Capitalist Realism, Capitalist Religion

”One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.”

Walter Benjamin, Capitalism as religion

“Avarice — once one of the seven deadly sins — morphed into the ‘self-interest’ or ‘initiative’ indispensable to wealth and innovation, while the inscrutable ways of Providence yielded to the laws of supply and demand.”

Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon

“Even a quick glance at the self-improvement, management, spirituality, and Christian guidance genres reveals their thematic similarities: exhortations to “discover your inner strength,” “call the good into your life,” and “live without limits.” How could such disparate categories become nearly identical in their message?”

Regina Munch, Capitalism as Religion: How Money Became God

We are part of a family where, when gathered, there is much discussion and analysis of social responsibility and personal accountability in terms of finances, parenting, education, etc. Our parents are conservative, but our brothers are liberal. The views shared are not entirely ideological in a partisan sense and there is often much agreement about premises, as most Americans share an unquestioned faith in the dogma of hyper-individualism, captialist realism, and natural consequences — all of the accoutrements of WEIRD bias at the extremes of Jaynesian egoic-consciousness. It’s an all-encompassing worldview for those within it. Alternatives are not entertained, much less acknowledged. Such moral-tinged talk always implies that the world is a certain way, that it should not and cannot be otherwise, or else simply can’t be imagined to the contrary. There is no suggestion, of course, that anything is wrong or lacking within the system itself.

The lives of those individuals who fail according to the enforced social norms and rules are offered up as exemplary morality tales of what not to do, along with just-so narratizing of their failure and inferiority, although the condescension is couched within superficial non-judgment and neutral observation. After all, those others have no one to blame other than themselves, as isolated and self-contained moral agents. Or else, assuming they were simply born that way because of some combination of genetic predilection and inborn personality, familial patterns and inherited culture, there is nothing the rest of us can do about it, other than to express our sense of pity in noting how they acted wrongly or inadequately within the established system of social reality as given through the inevitable and unalterable link from cause to effect. To attempt to intervene would likely make things worse, as it would circumvent capitalism as a pedagoical system, one variety of the conservative morality-punishment link as social control. Each individual must learn or else suffer, as God or Nature intended. Still, much concern and worrying is offered.

Yet, for whatever reason, this ideological worldview as totalizing mazeway and habitus makes absolutely no sense to some of us. The indoctrination never quite took full hold in our psyche — maybe a personal failing of ours, as we are the least outwardly and normatively ‘successful’ in the family. In listening in on the talk of other family members, we can feel like an alien anthropological observer of strange cultural customs and religious practices. We can’t help but imagine that future historians will portray our present society in the way we look back on slavery and feudalism, humoral temperaments and miasmic air, witchburnings and bloodletting, an economically and scientifically backward period of societal development, like the pimples of an awkward and gangly teenager who is no longer a child but not quite an adult, if pimples involved mass oppression and suffering. But it goes beyond the outward social order itself. The underlying belief system can seem the strangest of all. The power it holds in socially constructing a reality tunnel is amazing, to say the least.

We’ve previously noted how humans will go to great effort, even self-sacrifice, to enforce social norms. A social order as an ideological lifeworld doesn’t happen on accident. It doesn’t develop organically. It has to be created and enforced, and then continuously re-created and re-enforced again and again across time. It’s an endless project that requires immense investment of time, effort, and money (trillions upon trillions of dollars are spent every year to fund the system of social control to punish the guilty and reward the worthy). For at least a decade, we’ve had the tentative theory that bullshit jobs are simply busywork to maintain the system or rather they are ritual activity like monks going through their daily routine of prayers, chanting, and monastical maintenance. Most work likely doesn’t serve any practical value other than upholding and enacting the very system that is dependent on the worker identity, where non-workers are non-entities or of questionable status to be used, punished, controlled, or dismissed as needed and by whatever means necessary. Yet when, pandemic panic shut down large swaths of the economy, it starkly demonstrated what was and was not essential work while the economy lumbered on just fine. The fears proved false. The forecast of doom never came.

As always, this brings us to thoughts on the ruling elite that are themselves ruled by their own elitism, taken in by their own culture of propaganda, the first victims of viral mind control to be spread like a plague from pussy rags thrown into the town well. The indoctrination is trickledown, if not the wealth and resources. The point is the oligarchs and plutocrats are in many ways sincerely paternalistic, elitist and supremacist in believing their own fevered rantings, as dementedly hypocritical as it can seem from an outside perspective. Obviously, this society is not the best of all possible worlds and, in some ways, the very point is to suppress progress, where the destabilizing consequences of creative destruction mostly apply to the victmized permanent underclass. Yet the costs of maintaining the social order, although disproportionately offloaded onto the dirty masses, also harms the monied classes. But one suspects that most social dominators take it as a good deal for there could be no value in a superior lifestyle of privilege, prestige, and power if benefits could not be denied to others — the scarcity principle of value. It’s simply the costs of doing business and business, as such, is doing well within the American Empire. That more value might be destroyed (endless war, imperial bureaucracy, suppression of competition, wanton destruction of human potential, etc) than created is not a concern, as long as the profits and benefits get concentrated among the deserving.

Capitalism is simply a modern religion, far from being an original insight. And the assumption of inborn selfishness within homo economicus is a variant on the belief in an Original Sin that marks all of humanity as a shared curse that justifes the system of punishment and sufferng that, accordng to doctrine, cleanses the soul and strengthens character. Economics is theology and economists the clergy. The cult of the market is operated according to various rites and rituals, theological doctrine and clerical law upheld by the mysterious authorities of Wall Street, US Chamber of Commerce (USCC), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), US Department of the Treasury (USDT), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Federal Reserve System (“Fed”), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (IBRD & IDA), World Trade Organization (WTO), Group of Eight (G8), etc. The consumer-citizen seeks their salvation and redemption through workplace observence within corporate-churches and economic transactions of buying product-indulgences at market-shrines.

One could analyze it endlessly, as many others have already done. But what motivated our thoughts here was the basic observation of how it operates in such a casual and thoughtless manner. The theology of capitalist realism rolls off the tongue as if a comforting prayer invoking Divine Law. It’s such a simple and compelling faith that has such power because there is a vast institutional hegemony, if mostly hidden, enforcing Natural Law-and-Order. Even the economic sinners, the lost souls, and the excommunicated who fall under the punisment of debt, poverty, and homelessness rarely question the moral justification of their fate nor the system that sentenced judgment upon them, in the hope they might regain Divine Favor of material fortune, to be welcomed back by the Invisible Hand into the congregation of the saved. We so easily internalize this ideological worldview and identify with it. The even worse fate, so it seems, would be to lose faith entirely and find oneself in the ideological desert with no shared moral order to offer certainty, no shared moral imagination to offer comfort.

“Critics of the disenchantment narrative have long noticed that if you look closely at western modernity, this ostensibly secular and rational regime, you find it pretty much teeming with magical thinking, supernatural forces, and promises of grace. Maybe the human yearning for enchantment never went away; it just got redirected. God is there, just pointing down other paths. As scholars like Max Weber have noted, capitalism is a really a religion, complete with its own rites, deities, and rituals. Money is the Great Spirit, the latest gadgets are its sacred relics, and economists, business journalists, financiers, technocrats, and managers make up the clergy. The central doctrine holds that money will flow to perform miracles in our lives if we heed the dictates of the market gods.”

Lynn Parramore, The Gospel of Capitalism is the Biggest Turkey of All

“…capitalism is a form of enchantment—perhaps better, a misenchantment, a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world. Its animating spirit is money. Its theology, philosophy, and cosmology have been otherwise known as “economics.” Its sacramentals consist of fetishized commodities and technologies—the material culture of production and consumption. Its moral and liturgical codes are contained in management theory and business journalism. Its clerisy is a corporate intelligentsia of economists, executives, managers, and business writers, a stratum akin to Aztec priests, medieval scholastics, and Chinese mandarins. Its iconography consists of advertising, public relations, marketing, and product design. Its beatific vision of eschatological destiny is the global imperium of capital, a heavenly city of business with incessantly expanding production, trade, and consumption. And its gospel has been that of “Mammonism,” the attribution of ontological power to money and of existential sublimity to its possessors.”

Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon

“While the economist community that is comprised of economists sanctioned by the religion acts as the clergy of the religion, modern media which took the place of individual church buildings as a medium of communication acts as their medium to preach the religion to the society. This setup is amended by the education institutions and scientific institutions which act as the appendages to the Church, where children are educated/indoctrinated to the religion and its tenets from an early age by instilling them with ideas of competition, consumerism, materialism based success and in general a complete worldview that is created based on the religion’s tenets. The higher education and scientific institutions continue the education/indoctrination, creating the subsequent generations of clergy to preach the religion and run the institutions.”

Ozgur Zeren, Capitalism is Religion

Democratic Realism

We are defined by our opposition, in many ways. And a society is determined by the frame of opposition, the boundaries of allowable thought — such as right and left (or equivalent frame). This is how power has operated in the United States. In recent generations, this frame of the “political spectrum” has intentionally been kept extremely narrow. Sadly, it is precisely the supposed political left that has kept pushing right, such as the Clinton Democrats supporting the military-industrial complex, corporate deregulation, racist tough-on-crime laws, privatization of prisons, etc; not to mention supposed radical leftists like Noam Chomsky acting as sheepdogs for the one-party corporatist state.

In the past, right-wing reactionaries have often been successful by controlling the terms of debate, from co-opting language and redefining it (consider how libertarianism originated as part of the left-wing workers movement and how human biodiversity was conceived as a criticism of race realism) to the CIA in the Cold War funding moderate leftists (postmodernists, Soviet critics, etc) as part of a strategy to drown out radical leftists. This is how the most devious propaganda works, not primarily or entirely by silencing enemies of the state — although that happens as well — but through social control by means of thought control and public perception management. One might note that such propaganda has been implemented no matter which faction of plutocracy, Democrat or Republican, was in power.

This is how authoritarians create an oppressive society while hiding much of its overt violence behind a system of rhetoric. That is while the corporate media assists in not fully reporting on all of the poor and brown people killed abroad and imprisoned at home. Plus, there is systematic suppression of public awareness, public knowledge, and public debate about how immense is the slow violence of lead toxicity, poverty, inequality, segregation, disenfranchisement, etc). The propagandistic framing of thought control cripples the public mind and so paralyzes the body politic.

As such, any freedom-lover would not hope for an authoritarian left-wing to replace the present authoritarian right-wing. But we must become more savvy about authoritarianism. We Americans and other populations around the world have to become sophisticated in our intellectual defenses against rhetoric and propaganda. And we have to develop a counter-strategy to regain control of public fora in order to protect and ensure genuine public debate defined by a genuinely democratic public as an informed, engaged, and empowered citizenry. This would require a program of public education to teach what is authoritarianism, specifically how it operates and takes over societies, and also what relationship it has to the reactionary mind.

Before we get to that point, we need to free our minds from how the enforcement of authoritarian rhetoric becomes internalized as an ideological realism that is experienced as apathetic cynicism, as helpless and hopeless fatalism. So, let’s have a thought experiment and not limit ourselves to what the powers that be claim is possible. We could imagine a society where the right-wing and conservative opposition is represented by some combination of social democrats, progressives, bourgeois liberals, communitarians, and such. This far right and no further! There might be influential thought leaders acting as gatekeepers who would guard the ideological boundaries or else public shaming to maintain social norms in order keep out fascists, imperialists, and other outright authoritarians — ideological positions that would be considered immoral, dangerous, and taboo in respectable society.

Meanwhile, democratic socialists, municipal socialists, community organizers, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, and reformist groups would hold the position of moderate centrism. And on the other side of the equation, powerful social, economic and political forces of anarcho-syndicalism, radical liberationism, international labor movements, etc would constantly push the Overton window further and further to the the far left. This would allow the potential for center-left alliances to form strong political blocs.

This must require a strong culture of trust and a well developed system of democracy, not only democracy in politics but also in economics and as a holistic worldview that would be felt and practiced in everyday life. Democracy could never be part of the public debate for it would have to be the entire frame of public debate. Democracy is about the demos, the people, the public. Public debate, by definition, is and can only be democratic debate. Anything and everything could be tolerated, as long as it isn’t anti-democratic, which is why authoritarianism would be excluded by default. The public must develop a gut-level sense of what it means to live not only in a democratic society but as part of a democratic culture.

That would create immense breathing room for genuine, meaningful, and effective public debate that would be supported by a populist-driven political will with majority opinion situated to the left of what goes for the ‘left’ in the present ideological hegemony of the United States. That is our fantasy world, if not exactly a utopian vision. We could imagine many scenarios much more revolutionary and inspiring, but what we describe wouldn’t be a bad start. At the very least, it would be a more interesting and less depressing society to live in.

Rather than a political left always weakened and on the defense, often oppressed and brutalized and almost always demoralized, it would be an entire culture that had taken the broad ‘left’ as the full spectrum of ideological possibilities to be considered. As the revolutionary era led to the social construction of a post-feudal liberalism and conservatism, a 21st century revolution of the mind would imagine into existence a post-neo-feudal democratic left and democratic right. Democracy would be taken as an unquestioned and unquestionable given, based on the assumption of it representing the best of all possible worlds. In place of capitalist realism and fascist realism or even communist realism, we would have democratic realism.

* * *

This post was inspired by a strong left-wing critique of the failures of social democracy in Western countries (see below). The author, Stephen Gowans, is a foreign policy analyst with several books in print. In his recent article, he argued that social democracy has been, in practice, fundamentally conservative in how capitalist societies and their political systems are designed or shaped by elites and so serve elite interests. We don’t know what to think of Gowans’ own political proclivities of old school leftism, but he makes a good point that we find compelling.

The bogeymen of communists, both in the Soviet Union and in the West, kept capitalist power in line and so curtailed fascism and other authoritarian tendencies. If not for the ideological threat of the Soviets as a global superpower, there likely would have been no leverage for radical leftists in the West to force political and economic elites to comply with the reforms they demanded. Similarly, it was the Soviet attack on the American oppression of blacks that gave the civil rights movement the ability to influence an otherwise unsympathetic government ruled by rich whites who benefited from their continued oppression.

Social democrats often are given the credit for these reforms, but the actual social and political force came from radical left-wingers. This is not unlike why Teddy Roosevelt openly argued that conservative and pro-capitalist progressives should listen to the grievances of socialists and communists so as to co-opt them. In offering their own solutions, such leaders on the political right could steal the thunder of left-wing rhetoric and moral force. So, Roosevelt could throw out some significant reforms to reign in big biz at home while simultaneously promoting am American imperialism that defended and expanded the interests of big biz abroad. He only offered any reforms at all because left-wingers were a real threat that needed to be neutralized.

So, once the external pressure of a threatening geopolitical opponent was gone, those very same elites could safely reverse the reforms they had previously been forced to allow, in fear of the alternative of a left-wing uprising. The object of their fear was eliminated and so the elites could once again show their true face of authoritarianism. What we added to this line of thought was, if social democrats have acted like conservatives under these conditions, then we should more accurately treat them as an ideology on the political right. In that case, what follows from this is then how to define the political center and political left.

Here is another thought, to extend the speculation about how our enemies shape us and hence the importance of carefully picking our enemies, which then defines our frame of reference. We are in another period of geopolitical contest that already is or is quickly becoming a second cold war, but this time the perceived enemy or rather enemies are no longer on the political left. What the ruling elites in the West offer up as a scapegoat for our anxieties are now all far right, if in a rather mixed up fasnion: Islamic Jihadists, Iranian theocrats, Russian oligarchs, Chinese fascists, and a North Korean dictator. In response to these right-wing threats, the Western authoritarians have pushed further right. This is different than in the past when, in facing down left-wing threats, the powerful interests of the time felt they had to relent in letting themselves be pulled left.

Apparently, according to this established dynamic of ideological forces, to make real our crazy fantasy of ideological realignment toward the political left what we need is a new left-wing bogeyman outside of the Western sphere, as a supposed threat to Western civilization. Better yet, make the perceived opposing left-wing ideology non-democratic or anti-democratic so that by being in knee-jerk opposition to it mainstream media and political figures in the West would be forced to be polarized in the other direction by adopting democratic rhetoric and democratic reforms. Sheer genius!

Social Democracy, Soviet Socialism and the Bottom 99 Percent
(text below is from link)

Many left-leaning US citizens are envious of countries that have strong social democratic parties, but their envy is based mainly on romantic illusions, not reality. Western Europe and Canada may be represented by mass parties at the Socialist International, but the subtitle of Lipset and Marks’ book, Why Socialism Failed in the United States, is just as applicable to these places as it is to the United States. For socialism—in the sense of a gradual accumulation of reforms secured through parliamentary means eventually leading to a radical transformation of capitalist society–not only failed in the United States, it failed too in the regions of the world that have long had a strong social democratic presence. Even a bourgeois socialism, a project to reform (though not transcend) capitalism, has failed.

This essay explores the reasons for this failure by examining three pressures that shape the agendas of social democratic parties (by which I mean parties that go by the name Socialist, Social Democrat, Labour, NDP, and so on.) These are pressures to:

• Broaden the party’s appeal.
• Avoid going to war with capital.
• Keep the media onside.

These pressures are an unavoidable part of contesting elections within capitalist democracies, and apply as strongly to parties dominated by business interests as they do to parties that claim to represent the interests of the working class, labour, or these days, ‘average’ people or ‘working families’. The behaviour and agenda of any party that is trapped within the skein of capitalist democracy and places great emphasis on electoral success—as social democratic parties do–is necessarily structured and constrained by the capitalist context. As such, while social democratic parties may self-consciously aim to represent the bottom 99 percent of society, they serve–whether intending to or not—the top one percent.

So how is it, then, that egalitarian reforms have been developed in capitalist democracies if not through the efforts of social democratic parties? It’s true that social democrats pose as the champions of these programs, and it’s also true that conservatives are understood to be their enemies, yet conservatives have played a significant role in pioneering them, and social democrats, as much as right-wing parties, have been at the forefront of efforts to weaken and dismantle them. Contrary to the mythology of social democratic parties, the architects of what measures exist in capitalist democracies for economic security and social welfare haven’t been social democrats uniquely or even principally, but often conservatives seeking to calm working class stirrings and secure the allegiance to capitalism of the bottom 99 percent of society against the counter-example (when it existed) of the Soviet Union. […]

Egalitarian reforms, however, have been achieved over the years in Western capitalist societies, despite these obstacles, and this reality would seem to call my argument into question. Yet the number and nature of the reforms have fallen short of the original ambitions of social democracy, and in recent decades, have been abridged, weakened and sometimes cancelled altogether, often by social democratic governments themselves. […]

The point, however, isn’t to explore the reasons for the Soviet Union’s demise, but to show that while it existed, the USSR provided a successful counter-example to capitalism. The ideological struggle of the capitalist democracies against the Soviet Union entailed the provision of robust social welfare programs and the translation of productivity gains into a monotonically rising standard of living. Once the ideological struggle came to an end with the closing of the Cold War, it was no longer necessary to impart these advantages to the working classes of North America, Western Europe and Japan. Despite rising productivity, growth in household incomes was capped, and social welfare measures were systematically scaled back.

Social democracy did nothing to reverse or arrest these trends. It was irrelevant. When strong social welfare measures and rising incomes were needed by the top one percent to undercut working class restlessness and the Soviet Union’s counter-example, these advantages were conferred on the bottom 99 percent by both social democratic and conservative governments. When these sops were no longer needed, both conservative and social democratic governments enacted measures to take them back. […]

Since capitalist forces would use the high-profile and visible platform of their mass media to vilify and discredit any party that openly espoused socialism or strongly promoted uncompromisingly progressive policies, social democratic parties willingly accept the capitalist straitjacket, embracing middle-of-the-road, pro-capitalist policies, while shunting their vestigial socialist ambitions to the side or abandoning them altogether. They planted themselves firmly on the left boundary of the possible, the possible being defined by conservative forces.

Conclusion

When social democratic parties espoused socialism as an objective, even if a very distant one, the socialism they espoused was to be achieved with the permission of capital on capital’s terms–an obvious impossibility. It is perhaps in recognizing this impossibility that most social democratic parties long ago abandoned socialism, if not in their formal programs, then certainly in their deeds. That social democratic parties should have shifted from democratic socialist ambitions to the acceptance of capitalism and the championing of reforms within it, and then finally to the dismantling of the reforms, is an inevitable outcome of the pressures cited above.

But the outcome is ultimately traceable to what history surely reveals to be a bankrupt strategy: trying to arrive at socialism, or at least, at a set of robust measures congenial to the interests of the bottom 99 percent, within the hostile framework of a system that is dominated by the top one percent. The best that has been accomplished, and its accomplishment cannot be attributed to social democratic parliamentary activism, is a set of revocable reforms that were conceded under the threat, even if unlikely, of revolution and in response to capitalism’s need to compete ideologically with the Soviet Union. These reforms are today being revoked, by conservative and social democratic governments alike. The reality is that social democracy, which had set out to reform capitalism on behalf of the bottom 99 percent, was reformed by it, and acts now to keep the top one percent happy in return for every now and then championing mild ameliorative measures that conservative forces would concede anyway under pressure.

Race Realism and Racialized Medicine

I came across the passage below (pp. 143-145) which brings up one of the most important problems. I came across this in the essay “Evolutionary Versus Racial Medicine: Why It Matters” by Joseph L. Graves, Jr. It is from the collection Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture:

Thus far, health disparity research and literature has not incorporated the full evolutionary medical approach. Generally, when biology is addressed as a cause of disparity and the focus has been on genetic differences that exist between reputed racial/ethnic groups, the evidence supporting the connection has been tenuous.5 The logical errors concerning genetic causality result from either ignoring or misunderstanding evolutionary genetics. The lack of training in evolutionary biology among medical researchers and practitioners accounts for this oversight.6 In particular, biomedical scientists often confuse the existence of geographically based genetic variation as proof of the existence of biological races. They also incorrectly assume that genetic differences in loci associated with complex diseases between populations is one of the causes of health disparity.7

[ . . . ] Despite the fact that most physicians practice medicine as if biological races are clearly defined in modern humans, there are few scientists or physicians who can or are willing to construct an argument to support racial medicine. The modern medical literature still utilizes nineteenth-century anthropological categories in group studies. For example, a recent search of Entrez Pubmed (conducted on January 6, 2010) utilizing the term “race” returned 114,305 articles from the human biomedical literature. More specifically, searches on Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid race returned 52,846, 22,667, and 38,792 citations, respectively. While one can still debate the utility of the term “race” in the human biomedical literature, almost no one defends the idea that nineteenth-century racial categories are legitimate or that these (Caucasian, Mongoloid, or Negroid) are of much use in twenty-first-century research.

This touches upon a similar point I previously came across in a context that had nothing to do with race and racialized medicine.

It’s not just that most medical research about race is problematic. In general, medical research is one of the most problematic fields of research. It’s not just that most medical researchers and practitioners lack training in evolutionary biology. Most of them also lack training in research methodology and analysis. Anyone can do research and many doctors are interested in doing research, but it isn’t their field of expertise. Because of this, medical research is often of a lower quality and so less reliable.

We know so little about genetics. Considering what we do know, there appears to be many people doing research who don’t even understand that small amount. Medical researchers are still using obsolete racial terms from centuries ago, really?

The context for this is race realism which reminds me of capitalist realism. The two seem to go together. Both offer a pessimism about human nature, whether seen as humans constrained to their genetics or to their greed. This kind of false pragmatism is the most dangerous thing our society faces. It blinds us to the larger reality that surrounds us. It precludes new possibilities and unconsidered solutions.

When researchers think ideologically instead of scientifically, the entire scientific method is undermined. This racial realism isn’t reality. It is an ideology about reality. The racial ideology is being used as an assumption upon which to base research instead of a hypothesis to be tested. This makes it inevitable that the ideological results sought are found. By dividing the data according to a social construct, those social constructs are reified. This is how structural racism operates.

Race realists believe genetics causes and contributes to not just race but IQ, poverty, violence, mental illness, and just about every other aspect of society. All problems are the inevitable results of inborn traits. It is a genetic determinism that often goes hand in hand with a cultural determinism, ethnicity being the connection between the two. With this worldview, there is very little to be done about any problem other than keep the genetically inferior people out of our communities and out of our country. Build walls and gated communities.

There is no room for compassion and hope in such a reactionary worldview. There are no solutions, just damage control.

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

A Dangerous Pragmatism