Follow the Money


Review of The Market as God, by Harvey Cox

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016

Through the centuries, religion has competed with pecuniary interest for the imagination of the faithful. The Protestant Reformation erupted over the Church’s selling of indulgences and other spiritual favors. Puritans received the fruits of hard work and thrift with thankfulness and generosity, only to find that acquisitiveness provoked by an ever-expanding American frontier threatened virtue. In The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (1904), the political economist Max Weber identified Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination and the search for signs of divine election as fomenting the spirit necessary for capitalism to flourish. Benjamin Franklin’s America was a prime example. Because religious thinkers considered success in the market to be a sign of God’s favor, it was not long before the market became God. Slowly, economics replaced theology in explaining the mysteries of the human condition.

Today theologians are critically responding to market forces that are subverting social values. Instead of focusing on the attainment of life in the hereafter, they are thinking about liberation from poverty, the meaninglessness of consumption, and the possibilities of a just economic order. Harvey Cox, world-renowned professor of divinity at Harvard University, joins this chorus as he turns a critical theological lens on the hyper-capitalism of our day in the highly accessible book The Market as God. In the book, which began as a 1999 Atlantic magazine article, Cox creatively transposes the concepts of theology into the language of capitalism and argues that the metaphors of theology, and religion itself, are being co-opted.

“The Market God” has become a transcendent presence, taking on all the attributes formerly reserved for God alone. The religion of the Market, Cox notes, has its own “myths of origins, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption” (5). Moving in mysterious ways, the Market God is everywhere, knows all things, and wills all things, determining who we are and what we are to become. As a total Geertzian system of symbols, moods, and motivations, the Market presents what Cox calls an “ersatz religion,” a religion based on a lie (8). Cox sees a new religious sensibility in which the Market is deified and its workings sacralized as the “First Cause” of modern society (9). Faith in the Market God is pervasive and unwavering despite its contradictions.

Cox, best known for his popular 1965 book The Secular City, contributed to the secular theologies that were then in vogue. In the midst of that decade’s abundance, a young Cox saw the possibility that the secular city, with its mobility, technology, and anonymity, held the promise of actualizing the freedom previously only hoped for in the biblical narrative. The foundational tenets of biblical religion, Cox argued, had made secularization possible, even if only to supersede it. Secularization appeared as “the loosing of the world from religious and quasi-religious understandings of itself, the dispelling of all closed worldviews, the breaking of supernatural myths and sacred symbols.” It was, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed, “man’s coming of age.” What many, including Cox, could not foresee was the transformation of the Market into a transcendent presence with its own sacred myths and symbols. Humanity will not live without faith.

Underwriting the secular city that Cox championed was an economic system that was well on its way to becoming what Pope Francis calls the “savage capitalism” of today. In the last 50 years, the world has seen not the inclusive expansion of freedom but the destruction of economic hope for billions of people in overcrowded cities. The Market as God might be an example of what Bonhoeffer meant when he proposed that theologians had to learn to “speak of God in a secular fashion and find a nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts,” an approach Cox encouraged in 1965. In turn, market boosters are theologizing by casting the Market as a Tillichian ultimate concern and a wiser Cox has returned to interpret the signs of the times.

The Market, like all human artifice, is neither natural nor neutral but an object of moral reflection, and in emotive prose Cox offers a moral inquiry into its attributes. Those looking for scientific analysis or theoretical elegance will be disappointed. Engaging in the poetics of theology Cox “follow[s] the money” in religion and society through a historical sketch of the Market’s journey to its current prominence (136). Operating under the purview of social institutions and as an extension of religious spaces, markets were originally expected to operate for the common good, not as an end in themselves. The power of markets was constrained by the values of family, tribe, religion, rituals, and government; as those factors weakened, Cox illustrates, capitalism grew to the absolutist position it holds today.

Cox examines the significant power of the Market through the development of the corporation, high finance, and mass marketing. A new kind of “person” has emerged in the corporation that is both immortal and made blameless by the concept of “limited liability.” It exhibits the characteristics of a “shape-shifting” narcissist—self-absorbed, entitled, and lacking empathy (48–51). The courts have continually expanded corporate “personhood,” increasing protections under the U.S. Constitution. Flesh and blood cannot battle against the corporate Goliaths.

Everything is for sale under the Market God’s financial system of mortgages, consumer credit, and predatory lending. The current financial sector, with its “ethereal quality,” is ten times greater than the “real economy” of manufacturing and production (105, 102). It extracts profits, interest, and fees without commensurate production. A small number of people are making money producing nothing but increasingly complex financial instruments. The result is vast and growing global inequality as more wealth is concentrated at the top.

Cox demonstrates how the aura of the Market and its econometrics has infiltrated every human activity: language, images, values, relationships—even human life, as body parts and genes are commodities subject to market forces. We live in a market-shaped “social imaginary” reducing everything to its “cash value” (176, 180). Like the Christian church, the Market has a universal mission to spread the good news of unlimited growth and salvation through the gratification of desire. In Foucauldian fashion, it evokes and disciplines desire in a world where “there is never enough” (21). The Market seeks converts and internalizes its values by spreading what Weber called the “capitalist geist” through its own Pentecost (187). Its medium is the pixel that makes up the images disseminated to all flesh via television and smartphones. The image instigates desires, arouses emotions, and offers unlimited abundance and self-fashioning. Like the transcendent God before whom “all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid,” the Market God knows all desires and creates new ones through “focus groups,” the equivalent of the religious confessional, and advertising (232–233).

As Wall Street follows the sacred mantra “grow or die,” churches and other religious institutions have joined the Market’s “world-shaping ethos” (115, 11). A Market mind-set has spread to religion. We are seeing mega-churches in which CEO pastors struck with “growth-itis” manage a specialized staff, fundraise for million-dollar budgets, and design consumer-driven services (128). These are churches suited for today’s consumer, offering a comfortable mall atmosphere providing anonymity while serving cappuccino and croissants.

All religions have a founder or a patron saint. Economists and capitalists have drafted Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century Protestant moral philosopher and economist, as the father of modern economics. Cox argues that this is a dubious honor because Smith contradicts key tenets of the Market ethos. Natural theology and a moderate Calvinism permeate Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith, Cox argues, is more accurately seen as a theologian. As such, he held to the substantive goals of the common good and rootedness in a local community rather than to the Market ethos of “radical individualism and instant mobility” (21). Cox reclaims Smith as one whose “prophetic spirit” struggled to define the parameters of economic justice (175).

Markets have always existed and will continue to do so. The question Cox raises is how “our civilization can draw on the obvious strengths of the Market but avoid its self-divinizing excesses” (22). Having gone from a society with markets to a Market economy, we must take on the challenge of denaturalizing and transforming it. We created it, and we can change it to become once again the means to social flourishing and not the end.

Cox looks to the unwavering bias for the poor expressed in the biblical narrative and the Hebraic call for a “Jubilee Year,” the periodic “radical redistribution of wealth,” as a guide for an ethical economics (85). His own prescription is more modest, calling for a “restoratio humani,” the restoration of people and things to their proper place (260). Cox finds rootedness in an older Catholic concept of “subsidiarity,” in which social goals are most successfully accomplished through the lowest level of economic and political organization (268). The common good is best served through decentralizing and breaking down hierarchical structures into small-scale banks, businesses, and other institutions. These are the means Cox promotes for democratizing the economy.

Given the increasing diseconomies of scale and increasing complexity in society, there are signs that the Market is straining under its own hubris. Although Cox is successful in portraying the threat to our common life presented by an absolutist Market ethos, he is less successful in noting the many ways in which the Market is failing on its own terms. The “diviners and seers of the Market’s mood” do not fully understand the workings of what we have built, because they are unable to predict the next downturn or guarantee the safeguarding of wealth (17). The economic Frankenstein’s monster is a mysterious thing that baffles even the most sophisticated. Yet as Cox notes, millions of ordinary Americans are resisting by quietly participating in restoring the life-giving place of local markets through co-ops, worker-owned firms, and credit unions. To those could be added attempts to organize a new labor movement and a return to mutual-aid models that sustained many in the past. Americans are searching for a social vision that serves people against the rule of the Market God, and the impassioned and timely Cox has reminded us of the moral challenges of our economic life.

Posted on 5 December 2016

LILIAN CALLES BARGER is an independent cultural, intellectual and gender historian. Her current book project is a history of the origins of liberation theologies in the Americas.