Book Note: Harvey Cox’s The Market As God

Harvey Cox, The Market As God (Harvard University Press, 2016). (Amazon; Bookshop)

In The Market As God, the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, Harvey Cox, ponders the deification of “the Market”. This begins will a series of comparisons between the way people have spoken of the personified “Market” and deities like the biblical “God”. For example, the “Invisible Hand of the Market” echoes discussions around Providence in Christian theological works. The Market is presented as a Creator who brings into existence the “corporation-person” or the corporation-with-personhood. This deity is contrasted with some of the images of the biblical “God” who prohibits things like “usury” (i.e. predatory lending) and calls for periods of wealth redistribution (e.g. the “Jubilee”).

Once Cox has accustom the reader to a theological way of talking about economics, he explores the many unhealthy deficiencies in our capitalist system. To be clear, Cox will come to argue at the end of the book that “the Market” can redeemed when it is saved from the burden of being “divine,” so he doesn’t appear to be anti-capitalist, per se, as much as critical of what he perceives to be abusive forms of capitalism that can’t bear the weight of our expectations.

The final third of the book explores the history of how money and religion have related, looking at how money may have played a role in providing St. Augustine with his victory of the (declared heretical) monk Pelagius; how Adam Smith’s economics was grounded in his theology; and other similarities between modern economic-speech and theological-speech, such as a sense of mission and the missionary mindset, the function of “liturgical” seasons, and various forms of eschatology.

This book is insightful. While connected, certain parts could be read independently of the others as mini-essays. Whether or not Cox’s confidence in the small-m “market” is justified is something not all readers will resonate with but his broader comparative insights are thought-provoking and at least raise the question of whether work and business is taking the place in people’s lives that religion once occupied.

On a related note, I’m happy to promote a video that I had a small part in scripting: Religion For Breakfast, a.k.a. Andrew Henry, has addressed a related book, Carolyn Chen’s Work Pray Codehttps://brianleport.home.blog/2022/06/03/book-note-carolyn-chens-work-pray-code/ in the video (“Tech Companies: A New Religion?”) linked below:

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Is Bitcoin a religion?

Joseph P. Laycock tackles the question of whether we should think of Bitcoin as a religion in his article “Why are people calling Bitcoin a religion?” Semi-spoiler: Laycock reminds some of us and informs others that:

The dirty secret of religious studies is that there is no universal definition of what religion is. Traditions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism certainly exist and have similarities, but the idea that these are all examples of religion is relatively new.

The word “religion” as it’s used today – a vague category that includes certain cultural ideas and practices related to God, the afterlife or morality – arose in Europe around the 16th century. Before this, many Europeans understood that there were only three types of people in the world: Christians, Jews and heathens.

So, quoting Russell McCutcheon, the real interesting question “is not what religion is or is not, but ‘the making of it’ process itself – whether that manufacturing activity takes place in a courtroom or is a claim made by a group about their own behaviors and institutions.” In other words, why would someone suggest Bitcoin is or isn’t a religion? What’s the point/objective?

Facebook is already dead

First, I want to go on record saying I thought MySpace was better than Facebook and I was resistant to join Facebook. I mean, MySpace allowed you to learn basic coding skills! And MySpace gave you the option to have a song on your page! But alas, Facebook won…for now.

The other day I was watching a debate between Yanis Varoufakis and Gillian Tett where the topic was “Can We Fix Capitalism?”

I’m not an economist, so I’m not commenting on the debate itself. I watched it to learn and be informed. What I want to discuss here is a snippet of an exchange between Varoufakis and Tett that I thought mattered more than a quick glance would reveal. Varoufakis has been arguing that capitalism is already dying or is basically dead or has “evolved into another system”. He proposes that something he calls “technofeudalism” has taken its place. If you want to know his thoughts on the matter, here’s a clip where he shares his idea with Slavoj Žižek:

If you don’t want to watch the video, I’ll provide a very brief, very rough simplification: Capitalism needs (A) “profit to drive it” and (B) that “exploitation takes place in markets” but what we see with Amazon, Facebook, etc., is not a market since people like Bezos and Zuckerberg use their digital platforms to predetermine what can be bought or sold. Varoufakis believes that this limiting power is more feudalistic than market-driven and since it’s done through “platforms” the person who decides (“one person owns to whole digital space”) what can be bought or sold are those who own the platforms. (Varoufakis argues that once you get on Facebook, you’re already “outside capitalism”.)

While this is fascinating, I want to go back to the aforementioned debate. During the debate, in an attempt to defend capitalism’s redeemability, Tett points out change can happen, that these “platforms” don’t have to have the last word, and that, in fact, they’re already losing their grip. Her point to Varoufakis: Gen Z isn’t on Facebook.

Now, I’m not saying that this gives Tett the edge in the debate; I’m saying this one point is fascinating. Because Varoufakis’ observation seems valuable to me. Something is changing. But Tett’s observation also matters: these multi-billion-dollar corporations aren’t invincible or eternal. In fact, like Blockbuster, I think the clock is tick, tick, ticking on Facebook. Facebook may dominate the connectivity of Millennials, Gen X, etc., but Gen Z is on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. While Facebook owns Instagram, it appears that TikTok’s model (and still YouTube’s) is becoming increasingly attractive. What’s clear is Facebook itself is dying and this became most apparent this week when Zuckerberg lost $29 billion and Meta lost $200 billion. Why? Facebook is seeing a drop in users.

I don’t see Facebook rebounding. I don’t think the “Meta” rebranding will work. Facebook has lost the next generation already. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they lose my generation as well. I mean, MySpace did.

So, Varoufakis may be correct. We may be moving into technofeudalism. But Tett is right about at least one thing: consumers still have the power to bring even giants like Facebook to their knees.