The Faith of Modernity


The true faith of 21st century moderns has little to do with  those nominal religions to which, in John Ruskin’s words, “we pay tithes of property and sevenths of time.”  It is more fashionable for modern intellectuals to look askance at even these nominal religions and declare themselves atheists.  But there is a true 21st century faith in which even self-proclaimed atheists fervently believe.

To understand the faith of modernity, we must first look at faith in the ancient world.  Just as modern intellectuals question the reality of the Judeo-Christian deity, there must have been any number of sophisticated classical intellectuals who didn’t hold truck with the idea of anthropomorphic gods cavorting about Mt. Olympus, acting like a bunch of randy teenagers. However, even they never doubted the core of classical religion: the inevitability of fate.  The great tragic heroes were never great enough to challenge fate.  Even the gods were subject to fate, Cronus’ swallowing his offspring could not forestall the foretold victory of Zeus.  Those three sisters at their spinning were the true rulers of the ancient world.

Fate not only determined your lifespan and your choices, it determined your condition.  Whether you were slave of free was determined by fate. If your tribe were conquered by another and subsequently enslaved, fate had decreed it so.  Only one small group in the ancient world demurred from this belief in the primacy of fate.  The Israelites determined that fate had nothing to do with their being slaves in Egypt.  They understood that it was pharaonic power that held them in subjection, and that power could be countered by greater power.  When Pharaoh, a god himself, demanded a show of this other god’s power, Aaron threw down his staff, which became a serpent.  Pharaoh scoffed at this paltry show of power and commanded his priests to likewise turn their staffs into serpents, whereupon Aaron’s serpent ate the priests’ serpents, a palpable demonstration that even those fated to be slaves could summon a power greater than Pharaoh’s.  The Israelites invented the idea of free will and earned the eternal enmity of the rest of the world.

The modern world, too, contains just such a faith in an equally illusory force that determines our ends, our choices, and our conditions.  Even the most sophisticated modern intellectuals who deny the existence of God fervently believe in this force and will call you a fool and a blasphemer if you do not recognize it and worship it.  This disembodied force of which I speak is, of course, the market.  Like fate, the market determines our ends, our choices, and our conditions. 

The market cult has a whole host of clergy proclaiming it the true faith.  Economists are its theologians, claiming to divine the mysterious workings of this occult god.  Marketers are its parish priests, telling corporate worshipers how to propitiate this god to gain its favor day to day.  Consultants are its bishops, telling the corporate aristocracy how organize themselves to please this jealous god. 

To truly understand the market cult.  We need to look at its high priest, Milton Friedman:

But so long as people are effectively free to enter into an exchange and are reasonably well informed the essential feature of the market remains that of our ideal example. It provides for co-operation without coercion; it prevents one person from interfering with another. The employer is protected from being interfered with or coerced by his employees by the existence of other employees whom he can hire. The employee is protected from being coerced by his employer by the existence of other employers for whom he can work; the customer by the existence of other sellers, and so on. [1]

To Friedman, the single mother who works a below-minimum wage day job and takes a second job cleaning offices at night because she cannot afford day care is making an informed free exchange.  Employees are protected because of all the other jobs available out there, unions, therefore, being an unnecessary drag on the freedom of employers.  To adherents of the market cult, this is more than wishful thinking; it is central to their belief. 

To Friedman, the basis of all freedom is economic freedom, the ability to do whatever you want with your resources.  The condition for having freedom, however, is that you have resources to begin with: “Only people have incomes and they derive them through the market from the resources they own, whether these be in the form of corporate stock, or of bonds, or of land, or of their personal capacity.”[2]  If you do not have resources, you are simply not a person.  Apparently, “personal capacity” is as fungible as stocks and bonds.  Friedman tells us that anyone is free to start a business. Presumably, starting a business is one way of cashing in on personal capacity as a resource.  So it takes resources to get resources.  Mitt Romney, in true market cult fashion, disposes of this problem rather handily, telling students to start a business, and, if they didn’t have the money for that, they should simply borrow it from their parents.  It’s not simply that market cult believers don’t understand that some are without resources; to them, such people are not actors in their system and are beneath consideration.

True, liberals and social-democrats take a different view of the market.  To them, the capitalist market is acceptable as long as we ameliorate its more destructive tendencies through distributionry schemes which correct injustice after the fact.  We might call their belief reformed market cult.  They complain that market cult orthodoxy does not lead to equality of opportunity and talk of leveling the playing field.  But even they do not doubt the core belief of the market cult, that there is playing field that is at least potentially fair and equitable.  They lack the understanding that the market, like fate, is simply an exercise of power and is designed to favor the powerful.

Friedman attempts to counter naysayers, claiming”

What most people really object to when they object to a free market is that it is so hard for them to shape it to their own will. The market gives people what the people want instead of what other people think they ought to want. At the bottom of many criticisms of the market economy is really lack of belief in freedom itself. [3]

This statement requires some major unpacking.  To Friedman, it is axiomatic that whatever is available in the market is necessarily what people want.  He lacks an understanding that desire can be manipulated and that what people want may not be entirely an object of free choice.  People tend to construct their identities in terms of what commodities marketers dangle in front of them, and so find what’s available on the market satisfying, unconsciously accommodating corporate power in their lives.  Gore Vidal was fond of pointing out that the most provocative thing about television that incites violence is not violent TV shows, but the advertisements telling those without resources what commodities they must have to be considered fully human. 

Friedman admits that people find the market difficult to shape to their will, but lacks curiosity about why they find it difficult and ignores the idea that some do not find it so difficult. The ability to shape the market to your will depends on your level of economic power: the more economic power you have, the easier it is to shape the market to your will.  Just as the Israelites understood that fate was purely a matter of pharaonic power, so we must understand the so-called market, which determines our conditions and our choices, is merely those with economic power using that power to get more economic power.  What believers call the free market, is, in reality, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The High Priest of the market cult tells us: “As it developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the intellectual movement that went under the name of liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society.”  Perhaps so, but only if freedom is the ability to have and use resources.  True freedom is not about that.  True freedom is the ability to determine necessity, which can only be accomplished by a collective, not an individual, entity.



[1] Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom.

[2] Milton FriedmanFree to Choose: A Personal Statement

[3] Ibid.