Symposium Introduction

Oh, the return of religion! Oh, the festivity!

Scholars of religion, theologians, religion reporters, faith leaders alike have commented repeatedly over the last decades or so—with the glee of victors—about the naivete of the secularization thesis. Rather than quickly and quietly receding from view, religious belief and practice are alive and well in the world, with all the challenges and ambiguity it brings. How could sociologists have been so naïve to think that religion would so easy fade away, that religion would be cast aside for science, for natural reason, for social progress? How reductionistic their view of religion was—they say—to have thought that the belief in God would shrink away, that religion itself would not adjust itself in the face of secularizing forces?

A central part of the secularization thesis was the idea that as western society became less agrarian and more industrialized, the twin processes of urbanization and modernization would eclipse religion by shaping people and communities towards social progress and scientific understanding, making religious belief redundant, idiosyncratic, and eccentric. The resultant freedom of the individual—the ability to think beyond and outside the normative strictures of religious dogma—would lead to explorations and understandings of the world and its wonders through pragmatism and profanity.

In 1965, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City became an instant touch-point for exploring the changes in religion brought by these shifts in culture, secularization, and modernization in particular. Cox understood the promise and peril of the secular in ways ahead of his time, and accurately prognosticated the many changes to religion during the decades that followed. He predicted even then the various ways that the secular would push religion into other spheres than it previously occupied—and the social and political unrest this would bring. Nevertheless, these shifts in religion towards the secular, he argued, should be welcomed by people of faith.

Harvey Cox’s latest book The Market as God (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016) may be read as yet another way to reflect again on that thesis and to ask whether the ambiguity of secularization lies in the way that religion often takes up residence in differing spheres of human life, imbuing its explanatory power and persuasive influence in new areas; in this case, economics, and more explicitly, the Market. The central thesis of The Market as God is that late modern society has deified the Market, with its functions explained and priorities defended in starkly religious with direct analogues to familiar Christian doctrines. “The purpose of this book,” Cox explains, “is to bring that theology out of the shadows. I want to demonstrate that the way the world economic operates today is not simply ‘natural’ or ‘just the ways things work,’ but is shaped by a powerful and global system of values and symbols that can best be understood as an ersatz religion.” (8)

There is much to commend about such a project. If we are honest, economics has always been theological. For example, Devin Singh’s brand-new book, Divine Currency (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018) details how even early Christians turned to the language and ideas of economics in order to make the case for their new, strange theological ideas. The power of money, of currency, of the techniques of transaction and the metaphors of exchange over social and political forms of life in the West originates from their theological use as a way of talking about God.

Commenting on the religious character of the market and money is not, in any way, new. So, what makes The Market as God worth reading? What about its argument can help us all better understand and respond to our current state?

Syndicate is very glad to bring you a discussion between the author of The Market as God, Harvey Cox and five leading voices in the area of religion and economics: liberation theologian Jung Mo Sung, theological ethicists Dan Rhodes and Christina McRorie, leading critical theorist Kenneth Surin, and religion and economics scholar Robert H. Nelson. Our panelists think differently about the book in question, but they speak powerfully and persuasively about what they found whilst reading The Market as God, and the kinds of questions it raises for economists, theologians, and ethicists.

Jung Mo Sung celebrates Cox’s work in The Market as God sees three areas upon which to build a more robust theological critique of the economy. Cox does well to argue that the logic of the market is undeniably religious but rushes too quickly past key concepts such as “transcendence” or “faith in the market,” both of which are necessary to offer a trenchant theological critique of market religion. Such a critique would expand on market idolatry, and offer compelling theological reasons, building on concepts of sacrifice (as Terry Eagleton has recently done) to further offer a negative account of the real material damage done to human life for the sake of growth, consumption, and efficiency.

Dan Rhodes and Christina McRorie deepen this concern, raising serious questions about whether the analysis extends beyond snark and wit to a real theological argument and as such, whether its effectiveness is undermined. McRorie questions the rhetorical way Cox uses “the Market” and suggests that rather than spurring us to action, The Market as God makes it seem as if the only thing one can do when faced with the Market is to see it for what it is. Rhodes also sees this as problematic and wonders with all the work Cox does to surface the business theology at work in market idolatry, why there is not a proposed counter-theology, beyond some vague appeal to “individual heroism” in the context of fragmented subjects with impotent political agency?

Interestingly enough, the self-proclaimed “heterodox economist” Robert H. Nelson doesn’t find Cox’s account of the Market to be sufficiently informed by economics, and as such, the interpretation of economy through religious concepts falls short. In short, the economics in The Market as God just is not descriptive thick or informed enough to hold the normative weight of Cox’s normative critique of market as idolatry. Nelson summarizes his view this way:

His use of the term “The Market” has little to do with anything an economist would understand as a market system. Rather, he is actually telling a story of a newly revived place of a devil in the world…Since “the devil” is not part of Cox’s normal vocabulary…he had to invent another name…. called “The Market.”

In the final essay, critical theorist Ken Surin lauds the Market as God for its accessibility, its fluency across disciplines (history, economics, religion), and for its sharp moral vision. Surin’s essay is a work unto itself, detailing the various global scandals produced by an institutional player in religion of The Market, Goldman Sachs, and the capitalist market system rigged in its favor. Here Surin points to a problem at Cox’s book: the scant mention of capitalism or how it may be overcome. Surin find Cox’s “theory/theology of restoration” in the closing pages of the book (de-hierarchization, pluralization, democratization, etc) to be a good place to start and even they will ultimately prove ineffective: “Capitalism is in crisis (though it is too early to say that the neoliberal model has died), but there is as yet no counter-capitalist mobilization, now that the names traditionally used to inspire this mobilization (militant, proletarian, even citizen) are no longer salient.”

These essays are strong and varied; they each speak with a powerful voice of their own which attests to the on-going importance of Harvey Cox and his work for contemporary theology and the study of religion in today’s world. You will need to read them all—and The Market as God!—to get their full effect and to learn their lessons.

I want to thank Dr. Harvey Cox for his willingness to engage our authors and contribute to the symposium. I am grateful also to the contributors for their careful and thoughtful work here. I expect the coming conversation unfolding over the next several weeks to be fruitful and substantive. Join us!

Jung Mo Sung

Response

Response to The Market as God

We can summarize the objectives of Harvey Cox’s book, The Market as God, as follows:

  1. One of the great challenges of our time is to recover the market’s “appropriate role as the servant of the Society rather than its master” (22). This reversal of the role of the market in society and in people’s lives has produced massive social exclusion, death and environmental crises. We have to put the market back to its proper place.
  2. To understand this inversion, one must understand that a process of market deification occurred in the current capitalist system, what Pope Francisco calls “idolatry of money,” sacralization of the economic system. In this sense, the economy ceases to be a subject restricted to the field of social ethics or theological ethics, and becomes a religious and theological problem for theologians.
  3. Cox and Pope Francis do not propose the abolition of the market, but its de-deification. For this, theology needs to come out of the shadows and show that “[market economic system] is shaped by a powerful and global system of values and symbols that can best be understood as an ersatz religion. . . . It is a religion because . . . it exhibits all the characteristics of a classical faith. But it is ersatz because the market, like the graven idols of old, was constructed by human hands.”[7–8]

Broadly speaking, I fully agree with Cox’s thesis, and I think he was able to show that, in fact, the capitalist market system became an “ersatz religion” of our time. From this point on, I want to propose three reflections aimed at going forward on this theological critique to the economy.

I.

Harvey Cox demonstrates in his book that the market system has a functioning logic and a scope that are similar to those of traditional religions, that there is a homology between them. Moreover, he assumes the thesis that economics replaces theology in the social function of giving foundation and the general view of society and its values, but unfortunately, he does not demonstrate this by analyzing the endogenous theology present within economics theories, especially neoclassical and neoliberal authors. By not doing this, he does not unmask the undue transcendentalizations that occur in these economic theories, transcendental leaps that lead to undue conclusions.

For example, the thesis that the “invisible hand” of the market always produces the best possible solution for the society, and therefore it is necessary to fight against all types of intervention and regulation in the market, is the result of an undue leap from the empirical fact that the market is a system with self-organizing properties. From the fact that the market functions as a self-organizing system one cannot conclude that it would always produce the best economic and social outcome for the whole society. This leap is an undue transcendentalization that requires “faith in the market.”

Faith in the “free market” produces an important social consequence: the legitimization of sacrifice of human beings who are defeated in the market competition. The reality of the market is that of competition between unequal, not between equals as proclaimed by neoliberal ideology/faith. In this competition the weakest are expelled and their lives are marked by exclusion and suffering, even death. For the “believers” in the market, these sufferings and deaths are necessary sacrifices for the growth of the economy and the well-being of society, that is, those that remain in the market.

Two fundamental concepts, the transcendence/transcendentalization—that founds the faith in the market—and the sacrifice are missing the description of economics as theology presented in this book. Hugo Assmann, one of the founders of liberation theology, in his book The Idolatry of the Market (1989, unfortunately available only in Portuguese and Spanish) made of these two concepts the main axes of his critique of the Market religion and its endogenous theology. (Also see, Miguez, Rieger, and Sung, Beyond the Spirit of Empire, ch. 3)

II.

The realization that in capitalism the market became god or that capitalism functions as a religion (a criticism that Walter Benjamin made in the 1920s) is not sufficient. This statement could be understood as a simple different view of the modern world: capitalism is not secularized, it replaced traditional religions and functions as a “universal” religion within which there are particular traditional religions. It is necessary to offer a criterion to “judge” the Market as god, or to differentiate market system as a bad religion from the “good” one.

Harvey Cox offers the following criterion: “There is, however, one contradiction between the religion of the market and the traditional religions that seems to be insurmountable. All of the traditional religions teach that human beings are finite creatures and that there are limits to any earthly enterprise . . . for whom [The Market] the First Commandment is ‘There is never enough.’ Like the proverbial shark that stops moving, The Market that stops expanding dies” (21).

He separates two groups: premodern religions that recognize the human limits and modern religions (the Market religion and we can add the Communist State of the former USSR as a religion) that do not recognize this limit. In fact, modernity is founded on the notion that there are no limits to human beings and technology, whereas in the premodern world the notion of limit prevails. However, we must not forget that Pelagianism was already a way of thinking the human being as capable of conquering the infinite through his actions.

The major problem lies in the fact that this criterion is not sufficient to discern differences between premodern religions. After all, we cannot accept the idea that there is no qualitative difference between sectors of traditional religions that kill in the name of their god, and those who, in the name of the same god, fight to defend the victims. For example, the difference between Christianity that justified colonialism in the name of God and sectors of Christianity that defended the victims of colonization.

I think this problem, in this important book, lies in the absence of a truly theological criticism, that is, in the absence of a criterion of discernment between the various images of God within the religious field or within a particular religion. And, this criterion cannot be merely religious, a criterion that comes from within the dogmatic theology of a religion. For this would lead us to a circular argument: my God is the true one because my faith says it is.

I think we can find this criterion in the document “Joy of the Gospel,” which influenced Cox’s book. Pope Francis criticizes the idolatry of money and the deification of the market, not in the name of Jesus Christ or God, but because of “their lack of real concern for human beings” (§55). The criterion for discerning the true image of God is the concern for the concrete life of human beings. In other words, idols are gods who require sacrifices of human lives; while God “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13), and wants all human beings to live dignified lives.

The fundamental problem of idolatry in the Bible is not the fact that idols are gods produced by human hands, or by social interactions (as is the case in the market as god), but rather that these divinized artifacts or institutions, by the very process of divinization, require sacrifices of human lives.

III.

The concepts of sacrifice and idolatry lead us to other fundamental questions in the critique of capitalism as religion: ethical inversion and fascination. The notion of sacrifice reverses the understanding of “good” and “evil.” For example, abandoning people who are suffering and dying is an “evil,” but if this social situation is seen as a fruit of the sacrifices demanded and made by the “free market,” it becomes unavoidable, so a “good” for the achievement of economic growth and increased consumption.

For the devotees of the idol market, this is the true god, who rules his life and gives him meaning and hope. Therefore, in this devotional relationship, idolaters are fascinated by the promises of the market that shine in the windows of luxury stores or on the screens of computers with numbers showing the increase of their wealth.

Faced with the fascination and submission to market-demanded sacrifices, the first condition to fight for social justice and recognition of the dignity and fundamental rights of all human beings is the critique of market idolatry, the de-deification of the market.

At this point I totally agree with Cox. However, for this criticism to be more efficient, I think we need to introduce in criticism the notion of idol as a god who demands sacrifices of human beings and environment. For this, as Cox says, theology needs to step out of the shadows and look at a real problem of theology, the idolatry of the market. Thus, the main object of theology is no longer a discussion on “god itself,” or atheism/secularism in the modern and postmodern world, but rather discernment between the spirit of the market-god and the Spirit of God-mercy in the world. All this in order to save lives.

Harvey Cox

Response

A Response to the Responses

When an accomplished and thoughtful scholar takes the time to read someone’s book, and then writes a pertinent and incisive response, it is indeed gratifying. When five such scholars do so, the effects are multiplied. I am grateful that the colleagues represented in this volume have so honored me, even when their responses were not uniformly positive. Maybe I should say, especially when they were not positive, because those responses were the ones that forced me to pause and take stock.

Theological Analysis

If I had one wish about these writers it is that I think their responses to this particular book would have been more telling if they had read it in the context of what I have written before, even though I am aware that this would have been hard if not impossible to do. What The Market as God represents for me is both a continuation of an approach to theology I have used from the beginning and an explicit departure from the theme of the theology of secularization. Fifty-four years ago I was responsible, along with several other theologians, most of them Europeans, for putting secularization somewhere near the center of the theological agenda. In the intervening half century I have come to the conclusions that a debate over “secularization” (always a loosely defined term anyway) was not the most productive way to grasp the meaning of our spiritual situation. I became increasing suspicious of the to-and-fro over the “death of secularization,” the “return of religion,” the dis- and re-enchantment of the world and so forth; I became aware that what we were seeing was not the “decline of the sacred,” or its surprising reappearance, but the dispersal of the sacred into many sectors of the culture that had preciously often been deemed “secular.” Thus the task of the theologians became not so much to measure the impact of secularization, trace its sources, and weigh its consequences, but to locate and identify the reemergence of the sacred in different and often unexpected places.

In a sense, I was already doing this in The Secular City. When, so many years ago, I wrote the chapter in that book that was based on an essay I had published several years earlier, “Miss America and the Cult of the Girl” (Christianity and Crisis 21.14 [1961] 143–46), I was already engaged in this project of uncovering and identifying. I was doing something quite similar in identifying The Market as a functioning deity in the book under discussion. Theologically, of course, this is a radical move for a contemporary theologian to make since it identifies the principle challenger in biblical faith not as atheism, but as idolatry, attributing god-like features to ungodly entities.

The most appropriate term for my long-term approach to theology is “discernment.” It suggests a theological effort to read and interpret the “signs of the times.” It is a world-centered and history-centered approach, not a primarily church-centered one. From the perspective of faith it seeks to discern the presence and action of God “in the course of human events.” It also seeks to uncover and identify those aspects of the sacred that Tillich called the “demonic.” Discernment is not a “value neural” method; it is a théologie engagée. Its purpose is not just to observe the liberating actions of God in our times but to celebrate and support them. It would not be hard to see the significance of the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this approach. (I had become thoroughly immersed in Bonhoeffer’s work during a formative post-doctoral year in Berlin where I met with a study group that included Hanfried Müller, who had just published his influential book on Bonhoeffer, Von der Kirche zur Welt. Müller, echoing Bonhoeffer, said that theology must find its sources in God’s presence and action in the world. I later became critical of some of Müller’s thinking, but his “world-centered” method stayed with me.)

The term “discernment” itself has until quite recently been thought of in reference to Roman Catholic monastic and spiritual life, designating the disciplined attempt to meditate on the inner and outer aspects of one’s personal life as the effort to discern whether God was “calling” (vocation) one to a particular path or task. But the term also has a wider meaning: it is at the core or prophetic theology. It is Isaiah and Jeremiah seeking to discern how and why God was acting in the events of Israel’s life, like defeat, exile and return. It was Augustine trying in the light of faith to piece together what God was demanding of his people as the “eternal” Roman Empire crumbled around him. Did Jesus practice a theology of discernment? The answer of course is that he did. He repeatedly warned that we should not seek the kingdom of God in some distant realm or time, that the kingdom was already “in the midst” of us.” His parables directed the attention of his listeners to the ordinary events of life—a disappointing son, a failed dinner party, a roadside mugging—precisely to demonstrate the presence of grace in our midst around, among, and within us.

Interdisciplinary Engagement

When a representative of Harvard University Press asked me over coffee and bagels a couple years ago if I would consider enlarging into a book my Atlantic article on the market as a pseudo-deity, “The Market as God,” I had my doubts. I wondered if it was possible to wring three hundred pages worth of juice out of a twenty-word metaphor. Still I continued to ponder the possibility, and later that year, when I read the first encyclical of the new pope Francis, Gaudium Evangeli, and noticed that he used the phrase “deified market” in the first paragraph, I took heart. I recalled that when Francis first became pope, I had heard that an encyclical on the world economy was on his agenda; I immediately sent to him, by means of colleagues at the Gregorian University in Rome, a copy of my Atlantic article. I received a polite acknowledgment, but did not think of the matter much until the encyclical appeared. But now there it was, the idea of a deified market, front and center in Gaudium Evangeli. But what the phrase really meant, and what its implications were, remained to be seen.

My underlying hope in sending “The Market God” to the Vatican was that the pope might raise the level of the discourse on the inequality of the world economy from the moral, ethical level which characterized earlier statements. Global economic injustice, I suggested, is at root a theological issue. It arises from a range of false assumptions about the nature of human beings and the meaning of history. In other words, it is premised on a false idea of God, the ultimate source of meaning and value. It is not just immoral (which it surely is), but “heretical,” and should be addressed as such.

In a panel on my new book at Harvard Divinity School, my old friend and colleague Fr. Brian Hehir, now at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, expressed his serious reservations about the book. Brian has always, and rightly, been in favor of discussing issues in an idiom shared by the largest number of people, a language not dependent on revelation, especially in a pluralistic democracy. I usually agree with him, but in this instance I thought the fundamental theological issues were so glaring that the pope needed to address them.

Another participant on the panel was another friend, Prof. Rebecca Henderson, of the Harvard Business School. She contended, wryly, that she had enjoyed the book, and agreed that the Market was now playing an oversized role, but that the book “did not have enough religion” in it. I was happy to receive that amount of support from one of the power centers of the world Market. Still, I found her comment a bit puzzling. I suspect her sly remark was based on the more institutional, ecclesial definition of religion I was trying to critique.

Did the pope have in mind my article when he and the Vatican staff composed the encyclical? I hoped he did, of course, but popes do not always clarify where the ideas in their pronouncements come from, unless they are drawn from earlier church teachings, especially those of previous popes. Realizing this, I eventually relinquished my disappointment at missing this chance of becoming a footnote in church history and contented myself with my appreciation that the idea of a “deified market” was now an ongoing element in the pressing conversation about economic inequality.

 

Christina McRorie

Response

How Do We Talk about Problems in The Market when There Is No “The Market”?

At least since Max Weber, academics have been asking whether and how religion can help us make sense of capitalism. Economist Bob Nelson, who contributes to this symposium, has done a marvelous job of showing us how economic theory often has a kind of theological inner structure, and trades upon functionally religious habits of thought. To this, theologians such as John Milbank and Philip Goodchild have added the claim that these habits of thought are ultimately idolatrous.1 Even anthropologists are fascinated by the simultaneously cool and creepy fact that money is ultimately created out of nothing more than our belief—credit, credo.2

I say “creepy” because, of course, many of us are uneasy about these analogies and points of convergence between religion and economy. God and Mammon are rivals, not friends. In identifying where they seem to overlap, then, we are usually trying to put a finger on our diffuse anxieties about life in modern markets.

In The Market as God, Harvey Cox aims to explain and further stoke these anxieties. However, where other scholars writing in the growing capitalism-as-religion genre set out to prove that this or that aspect of economics or markets ought to be viewed as religious, Cox takes this as his initial premise. “The Market” in general, he says, has deified itself. (And by “The Market,” Cox means “the entire economic and cultural system which it pervades and in which it is the supremely powerful part” [8].) With this as his springboard, he then launches into a series of almost Jacques Ellul-like reflections on themes as diverse as Adam Smith’s legacy and the debate between Augustine and Pelagius to the commercialization of Mother’s Day. Whatever the topic, Cox takes it up with his tongue firmly fixed in his cheek, and a kind of associative thinking and snarky wit that suggests he is a delight to encounter at cocktail parties.

In keeping with the titular claim, most of this wit is harnessed toward showing how The Market is corrupting our values, and coopting our lives with its own fundamentally religious fervor. However, Cox also directs his critique in the opposite direction, and takes aim at inappropriate financialization in the history and present of Christian churches. Megachurches are rather like shopping malls, he suggests, and simony and indulgences were the speculative finance of their day. An unannounced purpose of the book thus appears to be to show how purportedly godly institutions have also fallen sway to the lures of The Market from time to time.

Whether they be robber barons or corrupt popes, poking fun at fat cats is pretty entertaining, at least for a while. However, eventually I found myself wondering about the end toward which this particular fun is aimed. If I assigned this book in my class on theological ethics in the marketplace, for example, what would my students take away?

Despite Cox’s substantial theological acumen, The Market as God does not actually develop a sustained theological argument. Nor does it aim to popularize scholarship on its economic themes for a theological or lay audience, which feels like a wasted opportunity. The book’s ambitious scope makes its inherently interdisciplinary, and it strikes me that one of the responsibilities (and privileges) of working in multiple fields is to offer translation services and accessible maps for readers who are inspired to venture afield on their own. It is a shame that Cox does not introduce or cite more of the work upon which his chapters indirectly touch.

But if the book is not pitched toward either catechizing or educating its audience on any one specific issue, neither is it geared to mobilize them to any obvious course of action, save to become righteously outraged. (As Gary Dorrien’s blurb on the back cover proclaims, it does indeed have “an underlying anger that sneaks up on you.”) And so, it is not clear what Cox wants his readers—or my students, let’s say—to go away and do, exactly.

Can anything be done with, or in, a deified market?

This lack of clarity may be an unfortunate side effect of the very wit and vivid imagery that makes The Market as God entertaining in the first place. In order to tell his apocalyptic story of an omnipresent idol, Cox relies on rhetoric and metaphors that implicitly suggest that very little actually can be done. Indeed, throughout his chapters a reified Market looms large as a powerful, unitary, and predatory force, and runs on a “logic” that “does not favor the needy,” to say the least (82).

It may be that this is intended to be provocative and heuristic, rather than historically accurate. To be fair, Cox opens by noting that The Market “was constructed by human hands” (8). The range of places and the insistence with which The Market as God goes on to identify The Market at work, however, does eventually suggest that this is a description of our moral moment that takes itself seriously—and that the reader ought to, too.

However, if we take the declensionist narrative of The Market as God at face value, we soon come up against the fact that much of its plausibility relies on what is effectively a descriptive sleight of hand. Cox’s presentation of our moral situation is regularly one-sided, and focuses on outrageous and sensational economic misdeeds to the exclusion of the more ordinary, and sometimes even hopeful, aspects of life in markets lately. Occasionally this goes too far, and seems to rely on the reader’s unfamiliarity with the particular issue mentioned. This is the case with its ominous reference to America’s trade deficit with China as “alarming and even potentially catastrophic” (67), and Cox’s shock at the EPA’s callous valuation of a statistical life at 9.1 million dollars—“Calculating the worth of a human life may sound degraded, but in the age of The Market it goes on all the time” (13). (For the record, having a trade deficit is not necessarily a bad thing,3 and in order to decide whether a given million dollars ought to fund more highway guardrails or more food stamps, government administrators need to think in concrete terms about what’s called “mortality risk valuation.” It is misleading to describe this as “putting a price” on life. When it comes to reducing risk, we all engage in precisely this kind of cost-benefit analysis, in fact. Consider the minimal risk of travel by car: if it were literally true that no payoff could justify any risk to life, then none of us would drive to work, no matter how safe the roads—but of course many of us do, nonetheless.)4

More often, though, Cox’s grievances with The Market are legitimate, but presented in abstraction from details that would significantly nuance his story. His scornful discussion of corporations, for example, rightly rails against corporate malfeasance, and suggests that American companies may be stuck in a narcissistic and “egotistical adolescence” (68). Cox’s use of developmental psychology here is clever, and his exposé could have gone even further, by mentioning tax loopholes, for example, that allow corporations to stash untaxed earnings abroad. What this chapter also does not mention, though, is the ongoing and impressive growth of Benefit Corporations, or how the Corporate Social Responsibility movement has recently reshaped business school curricula, or how the American workplace is being altered by the way that millennials are willing to take a pay cut to take on jobs that reflect their moral and social values.5 While Cox’s selective focus would be fine in an indictment of specific corruptions and excesses, as a discussion of the moral depravity of business in general it reads as a bit willfully dour.

Cox’s treatment of consumers is likewise largely dismissive—surprisingly so, in fact, given that this is a role with which presumably all of his readers will identify. He tends to paint them (us, really) as passively captive to the machinations of ad men: “The fact is that consumers are not fundamentally rational at all. They are easily manipulated creatures of impulse, fantasy, and self-deception” (82–83).6 The book even proposes we see parallels between usury and advertising, arguing that both involve “taking advantage of the weak, uninformed, and vulnerable for purposes of profit taking” (84).

Here again, Cox is not wrong to point out the potentially troubling power of marketing, exactly, or to remind us that this power has frequently been put toward troubling ends.7 As social analysis, though, merely punting to the trope of consumers as dupes simply does not do justice to the way that we all also use goods to express moral meaning, and to do concrete good in the world. (Consider the last time you purchased a dessert to bring to a dinner with friends, for example, or the act of buying school clothes for your children.) Perhaps even more importantly, neither does it help us think about how to navigate the moral perils of consumerism, or how to make consumer society overall more just.

These last two questions seem especially urgent to me, given that most of the goods of our lives are now provisioned through consumer markets. (And that, if forced to choose, even those of us who read Wendell Berry appreciatively are unlikely to relinquish these and return to an agrarian, subsistence lifestyle.) Unleavened cynicism about the manipulation of our agency does little to help us come to grips with our real situation, which surely contains opportunities as well as challenges. It may, in fact, do our moral imaginations a disservice in this regard.

There is no “The Market”: There are only specific markets, made by humans

This is my largest disagreement with The Market as God, by far: beyond its glib treatment of any one particular issue, its very conceptual premise threatens to obscure as much as it illuminates. Moreover, it does so in a way that may inhibit creative reflection on how to improve capitalism. By this, of course, I mean to point to the imaginative effect of setting up “The Market” itself as our enemy.

As morally satisfying as this approach may be, the problem with this is that there simply is no such thing as “The Market.” Neither is there just one “capitalism,” for that matter—not even as an ideal type. As scholarship in fields as diverse as history, sociology, law, and even economics indicates, there are only specific capitalisms, which take different forms according to their institutional, legal, social, political, technological, and cultural settings.8 Markets thus run on many logics. And, as feminist economists have pointed out, our habitual tendency to depict the economy as a cold, rational, amoral, and competitive sphere (and therefore intrinsically opposed to a social sphere imagined to be warm and caring) reflects the gendered nature of economic discourse more than it does the reality of most market interactions.9 Many of our economic choices are guided not exclusively by the love of money, but by love and money, together.

The image of a single and predatory Market that “imposes its will on more and more areas of life” may accidentally obscure much of this (266). We are discovering more all the time about how powerfully metaphors shape our thinking, and how they even constrain our creativity when we problem solve.10 However lightly we hold it initially, before too long the language we use to describe phenomena cements into our conceptual architecture, and begins to quietly organize our perception of reality altogether. With this in mind, we need to consider the discursive registers of our theology, social theory, and political discourse, and ask: What kinds of insights and solutions will they steer us toward, and from which will they steer us away?

As I read it (and as I worry my students might read it), the overall effect of The Market as God is to subtly suggest that “The Market” is evil beyond recuperation. This is a drawback of the larger capitalism-as-idolatry genre, in fact: once we identify false gods, we must cast them down, not bargain with or reeducate them. This is fine when the idol we uncover is Mammon—an inordinate love of wealth, or an ideology that rejects the common good, or something else definitionally opposed to the Christian faith (or other faiths, for that matter). However, the range of targets that Cox addresses as “The Market” is so broad and protean that eventually the reader senses we are supposed to find the very idea of markets itself debased, and debasing.

With this as our starting frame, it becomes rather difficult to discuss how actual markets pose specific moral perils and enable specific moral goods at the same time, and how these dangers and opportunities often sit alongside and in complicated relation to each other. This rhetorical approach may also obscure the way that individual markets are always changing, and changeable—for better, as well as for worse.

Indeed, if we fall into a habit of rhetorically ascribing agency to “The Market” itself, we may become less likely to face up to the concrete ways in which we ourselves are responsible for “its” activity. Although Cox’s Market deifies itself, the more down-to-earth markets we really live in are always what real humans have made them to be, as are all social structures. And we—the we who vote, donate to charity, receive pay for our work, and pay others in turn; who select neighborhoods in which to buy houses, manage institutional budgets, and make decisions at grocery stores about what to feed our families; who consume media, decide when and how much to tip, and teach our children (and perhaps students) about justice and the value and dignity of labor—we could influence these markets for the better, at any time.

But perhaps this begins to sound simple and borderline Pollyanna-ish, as if the problems that modern markets generate and exacerbate are easily solved by individual action and a can-do attitude. I wish that this were true, but sadly it is not. For one thing, inequality, climate change, precarity, and the other issues we face are complex and systematic. For another, because these problems are now features of the markets in which we live, they in turn also influence our actions and attitudes. As ethicists engaging critical realist sociology have pointed out, the restrictions, opportunities, and incentives that social structures present have a causal effect upon their inhabitants, and this effect can be to encourage sin.11 That is, Cox is certainly right to worry that markets are structures generated by human agency that in turn influence our moral agency, and that can do so for the worse. And, while this does not mean that “The Market” itself has agency, it may mean that we do find specific markets to be sinful.12

When we do so, though, it would behoove us to be precise. Not only because most markets are morally admixed contexts, but also because the sinful aspects of life in these markets do not all neatly map up with our expectations regarding what “The Market” has done, or will do. To be sure, many do. Great wealth provides both the incentive for and the means of its own defense, and so many of us are alarmed about how institutional frameworks allowing its generation may eventually subvert democratic governance. And, more mundanely, Americans are probably far too cavalier about the moral dangers of even moderate amounts of wealth.13

However, many cultural and structural factors contribute to economic injustice without announcing themselves as obviously idolatrous, or the handiwork of any one ideology or interest group. Consider, for example, the way that the mortgage interest deduction has contributed to America’s racial wealth disparity,14 or how licensing requirements for entry-level occupations such as cosmetology exacerbate income inequality by making it harder to start small businesses.15 The first of these is a massive wealth transfer, and the second is regulation putatively intended to protect consumers; neither is solely explicable as the stereotypically rapacious activity of The Market. The process of transforming markets so as to become more just will thus require a systematic and case-by-case analysis such issues. Blanket denunciations of a demonized “The Market” may divert us from, rather than help us with, that work.

But back to Mammon, the dangers of which we do need reminding about

I’ve just suggested that where Cox’s dynamic rhetoric soars, what we actually need is a more careful, granular, and wonkish analysis of specifics that (let’s face it) plods.

I don’t mean to imply, though, that I don’t see any role for prophetic anger in our current political economic moment. I do. And I think those of us who teach on economic issues have a responsibility to bring into the classroom voices that make a bid to reshape our perceptions and actions. Raging against the public behavior of fat cats is much easier than identifying our own, less obvious idolatries. Where we have let our attention, sympathies, and desires grow dull and selfish, we need help reorienting these to the common good, and in this regard sweeping rhetoric and big narratives can provide just the right push.

Perhaps this prophetic “push” is itself the answer to my earlier question about what Cox wants for his readers: to grab their attention, and to model a kind of playful but critical reflection that ultimately invites them to ask themselves how God and Mammon collide and wrestle in their own life. If this is the case, perhaps I ought to measure The Market as God not so much by any one of its historical or analytical arguments, but for how the net effect of trying them all on for size is to jar loose our moral imagination. This may be what Cox wants my students to do—to go and see likewise, energized and ready to weigh the values and practices of the markets they inhabit “in the light of the spiritual tradition we continue to claim as our own,” and to determine for themselves then what ought to be done next (231). On the importance—indeed, the urgency—of this, Cox and I are in agreement.


  1. E.g., Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Malden MA: Blackwell, 2006); Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety (London: Routledge, 2002), and Theology of Money (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

  2. E.g., see the work of David Graeber. For a theological analysis of this, see Devin Singh, Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

  3. See, e.g., Neil Irwin, “What Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand about the Trade Deficit,” New York Times, July 21, 2016.

  4. For an introduction to the issues surrounding monetary valuation of non-economic goods that is quite alert to the dangers of a crudely economic reductionism, see, e.g., Marion Fourcade, “Cents and Sensibility.” The EPA also has a useful introduction to mortality risk valuation, specifically (https://www.epa.gov/environmental-economics/mortality-risk-valuation).

  5. On this latter note, see the research cited in Larry Alton, “How Millenials Are Reshaping What’s Important in Corporate Culture,” Forbes.com, June 20, 2017.

  6. For more on this image, see Don Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1997), 33.

  7. Indeed, fields as diverse as consumer studies and behavioral economics indicate that market preferences are surprisingly malleable. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow provides an accessible and engaging overview of some of this literature, and in particular of the way that the context of a market decision—called the “choice architecture”—can influence an agent’s decisions.

  8. For an intro to some of this scholarship in other fields, see Stephen Macekura et al., “The Relationship of Morals and Markets Today: A Review of Recent Scholarship on the Culture of Economic Life,” Soundings 99.2 (2016) 136–70. For a theologically informed discussion of the moral responsibility and imperative to frame markets appropriately in light of this fact, see Dan Finn, The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

  9. E.g., see Nancy Folbre and Julie Nelson, “For Love of Money—Or Both?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 14.4 (2000) 123–40; Julie Nelson, Economics for Humans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2006).

  10. Johnson and Lakoff is still a classic introduction to what is at stake here. For a more recent—and to my mind, actually shocking—illustration of the power of metaphor to constrain (and enable) problem solving, consider Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky, “Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning,” PLoS ONE 6.2 (2011) e16782.

  11. See, e.g., the contributions to Distant Markets, Distant Harms, edited by Daniel Finn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), and Finn, The Ethics and Economics of Market Complicity (forthcoming).

  12. Dan Finn, e.g., argues that while social structures such as markets “cannot sin in any literal sense,” we may describe them as sinful when they “encourage morally evil actions.” Finn, “What Is a Sinful Social Structure?,” Theological Studies 77.1 (2016) 136–64.

  13. E.g., see Charles Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark, “Being Rich Wrecks Your Soul. We Used to Know That,” Washington Post, July 28, 2017, for a collection of recent empirical work on the affective consequences and moral perils of wealth.

  14. Matthew Desmond, “How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality,” New York Times, May 9, 2017.

  15. E.g., see Dustin Chambers, Patrick McLaughlin, and Laura Stanley, “Barriers to Prosperity: The Harmful Impact of Entry Regulations on Income Inequality,” Public Choice special issue, “The Regressive Impacts of Regulation” (forthcoming). For a nonacademic introduction to this issue, see Planet Money podcast “Episode 381: Why It’s Illegal to Braid Hair Without a License.”

  • Harvey Cox

    Harvey Cox

    Reply

    Response to McRorie

    My critics, as represented in this collection, have been generous to a fault. They have given me undeserved credit for some ideas that I did not originate. Many, including notably Walter Benjamin and later the Latin American liberation theologian Hugo Assmann (whom Jung Mo Sung rightly credits in his critique), have written earlier about how the modern economy functions like a religion. The faults these critics have spotted in my work are surely there, though they sometimes take me to task for failing to do some things I had no intention of doing.

    Christina McRorie regrets that I did not develop a systematic theological argument. She is right. I did not. But constructing such an argument was not my intention. Hence my argument has an ad hoc quality, built to respond to specific elements in The Market. But her point raises an interesting question. Is the age of the great systematic theologies over? In seminary I was asked to read both Aquinas and Calvin, two very systematic thinkers. In graduate school I read many, many passages of Tillich and Barth. But I have come to the (tentative?) conclusion recently that what we need now is less systematic and more topical theology.

    Prof. McRorie also suggested that I appeared to be condescending if not dismissive of consumers. I did not give them the credit for being intelligent agents and not feckless rubes, able to make informed decisions. I certainly did not want to give this impression. Consumers are savvier now than they have ever been, increasingly wanting to know where and how the product they are being sold—be it a shirt, a pineapple, or a TV set—was made, and under what conditions. Consumers are reading labels more and buying more critically. And this is hopeful.

    Still, in the era of giant corporations and skilled (not to say “slick”) scientific marketing, they do need some protection. The labels on those products are not there because of a sudden burst of transparency or generosity on the part of the marketers. They are there to comply with more than a generation of consumer protection legislation, often opposed by the sellers. My former colleague at Harvard and now the senior senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, was right when she suggested a few years ago that a national Consumer Protection Agency be created. Given the spread of “phishing,” “robo-calls,” hidden charges and the availability to marketers of reams of data about prospective customers, vigilance and enforcement authority is still needed. Consumers do not need to be coddled, but they do need something close to a level playing field.

Daniel P. Rhodes

Response

The Limits of Exposing God

As a scholar and author, Harvey Cox really needs no introduction. From the publication of The Secular City in 1965 and throughout his nearly half-century career at Harvard, he has influenced countless persons. Indeed Cox may be one of the last of a disappearing breed of public intellectuals in the humanities, which universities have decided they no longer can afford (and by public intellectual here I mean a scholar and teacher who is not only dedicated to his students but understands himself as a curator and active participant in a larger conversation in service to society). His latest book, Market as God, is another contribution to what has been a long career of fostering public discussion. While I would guess that Cox didn’t foresee the election of a crude billionaire reality-show host to the presidency whilst he was penning this book, I think, The Market as God nevertheless begins to expose in an accessible way the religio (or binding bonds) within which this spectacle administration lives, moves, and has its being. Thus, this book performs a much-needed interjection into the current situation, as I will suggest, by beginning to articulate what is truly outside the bounds of decency and accepted topics for debate even as I will ultimately suggest it does not go far enough to profane this idol.1 In the end, though his analysis may begin to bring what remains hidden into the light of day, it seems to me that Cox’s modern Stoicism leaves him rather anemic to contest or dethrone the idol god he uncovers. Let me explain.

Articulating an Obscenity

Gods are notoriously jealous and obfuscating beings. Not only do they typically dislike any competition, but they also like to keep their ways hidden and can be stingy about how and what they reveal about themselves. Speaking of or to a god, indeed, can be quite treacherous business. Doing so improperly is to commit sacrilege, an affront to the god and, therefore, an offense to the community. Such crass or loose talk remains unacceptable, not the least because it seems to render irreverent what ought to be held in the highest of reverence. It is to utter an obscenity, or to speak flippantly and crudely about that which is so reverent it ought not to be uttered at all.

We are all familiar with the fact that dictatorships such as the one in North Korea make it a crime to speak ill of the Supreme Leader. And of course, even in the relatively liberal Roman Empire, it was uncouth to critique the Emperor and, of course as the early Christians discovered, deadly to call his cult idolatry. In a society where free speech is highly valued and where popular culture seems to have eviscerated all boundaries of conversation, few in the United States recognize that one obscenity remains that dare not be spoken. Even in a culture led by an administration where obscenities of all kinds have become normalized, the critique of capital and markets remains out of bounds. Indeed, I think we could make a great degree of headway to explaining the Trump phenomenon were we to analyze it as the attempt of capital to reabsorb the anxiety of the crude nature of its operations from what might be called the political subconscious. (Whether in doing so capital will bring about its own undoing remains to be seen.) In the best sense of the term, then, The Market as God begins to help us articulate this obscenity, by dispelling our reverence for The Market2 and exposing its own theological pretensions (256). It, as it were, may help us break our capitalist manners.

Jumping off from Pope Francis’s encyclicals, Cox explains that he wants to unveil “what has become a powerful and all-encompassing worldview, a vision of reality that pulls everything into its orbit and that should therefore be recognized as a kind of religion,” with the purpose of the book being “to bring that theology out of the shadows” (6–7). Cox breaks his thoughts up into three main sections, somewhat roughly organized into overview, disorders, and history. The book takes the style of a study in comparative religion, but it is more ad hoc than systematic. Hence, it reads more as a collection of essays held together by its topic and the parallels Cox observes between theological concepts and ecclesial history and the current operations of the market rather than one argument with a strong central thread. As a result, it would be nearly impossible to address every aspect of Cox’s argument, but I want to begin by noting what I take to be its more important contribution. One enduring theme repeats throughout its pages: that The Market has escaped its container and, as its power and size have expanded, it has become our Master and Maker. In doing so, it has distorted humanity, imbuing us with its image and ordering us to its ways and to its ends.

As divine, the economy is no longer one segment of a larger society, despite any well-mannered attempts to describe it this way, but has instead become the defining force throughout society. It alone is omniscient and infallible, and can lead us to green pastures and still waters so long as the inefficient government and obtuse people don’t get in its way and muck it up (29). Though inappropriate for polite discussion, cable television, or Sunday sermons, the effects of this market cult should not be downplayed, something Cox is quick to point out. One extreme example of the impact of this market god upon humanity is in the redefinition of the person. With the ascendency of the market, as Cox observes, has come the invention of a new shape-shifting, immortal creature of the corporation. The apotheosis (becoming godlike) of this entity, rising from the lowly dust of the local business to the ethereal realms of the mega-corporation, has resulted in its expanded personhood with respect to rights while retaining an obscene level of flexibility when it comes to ducking responsibility (50–55). Requiring its own blood sacrifices, as Cox reports, twenty thousand dead and 120,000 infirmed are just the costs of doing businesses if multinational companies like Dow Chemical are to remain free to bless us with their profits (51–52). Or worse, it could be that the suffering of so many are simply the road the god-man corporation must pass in its process of maturation, eventually gaining the conscience and humility to act more responsibly. Cox, it appears, holds out hope that, though not ideal, this progression might be the case. I will argue more comprehensively below, I think this is because he can’t quite bring himself to utter the full obscenity of capital, like a person on the verge of swearing but who swallows the words at the last instance for the sake of piety. In part, I will suggest this is because he’s not given sufficient attention to Marx, who reminds us that the capitalist mantra is and must be: Apres moi le deluge!

The corollary to the transfiguration of the corporate person above is, of course, the transmogrification of the human person. Cox is right to point out that the driving force behind both of them is commodification. In short, commodification refers to the shift that occurs in mature capitalist cultures as the logic of the market makes its way into more and more spheres of life, rendering everything for sale. Cox rightly observes how the emergence of this “market-consumer stage” manifests itself in the advent of a new spirit (geist) (187). As objects become infused with spectacular vitalities that appeal to us, titillating our desires so as to see in them new and exciting versions of ourselves, at the same time, we become imbued with market sympathies and logics, rendering us “receptive to its message and susceptible to its bidding” (192). That is to say, the theological niceties and metaphysical mystifications of this divinizing process, as Marx once described it, get as it were “inside us,” informing our senses, our feelings, and what we take to be rational (18, 192).3 In this way, it functions even upon the microphysics of life, shaping not only mega-global circuits and flows but also the firing of individual synapses and calculations. Humans are remade into, on the one side, homogenous consumers and, on the other side, what Michel Foucault called the “entrepreneurial self” fixated on the cultivation of her own human capital.4 Underneath market rationalism a more crass force may be at play, one unsayable both in and outside of the locker room.

Lastly, breaking current taboos, Cox also provides accessible and commendable analyses of two prominent disorders and infirmities associated with this market god. The first of these he outlines is the disorder of “financialization” (102). As helpfully described in chapter 7, financialization is the short circuit of the flow of money wherein it aggregates at the top within the stratosphere of financial instruments and asset-based derivatives. In short, instead of flowing to ground level businesses that create tangible products, money investments get rerouted in instruments of financial speculation that tend to loop back only to the already financially well off (102–4). The explosion of this segment of the economy, as Cox coarsely suggests, has engendered an enormous “siphoning-off of wealth from the lower- and middle-income ranges to those at the top” (104). Much the same as the lust for affluence and luxury once consumed the Church at the time of the Avignon Papacy, to identify such a disorder begins to expose the desire for excessive power at the heart of the system.

This first disorder connects to the second infirmity of the market religion. Financialization is one manifestation of the drive to grow and expand. The concentration and centralization of power naturally accompanies the aggregation and accumulation of wealth. The result, however, as Cox notes has been the emergence of the “too big to fail” and “too big to jail” banks that now dominate the national and global economy. But as he rightly observes against the offense of officials dedicated to the public fiction that their institutions serve the wider community, mega-banks like mega-churches tend to consolidate unhealthy amounts of power in an organizational hierarchy impervious to outside critique and often even outside helpful ideas (128). Unlimited growth like a bloated asset bubble is a terminal condition that seems to be reaching acute stage. Again, Cox begins here to articulate an obscenity a nation enchanted by the bacchanalianism of market indulgence finds unpleasant and distasteful. But it may be exactly what we need someone to say.

Weber Have I Loved, But Marx Have I . . . Ignored?

While I celebrate Cox’s willingness to speak prophetic crudities to a culture under the spell of market theology and piety, I must admit that I find his recent discovery of the mystifying nature of the market a bit tardy. I say this because I find it strange that someone who has spent so much time describing and studying the impact of secularization on religion and its practice could have missed for so long the most powerful secularizing force the world has ever known—capitalism. My only explanation for this elision is to think that Cox leans more on Weber than on Marx, an influence I think that continues to flag his assessment in The Market as God. This is not to say that Weber was unaware of capitalism and even the impact of the system on the whole of life, for I think that Weber’s description of the fragmentation and isolation he perceived to accompany the emergence of modern life are indeed nearly as good a description of the life under capitalism as we have. And beyond his famous description of this iron cage, he is maybe most well known for his theoretical account connecting the birth and rise of capitalism to the Calvinist ethic of the West. But there are key limits to Weber’s analysis of capital and its operation that tend to obfuscate the reality of its political valence. In at least three areas I think Cox’s analysis would benefit from a Marxist perspective, each of which illuminate the intentional design and push behind the ascendency of The Market god.

As Marx illustrates in his chapter on primitive accumulation in the first volume of his study of capital, modern capitalist markets did not emerge by accident. Instead, they were established by violence, through a two-sided movement that took possession of the commons and thereby forcibly deracinated labor. It is this move that creates the primordial excess of value necessary to get capitalism off the ground, but which also never gets recorded in the history of the market. By historicizing the market itself, the intentional creation of the market is exposed as a degenerate theological nicety blessing one side with wealth and condemning the other to a state of having “nothing to sell but their own skins.”5 Hence, a real pre-history of “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force” is necessary to establish the base of the capitalist market itself, the free labor market.6

To be sure, Cox does point to how the ascendency of the market, like the rise of Zeus, requires the destruction of earlier gods, but he doesn’t detail the primordial violence of clearing the ground that is part of the process of markets themselves (9). Hence, while his analysis often draws interesting parallels between religion and the market, it weirdly fails to fully articulate one of the most obscene aspects of this correlation—that just as the gods in ancient times represented the fighting spirit of the people, so the market while pitching itself as the prince of peace only does so by concealing its own spirit of warfare. Though one of Cox’s persistent themes is to highlight the way The Market has gained a kind of omnipotence, his critique leaves the ground of this power hidden. One can only wonder if this is because he is not quite ready to speak the impolite language of class warfare or to make the distasteful demand for universal employment at a living wage that would destroy labor markets.

As discussed above, Cox expounds on the crucial issue of financialization, describing the catastrophic effects this distortion of The Market has had (and continues to have) on real persons, their lives and their communities. While it is certainly true that the trend toward financialization signals a profound distortion, a Marxian analysis of this trend would allow Cox to see that this is no mere misfire of the market and its flows. On the contrary, financialization is but the perfection of the process. It is the actualization of capital’s most fundamental desire and drive: the creation of profit undisturbed by human inefficiency.

In his discussion of money in the Grundrisse, Marx recognizes that in a consumer culture dominated by commodities (and commodification) money will take on a divine quality. As “the general form of wealth,” money possesses the unique power to incarnate itself into any/every commodity (including as we have seen the peculiar commodity of human labor). “Money,” as he states, thus becomes “god among commodities.”7 Money becomes the binding tie of a community organized by exchange, as it is what renders the fluidity between labor power and commodity production and acquisition necessary for profit. Cox describes the way that this peculiar power of money gains momentum as the process of circulation gets up and running. What happens is that the initial process exchange, wherein commodities are produced and then sold with the money from this sale being used for the purchase of other commodities (C-M-C), starts to get turned inside out with the rise of capitalism. It begins with the shift of this process more toward the general form of wealth in money, such that money starts to emerge as the primary element of circulation itself as its end and beginning (M-C-M). Money invested in the circulation process and in the exchange of products aims to increase itself (M-C-M’). The drive to perfect this process within capitalism is ultimately to eliminate this middle term insofar as possible, generating the trajectory toward the creation of all kinds of financial products, loan instruments, and derivatives in order to achieve the ultimate perichoretic alteration where money abundantly reproduces itself in abundance and excess (M-M’).8 Financialization is no infirmity of capital; it is capital thriving, the life drive of the system.

Finally, The Market as God could have benefited from an attempt to name the central organizing mechanism of society and how it shapes and determines social relations. I am sympathetic to the fact that Cox is not trying to write a complicated monograph filled with jargon and theoretical intricacies. His goal is to make this work accessible, something more of us desperately need to be doing. And yet, in a certain respect, I think a little abstraction might do the argument some good. If it is the case that we academics are failing in our task to make our work meaningful for the wider population, it is also a fact that we suffer from a shortage of attempts to interpret the whole and to present a picture of the larger situation, something particularly problematic in a global reality. For Marx, of course, in a highly developed capitalist society this is to refer to the mode of production, where such has become fully integrated and comprehensively enveloping. To articulate the true depth of the theological and spiritual nature of The Market a fuller sense of how the structures of production also produce, in turn, the structures of society, giving shape to an entire way of life, seems vital.

Admittedly, attempting to describe and define the notion of mode of production is rather abstract. But then again so is an account of The Market within a theological register. But what Marx aims to communicate with the notion of the mode of production is not merely a wooden infrastructure of physical conditions. He is trying to get us to see the living, dynamic reproduction of the system itself in a way that displays its very being. As he says in the appendix to Capital, volume 1, it’s not only the natural resources, material structures, and commodities that are integrated into the economy. Indeed, the whole of society and human subjectivity is produced and reproduced.9 What Marx wants us to glimpse here is the way the system takes on a life of its own through the constant and comprehensive absorption of human energies and returns us together to ourselves after having exerted its own creative capacities so as to inscribe its own divine laws on our hearts. Here is capital’s fundamental but sophisticated idolatry, an ordering of life on the highest and most expansive level that creates human societies whose very fabric and only objective is to serve the accumulation and expansion of profits. Such a god cannot be simply re-enclosed within a circumscribed temple because he was never created to abide within such limits. He can only be challenged and replaced with a new divinity, one connected to a new will and new order that profanes The Market’s holy name.

The Limits of Stoic Critique

While there is much to affirm in Cox’s exploration of the pseudo divine nature of The Market, I cannot help but think that in conclusion what he offers us is a new Stoicism more suggestive of individual heroism in the face of this divine reality than of revolutionary zeal for destroying its global effigy. Cox seems to suggest that though the market is “not natural” and is a human creation it seems as inevitable as something like human language. Much like Weber’s diagnosis of the iron cage of modern life, we must come to grips with simply attempting to limit the destructive effects of a bloated market drunk on its own power (275). His prescription: a form of Stoic humility that at best can perform a restoratio humani by curbing such arrogant aspirations (260). In this sense it may border on what Fredric Jameson, drawing off of Peter Sloterdijk, has called cynical reason. A kind of “inversion of political apathy,” as he describes it, cynical reason is a kind of academic paralysis wherein “everything that is wrong with late capitalism” is known and lucidly seen but which, at the same time, “declines indignation” nor does it invest itself in the activity of attempting to imagine something different.10 It is a form of hyper-rationalism consonant with capital who’s knowledge engenders impotence in the same way a certain view of God’s omniscience paints him into the corner of not being able to change anything.

That said, there is one concluding thread in Cox’s vision of restoration I think bears worth chasing were we to radicalize it and draw it out in the way pulling one strand of yarn can unravel a blanket. It is the suggestion of democratization. And yet, to grasp fully what would be necessary to truly enact democracy, I think we need to have a deeper sense of just how bad things are. It’s not just that power is now aggregated when it should be decentralized, such that a little subsidiarity will do the trick. Real democratic order and action, contrary to what Cox suggests, would not save the soul of the market but would contest the structure of the market entirely. Restoratio, for him, aims merely to restore the market and thereby human existence to natural order, a project of recreation that in this book reads more like a suggestion made to the winds than a real political agenda. As a result, it seems to be the task of everyone everywhere, running the real risk that it will become the project of no one, anywhere. Aside from a brief mention of co-ops and credit unions, Cox lacks a people or a class or a party capable of embodying or enacting such a transformational change such that it remains something of a universal crusade that struggles to hit the ground in any particular place.

In the end, this all brings me to the fundamental theological critique of The Market as God. While the book does not intend to offer a counter-theology to the divine pretensions it exposes in The Market, Cox’s theology does surface from time to time, at least vaguely. One of these places is in the final chapter where he describes the ongoing creative work of God by reference to the Hebrew term bara used in the narrative of Genesis. As he relates, this term should be understood as a continual activity, not something completed (263–64). But as he turns to a discussion of “saving the soul of The Market,” it becomes rather difficult to know where or how this recreative act takes place other than to see it as the heroic act of fragmented and isolated individuals. God, it seems, becomes synonymous with the noble spirit of humanity recognizing the limitations of its existence. Thus, a depleted notion of democracy seems to accompany his modern Stoic theology and it remains unclear to me who he’s appealing to when he calls for The Market to decentralize or why this regnant divinity would entertain the idea of doing so. Hence, it would appear that democracy, for Cox, is simply a cipher for an individual ethic of responsibility, but one that nevertheless remains incapable of really disrupting the system. Does not this demos, in the end, remain a people of The Market?

In contrast, as Herbert McCabe taught, God is not in competition with us, but we find freedom only as God is more present in our actions.11 Learning to live in such freedom requires participation in a peculiar people who hear and respond to God’s voice, and thus, are formed in their practice together to a new way of being in the world liberated from the destructive gods we so willingly create.12 In doing so, they are invited to inhabit a real alternative reign to that of the Beast of the Market. But of course this would require a more radical vision and, even more importantly, a more radical practice of the church, a call I find to be simply missing in Cox’s book.

It would appear that today there is absolutely no reason to question the market. With the Dow passing 23,500 as I write, a critique of market economics seems about as helpful as suggesting chemo for a person with no traces of cancer. Even more, with billionaire elites occupying nearly every cabinet position the dominant prescription seems to be more capitalism rather than an attempt to hold back the reins on a current trend of privatization, financialization, and militarization run out of control. In such a context, no tinkering with the mechanism will provide an alternative. But because it is the whole that is corrupt, what we need are exactly the kinds of dreams of an impossible alternative that shake the very foundations of the entire system itself. If the market is god, as I think Cox is right to observe, then we should also recognize it will not relinquish its divinity willingly or without waging a war on any contender. In this light, it seems again, that our job is not merely to understand the world, but to change it—and this would require the consolidation of a people willing to destroy and forsake this idol in order that a new reign might begin.


  1. My idea that the real operations of capital remain an unutterable obscenity in our culture is deeply indebted to Fredric Jameson and the helpful reading of Jameson’s work provided by Ian Buchanan. See Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 381; and Ian Buchanan, Fredric Jameson: Live Theory (New York: Continuum, 2006), 2.

  2. Cox capitalizes this term as a way of recognizing its divine status, a practice I follow in this engagement with his argument.

  3. For Marx account of the “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret” see, Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes, (New York: Penguin Books, 1976; reprint 1990), 163–77.

  4. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2008), 225.

  5. Marx, Capital, 1:873.

  6. Ibid., 874–75.

  7. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), translated by Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin, 1973), 221.

  8. Marx, Capital, 1:247–57. The inevitable trend toward financialization within all capitalist systems has been further delineated by Giovanni Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (New York: Verso, 1994; reprint 2002).

  9. Marx, Capital, 1:1065.

  10. Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2010), 413. See also Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

  11. Herbert McCabe, OP, God Matters (New York: Continuum, 1987; reprint 2010), 14.

  12. Ibid., 19.

  • Harvey Cox

    Harvey Cox

    Reply

    Response to Rhodes

    Anyone audacious or foolhardy enough to plunge into the whirling interaction of politics, culture, religion, and the economy requisite of any intelligent discussion of the market must sooner or later cope with those two titans, Karl Marx and Max Weber. I certainly have, and under the tutelage of one of the American scholars who led in the effort to make Weber known to an English-speaking readership, my doctoral mentor James Luther Adams, who also deftly introduced me to the religious elements of Marx’s thought. But I was a bit taken aback by Daniel P. Rhodes’s criticism that I lean too heavily on Weber and not enough on Marx.

    I would have put it the other way around. My main sources for learning about political economy in recent years have been scholars like John Bellamy Foster, Paul Sweezy, and other Marxist-oriented scholars who write for the Monthly Review. It was from them that I first learned about the massive impact of the financialization of the American and world economies. Thinkers like these, though unwelcome in most university economics departments, have consistently shown more insight and more foresight about what is powering the economy. Far from being rigid or orthodox “Marxists,” they continue to develop and extend Marx’s work to engage conditions he could not have foreseen. This may be the reason why I have been so drawn to the Latin American liberation theologians, who have made more use of Marx than of Weber.

Robert H. Nelson

Response

Nelson’s Comments on The Market as God

In 1999, I read with much interest the article “The Market as God,” by Harvey Cox, in the Atlantic magazine. He wrote there that, from his perspective as a leading American theologian, he had recently discovered that “the lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek . . . bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustine’s City of God.” As he further explained, “Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right”—in other words, he had discovered the presence of an American religion of “The Market” that was significantly derived from original Christian sources.

As a “heterodox” economist myself, and the author of a soon-to-be published book on Economics as Religion (2001), my own thinking had been developing along similar lines. I was thus enthusiastic to see that Cox was extending the original article into a 2016 book of the same name. I was hoping that Cox would follow up in his new book with a more detailed exploration of the actual pages of Time, the Wall Street Journal, and other leading contemporary American business writings, giving concrete illustrations of the many ways in which he found an underlying powerful religion to be present. I thought he might also delve into the writings of those leading American economists who have been strong defenders (implicitly if not explicitly) of the religion of “The Market,” again giving illuminating illustrations of the actual religious character of their economic thinking.

Cox, however, chose in his new book to go in a different direction. Perhaps as a theologian, he did not want to enter so far into an economic arena that was well outside his own areas of expertise. Thus, rather than focusing narrowly on the religious character of current writing and thinking about American economic events, or the implicit religion contained in the leading American economic theorists of the market, he instead advanced a much wider religious history of the past few centuries in which a new modern god, “The Market, ” has increasingly usurped the historical place of the biblical God. This is a more ambitious project, and indeed amounts to an attempted reinterpretation of the religious history in the West of the modern age.

To succeed in such a large reinterpretative effort, however, it would require a comprehensive treatment of modern religious history including “secular religion” as part of that history. It is true that the biblical God has been significantly displaced by many secular religious during the modern age. But attributing all this to a modern worship of one new secular god of “The Market” not only assigns a disproportionate influence to free market faith but also diverts attention from the essential character of the modern project and its wider challenge to the biblical God.

Few people have actually worshipped “The Market” as an actual new deity. Rather, the market has typically been seen by its modern advocates as a means to a much higher end, the salvation of human beings here on earth by economic progress. I had earlier explored this theme in my 1991 book, Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics. The modern challenge to the biblical God, as I saw matters then, is thus not a single new God of The Market but rather the challenge of a new more widely ranging modern God of Economic Progress.

Cox would have done well to study more closely the example of John Maynard Keynes, the most important economist of the twentieth century (who is mentioned only briefly in the book). His modern fame is based in significant part on his role historically as the savior in the 1930s of the market in the face of the dire challenges raised by the severe economic depression of the time. In his famous 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” Keynes characterized a system of self-interested competitive striving for profit in a market system as “disgusting.” As he wrote, “avarice is a vice, . . . the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable.” But the market was for Keynes nevertheless necessary in the short run because, subject to suitable government oversight such as the maintenance of macroeconomic stability, the workings of the market offered the most practically effective instrument for achieving the most rapid economic progress.

Economic progress for Keynes, moreover, was not the final end in itself; rather, the abolition of economic scarcity through the social guidance of the market process would be the path to the attainment of a new heaven on earth. After a sufficient period of rapid material progress (maybe as few as 100 years), as Keynes prophesied, the sins of the market could be permanently dispensed with. Keynes wrote that continuing market-driven economic progress will open the way to “the greatest change that has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate.” After this happens, we will finally be “able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles [of a market economy] which have hag-ridden us” for centuries. The Keynesian god of Economic Progress would, in short, “lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight”—to a new kingdom of heaven on earth based on a new human state of total material abundance. In essence, human beings would themselves become as God, joining modern technology with scientific economic knowledge to bring about their own earthly salvation.

The Market has never been seriously defended as such theologically (the market has always served some other higher purpose). There is an actual theology of Economic Progress, however, which explains why modern true believers would regard it as a God (the agent of their own salvation). A central subject for Western religion has always been the real source of sinfulness (of evil) in the world. The historic answer of Christianity lay in the fall in the garden but this seemed from the eighteenth century onward to many modern thinkers to be an antiquated myth. That raised, however, a fundamental question: What then is the actual source of the pervasive human sinfulness in the world (as few today would doubt still exists). The leading new answer that spread across the world in the modern age is that human beings are shaped by their external environments, above all their material environment. It is thus the pervasive past human condition of severe economic deprivation and poverty that explains the large past—and continuing—presence of sinful actions in the world. In this respect, the Bible is no longer the source of authoritative truth.

If this is true, however, and if material poverty could also somehow be abolished in the world, Keynes was far from the only person to conclude that it followed logically that sufficient human economic progress could abolish sin in the world. This faith, not any faith in The Market in itself, was the religion of the modern world—and contrary to Cox. As the leading experts in economic progress, professional economists therefore become the new priesthood to explain the true path of the salvation of the world, replacing the traditional Christian messengers. Moreover, just as Christian religions have long engaged in fierce internal conflicts about the actual character of the Christian God, so the competing modern religions of economic progress have fiercely contested their conflicting claims to know the one correct path of progress—each having its own “secular economic monotheism,” as one might say.

Marxism—another “economic religion”—is a leading example that at one point appeared as though it might reveal the true God of the twentieth century. At almost the same time that Cox was writing in 1999 about the God of The Market, an Israeli historian, Igal Halfin, was writing in 2000 that, based on his extensive archival research in Russia, he found the large presence of “eschatological” elements of Russian communism that were borrowed from Christianity. As he reports, “Marxists would doubtless have renounced notions such as good, evil, messiah, and salvation as baseless religious superstitions that had nothing to do with the revolutionary experience. Yet, these concepts, translated into a secular key, continued to animate Communist discourse” in Russia for many years. Indeed, it is easily seen in retrospect that “the Marxist concept of universal History was essentially inspired by the Judeo-Christian bracketing of historical time between the Fall of Adam and the Apocalypse” that leads to a new communist heaven on earth. Yet, much like the devotees of a supposedly “secular” market competing economic religion, as Halfin writes, most Russian communists were nevertheless altogether blind to the reality of the close “affinity” of Russian communism “with Christian messianism.” In his detailed examination of Russian history between World War I and World War II, Halfin does for Marxism what Cox might well have attempted for The Market. Instead, a large part of his 2016 book is taken up with diversions—interesting enough in themselves but not especially relevant to a close historical examination of a modern god of The Market—in religious and traditional theological history.

Cox does devote two chapters to Adam Smith that are among the best in the book. He writes, for example, that, as would surprise many people today, when Smith in 1776 wrote about The Wealth of Nations, he “might better be understood as a theologian . . . and as a prophet of economics,” rather than as an economic scientist. Cox explains correctly that when Smith writes of the power of “the invisible hand of The Market,” he should be understood as “seeing it [The Market] as a more-than-worthy successor to the moth-eaten Christian doctrine of Providence.” Cox also understands that Smith was heavily influenced in his economic theorizing by the Calvinism of the Scotland in which he was brought up. Cox also accurately recognizes that Smith synthesized his fundamentally Calvinist way of economic thinking with another much different Christian influence, the natural law traditions prominent in Roman Catholic theology since Aquinas.

Cox has nothing to say, however, about another essential figure of economic history, Jeremy Bentham, whose life overlapped significantly with that of Smith. Whereas Smith adapted Christian natural law traditions to a seeming secular appearance, Bentham famously described the idea of natural law as “nonsense on stilts.” As a utilitarian, his supreme goal was the maximum of happiness for each individual and in society as a whole. In defining ultimate objectives in such strictly human terms, Bentham took a large step—much larger than Smith—towards outright atheism. By putting the new economic and other social sciences to work, rapid progress in society, in large part necessarily in the economic realm, would soon yield much greater overall individual happiness and collective well-being. It would be for Bentham a utilitarian economic path—in which the market could play a practical role, as overseen by government—to his own version of a new heaven on earth.

Cox also leaves out of his modern history of The Market another leading group of economic figures, the French positivists of the first half of the nineteenth century such as Claude Henri Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte. They taught that social science would soon achieve a comprehensive scientific understanding of the material workings of society. As social science was perfected, a more perfect scientific economic management of all of society would therefore increasingly become feasible. Unlike Bentham’s emphasis on total levels of consumption and happiness, the French positivists emphasized the scientific understanding of the productive machinery of society. The direct application of scientific knowledge could thus replace the inefficient trial-and-error methods of the market.

There was also an explicitly religious side to French positivism with roots in traditional Jewish and Christian religion, as when positivists wrote of their new scientific “temples of Newton.” Saint Simon himself prophesied a new earthly kingdom in which scientific socialism will become a new “religious doctrine [that] shall be presented in all the generality of which it is susceptible” and “will regulate alike the action of the temporal and that of the spiritual power.” French positivism would have a large influence on later American progressivism and European socialism that sought the comprehensive “scientific management” of society. It goes unmentioned by Cox but the positivist denomination of the religion of Economic Progress has been a powerful challenger to market faith for the past two centuries—and remains a powerful strain of thought among American progressives to this day (and for which Cox himself shows much sympathy in his book).

In the modern history of “economic theology,” a fourth understanding of economic salvation that arose in the nineteenth and then continued powerfully through the twentieth century is that of progressive utopianism. As described above, this theology, including Keynes and Marx as leading modern prophets, sees the elimination of material scarcity in the world as transforming the fundamental human circumstance for the better—not only in terms of the ordinary material comforts of living but also in terms of the basic moral and ethical character of human existence. (The many horrors of the history of the twentieth century, admittedly, raised some profound challenges for this understanding of Economic Progress, as Cox does acknowledge.)

Conclusion

Cox in his new book thus falls short of realizing the promise of his 1999 Atlantic article. To develop a careful treatment of the religion of The Market would have required a much more detailed explanation of the actual role of the market in the economic systems of the modern age, and of the thinking of the market practitioners and the many economist defenders (and opponents of) the market. In the next to last chapter, Cox surprisingly seems to implicitly concede this. After writing for 243 pages about how the Western deity of The Market has significantly displaced the biblical God, Cox now argues that a more appropriate model for the god of The Market may be the Greek God Zeus. Moreover, Zeus was not actually the supreme Greek “divine force” but was subordinate to the Greek god of fate, known as Moira. He analogizes this to the circumstance of the god of The Market in that the modern market god, as he now acknowledges, is subordinate to a higher Western God of “progress.” As my comments above suggest, I agree fully with this observation, but it is nevertheless inconsistent with the main thrust of the book in which The Market is routinely portrayed as a monotheistic secularization of the one supreme God of the biblical tradition.

Ultimately, Cox’s book is that of a new-style modern Calvinist who is seemingly depressed by the clearly revealed human depravity of the history of the twentieth century and the increasing contemporary evidence of a still fallen nature of human beings who now so often worship only themselves and their own self-interest. His use of the term “The Market” has little to do with anything an economist would understand as a market system. Rather, he is actually telling a story of a newly revived place of a devil in the world who has never disappeared from modern existence and has instead showed renewed vigor in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century. Since “the devil” is not part of Cox’s normal vocabulary (and he many nominally reject any such supernatural figure in his consciously held theological beliefs), he had to invent another name—in his new book instead called “The Market.” Perhaps this is not so surprising from a scholar who knows comparatively little about economics but is among the leading theologians of his time—and is seemingly struggling with the problem of evil in the world which remains more pervasive than he might once have expected. I regret to say, however, that translating the story of the fall of man into a deepening sinfulness in our own time, and expressing the hope nevertheless for redemption, is not enhanced by the use of the novel economic vocabulary that Cox deploys.

  • Harvey Cox

    Harvey Cox

    Reply

    Reply to Nelson (and Surin)

    Robert H. Nelson has suggested that the book might have been stronger if I had a better grasp of the field of economics, and Ken Surin takes me to task for not engaging capitalism as an economic system. I am sure this is true. And I spent a good deal of time in the library of the Harvard Business School and in the section on economics in the Widener Library. But I knew all along that I was not writing a book on economics as such. I was trying to write a theological commentary on the vast complex of institutions and trends that combine to form what I called The Market. I realize that I did not define this word precisely. I was using it in the same rather loose way it is used by those who speak and write about a “market-oriented” health care system or a “market friendly” tax code or “unleashing the creative powers of the market.” Rarely do the people who write in this vein define exactly what they mean, but people seem to know—or think they know—what they are talking about. No one has ever seen “the market.” It is not an empirical entity but a construct, but no less important or significant for that. It is actually one of the most widely influential constructs of our time, as both its supporters and its critics agree.

    Learn more economics? Undoubtedly we all need to. But the truth is that as I read through all those books and journals I began to conclude that economics has probably reached the limits of its power to explain who we are, what is wrong, and what could be corrected in our capitalist society. In fact, what I found myself more and more drawn to was the fresh new thinking on the anthropology and social psychology of consumer societies.

Kenneth Surin

Response

June 25, 2018, 1:00 am

Harvey Cox

Response

June 25, 2018, 1:00 am

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