Monday, October 20, 2008

God & the Free Market

I don't normally write posts consisting solely of links to other sources, but this particular article (written in 1999 and published in the Atlantic Monthly, no less!) is just too good to pass up.

Of course, I've been saying for years now (okay, maybe only a year or so, but it came as a revelation of obvious truth that I'd known forever but had never bothered to articulate) that the Free Market is a myth, a modern secular deity of the Western world that shapes ubiquitously and sometimes almost imperceptibly how we view and interact with the world. When I first declared the Free Market to be a myth, I meant mostly that it was a lie: there is no such thing as a free market, since even those countries (such as the U.S.) who claim to be purest in their devotion to its ideals secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) undermine those claims, providing mass subsidies, bail-outs and tax breaks in order to benefit certain companies and corporations over others. In a truly free market, government support as well as regulation would be non-existent and failing companies, banks, etc. would be allowed to fail. So, of course, what we have is not a free market (thank goodness, since a truly "free" market would be a vicious, rapacious monster of a god)--it is The Free Market, the myth, the legend, the excuse for keeping the faith. This Free Market does exist, insofar as any agreed-upon social construct "exists" because it is able to shape and effect real world events in a significant way.

But stumbling upon this article by Harvey Cox, entitled "The Market as God: Living in the new dispensation" confirmed it for me. In the article Cox, a religious scholar by training, explores the language of economics and draws distinct parallels between the faith of the Free Market and certain theological constructs from Christian tradition and other (largely monotheistic) religions.

Here's an excerpt:

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.
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.

Anyway, read the whole article. It's brilliant!

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