Born from religion, including roots in paganism and animism, Christmas has become much less about any theism and much more about the largest of the isms: capitalism.
As noted in the story about Chalmers Presbyterian Church in last week’s edition, fewer of us are attending church, leading to the demise of traditional churches. Far more of us will spend time at the mall than at church this holiday season.
We’ve long decried the secularization of Christmas, with Santa supplanting Jesus and gifts trumping family time. Spend, spend, spend is the mantra – now more than ever given consumerism as the salvation for the faltering economy.
The economic focus of Christmas is a clear indication that capitalism is our new religion, as early 20th century thinkers such as Max Weber and Walter Benjamin noted, sagely predicting some of the worst excesses we see today.
Benjamin, in an unfinished essay called Capitalism as Religion, does not equivocate: “Capitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was.”
He writes, “One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.” By that he suggests that rather than finding answers, guidance and meaning in traditional religion, we turn to another construct in capitalism. Solace at the mall, rather than the church.
Benjamin was clearly influenced by the writings of fellow German philosopher Max Weber, who almost two decades earlier at the turn of the century wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which attributes the rise of the mercantile system to the teachings and work ethic of the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin.
“Remember, that time is money,” Weber wrote in 1905. “He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.[…]Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker.”
That kind of reasoning gave rise to the investment system: money makes money. That accession was driven by Protestantism’s demands that followers throw themselves into their work – becoming devoted to their craft, or calling (a very religiously-charged word applies to a vocation) – and the demand that the money generated by that work not be used for personal luxuries and aggrandizement – a philosophy certainly long since abandoned.
The money generated though the diligence of workers could not be spent on themselves, the church (where modesty was key) or charity (which was frowned upon, seen as encouraging lack of industry), but could be channeled into investments, giving rise to capitalism, he argued.
Benjamin took that line of thought one step further: “Christianity in the time of the Reformation did not encourage the emergence of capitalism, but rather changed itself into capitalism.”
So, capitalism isn’t so much a new religion as it is the evolution of the old one.
Certainly that’s not at odds with what we see today, especially in the pronouncements of the Christian right in the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, in the ideologies espoused by the current government in Ottawa.
Just think of how convoluted the finance industry has become, complete with language that is as incomprehensible to most as Latin was to the average churchgoer in Luther’s time.
Those who manage the system have cast themselves as priests, interpreting the higher order to the rest of us. And the entire system is based on faith, belief that the bits and bytes stored on a computer actually represent money and economic activity, despite our doubts.
Our hesitation is justified, as the mess created by the make-believe system of credit default swaps and subprime mortgages clearly revealed – it was all smoke and mirrors. Despite the debunking, many remain among the faithful, and the system rolls on. We have faith it will get better despite lessons to the contrary.
The traditional religions have taken note, however. Their representatives, including archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict XVI for instance, have condemned the global financial system and its practitioners for providing nothing of value. Worse still, the system has done harm to untold millions of people. They’ve seen that money has ceased to represent anything, but has become something with intrinsic value of its own, which is clearly not the case … unless you’ve bought into that particular brand of religion.