Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Marketable Religion

There is a general, running assumption that defines our globalistic political economy: if the market tanks, we're all fucked. By 'we', the assumption does not refer to the already impoverished. They are already fucked. All measures to save them now are efforts to assuage the collective first-world conscience. No, by 'we', this assumption refers to the workaday hoi polloi -- those of us with a little bit of 401-K stock, casual day-traders, or even those with no stock at all. The market, so goes the assumption, is so deeply inbedded into our experience of reality that the two are now now fully indistinguishable. When somebody imagines an alternative lifestyle, say, on a commune, most of us conclude that this simply isn't practical. When somebody else suggests that we individually try to 'opt out' of the market, or to 'escape the grid', we're told this kind of singular action isn't productive. Indeed, so goes the trump card, neither are they even feasible, for the market itself makes possible the the existence of its alternative -- even the thought of its alternative. E.g., those Europeans can enjoy their fancy universal health care, we're told, because Americans are the suckers stuck with the market-based health care, where billions of dollars are pumped into research and development.

On one level, this assumption rings true. For the sake of a blog post, I'll accept it as such anyway. Now the more interesting question: why is this true? Why exactly is the market the limit-experience by which which all other experience is defined -- the paradigmatic paradigm? Why exactly do we read with embarassment our religious texts, when they tell us to give away all we own, or when they indicate the implications of recognizing desire as the root of suffering, and recognizing our experience of life as one of vanity and/or illusion? Why do we then rationalize and/or spiritualize these texts into something more palatable -- something more marketable and productive?

The answer, of course, is as simple as the question is complex, and betrays a religious element to our political economies. Our religious myths almost universally, be they orthodox or heretical, speak of an original -- or immanently recurring -- lie. A deception at the heart of our experience of what we take to be real. A deception that is the original melancholic "fall" (or, for the philosopher, "being thrown") into existence. For some, this deception is an evil that never should've happened; for others, thinking beyond this original evil is impossible, for where there is no deception there is no creation, and where there is no creation there is nothing & nobody to gripe about the deception. It is here that we find an important analogue between the mythic/religious 'original lie', whether it be a deception that must be reversed or one redeemed, and our position with respect to the the market & marketable religion.

Almost across the board, religious myths are built around the notion that in some way the basis and limits to our lived existence (be they the lie or the market) can be overcome. However, to resist the lie (or, by extension, the market) or at least the degree to which it defines us and the possibilities for our future, is not a matter of coming up with transcendental or utopian alternatives, as though we might imagine some truth that is beyond or trumps the plane of existence (and thus of the lie / the market). We are, on the contrary, stuck with the great lie, to the extent that it forms the basis for all existent, marketable truth.

Nevertheless, in my view, our religious myths & cultic practices are not means of cooperation or compromise. (Such compromise is what we find in traditional formulations of sacrificial atonement -- i.e., Christ dying on the Cross to satisfy the penalty for guilt, etc. -- and various proposals now to use use the market to solve problems caused by the market -- e.g., carbon credits, etc. I do not find either very compelling.) To overcome the great lie, our religious myths remain fully a part of the lie they expose, and thus are prey to inherent weaknesses, flaws, and aporia, but inform a cultic practice whose power is not accessed by marketable efficiency. If, then, religion can be found to participate on the level of the lie, and perhaps even provide our political economy with its foundational myth, the cultic practice of religion might then also inform us of a means & aesthetics of our resistance.

I recognize that all this comes dangerously close to an apologia for fundamentalism. When Thomas Frank wondered, 'What's wrong with Kansas?', he failed to adequately explore the religious basis for many rural poor voters to go against their own temporal (financial) interests and instead home in on moral issues. While I affirm there are solid religious reasons for these voters to vote against their interests, and thus to reject marketabl efficiency, I fully reject their equation of morality and religion. Such an equation, in my estimation, requires little to no actual cultic practice -- and, thus, very little in the way of actual religion. Contemporary religion, in the east now as much as the west, has traded in the power of the cult that cannot be measured for the power of its marketable return. This need not be a the immediate return of, say, a bomb exploded in the name of a deity, for it could just as easily be done with a view to deferred eschatological future that never arrives. Moral civic religion is, in short, not simply a reluctance but a full-scale unwillingness to take traditional religious practices at their word -- that is to say, is to not really believe in their power or truth.

A point of discussion, I hope, is the the extent to which we have almost completely lost the sense that religious practice has been traditionally limited to minoritarian communities. Monks, of myriad religious stripe, for example. This never meant that an individual culture was without religion. Superstition has, of course, always been rife; we might even say there was enough inbedded religious belief that, to the outside observer, the culture itself was religious. But, for the most part, it seems that traditional religious practice consisted of patronage -- that is, supporting that smaller community who was seen as actually believing in, and thus practicing, the religious myth. In this way, the greater community reaped the benefit by cultic proxy. There is, perhaps, something to this sense of the true believers believing for you.

If that is the case, casting alternative religious visions & practices, in spite of the protests of some, is not an irresponsible apology or rationalization for the religion & religious ideology that exists (even if unknowingly) to maintain the lie / the market. It is, rather, one of our most essential tasks.