Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Short Critique of Benjamin's Fragment "Capitalism as Religion"

Walter Benjamin argues, in an early fragment entitled “Capitalism as Religion” (dated 1921), that capitalism serves a religious function insofar as it “allay[s] the same anxieties, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers.” This short critique will ask if Benjamin’s thesis is adequate to a critique of capitalism, a question that is pertinent insofar as much of contemporary ‘continental’ political philosophy is undergoing a ‘post-secular’ turn.

Benjamin identifies three features of the religious structure of capitalism:
  1. Capitalism is purely cultic, it lacks a theology or specific dogmas. All things take on meaning in relation to this cult.
  2. This cult is permanent; every day demands that one participate in it. As Benjamin states, there are no “weekdays.”
  3. The cult of capitalism is a system of guilt (Schuld, also ‘debt’) and despair rather than atonement.

It is notable that each of these features is structured as an exception to the rule, that each could be read as ‘Capitalism is a religion, except that…’. Beyond the emphasis on paradox in these formulations, Benjamin’s central thesis seems structured to fail. So why insist that capitalism should be understood in relation to religious structures?

The ‘exceptional’ status of capitalism serves a dual purpose in this short fragment. First, it defines what is unprecedented in capitalism vis-à-vis other religious forms: capitalism is a permanent cult that “offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction” rather than its salvation. Despite these differences with other religious forms, Benjamin’s thesis also establishes a sense of continuity, specifically the possibility of atonement, or as he later calls it, redemption. As is well-known, redemption is central to Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” but in the two texts, the concept named by atonement or redemption possesses different features.

In “Capitalism as Religion,” atonement is thought as a threshold (note how this will direct us, elsewhere, to a critique of Giorgio Agamben). The concept of atonement cannot arise from the cult, religious reformation, or even renunciation, rather “the religious movement which is capitalism entails endurance right to the end…the point where the universe has been taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope.” Only by completely following through with this movement, and traversing this threshold where the relations of capitalism become– as Marx would say– the fetters of the productive forms of society, is salvation possible.

In “On the Concept of History,” redemption is not thought as threshold; Benjamin now thinks it as intervention or event. Rather than pursue the destructive movement through which ‘all that is solid melts into air,’ the later Benjamin (in the “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’”) writes that “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train– namely, the human race– to activate the emergency break.” Or, as he also mentions, the task is to blast open the “continuum of history.” In both cases, redemption is not set off to the future as threshold; it is a subjective intervention in the present. Between the two texts, moreover, Benjamin relocates his analyses; no longer satisfied with a critique of sociological forms (note the references to Weber and Sorel in “Capitalism as Religion”), he now pursues an anti-Stalinist historical materialism (against, specifically, the idea that there are forces of objective necessity in history).

We will leave aside, for the time being, the question of whether the theory of intervention in Benjamin’s historical materialism ought to enlist “the services of theology.” For now, we will confine the critique to whether the thesis that “capitalism as religion” imparts any advantage to understanding either the ideology of, or the relations of production in, capitalism. I think it is self-evident that this kind of critique cannot advance an analysis of the productive forces of society as they are organized by society, so we are left with the question of ideology.

Hence the question: do any of the religious features of capitalism advance our critique? We will address them in the order that they are proposed by Benjamin.
  1. Contrary to “Capitalism as Religion,” we know that capitalism possesses at least one dogma (although the religious metaphor does not advance our critique): the right of private property, i.e. the right of capital.
  2. Here, Benjamin is right: one not need believe in capitalism to participate (even if by force). Because it is a system that structures social relationships, it has to be fought at the level of these same relationships. Thus:
  3. Capitalism, at least in its contemporary form does not disseminate guilt. Instead, it is productive of desire, even to the degree that it can ‘accommodate’ many of the micro-resistances that so many critics of capitalism espouse. Hence the difficulty of struggle.

Finally, does capitalist ideology answer the same concerns that religion does? As Marx wrote, “Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering,” but the same– the simultaneous ‘expression of’ and ‘protest against’ real suffering– is not expected of capitalism, although religion and other ideological appartatuses do attempt to account for this suffering. Instead of proposing that capitalism should be understood as religion, we ought to separate the specific roles of, and contradictions between, various apparatuses.

In sum, the ‘capitalism as religion’ thesis cannot assist us in social struggle. Benjamin later recognizes that theology can be more pertinent to the oppressed than as a form of the critique of oppression. Nevertheless, we ought to be hesitant, today, with enlisting the services of theology. As Marx recognized, ideological struggles or contradictions are also lived as real struggles or contradictions. But when their concepts are no longer ‘descriptive’ or ‘instructive,’ they become impediments to social struggle. We will draw from “Capitalism as Religion” its implicit conclusion: capitalism is not like a religion; the critique of political economy requires altogether different concepts.

1 comment:

America Divine Stewart said...

When did capitalism stop disseminating guilt? It's in all debtor relationships, in notions of "merit," in blaming the impoverished... it's iterated in merit and bonus pay, in acts of charity, in fines as punshment. Indeed, capitalism cannot offer any "desire" without a constraining guilt to accompany it.