Capital and Religion

Capital and religion are mysterious - both display a number of issues caused by a lack of transparency within society. An argumentation, based on Karl Marx’ theses, by CHRISTOPH DEUTSCHMANN

Translated by Gunnar Ahrens and Christine Crawford.

Sociology claims to examine social reality in the most unbiased way possible – a perspective that tries to elide assessments automatically associated with participation in life, as far as possible. Ethical values and religious belief systems will also be examined from this external perspective. How is that possible? Not even sociologists live on the moon – they live right in the midst of society. Sociologists are also very much a part of the social processes that they observe, which causes a problem when trying to justify the claim that sociologists observe society "from outside".

Ultimately, this claim seems to come down to the self-contradiction that we cannot be the observer and the observed object at the same time – that an eye cannot see itself. We face the dilemma that our research subject – society – can never be viewed as a whole. Perspectives from which we observe society are already uncontrollably affected by us, through respective historical and social contexts.

Approaches to overcome subjectivity
Monotheistic religions attempt to solve this problem by creating a transcendent and supratemporal observer. Through God's perspective we are able to recognise our collective identity – our true self, beyond the borders of our individual lives. This solution comes down to a logical "hop" (theology calls it "faith"). Behind the idea of ​​God, is nothing more than the out of itself unobservable society. Our "debt" to God is nothing but our debt to ourselves.

The observer and the observed are therefore virtually identical, which is inadmissible under the rules of common sense. Exposure of the divine essence's projective character was the main focus of the Criticism of Religion in the late Age of Enlightenment, during the 19th century (Feuerbach, Comte, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud). The insight that very earthly interests offer into religion's authorship and institutionalization is not to be dismissed. Additionally, the world's religions, never proved their claim to represent the possible universal "other" of society.

Both Christianity and Islam give rise to a claim on a universal mission. Nevertheless, their creative cultural power has only reached the level of civilization; e.g. a global society has never been created. Regardless of their missionary ambitions, none of the world's religions can claim to represent humanity. They differ from one another and sometimes create opposites between dominant cultures, which are even more inexpiable. What is true of nations, as Friedrich Wilhelm Graf said, also applies to religions and denominations: there is no strong identity without a clear enemy.1

If you follow the idea of enlightenment's criticism of religion, the way out is obvious: People should eradicate false projections and reflect on themselves; they should learn to create their own objective and subjective history. However – neither of these demands provide an offer or a complete solution to the (initially explained) epistemological dilemma. They forget that people are dependent on projections.

Who is "the human"? Who is "the society"? Helmuth Plessner declares that the 19th century has a tendency to expose things, because it lost the religious attachment to disclosure. It looks for the truth, not beyond or behind things, but on this side of things – right in front of them – in person. Any criticism of the disclosure works the same way, it looks for historical circumstances and authors that are used in place of the divine author and which are the source of the initial deception in humans. Each new attempt to unmask such things digs in the same direction, for an even more original source deception, searching behind all the masks for the true face.2

Marx' thesis of capital as a religious Almightiness
If the religious mirror falls, then society must find its own new mirrors: scientific, national, biological and anthropological-sociological ones. However, Plessner doesn't mention the most important mirror – the money transformed into capital. My thesis which has resulted from Marx's theory, is based on the idea that the money in modern capitalism has become universal and has far outgrown its supposedly "harmless economic" role. Simply by being universal, capital has taken on the function of representing society as a totality. This is a role held by religions in the pre-modern period.

Marx is using the concept of capital, to refer to expansion of the money nexus or the commodity of finished products or services under the conditions of social reproduction itself: soil, nature and especially free manpower. Markets selling goods and services, have almost always been in existence, but employment and land markets (not slave labour) have only been developing since Europe's modernisation and the start of the 19th century. Social anthropologist Karl Polanyi labelled this momentous transition as the "Great Transformation"3. The market and its commodity-money relationship create a comprehensive process of social production. This leads to a mediating character of constant reproduction.

The transformation of the labour force into a commodity is particularly important. According to Marx, work is not only an economic concept, but also a social theory concept. He is referring to "work" in the broadest sense – not just to industrial work, but also to the term in the vernacular: physically, mentally, male, female, skilled and artistic etc. There is an immeasurable number of terms, because it refers to the theoretically unretrievable mediation process between the physical and biological world (on the one hand), and the symbolic world (on the other). It is this process which constitutes the social reality of mankind.

These two worlds do not just exist alongside each other, they are unsolvable on the physical-biological and symbolic levels. They constitute themselves through their difference. Their centres can only be understood procedurally – that's why it may seem tricky at times. However, you can certainly see the ongoing work in progress and the need for interpretation in the position of Marx in his early studies. So Plessner will also argue his theory of "eccentric positionality"4 of man based on these early works.

If this mediating activity currently or potentially falls under the regime of money – and not only objectively (as in the case of slave labour), but also subjectively in the form of modern wage labour – then money became in fact a kind of "mirror" of the social reproduction process and it also makes this process reversed recognizable as itself – the reproduction of mankind. Money which is not only exchanged for finished goods but also for free labour, and which furthermore controls soil and nature, in the end becomes capital.

So, on the one hand, capital visualises the unity of the social reproduction process, allowing us to use "work" in general terms, as Marx emphasized in the introduction to the "Contribution".5 On the other hand, it also transforms itself – due to the control of labour-power – into an universal asset. Everything could be different, the only question is: at what cost and with what gain? Georg Simmel referred to money as an "absolute means"6 that grows precisely because of its indifference to any specific purpose – to an absolute purpose. In other words, money (in the form of capital) works in the same way as religion, when it's used to represent society as a totality. In this sense we may speak of a "religious" function of capitalism.

Similarities and differences between capital and religion
The technical term "function" is used, because its methodological significance allows us to make comparisons. Therefore, what are the similarities and differences between financial assets, capital and religion within society?

The issue surrounding of society's self-representation is managed differently through capitalism than through religion. This is managed by adding a dynamic to an earthly reality, not by divine projection and supratemporal reality. Reinhart Koselleck showed that the early Christians awaited the return of Christ and hoped that the wait would be as short as possible.7 In modern capitalism, people take the shortening of time into their own hands. Dynamism extends to the dimension of time – as Hartmut Rosa's "acceleration" concept suggests –8, but also to material and social dimension. It is not just about efficiency (producing the same products in less time), but also about the constant invention of new products, needs and lifestyles.

Capitalism needs to constantly create new technical, social and cultural "revolutions", to remain intact as a social formation. To prepare for such revolutions, there are always new consumption modes, production stages, organisation and communication myths.

The driving force behind these innovations is the utopia of absolute wealth, exploring the possibilities of social labour, not the much-vaunted economic "own inherent objective necessities". Capitalism is a religion of mankind, which seeks to find itself by overcoming established forms of existence with new "creative destruction". The fact that we create this world, must be proven by every generation; even single persons constantly "reinvent" themselves. Creativity is no longer free, but an imperative of religious absoluteness: It is no longer a transcendent goal, but a salvation within the process itself.

At the centre of capitalist ethics, is an almost absolute claim of individual ownership – not compassion for thy neighbour or the responsibility to God.

Just like religion, capitalism has established a universal moral order. However, it has an entirely different nature to that of traditional religions. At the centre of capitalist ethics, is an almost absolute claim of individual ownership – not compassion for thy neighbour or the responsibility to God.

This claim is linked to a utopia which could not be any stronger: If I have enough money, then I "can" do everything that mankind can do; I can buy everything in the world, including health, education and beauty. Maybe one day I can even buy immortality, as bio-technology prophets promise us. In essence, it is a self-centred, "hedonistic" and even "narcissistic" ethic. It is true that capitalist owners depend on others to do all the work, and this is more evident than ever before.

But the moral reflection of that dependence is reduced to the minimum of the civilization – the right to life and the right to own property –, at least the notional ownership of their own labour. The global market is not entirely a moral and extralegal system, because someone who makes an exchange doesn't kill anyone or take away their property. However, all further justice claims are irrelevant on the overall system level. It is this indifference to local and national institutions and moral orders, which has undoubtedly facilitated the formation of capitalism as a global order.

The above is only one perspective. One unthinkable perspective is that society is only held together by the market. Karl Polanyi correctly pointed out that this would result in a "stark utopia" with destructive consequences. A society cannot function without a socially and morally embedded economy. Therefore, capitalism remains a core component of traditional, moral and institutional orders, and traditional religions. This ensures a higher level of social integration within society.

The problem with these systems is that nearly all of them are "sub-global", so their effect is limited to several states or alliances of states or civilizations. They remain vulnerable to the global utopia of capitalism and the dynamics they trigger. To operate on a worldwide scale, capital owners have the option to take advantage of differences between local and national social orders. This dynamic constantly undermines such orders and creates a state of constant anxiety in which religious values ​​are valid, but only temporary.

[1] Own translation of the following original quotation: "Denn was für Nationen gilt, trifft analog auch für Religionen und Konfessionen zu: keine starke Identität ohne klares Feindbild."- Graf, Friedrich Wilhelm: Die Wiederkehr der Götter. Religion in der modernen Kultur, Munich 2004, Vol. 3, p. 35.
[2] Own translation of the following original quotation: "Das 19. Jahrhundert hat die Tendenz zur Entlarvung, weil ihm der religiöse Halt an der Offenbarung verlorengegangen ist. Nur sucht es den Halt an der neuen Wahrheit nicht in einem Jenseits hinter den Dingen, sondern diesseits der Dinge, vor ihnen, im Menschen. Alle Kritik an der Offenbarung geht in der Art zu Werke, dass sie geschichtliche Umstände und geschichtliche Urheber an die Stelle des göttlichen Urhebers setzt und die Quelle der anfänglichen Täuschung im Menschen sucht. Jeder neue Entlarvungsversuch gräbt in der gleichen Richtung nach einer noch ursprünglicheren Täuschungsquelle, verdächtigt jedes Gesicht als Maske und fahndet hinter allen Masken nach dem wahren Gesicht."- Plessner, Helmuth: Die Stunden des Organischen und der Mensch. Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie. Gesammelte Schriften IV, Frankfurt/M 1981, p.105.
[3] Cf. Polanyi, Karl: The Great Transformation. Politische und ökonomische Ursprünge von Gesellschaften und Wirtschaftssystemen, Frankfurt/M 1978.
[4] Cf. Plessner, Helmut: Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch. Einleitung in die philosophische Anthropologie, Gesammelte Schriften IV, Frankfurt/M 1981.
[5] Cf. Marx, Karl: Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, Berlin 1953, p. 25.
[6] Own translation of the following original quotation: "absolute[s] Mittel"- Simmel, Georg: Philosophie des Geldes, Frankfurt/M 1989, compl. ed., Vol. 6, p. 298.
[7] Cf. Koselleck, Reinhard: Zeitschichten. Studien zur Historik, Frankfurt/M 2003, pp. 184f.
[8] Cf. Rosa, Hartmut: Beschleunigung. Die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne, Frankfurt/M 2005.


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