Why Is the Economy Stuck?… Market Theology for Nonbelievers

I’ve been making this point for a long time now: there is an edge to our current state of economic screwdom that takes it beyond the ordinary. I hesitate to call it “spiritual,” because that always makes people’s eyes glaze over. But indeed, there is something about this meltdown that calls for explanations of its meaning in a philosophical or theological sense.

And it’s right about there that most non-religious people say, “the hell with this. I’d rather watch Keith Olbermann.” They shouldn’t. There’s something important to hear, and since nobody seems to be listening, I simply shall have to make the same point again, only more obnoxiously.

I’ll bottom-line it in just a minute, but here’s the theological set up. According to Walter Brueggemann (reading the Exodus narrative), “static religious triumphalism” funds a politics of “human oppression and exploitation.” That probably seems opaque, but the point is simple. When God (or the gods) guarantee and legitimize the social order, they inevitably come to represent the interests of the wealthy and the powerful. The people who are on top are there because God put them on top, therefore nothing should ever change, Q.E.D. Now get back to making your bricks, slave.

Understanding this enables us to make the not-particularly-interesting point that the static religious triumphalism of the religious right helps prop up the current economic order. You have a role to play as a mother or father, slave; and don’t get any fancy ideas about changing that role, because those bricks aren’t going to change themselves.

But there’s more to it than that, and here comes the bottom line:

1) There is a kind of market idolatry at work in our system, and I’m not talking about simply thinking “greed is good.” Rather, it’s the mistaken belief that the market can provide for all our material needs, that it can make us “safe and happy” in some ultimate sense. Until we can unhook from that belief, we will always remain stuck in the belief that the market guarantees and legitimizes the social order, and get back to work, you lazy slaves and minimum-wage workers. To put it another way, the economy is not going to go anywhere until we understand that there has to be some kind of social mobility, there’s not going to be social mobility until we understand that the market system of producing losers and winners is largely arbitrary and needs to be changed, and we’re not going to get market change until we understand, paradoxically, that the market can’t do it all. Without the freedom to walk away from the market, there is no freedom to be anything but at the mercy of the market. It’s almost impossible to be entirely free of the market these days, but it is possible, and politically feasible, to decouple social and market status.

2) The reason our political leaders can’t or won’t make the effort to think outside the market idolatry isn’t that they’re stupid or politically blind or sinful or corrupt or what-have-you, though they display all those shortcomings and more. It’s first that they are heavily invested in maintaining the market legitimation of the social order through inclination and financial interest, which we all knew. And yes, to a certain extent, they’re boxed in by circumstance. But also, they lack the imagination to understand that the promises of the market idol have failed. The party’s over, and because they live in a closed system, they can’t see it.

But they have even less imagination for what comes next. This is why the Fed pursues Hoover’s austerity program, it’s why the extension of unemployment benefits is going nowhere, it’s why we have the insanity of the “catfood commission.” Our ruling elites are so flummoxed by this economic collapse that they have utterly nothing to fall back on but the same-old, same-old. Until the message gets through that the old way of doing things is dead and gone and stinking up the cemetery, nothing’s going to change.

Now, the religious message is that it is God who provides the newness to move things along. Specifically, according to Brueggemann, God provides a risky and “just enough” economic alternative to the madness of the market idolatry. But take out the God piece, and you still have a useful insight: our current stuckness isn’t a matter of political malpractice or corruption. It’s a failure of the imagination on a grand scale, an inability to conceive that newness is needed, much less that it must be embraced. Some days, I think we’d all be better off if we called it what it is, a “failure of the moral imagination,” as Hannah Arendt once said, real and meaningful evil. You don’t have to believe in God to get that.