Capitalist economy has always aimed to establish an intimate connection with individual lives, a relationship that used to be based on the exploitation of specific skills in the form of labor. What has changed today is that such a relationship is no longer confined to a specific performance but extends to the whole of life and the human ability to evaluate it. This calls for a re-thinking of the bond that the new capitalist process has created between the modes of existence of individuals and global economic management.
The transformation I am referring to is especially evident in the process of financialization of the economy and in the phenomenon of debt as its driving force: the cropping up of sophisticated financial products is directly related to the development of unprecedented forms not only of public debt but also, above all, of private debt. An analysis of the “cultural,” even more than the “economic,” transformation that is at the core of this process is essential to understanding the “faith in the market” as the main apparatus of global politics and to unveiling the “religious mechanisms” that govern our current neoliberal age.
Contemporary capitalism has definitely become the religion of capital’s self-valorization, which, as stated by Marx, is at the origin of primitive accumulation in the form of debt. Central to the analysis of this process is the logic of “profit for profit’s sake” – one of the most interesting aspects of Max Weber’s thesis on the origins of capitalism and, at the same time, one of the most underestimated elements in Weberian literature. According to Weber, what characterizes capitalism is not a purpose-oriented rationality but rather a movement, which has its end in itself. It is a movement analogous to the one that defines human action, the way in which the human animal gives shape to her life. For, as Aristotle states, human praxis is not realized in a work, in an outer purpose, but it is autotelic, i.e., has a purpose in itself. Similarly, the basis of the self-reproducing logic of profit is not a finalized act, but rather an enterprise that, as in Aristotle’s concept of praxis, has its end in itself. Following Foucault, we can say that the original mechanism of the capitalist “apparatus” feeds not on a goal-directed rationality, but on the self-determining character of human agency.
Think of American students who, long before they enter the job market, have already fallen into debt with the banks, from which they borrow the money to pay their university fees, and are aware that they will have to allocate a part of their future earnings to the repayment of their debt. What this trend demonstrates is that debt is intimately related to life, for the former not only precedes but also determines the latter. And this association is at the core of religion.
If, in its present form, capitalism has become the religion of debt, as prophetically stated by Walter Benjamin in his well-known fragment of 1921, then this might be the place to find an answer to the question of why religion has now returned to the center of political and societal conflicts. The most recent claims of religious fundamentalisms, in fact, seem to be deeply connected with the phenomenon of market economy, understood as the last form of planetary religion, and its hegemonic power. Whereas, in the twentieth century, the debate on the links between politics and religion had led to the establishment of consensus on the detachment of modernity from religion, qualitatively different religious instances have emerged today, which directly affect the international political status quo and claim public attention. Many approaches have been employed to help us understand this process, not least among them the reinvigorated paradigm of the “clash of civilizations,” and many measures have been taken against this phenomenon, including the recent “Muslim ban” proposed by Donald Trump in the US. But no solution has really emerged so far in what is a worrying symptom of a problem of global proportions. I think that a radical confrontation with the dissolution of global politics into economy – or, rather, with the huge transformation undergone by politics through its blending with economy – may be of help in the challenging search for an explanation of the supremacy of religion on the global public scene, and perhaps in our search for alternatives to what seems a terrible dead-end road.
The implementation of neoliberal policies in some of the most advanced Western countries has implied a radical change in the role of politics, now hopelessly linked to the economy. A careful analysis of this process can be decisive in the difficult task of finding a reason for the reasserted dominance of religion on the world’s public scene. It can be said, for example, that the new fundamentalisms – like that of the so-called Islamic State – are deeply related to the hegemony of global economic forces, precisely because ISIS also derives its effectiveness from the fact that it is a sort of “religious apparatus.” In this sense, as stated by the French scholar Oliver Roy, the new fundamentalisms are not the expression of those who oppose globalization and are the adversaries of the ways of life characterizing Western democracies, but the “product” and “tool of the same dynamic of globalization.”
There is an internal resistance to this global phenomenon that could shape other alternatives, even if these appear to be quite unlikely (just think of the “Arab Spring” movements). Part of the younger generation, both in the West and elsewhere, is searching for a way to oppose the violence produced by faith in the market. Yet, nowadays, it seems that only xenophobic populisms, on the one hand, and the “Islamization” of radicalism, on the other, can be really global and dominant. These are two possibilities that, instead of opening new spaces for freedom and resistance, are taking us back to old and dangerous paths.