The "Second Marx" on Capitalism and Religion

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Kevin Healey, Institute of Communications Research

“Political democracy is Christian in the sense that man, not merely one man but every man, is there considered a sovereign being, a supreme being.” - Marx, “On the Jewish Question”

For her SCT lecture, Wendy Brown aimed to address the apparent resurgence of religion today, especially as it occurs against the backdrop of neoliberal capitalism. As she pointed out in her subsequent mini-seminar, other authors such as Saba Mahmood and William Connelly have addressed the contemporary interplay between religion and capitalism from distinct perspectives (Mahmood with a concern for Western imperialism against Islamic cultures, and Connelly through a more abstract Deleuzian lens). For her part, Brown sought to defend a unique reading of Marx that could shed light on current events.

Brown insists that Marx understood capitalism to “require and entail” its own religious ethos. For Marx, Brown argues, the collapse of the sacred/profane distinction does not “overcome” but rather “rearranges” the religious. Secularism is therefore a kind of rearranged form of the religious. The more common reading of Marx is that capitalism strips away the religious, revealing an underlying reality where political economy is the ultimate determining factor. But Brown claims that there is a “second Marx” waiting to be read, in his more noted works like the Manifesto and Capital but perhaps more clearly in less-known work like “On the Jewish Question.” Brown’s Marx claims that what capitalism reveals is its own violence toward mankind and the sacred. Capitalism does not reveal humanity; rather, it reveals its own inhumanity. Rather than overcoming religion, capitalism depends on religion for its proper functioning; and at the same time, it comes to operate as religion. In this sense, Brown argues, Marx offers a political theology of the capitalist state.

Brown’s reading of Marx is certainly helpful in understanding the collusion between religion (specifically, Christianity) and capitalism from a critical perspective. What I find interesting is that these types of discussion seem to presuppose a widespread surprise that such collusion would exist in the first place. Adam Smith himself was very clear that free market principles applied equally to both economic and religious spheres. Smith devoted substantial portions of The Wealth of Nations to a defense of religious disestablishment, arguing (against Hume, specifically) that competition between religious sects would lead not to increased strife but to moderation. In this light, historians like Frank Lambert are not at all guilty of anachronism in talking about the pre- and post-Revolutionary periods in terms of “religious regulation” and “religious deregulation.” Lambert notes that the highly popular preacher George Whitefield (an itinerant evangelical in the 1740s) spoke of his own evangelism in terms that borrowed self-consciously from the discourse of free market economics.

The symbiosis between religion and free market capitalism, therefore, is nothing new: in fact it was arguably part of the logic that informed the First Amendment. (There is certainly a resonance between Smith’s discussions of religion and Madison’s arguments in the Federalist Papers, although I do not know whether Madison read Smith.) What might be new, though, are the particular brands of contemporary evangelicalism that “resonate” with neoliberal capitalism. But these new strains can only be understood properly when placed in historical perspective. This is what I found lacking from Brown’s lecture and her follow-up seminar.

Brown’s discussion raised a number of good questions, but my main concern is this: How can we address questions of religion and economics in a way that doesn’t reduce Christianity to contemporary American evangelicalism, or reduce evangelicals to a monolithic group?


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Bruce Rosenstock said...

The argument in On the Jewish Question has to do with, if I recall, the relation between the privatization of religion (making it one "choice" among others) is linked to the sacralization of private property. Marx called this the judaization of society, although he might as well have called it the protestantization of society (since he was talking about Jews who assimilated into a liberal Protestant society). So what does this have to do with evangelical Christianity. It seems to me that evangelical Christianity is a reaction against this liberalized/judaized society. It wants precisely to deprivatize religion, and resacralize the state (rather than see the state as the technocroctic priests of sacred private property). Is this just an intensification of the religious form that capitalism takes, or is this something new, something more like what mainstream Protestant Christianity became under Nazism, namely, the religion of the state? I think that some of the right-wing evangelicals would best be compared with the German Christian Church, and that we are now seeing a powerful reaction within evangelical Christianity against this collusion of religion and state.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure evangelical Christianity is now any more of a reaction against capitalism than it was in the first or second or third or fourth great awakenings in the US. I see at least two different strong impulses within contemporary evangelicalism--some with Sojourners and Tony Campolo and others who are very wary of the collusion of religion and the state, and others who are the Religious Right in every sense (strongly believe that the state is in place to enact and support God's will).

I've been reading Noah Feldman (political scientist)'s _Fall and Rise of the Islamic State_ and he also makes the argument that religion is political protest when other modes of religious protest are blocked or not culturally comfortable. In some ways this is a very Marxist argument. However, what is wrong with the sacred for the sacred's sake? Is everything at base political and materialist?

I usually see Marx de-legitimizing anything that is not materialist, and to me that is the height of secularism. However, I must admit that I haven't read more than the Capital and the Manifesto. I'm going to look into his writing on religion, so thanks for this post.-- janine g.

Minoosh said...

Or it is better said that religion is political protest when other modes of political protest are blocked. In the Middle East secularism has been associated with autocratic regimes and western imperialism. In addition, nationalist and leftist movements were crushed in the name of anti-communism. The Irony is that capitalism has found an ally in religion while people are resorting to religion in the absnece of other alternatives to obtain their political voice and demand reform. The two impulses mentioned in another comment are present in the Middle East as well. But there is a third impulse- religion imposed in order to offset other ideologies.