Sunday, November 22, 2009

The End of Market Worship--Or
Have We Really Learned Anything?

'A few years ago a friend advised me that if I wanted to know what was going on in the real world, I should read the business pages. Although my lifelong interest has been in the study of religion, I am always willing to expand my horizons; so I took the advice, vaguely fearful that I would have to cope with a new and baffling vocabulary. Instead I was surprised to discover that most of the concepts I ran across were quite familiar. Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustine's City of God. Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. But here they were again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt tightening along the way, especially for the East Asian economies.'
--from Harvard theologian Harvey Cox's 1999 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, "The Market as God." What do you think: has the near-economic meltdown finally put a dent in the peculiarly American notion that markets take precedence over everything, or will we simply return to our old ways before too long?

15 Comments:

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Bob Rosenbaum said...

I have full confidence that all of the hard lessons we are learning – all the pledges to live more simply and within our means, and the efforts to live locally and focus on the non-monetary things of importance – will be re-translated into the same old behaviors right around the time unemployment returns to 6 or 7 percent. Even more than we revere markets, we revere the shiny, the new, the stylish, the mass produced. People will fool themselves into thinking that they 'need' an e-book reader to lead a more simple life, etc. until some day, a decade or more from now, we are all startled by the next cyclical downturn.

 
At 10:50 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think you're quite right, Bob. Thanks for stopping by.

 
At 12:11 PM, Blogger Kass said...

Totally agree with Bob. The experts who study and graph the stock market and the economy were not at all shocked at recent events. We will recover. We will drop again. The question is, do we as individuals stay part of the trend or strike out on a curve of our own into new territories of personal and global conscience?

 
At 12:12 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I gather from your phrasing that you'll be doing the latter, Kass, or at least attempting it.

 
At 12:21 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

La plus ca change, la plus meme chose.

I have no belief that those in charge of the system will learn anything from recent events. It's abundantly clear that they think that reform, or solutions, mean only more of the same. Look at what happened to the markets a hundred years ago; those days of the "robber barons" are strikingly similar.

It's not actually "the market" or "free trade" that we worship, but the IDEAL of some Horatio Alger rags-to-riches creation myth. It's all about the myths, not the social justice reality, which is why it is indeed a pseudo-religion.

Back in 1990, my performance art partner, Kate Ryan, and I, wrote and presented a show about all this we called "The Religion of Money." It was presented in Chicago and Madison. Somewhere I've got a VHS document of it. So these are not new thoughts, as far as I'm concerned.

Very important thoughts, if not new ones.

 
At 12:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Glad to see that Harvey (the author of the piece under discussion) and Bob (the first commenter) seem to have struck a chord here.

 
At 1:50 PM, Blogger Kim said...

AHHH, the religion of spending. We have been trained to believe spending is our salvation. When perhaps the "salve for our nation" has little to do with spending.

Last week the WSJ had an article about the denial that people without jobs exhibited. They continued to spend under the misguided belief that when severance ran out, poof, a job would appear.

We have been duped.

Spending does not save us. It bankrupts us.

In so many ways.

(this is one area I lack optimism, I don't know that we'll ever learn that the key to happiness doesn't come from a wallet).

 
At 1:59 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Spending does not save us, indeed. Thanks, Kim.

 
At 4:15 PM, Blogger June Calender said...

I'm as cynical as everyone else. As long as we have a market economy people will be urged to spend and having been conditioned to do so all but a small thoughtful, or frightened few will do so. For the first time in history we have a huge population of seniors on fixed or limited incomes who will NOT be able to spend.

And ecological forces may force rethinking of the necessary focus of our economy to a survival one. I'm not talking about doomsday, but resources are not endless and weather is changing. And huge populations need to be fed. The media being global we will not be able to ignore mass hunger as happened in the 20th century. If there is a change in people's spending habits it will come from necessity, not choice.

 
At 4:18 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Agreed, June, except that I wouldn't underestimate people's ability to ignore whatever they set their minds to ignoring. We seem to be pretty good at that.

 
At 7:34 PM, Blogger Kass said...

It's for all of the reasons discussed that I yearn to live in an "intentional community." I've even looked some up on the internet. But, alas, I believe we would fall into the same pattern. Maybe not. One can hope.

 
At 7:58 PM, Blogger Rita Writer said...

I have recently heard another voice, one that decries the amassing of 'stuff.' As June mentions.

It may be familiar to you, but it's new to me... take a gander at this digestible 20 minute video... http://www.storyofstuff.com and/or (if I've goofed up the link, Google story of stuff and Annie Leonard.

There was a time when buying stuff was not the anthem of this nation. When religion (of any flavor) was a bigger part of the mix. Hmmmmm.

 
At 9:34 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Kass, please do educate us about intentional communities, when you can. I'd like to hear more. And thanks for that link, Rita. I'll check it out.

 
At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Kristine said...

For some reason while reading this post, the story of Jesus overturning all the tables in the marketplace is now dwelling in my head.

 
At 11:56 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's an interesting parallel, and it's of course easy to see why that might come to mind.

 

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