Cosmopolitical Reflections on Economy, Society, and Religion


When was the day that money became an idol instead of an instrument? Was it August 15, 1971, when to pay for the Vietnam War Nixon shocked the world by erasing the Gold Standard, thereby unilaterally making the value of the US Dollar the reserve currency of the world economy? Or was it in the waning months of 2008, when the central banks of the industrialized nations purchased around $3 trillion of debt from certain corrupt institutions operating in the private sector?1 When was it, exactly, that money became the lifeblood of our civilization? I ask not to condemn this elevation of the symbolic above the material, but only to wonder at what will become of it once the material can no longer provide what the symbols demand of it. The human economy has almost entirely detached itself from the earth’s ecology. Economics has been designed as if human civilization were a closed system capable of perpetual motion. In reality, in order to sustain its constant growth, the techno-industrial machine within which our daily lives take place must extract ever-increasing amounts of exergy (usable energy) from the non-human and human environment (in the form of oil, coal, minerals, labor, knowledge, etc.). The earth system is not “external” to the human economy; the human economy is within the earth’s ecology.

Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant claim in 1992 that neoliberal capitalism had brought the “end of history,” our increasingly dire ecological situation, as well as the recent financial crisis, are forcing human civilization to entirely re-imagine its future from the ground up. Congress’ response to the financial crisis made it clear that government as we know it is no longer capable of serving the people. Politicians, it seems, are bought and sold like any other commodity in the market. By using tax dollars to bail out the banks, the US government in effect admitted that, while the 99% have to suffer the consequences of their risks and pay their debts, the super rich do not. The values of “democracy” and “capitalism” appear increasingly antagonistic, since the market has now completely swallowed the political sphere both in America and abroad: a consortium of transnational corporations, rather than the nation-state, now governs world affairs.

As the Occupy movement of late 2011 exemplifies, the result of Congress’ response has been to make revolutionaries out of average citizens, as more and more people are now beginning to reject the status quo to imagine radically new possibilities for human life on planet earth. In this essay, rather than attempting to wield the jargon of econobabble against global capitalism, as many ecological economists have tried,2 I will turn to emerging discourses within anthropology and cosmology in an attempt to put the current crisis in a larger historical context.3 Truly imagining a world after capitalism–a system which was created and is maintained largely by violence and the threat of violence4–will require thinking with entirely new categories. Without seeking out our roots in human and cosmic history through acts of counter-memory, we remain at risk of continuing to define ourselves according to the colonial logic of master and slave (as “owners of ourselves” and “masters of nature,” etc.) and to the capitalist logic of worker and consumer. To imagine the future, we must first remember the past.

It was with the publication of On the Wealth of Nations in 1776 that Adam Smith effectively brought the modern discipline of economic science into existence.5 In order to distinguish economics from politics and ethics, he had to argue that property, money, and markets existed before governments and provided the very foundation of human society. In other words, in order to establish the autonomy, and indeed the priority of the economic sphere over all others (cultural, spiritual, political, etc.), Smith first had to argue for a peculiar theory of human nature based on

“the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes [and] Locke about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forth-year-old males who seemed to have sprung from the earth fully formed, [having then] to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.”6

This is the infamous “social contract” theory, which supposes that human beings are essentially isolated, self-interested profit calculators who relate to one another primarily via the logic of exchange. The role of mothers in raising children is entirely ignored, as are familial and communal relations, since they do not operate according to the law of exchange. Society is said to have arisen only because of some primordial contract between otherwise atomized individuals, and government only to protect the soundness of money and contracts. Smith even went so far as to reduce conversation and language to a logic of exchange, a reduction later parodied by Nietzsche, who suggested that, if modern bourgeois values were made fully explicit, human thought itself must be understood to have emerged from our desire “to set prices, to measure values, to think up equivalences, to exchange things.”7

According to David Graeber, anthropologists have been trying to point out the utter falsity of this account of the origins of society for more than a century.8 In point of fact, contrary to the “just so” stories told by Smith and all economists since, we have not always been capitalists.

Smith argued that the market began with individuals bartering with one another, each hoping to get the better end of the deal: “I’ll give you three beaver pelts for 6 of your chickens.” Due to the problem of the “double coincidence of wants,”9 so the story goes, money was soon invented to make such exchanges easier. One would expect, based on Smith’s account of primitive barter societies, to find indigenous peoples across the world engaging in such exchange. But as early as the 1850s, anthropologists had already dispelled Smith’s make-believe portrayals of indigenous societies (he made up several erroneous stories about Native American bartering). Lewis Henry Morgan, for example, published descriptions of the economic practices of Iroquois Six Nations peoples: tribes stockpiled most goods in longhouses to be distributed according to need by councils of women.10 A stronger contrast with what was going on back in Glasgow would be difficult to imagine. Economists (aside from Marx and Engels) to this day continue to pay no attention to libraries full of such anthropological data.11 “Why?” asks Graeber:

“The simplest answer would be: for there even to be a discipline called ‘economics,’ a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes…it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. Economics assumes a division between different spheres of human behavior that…simply does not exist.”12

Before he could claim to say something scientific about the objective nature of markets, Smith had to invent the subjectivity of the human beings who participated in them (much of this work had already been done for him by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke). He imagined human beings in the most abstract way possible, as disembedded individuals with no ties to culture, community, or land (other than that which they owned) and barely a trace of even having been born through a mother or into a family. This picture has little to do with how humans have lived for the majority of our species’ history.

Despite the more recent individualizing effects of money on human consciousness, we remain fundamentally social creatures who make decisions based upon a complex tapestry of interwoven value spheres, the economic/material only one among them. These individualizing effects began as early as 600BCE when coinage was invented simultaneously in India, China, and Greece, and they increased severalfold since the colonial era began around 1500CE. In our own era of globalized consumer capitalism, where money now mediates almost every one of our interactions with other people and the world, individuals are more likely than ever to buy into capitalism’s master narrative of exchange. But a closer look at history reveals that a counteracting tendency has always been in place.

In each region where money and markets first began to enter everyday life around 600BCE, one of the world’s great enduring wisdom traditions arose to challenge it: in India, Buddhism; in China, Confucianism; in Greece, Philosophy. Again, around 1500CE, as Europe left the Middle Ages to begin the planetary era of the capitalist empires, the Reformation emerged, at least initially, in opposition.13 It seems that religion and philosophy, as we know them, emerged as spiritual counter values in response to the increasing influence of the more materialistic economic sphere.

For the first time in history, popular uprisings during the Axial age were intellectually and/or spiritually motivated: “those opposing existing power arrangements did so in the name of some kind of theory about the nature of reality.”14 The poor weren’t simply angry about being put in debt, they felt they had moral knowledge of the injustices and therefore the ignorance of their oppressors, and were prepared to argue as much on rational and/or theological grounds.

On the other hand, religion and philosophy have also played into the hands of the logic of exchange by adopting its categories of thought. In the gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven as “[comparable] to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.”15 Primordial debt theorists like Michel Aglietta and Andre Orléans go so far as to argue that debt itself began as a religious concept.16 They point to the Vedas as some of the earliest recorded reflections on the nature of debt. In the Satapatha Brahmana (composed around 700BCE), it is written:

“A man, being born, is a debt; by his own self he is born to Death, and only when he sacrifices does he redeem himself from Death.”

Ancient Indian brahmins were already conceiving of human existence in terms of a business deal. The gods created us, and so we owe them a debt which can only be repaid with our lives (which is to say, it cannot possibly be repaid). We are in a similar situation with regard to our parents, according to the Vedas, and so must have our own children and be kind to strangers in order to have any hope of paying off our debt to them. The Brahmins, of course, were kind enough to accept taxes from the people on behalf of the gods.

The complicity of religion in tightening the stranglehold of the logic of exchange, despite its spiritual ideals, seems to present a problem. The transformative power of spiritual values like love, generosity, and reverence (etc.) seem to be among the few remaining counter values to the greed encouraged by the market, but how can the religious worldview be enacted outside the logic of exchange? In our postmodern context, spirituality has been even further co-opted by the market, as religion is increasingly treated as just another brand-name consumable meant to express our unique individuality. Not only has money corrupted politics, it has infested religion and spirituality, as well.

Most fundamentally, the postmodern person relates to the larger world and greater society through the mediation of monetary instruments. This mediation begins primarily in the workplace. Work, above all else, defines the individual’s life in the techno-industrial capitalist system. Max Weber’s analysis of the link between Protestantism and the capitalist work ethic are well-known, further problematizing the role of religion in countering the market.

While the traditional religious response to the market can still be edifying, it seems our current situation calls for a radical re-visioning of religion’s cosmological basis. We must re-imagine the human being’s relationship to the cosmos as it has been conceived in the modern age. During the 19th century, mechanistic science analogized physical energy to the activity of the proletariat, defining it as the ability to do work. Carrying the analogy even further, it was supposed that energy must always pay a debt, due to heat loss, back to the cosmos. The thermodynamic concept of entropy is no doubt a crucial component of any critique of techno-industrial capitalism’s fantasy of unlimited growth on a planet of limited means, but the utilization of such socioeconomic metaphors by physicists betray the far reaching influence of the market even on science. In a society whose highest aspiration was not work, but play, one would expect to find descriptions of the activity of energy not only in terms of entropy, but also in terms of centropy. Energy would be, not blind toiling, but, as Blake suggested, “eternal delight.”

Religion and society themselves can be understood as having emerged from the human being’s innate proclivity to play. This is precisely the perspective offered by sociologist Robert Bellah in his recently published 700-page account of the Axial turn in the evolution of religion.17 The relaxed field generated by playfulness, according to Bellah’s richly empirical story, is the source of all human ritual and religion, and indeed of culture more generally. Play is symbolic, which is to say that when we are engaged in play, we are pretending, stepping out of the normal, ordinary course of daily life into an imaginal realm with no necessary connection to the world of biological survival and economic exchange. In the course of daily life–the so-called serious world–we are obliged to work, to “bring about [a] projected state of affairs by bodily movements.”18 In the anxiety-free space of play, ends and means unite to produce a self-justifying, inherently enjoyable state of peace and mutual fulfillment.

One way to apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it suggests about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socioeconomic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. Gobekli Tepe, a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in 2008, provides a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs by domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to domesticated modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.”19 The great deal of detalied planning and hard work required to construct such a temple–a structure that provided the people who constructed it with a ritually protected relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play–makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the jovial. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for play. As cultural beings, we take play very seriously.

Bellah connects play to the axial phenomenon of “renunciation.” A “renouncer” is one who, for spiritual reasons, rejects the political and economic roles assigned them by society. In rejecting society, they seek to establish schools (from the Latin, scola, and the Greek, skole, meaning “leisure”) of various kinds in order to teach and preserve their spiritual insights without being subject to the field of anxiety and toil ruling over the ordinary reality of the work day. Renouncers are found in every axial culture; they are able to find support in their respective cultures, despite largely rejecting the premises of these same cultures, because everyone, even the ruling elite, have had a general sense of unease about the state of the world in which they live since about the Axial age. Not until the irruption of linear time characteristic of this age was an apocalyptic end to the world readily conceivable; nor, for that matter, was the coming of a utopian future easily imaginable.

Religion, it seems, has had a complex series of effects upon its human practitioners. It was perhaps the initiator of civilization, convincing us to give up our nomadic wandering to settle near the numinous power of elaborate temples, where, through the playfulness of ritualistic art and music, humans and gods transacted in a “time out of time.” The agricultural revolution demanded by such settlement, and the surpluses it created, then lead to the emergence of hierarchically organized chiefdoms, and eventually, to full-blown states. Societies organized around kinship–wherein everyone was understood to be related to primordial semi-divine ancestors–were increasingly replaced by kingship–wherein the king became the only link between peasants and the divine, and only an elite group of priests had the free time for ritualized play. As we’ve seen, it was amidst such injustice that the religious instincts of humanity erupted in the form of the great Axial ethical critiques of civilized empire (e.g., the Jewish prophets, the Greek tragedians and philosophers, the Chinese Confucians, the Buddha).

Play is symbolic because, as Bellah defines it, symbolism is the possibility latent in ordinary objects, persons, and events in the world of daily life to become “[meaningful] in another reality that transcends the world of working.”20 The renouncers of empire who have emerged in the last 2,500 years or so have all critiqued the world of daily life–of working–by pointing to an immortal realm beyond the immoralities of worldly politics and economics.

Today, as the global capitalist economy continues to convulse, the ideological bankruptcy of its supporters is becoming all the more transparent. Former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani recently spoke to conservatives at a meeting of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation about the “laziness” of those responsible for the Occupy movement: “How about you occupy a job?,” he said. “How about working?”21 Giuliani went on to compare the occupation of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street to Woodstock, suggesting that protestors would rather have fun than work. In his mind, school is not an end in itself (as it was for students of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum); rather, school is a means to an end: a job. The truly insidious thing about capitalism is that it commodifies everything, placing a monetary value even on time itself. Of course, time must first be falsified into a measurable quantity (i.e., industrial clock-time) before it can be monetized.22 The time-anxiety experienced by the modern working person is a direct result of this falsification. Leisure time and recreation, when measured in terms of clock-time, is impossible, since genuine play is always an end in itself, never a means (for better performance at work, relieving stress, etc.).

One of the core cosmopolitical issues behind the Occupy movement concerns the relationship between work and play. Has not our capitalist civilization become imbalanced in respect to the activities associated with these two modes of consciousness? I quote Bellah at length:

“In our society, [playful activities] tend to be viewed as ‘less real’ than the world of daily life, as fictional and ultimately as less important than the world of working… Yet one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time…the notion that the world of daily life is uniquely real is itself a fiction that is maintained only with effort. The world of daily life, like all the other multiple realities, is socially constructed… [It is usually] seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need, [and as such] is a world of mechanical necessity…It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding, that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances.”23

Bellah points to art, science, and religion as practices and modes of consciousness equally capable of lifting us out of the world of daily life to reveal something beyond, something more real, in fact, than working. The world of working is a world of lack, of deficiency. The world of play is one of fullness, a plenum, wherein everything is symbolically possible. It is not only a culturally instilled sense of guilt that prevents us from breaking free of the world of work, as Weber suggested, though it is surely that, too. There is also the fear of death. Religion in its degenerate forms has not done much to assuage this fear. In its perennial forms, however, religion is the surest expression of humanity’s faith in the immortality and universality of the soul. Until individual human beings are released from the egoic anxiety resulting from their consciousness of death, we will never come close to realizing a cosmopolitics of play, where communal celebration, rather than private capital accumulation, becomes the norm. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the various Occupy encampments represents a non-linguistic, almost mimetic/enactive cosmological critique of capitalism. The drumming, dancing, and playfulness are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the world of working with its logic of exchange and monetary idolatry.


1 This was the largest single transfer of wealth in the history of the world.

2 i.e., by commodifying the community of life on earth in terms of “ecosystem services,” etc.

3 “History” should here be read in both its sociocultural and evolutionary senses. See Big History (2008) by Cynthia Stokes Brown or The Universe Story (1992) by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme for examples.

4 David Graeber (366, Debt: The First 5,000 Years) suggests that the only thing holding the current global economic structure together is the threat of U.S. military power.

5 25, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber

6 210, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber

7 2.8, Genealogy of Morals

8 21, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

9 The person whose chickens I want may not want the beaver pelts I have to trade him.

10 29, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

11 395, n. 15, Debt The First 5,000 Years (2011). Most economics textbooks still account for the emergence of money according to some variation of Smith’s “myth of barter.”

12 33, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

13 The Catholic Church’s writs of indulgence were arguably the central grievance listed by Martin Luther in his 95 theses, written and posted in 1517. These writs were sold by papal representatives to those who wished to reduce their stay in purgatory by paying down their debts to God. In other words, the logic of exchange was so pervasive it even crept into our conception of the heavenly economy.

14 248, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

15 18:23

16 56, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

17 See Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

18 2, Religion in Human Evolution (2011). (Bellah quoting Alfred Shultz)

19 See the work of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins

20 8, Religion in Human Evolution (2011).


22 See the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

23 3,9, Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

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