Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | December 4, 2012

Of Debt & Sin: The Religious Impulse in Right Wing Economics

Centuries ago, a revolution occurred based on the allowance on the part of the Western world’s most powerful institution of the purchasing of sins–“indulgences”. Martin Luther’s famous response, coupled with a radical change in the way information was spread by the printing press, changed Western culture irrevocably. The Supreme Court, arguably the Western world’s most powerful institution today, has again allowed the purchasing of sins. We call the mechanism of this purchase “the corporation”. Because it is recognized as a legal “person” but cannot be held accountable as one, and because the corporation has far more wealth than most individuals, the corporation is able to exercise disproportionate influence on the American political system. Politicians are paid off by the corporation to allow them to indulge in various sins from ecological destruction to contracts for prisons and weapons to the denial of health benefits and working wages.

As a result of the powerful influence on our political system by the corporation, we are in the midst of an unprecedented period of “deregulation”. The market has been transformed in myriad ways that benefit the wealthy. While the direct causes for this are complex and varied, it is allowed for one simple reason: a theology that conflates wealth and merit, poverty and sinfulness.

There are two basic and profound fallacies promoted in the popular discourse, assumptions that have allowed for a right-wing ideological bias to dominate any discussion of economic policy: First, the false dichotomy between the “free” market and regulation; second, the conflation of wealth and goodness, bringing about the desire to punish the poor. As a result we find ourselves in the midst of four decades of these right-wing policies–coming from both political parties–that have resulted in a shrunken middle class, a greater proportion of wealth for the super-rich and unprecedented and unchecked ecological devastation. The markets will correct these problems, we are told, as if that would be any consolation for our grandchildren born in uninhabitable ecosystems.

While presented as “rational”, this faith in “the market” is just that–faith. It is the product of the theological position, particularly powerful in the Calvinist branch of Protestantism that provides a basic context for American culture, that considers poverty to be something like a punishment for sinfulness. Indeed, while it reaches its nadir in Calvinist theology, the connection between debt and sin goes all the way back to the the times of Jesus. Trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty out of which they could not escape, the Israelites were told, under the Romans, that this debt-sin (the same word was used for both) was owed to the Roman authorities just as the sacrifice was owed to the Temple authorities. How ironic it is that Jesus (yes, the same Jesus whose name we hear on the lips of every right wing politician) offered an alternative, a forgiveness of debt.

It has long puzzled many on the Left how politicians like Paul Ryan and their voters could purport to be devout Christians while advocating economic policies closer to the atheist Ayn Rand that the Jesus of the gospels. The cynical position that politicians are knowingly appropriating Christianity is only part of the story. For the American Religious Right, the punishment of the poor is held as a theological position no less important than the resurrection.

The economic position of the Republican party today is based upon a two-fold obsession: the punishment of the poor to appease their own guilt and the removal of the debt as a means of punishment. Neither is based on sound economic policy; both arise out of theological assumptions. That is to say that the Tea Party fixation with a balanced budget–while purported to be about responsible financial management–is the product of this theological position of sin and punishment. While there is some truth in the notion that the government wastes money and overspends, very few on the Right are serious about fixing the problem of waste: if they were, they would be willing to cut defense spending by two-thirds overnight. The solutions on the Right are more about punishing the poor for their poverty, for their debt–“entitlements” are the root of this government evil, the story goes.

Freedom, or the free market, is always found through the imposition of certain rules that allow for the greatest freedom within those parameters. Neoliberalism and Libertarianism are fantasies: Only the anarchist truly believes in a de-regulated economy. Neoliberalism wants its rules to benefit the American industrialist, or corporate farmer, or financier; the libertarian, of course, wants the government to protect those who have the capital. Both advocate myriad government controls and regulations to benefit the wealthy. Neither would advocate the truly unregulated space in which the poor could simply rise up and take what the wealthy have. The truth is that markets function best–indeed, they are the freest–when they can be created and cultivated and guarded against unfair practices. In his recent work, The Illusion of Free Markets, University of Chicago scholar (yes, that University of Chicago) Bernhard Harcourt explains that the notion of the free market goes back to a philosophical assumption, that of “natural order”. Not only are markets always subject to a certain amount of regulation–that is, the market is a space that is constructed by society in which to trade–but the lessening of regulation in the market invariably leads to the increase of control in other areas, namely the penal system. The illusion of a market that is somehow free and natural leads both a less egalitarian society and, perhaps more significantly, the belief that the poor are outside of this natural order and must be punished. The ascension of Chicago School economic policy in the United States has been coupled not only with a shrinking middle class but also with unprecedented mass incarceration.

So we stand here at the edge of an idea, of a capitalism that has become so ideological that it approaches a religion in its dogmatism, a dogmatism that threatens to destroy the very flexibility and openness that makes it possible. Freedom has become an idea that enslaves, that obfuscates a clear understanding of our economic condition. Its priests protect against all heresies with a means of control far more powerful than any inquisition: the idea that our system is natural and rational. Beliefs most deeply held come to us in the mysterious form of what we tend to call reality.

The Italian Marxist theorist and activist Franco “Bifo” Berardi suggests that the root of this skewed view of the economy is found in language. A system of abstract finance is expressed in a similarly abstract language. It is the language of the disembodied, the machine. The way forward, according to Berardi, is to return to the poetic. That is to say that the Citizens United decision and the Right Wing order it supports cannot be addressed merely by pleas to a more rational approach–although it would be more rational to, say, create an economy that accounted for the real, ecological cost of things–because the theological assumptions we have made conflate that order with with Reason itself.

One challenge we face is that, as was the case for Martin Luther (with the printing press), the information revolution of our day (the Internet) leads us to a more disembodied life. Perhaps we do not need 95 theses nailed to doors of the Supreme Court (much less to blog about it) but stand at its doors and cry out with our embodied, poetic voice.

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