Thursday, October 16, 2008

Capitalism needs our Faith. The global economy will never be secular again

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Welcome to the faith-based economy posted by Arjun Appadurai

But now we are in a new Weberian moment, where Calvinist ideas of proof, certainty of election through the rationality of good works, and faith in the rightness of predestination, are not anymore the backbone of thrift, calculation and bourgeois risk-taking. Now faith is about something else. It is faith in capitalism itself, capitalism viewed as a transcendent means of organizing human affairs, of capitalism as a theodicy for the explanation of evil, lust, greed and theft in the economy, and of the meltdown as a supreme form of testing by suffering, which will weed out the weak of heart from those of true good faith.

We must believe in capitalism, in the ways that the early Protestants were asked to believe in predestination. Not all are saved, but we must all act as if we might be saved, and by acting as if we might be among the saved, we enact our faith in capitalism, even if we might be among the doomed or damned. Such faith must be shown in our works, in our actions: we must continue to spend, to work hard, to invest, and, as George Bush long ago said, “to shop” as if our very lives depended on it. In other words, capitalism now needs our faith more than our faith needs capitalism. Practically, what does this mean? It means austerity, chosen or imposed...

Max Weber, Durkheim and the other giants of early social science watched with concern as the march of industrial capitalism, science and the division of labor appeared to erode religious belief and we seemed to be well on the way to a “disenchanted world.” But the Iron Cage turned out to be a Pandora’s Box.

In the 1950s, sixties and early seventies, the general social science consensus was that modernization after World War II was sure to replace religion with faith in science, bureaucracy, law and education. But the world turned out to be a perverse place and, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, it became evident that religion was not on the retreat. Evangelical Protestantism was born again in the United States, Islam became the very paradigm of an expansive and aggressive religious ideology, Roman Catholicism was quick to fight back in its own favored climates and constituencies, notably in Latin America, Eastern and Southern Europe and in various parts of Asia and Africa.

Even Hinduism and Buddhism, normally seen as quiet and sleepy, went global with a renewed energy and pushed their interests into various national and diasporic public spheres with scary effect in many parts of South and South-East Asia. As migrants began to carry their religious affiliations with them through the internet, television, telephone and the press, many world cities, from Detroit, London and Berlin, to Sao Paulo, Cairo and Seoul, began to be the sites of multiple religious movements, conversions, cults and churches, representing every variety of global evangelism and many varieties of indigenous tradition. The story of the Korean Protestant aid workers kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan recently is only the most bizarre in a worldwide drama of leveraged conversions or duelling evangelisms. And quite a large number of people seemed to be interested in being soldiers (and cleansers) in religious wars.

And capitalism itself in the last decades of the twentieth century has been observed to be tied up with numerous forms of hysteria, panic and mystery. Local entrepreneurs in sites as different as Lagos, Taiwan and Guatemala connected new forms of gambling, speculation and scam to the related languages of salvation and millennial profit. These new forms of re-enchanted capitalism have generally been tied to the capitalist badlands, where traditions of fetish, phantasm and spectre have frequently surrounded money and its reproduction. It is hardly news, especially to anthropologists, that the repressed fetishes of the commodity are always part of the lunatic edges of modern capitalism, thus giving rise to many brands of casino capitalism, evangelical entrepreneurship and proletarian life-wagering...

The cardinal mystery of the market, of course, verily its Spirit, is the Invisible Hand. For the Invisible Hand to move again, it needs a Helping Hand from us, the wretched of Main Street. And in lending this helping hand, in the biggest bailout in human history, we are asked to show our Faith in the Economy. For once, and perhaps for the last time, capitalism needs our Faith as much as we need its mysteries. The global economy will never be secular again.

[For more on the current economic crisis, see the SSRC "President's Question," where Craig Calhoun asks, "What do we know about the bailouts?"---ed.] This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 14th, 2008 at 11:02 am and is filed under Religion & American politics.

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