantage because I think in the very long term, people will choose these more substantiative things. But you have to regard that, I think, in terms of a very long game, and often, that means that firms may need to group together more collaboratively. They may need to operate within a shared horizon and within a shared code of practice, especially if they are to protect themselves from a bigger undercut by much more short-term operators who may only win in the short term. But by the time they rise, its become too late. So I think that the market can favour more virtuous practice, but only if you're prepared to operate in a certain manner and this also does require a new legal framework that deliberately favours that more virtuous mode of operations. I mean, I suppose you could say, "well, I'm taking over for a more radical version of a social market."

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