The market as god
Source Jim Devine
Date 00/09/19/23:41

The Market as God: Living in the new dispensation
by Harvey Cox

A FEW years ago a friend advised me that if I wanted to know what
was going on in the real world, I should read the business pages.
Although my lifelong interest has been in the study of religion, I
am always willing to expand my horizons; so I took the advice,
vaguely fearful that I would have to cope with a new and baffling
vocabulary. Instead I was surprised to discover that most of the
concepts I ran across were quite familiar.

Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of
déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business
sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking
resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint
Augustine's City of God. 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. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall,
and doctrines of sin and redemption. But here they were again, and
in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the
seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic
cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free
markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt tightening along the
way, especially for the East Asian economies.

The East Asians' troubles, votaries argue, derive from their
heretical deviation from free-market orthodoxy -- they were
practitioners of "crony capitalism," of "ethnocapitalism," of
"statist capitalism," not of the one true faith. The East Asian
financial panics, the Russian debt repudiations, the Brazilian
economic turmoil, and the U.S. stock market's $1.5 trillion
"correction" momentarily shook belief in the new dispensation. But
faith is strengthened by adversity, and the Market God is emerging
renewed from its trial by financial "contagion." Since the argument
from design no longer proves its existence, it is fast becoming a
postmodern deity -- believed in despite the evidence. Alan
Greenspan vindicated this tempered faith in testimony before
Congress last October. A leading hedge fund had just lost billions
of dollars, shaking market confidence and precipitating calls for
new federal regulation. Greenspan, usually Delphic in his comments,
was decisive. He believed that regulation would only impede these
markets, and that they should continue to be self-regulated. True
faith, Saint Paul tells us, is the evidence of things unseen.

Soon I began to marvel at just how comprehensive the business
theology is. There were even sacraments to convey salvific power to
the lost, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and what
theologians call an "eschatology" -- a teaching about the "end of
history." My curiosity was piqued. I began cataloguing these
strangely familiar doctrines, and I saw that in fact there lies
embedded in the business pages an entire theology, which is
comparable in scope if not in profundity to that of Thomas Aquinas
or Karl Barth. It needed only to be systematized for a whole new
Summa to take shape.

* * *

At the apex of any theological system, of course, is its doctrine
of God. In the new theology this celestial pinnacle is occupied by
The Market, which I capitalize to signify both the mystery that
enshrouds it and the reverence it inspires in business folk.
Different faiths have, of course, different views of the divine
attributes. In Christianity, God has sometimes been defined as
omnipotent (possessing all power), omniscient (having all
knowledge), and omnipresent (existing everywhere). Most Christian
theologies, it is true, hedge a bit. They teach that these
qualities of the divinity are indeed there, but are hidden from
human eyes both by human sin and by the transcendence of the divine
itself. In "light inaccessible" they are, as the old hymn puts it,
"hid from our eyes." Likewise, although The Market, we are assured,
possesses these divine attributes, they are not always completely
evident to mortals but must be trusted and affirmed by faith.
"Further along," as another old gospel song says, "we'll understand

As I tried to follow the arguments and explanations of the
economist-theologians who justify The Market's ways to men, I
spotted the same dialectics I have grown fond of in the many years
I have pondered the Thomists, the Calvinists, and the various
schools of modern religious thought. In particular, the
econologians' rhetoric resembles what is sometimes called "process
theology," a relatively contemporary trend influenced by the
philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. In this school although God
wills to possess the classic attributes, He does not yet possess
them in full, but is definitely moving in that direction. This
conjecture is of immense help to theologians for obvious reasons.
It answers the bothersome puzzle of theodicy: why a lot of bad
things happen that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God
-- especially a benevolent one -- would not countenance. Process
theology also seems to offer considerable comfort to the
theologians of The Market. It helps to explain the dislocation,
pain, and disorientation that are the result of transitions from
economic heterodoxy to free markets.

* * *

Since the earliest stages of human history, of course, there have
been bazaars, rialtos, and trading posts -- all markets. But The
Market was never God, because there were other centers of value and
meaning, other "gods." The Market operated within a plethora of
other institutions that restrained it. As Karl Polanyi has
demonstrated in his classic work The Great Transformation, only in
the past two centuries has The Market risen above these demigods
and chthonic spirits to become today's First Cause.

Initially The Market's rise to Olympic supremacy replicated the
gradual ascent of Zeus above all the other divinities of the
ancient Greek pantheon, an ascent that was never quite secure.
Zeus, it will be recalled, had to keep storming down from Olympus
to quell this or that threat to his sovereignty. Recently, however,
The Market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament --
not just one superior deity contending with others but the Supreme
Deity, the only true God, whose reign must now be universally
accepted and who allows for no rivals.

Divine omnipotence means the capacity to define what is real. It is
the power to make something out of nothing and nothing out of
something. The willed-but-not-yet-achieved omnipotence of The
Market means that there is no conceivable limit to its inexorable
ability to convert creation into commodities. But again, this is
hardly a new idea, though it has a new twist. In Catholic theology,
through what is called "transubstantiation," ordinary bread and
wine become vehicles of the holy. In the mass of The Market a
reverse process occurs. Things that have been held sacred transmute
into interchangeable items for sale. Land is a good example. For
millennia it has held various meanings, many of them numinous. It
has been Mother Earth, ancestral resting place, holy mountain,
enchanted forest, tribal homeland, aesthetic inspiration, sacred
turf, and much more. But when The Market's Sanctus bell rings and
the elements are elevated, all these complex meanings of land melt
into one: real estate. At the right price no land is not for sale,
and this includes everything from burial grounds to the cove of the
local fertility sprite. This radical desacralization dramatically
alters the human relationship to land; the same happens with water,
air, space, and soon (it is predicted) the heavenly bodies.

At the high moment of the mass the priest says, "This is my body,"
meaning the body of Christ and, by extension, the bodies of all the
faithful people. Christianity and Judaism both teach that the human
body is made "in the image of God." Now, however, in a dazzling
display of reverse transubstantiation, the human body has become
the latest sacred vessel to be converted into a commodity. The
process began, fittingly enough, with blood. But now, or soon, all
bodily organs -- kidneys, skin, bone marrow, sperm, the heart
itself -- will be miraculously changed into purchasable items.

Still, the liturgy of The Market is not proceeding without some
opposition from the pews. A considerable battle is shaping up in
the United States, for example, over the attempt to merchandise
human genes. A few years ago, banding together for the first time
in memory, virtually all the religious institutions in the country,
from the liberal National Council of Churches to the Catholic
bishops to the Christian Coalition, opposed the gene mart, the
newest theophany of The Market. But these critics are followers of
what are now "old religions," which, like the goddess cults that
were thriving when the worship of the vigorous young Apollo began
sweeping ancient Greece, may not have the strength to slow the
spread of the new devotion.

Occasionally backsliders try to bite the Invisible Hand that feeds
them. On October 26, 1996, the German government ran an ad offering
the entire village of Liebenberg, in what used to be East Germany,
for sale -- with no previous notice to its some 350 residents.
Liebenberg's citizens, many of them elderly or unemployed, stared
at the notice in disbelief. They had certainly loathed communism,
but when they opted for the market economy that reunification
promised, they hardly expected this. Liebenberg includes a
thirteenth-century church, a Baroque castle, a lake, a hunting
lodge, two restaurants, and 3,000 acres of meadow and forest. Once
a favorite site for boar hunting by the old German nobility, it was
obviously entirely too valuable a parcel of real estate to
overlook. Besides, having been expropriated by the East German
Communist government, it was now legally eligible for sale under
the terms of German reunification. Overnight Liebenberg became a
living parable, providing an invaluable glimpse of the Kingdom in
which The Market's will is indeed done. But the outraged burghers
of the town did not feel particularly blessed. They complained
loudly, and the sale was finally postponed. Everyone in town
realized, however, that it was not really a victory. The Market,
like Yahweh, may lose a skirmish, but in a war of attrition it will
always win in the end.

Of course, religion in the past has not been reluctant to charge
for its services. Prayers, masses, blessings, healings, baptisms,
funerals, and amulets have been hawked, and still are. Nor has
religion always been sensitive to what the traffic would bear.
When, in the early sixteenth century, Johann Tetzel jacked up the
price of indulgences and even had one of the first singing
commercials composed to push sales ("When the coin into the platter
pings, the soul out of purgatory springs"), he failed to realize
that he was overreaching. The customers balked, and a young
Augustinian monk brought the traffic to a standstill with a placard
tacked to a church door.

It would be a lot harder for a Luther to interrupt sales of The
Market's amulets today. As the people of Liebenberg discovered,
everything can now be bought. Lakes, meadows, church buildings --
everything carries a sticker price. But this practice itself exacts
a cost. As everything in what used to be called creation becomes a
commodity, human beings begin to look at one another, and at
themselves, in a funny way, and they see colored price tags. There
was a time when people spoke, at least occasionally, of "inherent
worth" -- if not of things, then at least of persons. The
Liebenberg principle changes all that. One wonders what would
become of a modern Luther who tried to post his theses on the
church door, only to find that the whole edifice had been bought by
an American billionaire who reckoned it might look nicer on his

It is comforting to note that the citizens of Liebenberg, at least,
were not put on the block. But that raises a good question. What is
the value of a human life in the theology of The Market? Here the
new deity pauses, but not for long. The computation may be complex,
but it is not impossible. We should not believe, for example, that
if a child is born severely handicapped, unable to be "productive,"
The Market will decree its death. One must remember that the
profits derived from medications, leg braces, and CAT-scan
equipment should also be figured into the equation. Such a cost
analysis might result in a close call -- but the inherent worth of
the child's life, since it cannot be quantified, would be hard to
include in the calculation.

It is sometimes said that since everything is for sale under the
rule of The Market, nothing is sacred. But this is not quite true.
About three years ago a nasty controversy erupted in Great Britain
when a railway pension fund that owned the small jeweled casket in
which the remains of Saint Thomas à Becket are said to have rested
decided to auction it off through Sotheby's. The casket dates from
the twelfth century and is revered as both a sacred relic and a
national treasure. The British Museum made an effort to buy it but
lacked the funds, so the casket was sold to a Canadian. Only
last-minute measures by the British government prevented removal of
the casket from the United Kingdom. In principle, however, in the
theology of The Market, there is no reason why any relic, coffin,
body, or national monument -- including the Statue of Liberty and
Westminster Abbey -- should not be listed. Does anyone doubt that
if the True Cross were ever really discovered, it would eventually
find its way to Sotheby's? The Market is not omnipotent -- yet. But
the process is under way and it is gaining momentum.

* * *

Omniscience is a little harder to gauge than omnipotence. Maybe The
Market has already achieved it but is unable -- temporarily -- to
apply its gnosis until its Kingdom and Power come in their
fullness. Nonetheless, current thinking already assigns to The
Market a comprehensive wisdom that in the past only the gods have
known. The Market, we are taught, is able to determine what human
needs are, what copper and capital should cost, how much barbers
and CEOs should be paid, and how much jet planes, running shoes,
and hysterectomies should sell for. But how do we know The Market's

In days of old, seers entered a trance state and then informed
anxious seekers what kind of mood the gods were in, and whether
this was an auspicious time to begin a journey, get married, or
start a war. The prophets of Israel repaired to the desert and then
returned to announce whether Yahweh was feeling benevolent or
wrathful. Today The Market's fickle will is clarified by daily
reports from Wall Street and other sensory organs of finance. Thus
we can learn on a day-to-day basis that The Market is
"apprehensive," "relieved," "nervous," or even at times "jubilant."
On the basis of this revelation awed adepts make critical decisions
about whether to buy or sell. Like one of the devouring gods of
old, The Market -- aptly embodied in a bull or a bear -- must be
fed and kept happy under all circumstances. True, at times its
appetite may seem excessive -- a $35 billion bailout here, a $50
billion one there -- but the alternative to assuaging its hunger is
too terrible to contemplate.

The diviners and seers of The Market's moods are the high priests
of its mysteries. To act against their admonitions is to risk
excommunication and possibly damnation. Today, for example, if any
government's policy vexes The Market, those responsible for the
irreverence will be made to suffer. That The Market is not at all
displeased by downsizing or a growing income gap, or can be gleeful
about the expansion of cigarette sales to Asian young people,
should not cause anyone to question its ultimate omniscience. Like
Calvin's inscrutable deity, The Market may work in mysterious ways,
"hid from our eyes," but ultimately it knows best.

Omniscience can sometimes seem a bit intrusive. The traditional God
of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is invoked as one "unto whom
all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets
are hid." Like Him, The Market already knows the deepest secrets
and darkest desires of our hearts -- or at least would like to know
them. But one suspects that divine motivation differs in these two
cases. Clearly The Market wants this kind of x-ray omniscience
because by probing our inmost fears and desires and then dispensing
across-the-board solutions, it can further extend its reach. Like
the gods of the past, whose priests offered up the fervent prayers
and petitions of the people, The Market relies on its own
intermediaries: motivational researchers. Trained in the advanced
art of psychology, which has long since replaced theology as the
true "science of the soul," the modern heirs of the medieval
confessors delve into the hidden fantasies, insecurities, and hopes
of the populace.

One sometimes wonders, in this era of Market religion, where the
skeptics and freethinkers have gone. What has happened to the
Voltaires who once exposed bogus miracles, and the H. L. Menckens
who blew shrill whistles on pious humbuggery? Such is the grip of
current orthodoxy that to question the omniscience of The Market is
to question the inscrutable wisdom of Providence. The metaphysical
principle is obvious: If you say it's the real thing, then it must
be the real thing. As the early Christian theologian Tertullian
once remarked, "Credo quia absurdum est" ("I believe because it is

* * *

Finally, there is the divinity's will to be omnipresent. Virtually
every religion teaches this idea in one way or another, and the new
religion is no exception. The latest trend in economic theory is
the attempt to apply market calculations to areas that once
appeared to be exempt, such as dating, family life, marital
relations, and child-rearing. Henri Lepage, an enthusiastic
advocate of globalization, now speaks about a "total market." Saint
Paul reminded the Athenians that their own poets sang of a God "in
whom we live and move and have our being"; so now The Market is not
only around us but inside us, informing our senses and our
feelings. There seems to be nowhere left to flee from its untiring
quest. Like the Hound of Heaven, it pursues us home from the mall
and into the nursery and the bedroom.

It used to be thought -- mistakenly, as it turns out -- that at
least the innermost, or "spiritual," dimension of life was
resistant to The Market. It seemed unlikely that the interior
castle would ever be listed by Century 21. But as the markets for
material goods become increasingly glutted, such previously
unmarketable states of grace as serenity and tranquillity are now
appearing in the catalogues. Your personal vision quest can take
place in unspoiled wildernesses that are pictured as virtually
unreachable -- except, presumably, by the other people who read the
same catalogue. Furthermore, ecstasy and spirituality are now
offered in a convenient generic form. Thus The Market makes
available the religious benefits that once required prayer and
fasting, without the awkwardness of denominational commitment or
the tedious ascetic discipline that once limited their
accessibility. All can now handily be bought without an unrealistic
demand on one's time, in a weekend workshop at a Caribbean resort
with a sensitive psychological consultant replacing the crotchety
retreat master.

* * *

Discovering the theology of The Market made me begin to think in a
different way about the conflict among religions. Violence between
Catholics and Protestants in Ulster or Hindus and Muslims in India
often dominates the headlines. But I have come to wonder whether
the real clash of religions (or even of civilizations) may be going
unnoticed. I am beginning to think that for all the religions of
the world, however they may differ from one another, the religion
of The Market has become the most formidable rival, the more so
because it is rarely recognized as a religion. The traditional
religions and the religion of the global market, as we have seen,
hold radically different views of nature. In Christianity and
Judaism, for example, "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness
thereof, the world and all that dwell therein." The Creator
appoints human beings as stewards and gardeners but, as it were,
retains title to the earth. Other faiths have similar ideas. In the
Market religion, however, human beings, more particularly those
with money, own anything they buy and -- within certain limits --
can dispose of anything as they choose. Other contradictions can be
seen in ideas about the human body, the nature of human community,
and the purpose of life. The older religions encourage archaic
attachments to particular places. But in The Market's eyes all
places are interchangeable. The Market prefers a homogenized world
culture with as few inconvenient particularities as possible.

Disagreements among the traditional religions become picayune in
comparison with the fundamental differences they all have with the
religion of The Market. Will this lead to a new jihad or crusade?
I doubt it. It seems unlikely that traditional religions will rise
to the occasion and challenge the doctrines of the new
dispensation. Most of them seem content to become its acolytes or
to be absorbed into its pantheon, much as the old Nordic deities,
after putting up a game fight, eventually settled for a diminished
but secure status as Christian saints. I am usually a keen
supporter of ecumenism. But the contradictions between the world
views of the traditional religions on the one hand and the world
view of the Market religion on the other are so basic that no
compromise seems possible, and I am secretly hoping for a rebirth
of polemics.

No religion, new or old, is subject to empirical proof, so what we
have is a contest between faiths. Much is at stake. The Market, for
example, strongly prefers individualism and mobility. Since it
needs to shift people to wherever production requires them, it
becomes wrathful when people cling to local traditions. These
belong to the older dispensations and -- like the high places of
the Baalim -- should be plowed under. But maybe not. Like previous
religions, the new one has ingenious ways of incorporating
pre-existing ones. Hindu temples, Buddhist festivals, and Catholic
saints' shrines can look forward to new incarnations. Along with
native costumes and spicy food, they will be allowed to provide
local color and authenticity in what could otherwise turn out to be
an extremely bland Beulah Land.

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. A Japanese Zen master once said to his
disciples as he was dying, "I have learned only one thing in life:
how much is enough." He would find no niche in the chapel of The
Market, for whom the First Commandment is "There is never enough."
Like the proverbial shark that stops moving, The Market that stops
expanding dies. That could happen. If it does, then Nietzsche will
have been right after all. He will just have had the wrong God in
Harvey Cox is a professor of divinity at Harvard University. His
most recent book is Fire From Heaven (1994).
Copyright (c) 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.

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