Our religious transvaluation of money: From cosmic evil to “doing God’s work”

The cover feature for the current issue of Boston Review, titled “How Markets Crowd Out Morals,” takes the form of a hugely stimulating forum on the thesis put forth by Harvard government professor Michael Sandel in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (which I’ve referenced here previously). Sandel argues that America’s market-based master meme, which says absolutely every aspect of life can and should be commodified and conducted according to monetary ideas of gain and loss, has gotten out of control and begun to corrupt personal life and civil society by invading realms totally unamenable to them. In the forum, which is available in its entirety online, Sandel leads with an essay derived from his book, and this is followed by nine responses plus his collective reply to them.

One of the responses in particular caught my attention. It’s from Lew Daly, Senior Fellow and Director of the Sustainable Progress Initiative at Demos and author of God’s Economy and God and the Welfare State. The title is “Free Market Idolatry,” and for my money (pun definitely intended) it absolutely nails the spiritual and philosophical heart of what’s happened to us all in this age of — to invoke Morris Berman’s rhetoric — hype and hustling triumphant:

Sandel sees a world in which markets increasingly “corrupt, dissolve, or displace nonmarket norms,” that is, the expectations, customs, and interdictions that shape a common moral life and provide a moral structure for the common good. But his spatial metaphor of “crowding out” obscures the true depths of market corruption. When Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein can even try to defend what he does as “God’s work,” the problem is not a crowding out of morals but their transvaluation: making money, formerly an exclusive realm of cosmic evil (or at least a cause of crippling moral diseases among the affluent), is now “doing God’s work.”

…Sandel’s important project on the moral limits of markets arrives at a moment that profoundly illustrates just how marginal such a critique has become. When Wall Street collapsed, the moral validity of market forces somehow emerged newly strengthened. This would be impossible in a time when non-market values had a part in the structure of power. Instead, we can see how religious imagination has filled the absence of non-market power, with non-market values commonly expressed in religious, sometimes apocalyptic, terms.

— Lew Daly, “Free Market Idolatry,” Boston Review, May/June 2012

A grateful nod goes out to the fine folks at 3 Quarks Daily — one of my favorite daily Web stops — for alerting usto this Boston Review forum.

About The Teeming Brain

The Teeming Brain is a blog magazine exploring the intersection of religion, horror, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture. It also tracks apocalyptic and dystopian trends in technology, politics, ecology, economics, the arts, education, and society at large.

Posted on May 30, 2012, in Economy, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great stuff! Christianity has somehow gone from the religion of the poor to the religion of the rich. Interesting story behind that, I’m sure.

    • In the wide view, of course, this trend kicked off at least as long ago as the official fusion of the Christian religion with secular political and economic power under Constantine in the fourth century. And it has been happening repeatedly, in different forms and contexts, ever since. The current version of it here in America strikes me as particularly galling, though — perhaps because it’s the one that I’m closest to and living through.

      • We need a 21st century St. Francis.

        • Oh, how I agree! Tangentially — or actually, leading straight in from what we’re talking about — I vividly remember being saddened when I read a biography of St. Francis some years ago after (something I did after one of my college professors, who also became a life mentor, turned me on to Franco Zeffirelli’s wonderful biopic Brother Sun, Sister Moon) — and learned of the way he personally struggled with the increasingly complicated structural formalities and difficulties of the order he founded in the years leading up to his death. His original blazing spiritual freedom and purity of visionary insight got tangled up, as I see it, when a structure that couldn’t help but hamper it precisely because it was an institutional structure. Maybe it’s silly to be saddened, since this phenomenon appears universal and inevitable. Brother David Steindl-Rast very effectively characterized it in his essay “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion” as a “clogging” of the spiritual “irrigation system” that institutional religious structures are supposed to represent and provide in order to connect later people with the original visionary insight of the founder or founders. Maybe this phenomenon is as much an opportunity as a tragedy, since it basically embodies the truth that real religion has to be something experienced and appropriated each individual for him- or herself. But it still bothers me,

      • I suppose, like you point out, there is something positive about there always being room for someone to come along an re-invigorate things, it does seem like a rather pointless and depressing thought to know that for all their good work eventually their insights will be lost under structure and stability. Kind of reminds me of Sisyphus. Of course, Sisyphus kind of reminds me of life some days… So, I’m not sure how you should take that!

        • I take that as the human lot. Of course, since we’re ontologically amphibious and swim in two (or actually more) worlds at once, then the Sisyphean aspect of existence perhaps pertains only to the lowest/lower level(s). Come to think of it, that probably gives the solution to the visionary insight vs. institutional/structural stability conflict as well.

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