How the Market Became Divine
In The Market as God, Harvey Cox captures how our world has fallen in thrall to the business theology of supply and demand. According to its acolytes, the Market is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. It knows the value of everything, and determines the outcome of every transaction; it can raise nations and ruin households, and nothing escapes its reductionist commodification. The Market comes complete with its own doctrines, prophets, and evangelical zeal to convert the world to its way of life. Cox brings that theology out of the shadows, demonstrating that the way the world economy operates is neither natural nor inevitable but shaped by a global system of values and symbols that can be best understood as a religion. Drawing on biblical sources, economists and financial experts, prehistoric religions, Greek mythology, historical patterns, and the work of natural and social scientists, Cox points to many parallels between the development of Christianity and the Market economy. At various times in history, both have garnered enormous wealth and displayed pompous behavior. Both have experienced the corruption of power. However, what the religious have learned over the millennia, sometimes at great cost, still eludes the Market faithful: humility.
The relationship between religion and The Market is a long and convoluted saga. When did it start? One day a Cro-Magnon man traded a chiseled-stone spearhead with a hunter for a slice of newly slain saber-toothed tiger. He was so pleased with the exchange that the next morning he laid out some other tools he had made on a large rock and watched for passersby to stop and deal. The first market was born, and that was about forty-three thousand years ago.
This, of course, is a myth, and like any other myth it takes place on some other plane of time and space. It has no basis in fact; its purpose is to explain or justify some feature of our own times. But there are good myths and bad ones: some deepen our tenuous understanding of human life, and some obscure or distort it. In my view, the myth of the Fall of Adam and Eve still tells us something significant about who we are today. The Nazi myth of a superior Aryan race was a vicious and destructive one. What about the Cro-Magnon man and his spearhead? It is a myth that may seem harmless enough in some respects, but the way it is often used today places it in the bad-myth category. It is deployed misleadingly to construct an impressive but spurious lineage, and even to assert a virtually timeless and therefore “natural” quality of the market.
Its lack of any basis in real history is not what makes it a bad myth. Many good myths share that quality. Still, since those who use it often assert it is historical, it is important to remember that anthropological and historical research has shown that the earliest people did not have markets. Rather, theirs were “gift cultures,” at least within social groups. One was expected, of course, eventually to reciprocate for gifts accepted. But the reciprocation was not expected to happen right away; otherwise it would amount to tit-for-tat bargaining. What little barter did happen took place only with outsiders. Thus trust, reciprocity, and the importance of community are more primal and more “natural,” if that word is relevant in this case. They were present before markets or even bartering appeared.
Also, when two people met each other in even the most primitive of exchanges, they were already embedded in social and symbolic worlds which overlapped in both conflict and mutuality. There had probably been previous encounters and there would be more to come. As intertribal connections increased, the role of traders, once peripheral, grew as well. But even when simple forms of currency appeared (in the form of shells or beads, for example) both the buyer and seller knew they were part of larger interlaced worlds that relied on some common assumptions. The spearhead-for-a-slice or any of its variants is ahistorical. It may be a useful fiction, for some people, because it serves as what theologians call a “myth of origin” for the religion of the Market God. It suggests that market values are primal, even ingrained in the human psyche. We are, as the T-shirt has it, “Born to Shop.” But the truth is that market economies are not timeless. They appeared in human history under certain ascertainable conditions. The fact that they have existed for a long time does not make them eternal and it does not guarantee they will always be with us.
So much for our Cro-Magnon spearhead marketer and his stonetop display. It is also important to recall that, even before gifting gave way to marketing, some form of religion was also on the scene. Markets may eventually have performed an important human service. But they did so surrounded and constrained by a host of other institutions — families, tribes, religion, customs, rituals, and governing institutions.
Markets contributed one voice to the choir, but have never sung an unaccompanied a cappella solo or drowned out all the altos and tenors. The Market never reveled before in the celestial centrality it has enjoyed in recent western history and especially in the past two centuries. How did the change come about?
It took a while. Ages in human history have always been defined by key metaphors or webs of metaphors, often unnoticed grids through which people see themselves, others, and the world. An age’s metaphor is not just invented. It grows out of the conflicts and convergences of ordinary human efforts and the perception of the wider horizon of life within which daily life unfolds. Philosopher Charles Taylor and other scholars have recently begun to call this metaphor the “social imaginary.” Lewis Mumford once pointed out that historians might have placed undue emphasis on man as toolmaker because tools, being crafted out of stone, flint, or iron, were the surviving artifacts of otherwise lost civilizations. But, Mumford reminds us, in addition to making axes and hammers, our earliest ancestors also spun out stories to try to make sense of their often threatening world.
Man the toolmaker was also man the tallteller. Archeologists can recover the tools, but the stories woven from sounds and gestures — the elements from which religion is made — have been lost. Hardly an echo survives, although sometimes we can catch a glimpse of what they might have been about in the carefully executed paintings that scroll across the walls of the cave dwellers. Enticing and elusive, these sketches tell us little but hint at much. They suggest that the imaginative worlds, and perhaps the dream worlds, of our forebears were rich and complex. One such cave was discovered as recently as 1994 by speleologist Jean-Marie Chauvet in France. Its vivid drawings are dated to a time thirty thousand years ago, making them ten thousand years older than the most ancient cave art found elsewhere. When the German director Werner Herzog made his superb film about the Chauvet Cave, he significantly titled it Cave of Forgotten Dreams. But his film raises a profound question: Why did people who clung to life so close to the edge of hunger and cold devote precious hours to portraying animal and human forms by the light of flickering torches? They lived in an environment that was unpredictable and threatening. They had to stave off wild animals, insects, and storms. They hunted and gathered, then later planted and picked, but their lives were always precarious.
Imagine how a sudden flash of lightning or ear-splitting peal of thunder, both totally inexplicable, pierced their quotidian routines. What did the Chauvet Cave mean to those people? No one knows the entirety. But surely it performed at least two closely related functions. First, it provided a safe place where they could gather and be reminded of the irreducibly corporate and communal character of their lives. No sane person would venture out alone to hunt or gather. They knew they needed each other. And second, it offered a location where they could placate the terrifying forces that constantly threatened them.
In a deep recess of one of the branches of the Chauvet Cave stands a large, flat boulder with what appear to be stone containers on each side. What is this? Again, no one can be sure. But the consensus among scholars is that it is a primitive altar. Looking upon it amidst the vivid colors of the wild bison and human torsos makes the mind race. What lost rituals and incantations might have been intoned here? What plants or animals would have been offered to keep the menacing powers at bay? Could this have been the location of the earliest forerunner of the Eucharist and Passover Seder?
The cave is reluctant to reveal its secrets. But clearly, our ancestors were not just crafting handaxes and hidescrapers; they were also imagining, dreaming, drawing, and perhaps praying. As Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan writes, the Chauvet Cave is “a sacred space where the human and the mystical effortlessly intertwine.”3 Perhaps the people who created the paintings and altar needed periodic rituals to remind themselves that the welfare of the group — the family, the tribe — was vital to the survival of the individual. And in the face of a frightening world they were doing everything in their limited powers to project some meaning onto it, to prevent it from doing its worst, to stake out a space in which to survive. They had to cope with both the selfish passions of human beings and the capricious moods of the gods. The world-metaphor informing their lives was a dark forest where danger lurked both within and without. Whatever exchanges took place did so surrounded by the symbolic and ritual parameters of a larger human enterprise that placed the value of collective survival far above that of personal gain. The market and the altar both have long histories. But the altar, and some form of spirituality, seems to predate the advent of markets. Still, the epic of their interaction, sometimes friendly, sometimes adversarial, is the stuff of an ongoing drama.