Some Thoughts on the Undeath of God in Markets

This post is inspired by Adam’s great scrib today.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue of how/why “we” let the market re/emerge as a new God, as well.  (Shameless self-promotion:  I’m writing a book on it called Politics of Divination:  Neoliberal Endgame and the Religion of Contingency that is coming out next year from Rowman and Littlefield, Intl.).  It’s important as I’m sure Adam and the other commentators on his post would agree that we remember that this “we” is not really global society, at all, but a handful of entitled bourgeoise potential “voters” living in relatively prosperous and overwhelmingly white Northern nations. It’s hard not to think of the “us” who have possibly “regressed” into taking God back in the form of markets as the particularly spoiled, anxious, neurotic recipients of the benefits of ongoing primitive accumulation, i.e. colonialism, slavery, and continued racial and sexist violence. But given the hegemony of their/our ideologues, perhaps I digress. For that particularly narrow “us,” I think there are a lot of different approaches to this question of regression that can be insightful (psychoanalytic, Nietzschean, Frankfurt School-inspired, political theological, etc.). All hands on deck. One really important reference here for me is Goodchild’s _Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety_ (which I think reads very interestingly alongside _The Kingdom and the Glory_). Goodchild poses the problem in terms of how to deal with the possibility or reality of an “immanent” God (i.e. money) as taking on all the traditional attributes of God, but precisely as Adam points out, now being purposeless, an end immanent to itself rather than for the sake of any transcendent ends, no matter how modest–i.e., I mean modest sorts of Kantian or Habermasian regulative ideals of order or communicability, let alone richer Aristotelian ones of good living).

Thanks in part to Cleo Kearns’ recent suggestions, lately I’ve been thinking about how much this kind of immanent God resonates with a “Gnostic” one (I use the term under quotes because I agree with Dan Barber that there really is no “Gonsticism” other than as a retroactive historical generalization over “gnosticisms” that can’t really be understood on their own terms other than as heresies of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.). At any rate theorists of the “modern” era from Hans Blumenberg to Cyril O’Regan, and perhaps even Harold Bloom or more recently Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, should be included here) tend to think of so-called Western “modernity” (and maybe “secularism” or “the secular,” with apologies to APS and others working hard on this idea) as precisely this kind of -confusion- about what counts as providential and what counts as meaningless or arbitrary. If events are providential, they presumably have ends beyond themselves in terms of which they can be organized or made sense of. If events are arbitrary, they are chance or random, with no teleology worth speaking of. Modernity seems not to be so much a decision for chance over providence but some kind of confused mixture of the two discourses, some kind of partial or incomplete blend of pagan and monotheistic ideas, a confusion I think is further facilitated, at our conjuncture, in part by the development of sciences of probability and now information science and cybernetics in the context of evolutionary sociobiology.  In these “scientific” discourses there is all kinds of confusion about what randomness (or “noise”) really is and what role (productive or negative) it plays in a system (where systems are not supposed to be defined teleologically but only functionally).  I have a hunch that neoliberalism has been brilliant at using the confusions inherent to these discourses as they try to use scientific discourses to describe and justify market forces.

In view of this situation I’m trying to argue that part of the enduring appeal of neoliberalism post-2008 is not so much that we are actually –convinced– that there is no providence, that there are only markets, but something more sinister. If the markets really are God, then two different systems of thought can be combined in a double-speak worthy of George W. Bush himself. Rhetorics of destiny or fortune (inherently meaningful claims about why certain individuals or firms or families succeeded or failed) are continuously and bewilderingly combined with rhetorics of what was a random, non-rational, inherently arbitrary and meaningless process of change (because markets are, as for Hayek for example–when they are left to their “own” devices–supposed to be perfect transcriptions of sociobiological/evoultionary forces beyond our ken).

The political opportunity seized by neoliberalism is a peculiarly theological one, in the sense that many have argued that the entire so-called modern or so-called secular era can be defined (at least in part) by this continuously incomplete and failed yet continuously necessary (not sure why) attempt to replace theological discourses of providence with scientific or pseudo-scientific discourses of chance or randomness. I think that one way to cut this Gordian knot is to take a step back from the secular-modern self-definition as “other” than the non-modern or non-secular, in part by observing that (and this is only one potential strategy) non-modern cultures tend to ritually or performatively include invocations of chance within deliberative processes. The generic name of such processes that ritually evoke chance is “divination,” and divination is generically part of many social and political processes (to say nothing of religious ones), both in the pre-modern West as well as in global society, today.

In part because monotheistic and then secular-modern cultures are bent upon denying the divinations they actually practice (notice that many forms of divination persist in contemporary monotheistic cultures, such as Bibliomancy among evangelical Protestants), a structure of disavowal perverts our relationship to chance, or to what is called in more rationalistic and pseudo-scientific terms “risk” or more neutrally still, “contingency.” While I fully agree with Adam that the left has lost its nerve since mid-century (perhaps we could say, in US politics, since Johnson), and that the massive drift into right wing authoritarianism (which is what trust in markets ultimately amounts to) can be characterized as a kind of regression into adolescence and a failure to do the hard work of deliberation and assume the responsibility of finite understanding, I also think that the triumph of neoliberal ideologues at minimum preyed upon a certain weakness in leftist visions of the rationally-planned society. That weakness has something to do with the inability of what is called thinking or reasoning in the guise of planning or institutional development to be either responsive enough or flexible enough both to the peculiarities of suffering and also to the role of chance, games, and play in lived reality (human and non-human). This is a very complicated issue, I think, and one about which I have many more questions about than answers. I in no sense think that markets are “better” at dealing with complexity than are other forms of social/natural organization, let alone our “only” hope, as neoliberals have managed to convince us. But as Adam points out, we obviously wanted and still want to be convinced that the markets are our only (non)hope, our only (non)God, our only (non)Purpose, even in the face of patent failures (perpetual financial crises) and obviously catastrophic consequences of market allegiance (why did it take Pope Francis to point out that climate change is primarily a moral and political problem, not a strictly speaking “ecological” one?).

There are many, many reasons, including good “traditional Marxist” ones about how we arrived at the particular appeal of neoliberal market fundamentalism. That is to say it is perfectly helpful to look at our “regression” away from the difficult task of collective planning as in part an effect of the self-development of capital into its post-Fordist guise, and the contingent rise of finance capital (as opposed to industrial or labor or land capital) as dominant and hegemonic. But a truly immanent critique has to go beyond Marx and question, as Adam does in his post, why “we” remain so attached to a system (markets markets markets) that is obviously destroying the conditions of life on earth, as such. I think it has something to do, in a very strange and perverse and archaic way, with a proclivity to approach the meaning of even catastrophic events (wars, acts of terrorism, natural disasters all included) from the point of view, “Gnostic” or otherwise, that there is some game being played with reality by indifferent and/or hostile gods, and that they key is to attain to a “speculative” perspective as a way of identifying (vicariously) with such a God, or at least perversely justifying its ways to suffering humanity (what used to be called theology and is now called economics).

Why the rest of “us”—who are neither Bill Gates nor Milton Friedman—are so into this is something I am trying to explain in part by how there truly is a game-like or playful relation to chance implicated in everyday life for any creature (Nietzsche actually has some surprisingly humane and beautiful things to say about this in The Gay Science). What the Masters of the Universe perhaps have managed to convince us is that “we are all the same,” in the sense that we are convinced that we are all playing the same game, when in fact we are not.  We are convinced that we are all in this together, that just as we are going about divining the meaning of the everyday twists and turns of chance and contingency in our lives, so too “they,” our masters, are doing this on/for/in place of the pseudo-providential God (what Philip Mirowski calls the “meta-information processor”) of the Market. At this point I think we have to adopt the strategy of “delinking” Ken Surin and others suggest, beginning with the recognition that no, the meta-games of the markets and meta-markets is obviously NOT the playful and interpretive and contestable and revisable process of making meaning that actual living organisms engage in, and NO, Wall Street traders are not subject to the same motivations, fears, and anxieties as ordinary folks on Main Street (one of the best right wing tricks is to remind us that rich folks are human, just like us, too).  As Goodchild argues persuasively in _Theology of Money_, the perspective of the speculator and the householder on money are not different in degree but different in kind.

Markets are not at all what they appear to be. It is questionable whether a “free” market has ever existed, outside the highly arbitrary construct of the massively endowed and state-protected zone of speculative finance, where there are no real consequences for the so-called players and nothing but debt for the rest of us, who continue, for many reasons, to allow ourselves to be the stakes and the ritual sacrifices in this disavowed divination process with no other question raised for the oracle other than “how does someone = x profit from the next catastrophic change”? Or more precisely, “even though this catastrophe will consume us all, what seat on the Titanic will give me the right to describe exactly how we all would have profited from its sinking, if only we had believed it was truly fated to be?”   I can’t really formulate how perverse our thinking is, here.  But I’m sure you all can help me out.