Market Fundamentalism: The Religion of Mammon

Market is not God

In this excerpt from Shaking the Gates of Hell, Chapter 10:  “Economic Insanity:  An Overview of the Global Economy,” author Sharon Delgado writes about “Market Fundamentalism: The Religion of Mammon” which dominates global culture.  In later parts of this chapter she presents an overview of the global economy from the perspective of this secular religion, shows how the system makes sense and works well for those for whom it is designed, critiques the ideological underpinnings of the system, and reveals the insane logic and devastating results of unrestrained free market capitalism.

Market Fundamentalism:  The Religion of Mammon

“The Market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament—not just one superior deity contending with others but the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must now be universally accepted and who allows for no rivals.”                               Harvey Cox[i]

Theologian Harvey Cox began reading the business section of the newspaper after a friend suggested that this was where he would find out what was going on in the real world. To his surprise, Cox found the language of economics quite familiar. He writes of a comprehensive “business theology” based on a belief in the market as God: “Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption . . .”[ii]

Jesus warned, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24), but the ideology of corporate globalization would have us ignore that counsel. The foundation of this ideology is the love of money, “a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). It knows nothing of the sanctity of life or the call to faithful and just living, but takes a purely utilitarian view. It supports a user-based approach to life by promoting an ideology that expresses the inner dimension, or “spirit,” of the complex web of institutions that make up the global economic system.

The dominant ideology that undergirds this system has been called “Market Fundamentalism.”[iii] Because it functions as a secular religion, describing it in terms similar to how we describe other religions, capitalized words at all, is a helpful approach I will use in this section. Market Fundamentalism has its own economic orthodoxy that, for the most part, is unquestioningly accepted. It is an idolatrous religion, because it makes a god out of the Market. It puts money above all else.

This religion has its own high priests, those economic advisors, corporate executives, and government officials who make the rules and oversee the functioning of the economic system as a whole. It has its own saints, people who have attained the success that the system promises: millionaires and billionaires, CEOs and media moguls, sports idols and movie stars, people who make it all seem possible, people upon whom we can pin our hopes. It has its own symbols, corporate logos such as the Golden Arches and the Nike swoosh that can be seen everywhere. This religion prepares children as candidates for confirmation through corporate links to schools and universities and the privatization of public schools. The religion of Mammon has its own sacraments: you have to be baptized with at least some of the money upon which the religion is built in order to partake of the “means of grace,” the fast foods or caviar, depending upon what level of success you have attained. This religion encourages the use of its rituals, such as investing in the stock market and shopping, whether you have a lot of money or only a little to invest or spend. (The manic aspect of consumer culture is especially apparent before Christmas, when it contrasts so markedly with the somber purples which symbolize the message of repentance during Advent, creating a strange and discordant synchronizing of religions.) This religion has its own preachers, whose message is carried by commercials that promote its sacraments and rituals, by news programs that carry its official ideology, and by sitcoms and other programs that are steeped in its milieu.

To understand the strange logic of this secular religion, we have to understand its doctrines: its object of faith, foundational values, goals, and hopes. The secular religion that supports corporate globalization is based upon these basic “articles of faith” of economic theory:

  • the sanctity of the Market
  • the value of self-interest
  • the goal of generating wealth
  • the hope of limitless economic growth

The object of faith, the god or idol at the apex of this belief system, is the Market, whose “Invisible Hand” supposedly allows the greatest good to flow to the greatest number of people through the universal Law of Supply and Demand. Governments are supposed to have faith in this higher power and interfere with it as little as possible. In order for the Market to do its mysterious work (its wonders to perform), it must be set free from government interference. (Governments interfere with the free Market by making laws that regulate banks and corporations, provide public services, establish a social safety net, and protect the commons.) For this reason, free market enthusiasts push privatization, deregulation, and cuts in social services. The essence of free-trade agreements is to spread this religion of unregulated free-market capitalism around the world.

The Right Reverend Frederick Houk Borsch, former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, writes satirically about faith in the Market in an article entitled “Pry Loose the Cold, Hard Fingers of the Market’s ‘Invisible Hand’”: “Capitalism . . . has proved to be universally successful. Indeed, almost all government is evil to the extent that it does not keep hands off the hand. Markets based on self-interest, and that take into account and even sanction natural human greed, are the only way to sort out economies and people. Blind faith in an invisible hand becomes a form of piety. . . . All praise to the hand.”[iv]

If the object of faith in unrestrained free market global capitalism is the Market, the primary value upon which it is built is self-interest. From this foundational value (so the logic goes) comes the well-being of the whole community. Individuals and businesses that act in their own self-interest, seek to “maximize their utility,” and compete with each other, leading to the well-being of the whole economy and all its various parts. Companies that are allowed to act freely in their own self-interest, in competition with each other, are motivated to make high-quality goods to meet the demand for such goods. In turn, consumers acting in their own self-interest buy the best goods, stimulating further competition and, thus, improved quality. Successfully competitive companies provide jobs for people and provide wages that allow workers to purchase goods, which helps to keep the whole system going.

The Market works best, however, when people (and corporations) act rationally according to the values of this system—that is, when they act in their own self-interest. In this way, natural human competitiveness is harnessed for the greater good, allowing the Market to produce goods and offer services efficiently, for the benefit of all concerned. Self-interest is the engine that drives the whole system and keeps it going.

Adam Smith developed his basic theory of capitalism over two hundred years ago in vastly different circumstances, and qualified his theory by saying it would only work if capital remained local and if private-property ownership was widespread. Neither of these conditions is true today, but capitalism’s faith in the Market and the value of self-interest still remain.

The primary goal of capitalism is to generate wealth, that is, capital. Capital is not simply money earned as wages, but profit, money made over and above the costs of doing business. Capital also refers to the means of production, that is, the factories, tools, and other equipment used for manufacturing. The idea is that profit can be invested and the means of production can be employed to generate more capital, in an ongoing cycle of economic growth.

The vision that springs from these ideas is of a world growing ever richer and more technologically advanced. People everywhere will gain access to the “good life” that is available in the United States. Advances in technology will allow us to clean up the environment and end world hunger. Poor countries will develop along Western lines, with fast-food restaurants, computers, televisions, and cars. And, its advocates say, countries linked economically will have the incentive not to go to war with each other. Globalization will create a truly global village of material abundance, understanding, and peace.

According to this vision, in a globally integrated capitalist system, with each country gaining a comparative advantage in a particular area by contributing the best of what it has to offer, with increasing efficiency and technological advancement, with ongoing development and decreasing trade barriers, the global economy will continue to expand, and its benefits will be shared with all the people of the world. This utopian vision is based on belief in the possibility and necessity of limitless economic growth. If the economic pie continues to get bigger, no one will have to take a smaller piece, and there will be more pie to go around. This is a central premise of capitalist doctrine, for without growth, wealth cannot be generated. There is no capitalism without economic growth.

Clarity about these basics can help us to understand how the global economic system works and why it works in the way it does. And since almost all government and business leaders accept this economic ideology, it becomes clear why they support the policies they do.

For example, government policies often favor big business—but why? Besides the obvious influence of corporate money in politics, government leaders generally believe that supporting big business is good and necessary for society as a whole. After all, corporations have lots of capital, so giving them incentives to invest it stimulates the economy and helps the economy to grow. From this perspective, it also makes sense for corporate leaders to have input into decisions made by government and global institutions in areas that affect them. Corporations may have more expertise in these areas than lawmakers, with studies and data to back them up, and can assist government officials in creating conditions that are favorable for growth. It makes sense for the government to give corporations subsidies and to cut their taxes and interest rates, because such moves free up money that can be reinvested to create yet more wealth, leading to more jobs and products and development and economic growth.

Corporate policies, no matter how heartless, can also be justified from the perspective of this underlying economic ideology. When corporations restructure, they often cut jobs and show record profits in the same year, but this doesn’t seem so bad if we believe that when corporations act in their own self-interest to generate profit and raise the value of their stocks, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do according to the basic values, goals, and beliefs of the system. (Besides, this is what they are required to do by law.) Returning to these basic tenets can help explain most aspects of the global economy from the point of view of the current economic orthodoxy.

You will rarely hear alternative views in the mainstream press, except when, rarely, the message of protesters breaks through the sensationalized reports about the growing protests taking place at economic summits around the world. Usually, though, these dominant economic concepts are simply taken for granted. They are part of the milieu in which we live. When we hear them, they seem to make logical sense unless we are grounded in something deeper and more real: in the earth, in the love of God that is showered upon us through the creation; in a sense of the sanctity of life; in the bonds of love that we have for each other and the interdependence that we share with all creation; in the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who showed us who God is and what human life can be when lived in faithfulness to God; in the vision of peace on earth and goodwill to all creation; in the gift of discernment that enables us to appreciate true wealth, which has nothing to do with money; in the freedom to live as fully human beings. From this vantage point, we can look at reality with eyes that see through the economic dogma that colors everything, with ears that hear through the “doublespeak” and “overtalk” that muffles the truth, with hearts that understand both the faulty assumptions and the grave implications of where this unjust and idolatrous global system is taking us.

We will now look more closely at how this system works, and at how completely it depends upon the ideology/religion that justifies it. Together, this system and ideology are pushing the world toward corporate-dominated globalization, toward the ever-greater generation of wealth, and toward the ecological destruction and human misery that accompany it. If we keep in mind the basic teachings of the economic ideology that supports corporate globalization, we can follow the thread of these beliefs as we seek to understand the big picture of the global economy and the rationale behind it. As you will see, it is built upon a foundation that is faulty, and the system as a whole is idolatrous, unjust, and unsustainable.

[i]. Harvey Cox, “The Market as God: Living in the new dispensation,” Atlantic Monthly, March 1999, 18

[ii]. Ibid., 20.

[iii]. Siddharth Mohandas, “Market Fundamentalism,” The Washington Monthly, July-Aug. 2002, (accessed 3/5/07).

[iv]. Frederick H. Borsch, “Pry Loose the Cold, Hard Fingers of the Market’s ‘Invisible Hand,’” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5, 2001, (accessed 3/5/07).

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