Capitalism as Religion and The Myth of Capitalist Nature
A brief inquiry into the diagnosis provided by Walter Benjamin.
“A religion may be discerned in capitalism – that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers.”
“Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.”
– Walter Benjamin, Capitalism as Religion
“Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.”
– Roland Barthes, Mythologies: Myth Today
There are multiple ways in which the current system of domination, oppression, marginalization, estrangement, and dispossession that is called capitalism may be illustrated and described as. For Walter Benjamin, capitalism can only be understood as a religious system, one where the individual is subject to partaking in rituals that have no theology nor doctrine, but ultimately are obliged to make ‘offerings’ to maintain their worldly aspirations satiated. This cultic reverence to the commodity is reflected by the terminology of capitalism: capital investment, bull market, bear market, ask price, market trend, stakeholders, entitlement, 9-5, and so on. All these terms hold a special meaning in the religion of capitalism, all these terms invoke a specific understanding of the ‘inner workings’ of capitalism on the cultic level that perpetuates itself with each reverent utterance and enlivenment. Perhaps even more explicitly than the object of circulation and medium of transaction – paper money, fiat currency, is merely one physical manifestation of the cultic talismans of capitalism, one with seemingly diminished relevance in an age of digitization and high-speed information. Nevertheless, the sum of these practices is transformed into an imperative, something to be done, a ritualization of the alienating process of stripping labour from the labourer. The ritual of work and toil, the Protestant Work Ethic in all its magnanimity.
The depiction and understanding of capitalism as religion embodies a key concern of Benjamin with its impact on the human psyche. A fermentation of guilt that is universalized – reification of the processes as true of daily societal function – that heaps on the belief that this dispossession is deserved, a state of damnation that cannot be atoned for, as the religion is one of guilt making. The Calvinist notion of Total Depravity made manifest, with no hope of expiation nor redemption. Benjamin puts Max Weber on his head.
From here, semiotics, the study of signs (linguistic, pictoral, objects, gestures, etc), may be employed to further illuminate key features of the argument Benjamin makes regarding capitalism as well as the myth that human nature is capitalistic – a myth invoked by capitalism’s most ardent defenders. This idea of myth comes from Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, a book and collection of writings on the cultural developments and Fordist reconstruction of post-war France. A myth can be defined as a second order semiotic system, whereby extant signs turn into new signifiers in relation to the signified. It is the construal of a meaning that can be made salient among a larger audience of individuals within a given society.
A classic example can be seen with this magazine cover. Here, we see a black man in French uniform, saluting what would likely be a commanding officer or the French flag, a demonstration of patriotism. The image is the signifier, connotating the mythology of a French empire, multicultural and multiracial but above all loyal to the French identity and nation. The myth takes upon a role of wiping away the historical and structural context, naturalizing it in a pure, palatable understanding. It distorts the complexity in favour of definitive simplicity, something easily understood en-masse. The myth takes the place of emptied history. As such, it is not arbitrary, it is an image of a norm acceptable and to be accepted by the public. It imbues an essence that is thus treated as inherent and characteristic of the imagery, a naturalization of an idea not reflective of the signified.
Barthes goes out to explain that the process of mythologizing is one that has a depoliticizing effect in what is signified, thereby nullifying the capacity in which the individual consumer of myth may be able to discern its inner workings. The goal of the semiotician and the purpose of semiology is not merely to understand and study signs, but rather how those signs may transform into seemingly immutable mythologies and truisms – common sensical day-to-day notions – can be pulled apart and demystified. This formulation provided by Barthes can be understood as weaponizing the study of signs and sign relations against the bourgeoisie empire of Common Sense.
Likening capitalism to a religion is not a process of mythologizing capitalism. That would be a misunderstanding of Benjamin’s fragment, a fragment that parses out and identifies the features of capitalism most characteristic of religion. This is a deeply politicized project, one that seeks to demystify the inner workings of the system at hand that is outlined in part by Weber. As a result, however, those parsed features in themselves appear to have taken itself a mythic form through the Weberian conception of labour and capital, mythic forms that appear imprisoning and agent-denying.
Of these is the notion that capitalism is human nature, that it is in one’s telos as a human to work and devote themselves to labour to reap whatever satisfaction and gratification they can get. Thus, the semiotician here is tasked with disentangling two things here, the first of which is capitalism and the second being human nature. To simplify the task, it may be assumed that capitalism’s mythic status maps onto the critical examination that is provided by Benjamin – a mythology that rips capital from its historic development and processes. In the contemporary context, this can be best illustrated by the ritual of cost-benefit analysis to increase investor confidence in the corporate policy – a saying that is received well in the hallowed halls of the conference room. This is rather superficial and surface level, yet not incorrect. More presciently, however, is the continued process of accumulation and enclosure, the brutal nature of crystalizing damnation that has been told to be an Original Sin of modern humanity. First espoused by programmatic followers of ‘Saint Marx’, then by those who fail to recognize this deeply political and an ongoing process that leaves many destitute and dispossessed. These failings that result in the first myth lead towards the second myth, the naturalization of said myth.
The idea that capitalism is a human nature maps onto the notion of reification. The notion of accumulation, the web of relations: capitalist and labourer, transactions, wages, and so forth – are built upon the myth of capital’s seemingly permanent existence and transplants itself onto a myth of nature. One must labour to earn, for that is natural. One must submit to order, for that is natural. One must recognize their place, for that is natural. Nature is thus corrupted through dismemberment and is emptied out by the myth, its processes obscured. ‘Human nature’ takes the place of the complex dynamisms of daily life, the varied ways of life carried out by individuals, encapsulating it all under the signifier that signifies in tandem with capital. The myth then preys upon the transformative power of struggle, recuperating it under the terminology of repentance in the religion of capital. Escape is seemingly impossible, that identifiable guilt remains universal.
To that end, identifying capitalism as religion must not be taken lightly. It is, as stated before, a diagnosis of the condition human society persists with that sought to parse out the ritualistic mechanisms within it. A diagnosis, however, is useless if there is no cure. The semiotician steps in to identify the extent of the disease, the depth and scope of the rituals as manifest through the mythologized naturality of capitalism, providing a potential point of departure that is forged from contextuality. One that recognizes capitalism as not this reified thing-in-itself that exists naturally, but rather an extant system of domination that is deeply political in its workings, political agency is restored to those otherwise dispossessed and estranged. Any action that seeks to undermine myth then, is a politics of affirmation as well of exit – sabotaging the established bourgeois conceptions and reasserting the autonomy of the individual.
The role of semiotics and analysis of signs today can be a tool and weapon in understanding the transformation of capitalism towards further immateriality and digitality. As the sign takes increasing prominence in digitized accumulation, so too constituted signs become new basis for new mythic conceptions. It is of great importance then, to examine the terrain in which these signs are produced and reproduced, how they wind up as persistent myths that kneecap the political inertia of liberatory struggle.
Barthes, R. (2013). Myth Today. In Mythologies. essay, Hill and Wang.
Benjamin, W. (1996). Capitalism as Religion. In Selected writings (pp. 288–291). essay, Belknap Press.
Löwy, M. (2009). Capitalism as Religion: Walter Benjamin and Max Weber, Historical Materialism, 17(1), 60-73. doi: 10.1163/156920609X399218
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1990). Chapter 26: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation. In B. Fowkes (Trans.), Capital: a critique of political economy (pp. 873–876). essay, Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.