The Capitalist Situation and Spiritual Life

Aye l’oja, orun n’ile (The world is a marketplace we [all] visit, [and] the otherworld is home)

(Yoruba saying, quoted/translated by Wole Soyinka)

When we start talking about capitalism’s role in the modern spiritual world, it’s useful to start with a little advice from Michel Foucault. When he was pressed as to whether he was anti-psychiatry, he stated that he didn’t think psychiatry was ‘bad.’ Rather, he said, psychiatry was “dangerous…but everything is dangerous.” When we talk about capitalism’s influence in our spiritual lives, I suggest thinking like that–it isn’t bad, but dangerous; there is no way to escape danger in this life so we should appreciate the nature of that danger.

Capitalism gives pride of place to market relationships and a monetary system rooted in the use of currency. The ‘market’ is defined by a specific sort of exchange, the purchase. The purchase involves a product being provided by a seller to a buyer. The monetary system provides the medium for that process, defining an abstract currency through which value is assigned to the product.

Many of the other characteristics of capitalism (including private ownership, wage labor, and competition) are subsidiary to the emphasis on market exchange. Capitalism tends to be agnostic on matters of how a product comes into being so long as it can be brought to market. You know the scene in the movie where the powerful person (the politician, the general) looks to their rough and ready inferior and says “do whatever it takes”? That’s capitalism. It cares less how the product is made than that it is made.

Market relationships and currency play a prominent role in many forms of social life, but in capitalism they are primary.  In capitalism, when push comes to shove, products and profits come to the forefront of the discussion. Capitalism favors debt in large part because debt facilitates more market exchanges possible–buy now, don’t delay those purchases!

Capitalism is well-suited to consumerism. These two terms are heavily freighted these days, so I want to remind you, neither capitalism nor consumerism are bad (or good), but dangerous. They are trends to be examined and understood, not immediately damned or sanctified. This piece here on Palo, paganism, and consumerism is a helpful place to start in thinking through the role of contemporary consumerism in spiritual life.

Because we often talk shit about consumerism and capitalism, let’s talk about some of their advantages. First and foremost, there are few forms of social organization that are as tolerant of diversity as capitalism and consumerism. That begins with their general agnosticism regarding production which permits individuals and communities to maintain distinctive lifeways.

Capitalism and consumerism make market encounters more common and sellers have the incentive to distinguish their products from others similar to them. This encourages active diversification. Not only that, but those market encounters give the people involved a broader basis of comparison on which to model and explore innovation. This actively fosters a moderate degree of aesthetic and intellectual diversity and passively tolerates a good deal more.

This foreshadows some of the dangers. These changes come at a cost to traditional social forms in which status and influence rest on something other than buying power or market penetration. At no point is capitalism and consumerism so total, though, that it simply annihilates these forms, but it often engenders some reactionary responses. Hybrid forms develop in which traditional social forms attempt to take control of the process and cast it in a direction suitable to their social values.

(I mean ‘traditional’ broadly–traditional liberalism, for example.)

Contemporary imperialism emerges on these sorts of hybrid forms. In the last 500 years, imperial forms have frequently passed from dangerous to disastrous, unleashing forces of destruction unimaginable to prior eras. While it would be comforting to link that to industrialism, the African slave trade pre-dates and prefigures it, suggesting the imperial vein runs deeply into the mercantile world, too.

(In bleaker moments, I wonder if it has perhaps always been a disaster, Rome never-ending in Philip K. Dick’s parlance. But, thankfully, those are only the bleaker moments.)

Imperialism makes the whole system shudder and fission with reactionary impulses. In the contemporary period, we can look at the way in which the national politics of the U.S. largely rides upon the backs of two rival reactionary reflexes, neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Imperial capitalism tends to destroy established structures in order to reorganize them for its own capitalist needs. The destruction fosters even more intense, yet fragmentary, reactionary responses.

Reaction and counter-reaction, counter-counter reactions…the whole network veers dangerously close to social mechanism, an endless chain of disastrous effects.

(And beneath all of this is a growing rumbling announcing the disparity between the velocity of consumption and the capacity of our world support it.)

This is the world in which we are embedded and through which we engage in our spiritual pursuits. In this world, spirituality is always at risk of becoming one more commodity and one more reactionary reflex. Let that sink in. Walter Benjamin:

even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

Even the dead.

There is no place to run.

While the dangers and the disaster are encompassing, they are not total. The first step to laying hold of a vital spiritual life for ourselves begins in the acknowledgment of disaster and our inability to escape it, but it leads beyond it and sustains by its existence the possibility of worlds beyond the disaster.

We must begin by disentangling ourselves as much as possible from our own mechanism. (As much as possible: total freedom and liberation are tranquilizing lies.) We must move beyond flight and fight, liberation and elimination, first toward respite and then to rejoinder.

We must first find some sense of hope and then find some way to articulate that hope.

Those possibilities are already present within the disaster itself and we must take hold of them, with all the dangers that implies for ourselves and others, even and especially when it doesn’t look like much at all. Those resources lie within capitalism and consumerism, though some have been poisoned by empire.

The world is, and should be, a marketplace. It must be rescued from empire.

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5 thoughts on “The Capitalist Situation and Spiritual Life

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