Saturday, January 26, 2013

Economics as Secularized Religion

There's a long history of interpreting Marxism as a transposition of Judeo-Christian eschatology/millennialism.  Raymond Aron's The Opium of the Intellectuals immediately comes to mind because this argument is built into the title itself. However, the connections between economic doctrine and religion extend far beyond this.  In 19th century England, the political divisions between Liberals and Conservatives to a decent extent mapped onto the religious divisions between Church and Dissent.  Conservatives, or Tories, supported the established Church of England, and Liberals tended to stem from the Nonconformist sects like Unitarianism and Congregationalism.  The Liberal belief in non-interventionism in religion matched their faith in non-interventionism in economic affairs.  Henry George, the 19th century advocate of the "single tax," developed his heterodox economic ideas because he rejected the fixity of classical economics---he could not envision a world in which a benevolent God would allow such poverty to exist and would deny human beings the agency to fix such a blight on their conscience.  Catholicism, too, developed a distinct economic doctrine in the 20th century in the form of distributism, with its twin (and sometimes conflicting) emphases on solidarity and subsidiarity.

However, the specific issue I would like to visit today is the language and argumentation used by those advocating economic austerity because, whenever I hear such arguments, I hear the distinct echo of religion.

Such arguments begin by claiming that we, as a society, have been bad--we have been wasteful, profligate, materialistic, and greedy (We, the people, have been greedy--not the banksters of course).  Our indulgence in the "ways of the flesh" have angered the market gods, and if we do not act quickly, the market gods will abandon us, wreaking vengeful destruction upon us.

And how might we gain back the favor of the angry market gods?  Well, we must engage in self-flagellation or other self-inflicted pain ("belt tightening.")  We must begin a period of fasting.  Perhaps, if we still are not able to appease the market gods, we must offer a human sacrifice.

We must not, however, allocate a single resource away from the maintenance of the warrior class.  The market gods do not care about that profligacy.

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