In his prison writings, Bonhoeffer begins to radically rethink Christianity for a world that no longer has need of religious guidance — a “world come of age” where human beings take responsibility for their own problems with no need to appeal to God. The immediate postwar era seems to bear out his prediction. In an increasingly secular world, humanity increasingly took consciously planned collective action aimed at solving previously intractable problems. Social democracy flourished in the West, for example, and the former colonies began to enjoy self-determination as they joined the community of nations. It was far from paradise, but one could entertain the possibility that humanity was increasingly coming to control its own collective destiny on any number of levels.
In the meantime, we seem to have suffered a regression into world-wide adolescence. We face the single greatest collective problem in human history, climate change, and seem incapable of taking the necessary action. Everywhere, democratic self-determination is undermined by fealty to market forces and formal politics presents an increasingly unedifying spectacle of pointless acting-out.
What happened? Humanity moved back in with its parents. We got out from under God’s roof, but then we replaced him with the new God of the Market. In the era of the “world come of age,” both the capitalist and the communist countries aimed to subdue or at least redirect market forces to human ends, albeit in very different ways — now we sacrifice all human meaning and flourishing to the economy as our new God.
In many ways, as Agamben suggests in The Kingdom and the Glory, it is the same God, working through the same indirect and providential means. The difference is that the old God made promises, and this one makes only demands. We don’t want economic growth because it will ultimately make everyone better off, we want economic growth because then there will be economic growth. We don’t seek efficiency to improve quality of life, we seek efficiency because that will put us in a position to seek further efficiency.
Yes, the system enriches particularly individuals and families — but it does so to a degree that is humanly inconceivable. Bill Gates could not possibly tell the difference, on a day-to-day level, between controlling $100 million in assets and $1 billion. And even if we do grant that these individuals are strongly motivated to maintain the system, that doesn’t answer the question of why the rest of us let them.
Is it because responsibility is scary, because decision-making is stressful and hard? Or is it because adulthood is not as fun as it looked when you were a kid?