The Market As God
Hardback: Harvard UP, 2016
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Reviewed by Philip Christman
I teach first-year English at an elite public university, which gives me a window into the hopes and anxieties of America’s luckier youth. Mostly, they’re anxious about getting into the business school. Some of them actually want to study business, which is fine, but every semester, usually several times, I talk to someone with a demonstrable gift for thinking, writing, doing good, or making art, who has convinced her- or himself that any other major would be irresponsible. They have heard from every corner that the Market will punish them if they—who by their mere presence at University of Michigan have already found their way into a social network so privileged it beggars the human imagination—do the work they want to do. They continue to feel this way even though, from several of my course readings, they have learned that the “skills gap” doesn’t really exist (it’s largely a PR move by corporations that want to offload new-hire training to our public universities), that our future is not threatened by a deluge of art history majors, and that majors have less impact on hireability than many other factors—personal connections, school prestige, work experience. Knowing all this, and in some cases dreading the boredom and enforced club-ability for which business programs are notorious, these students still choose to reroute their hopes and dreams in deference to an abstraction: the Market.
We hear a lot about the religious habits of my students’ generation—the decline of denominations, the rise of the so-called nones. Harvey Cox’s new book won’t immediately be recognized as part of this discussion, but The Market as God speaks to it quite urgently. Cox’s book, like the 1999 Atlantic essay from which it draws its name, argues that the Market functions as a God in many contexts. This prompts a further, disquieting thought: America isn’t so much losing as switching its religion.
The book is structured as a series of analogies. Cox describes a thing that religion is generally assumed to do, then scans the business pages and the economic literature for evidence that the market now fulfills the same function. Religion provides people with guiding metaphors for their lives; capitalism does the same. Religious controversies often center on authority: The Bible is inerrant; the Bible is infallible in matters of salvation; we rely on scripture and tradition together. Similarly, economists debate the efficient market hypothesis, which holds that a perfect and unregulated market knows everything perfectly and disposes of resources with perfect efficiency. (And people call us superstitious!)
The value of a book so structured will depend entirely on the strength of the analogies. Some of Cox’s are spot-on. I enjoyed his comparison between the esoteric parsings of the concept person in Trinitarian theology vs. the even-more-tortured musings that the concept of corporate personhood has given rise to in legal literature. I also found fascinating his comparison of international banks to the church—they are both powerful, resource-rich institutions that distribute access to goods and that cut across national lines. His proposal that the historically corrupt Vatican Bank be repurposed as a universallly available lending institution to the world’s poor (with the Vatican’s storied wealth as collateral) could not be more timely, in a time when climate change threatens to create an unending stream of refugees, and when the world’s most powerful government declares ever more openly its hostility to these image-bearers of God.
Some of Cox’s analogies are less fruitful. His chapter on Adam Smith is fine in itself, but nothing is added to any of Cox’s arguments by considering whether Smith is a “patron saint” or “prophet” of capitalism. The analogy tells us nothing new about Smith or about prophets. Ditto for his comparison of the church year to the business calendar. I was also, oddly enough, put off by Cox’s tone. Usually, I like writers who have mastered, as Cox has, the art of being pointed but nice. In this case, however, the stakes of the debate were so high that I wanted him to write more like an angry prophet, denouncing the “models” that condemn whole towns or countries to poverty as Elijah mocked the priests of Baal. I wanted the punk-rock rage one sometimes finds in non-Christian critics of the deified market, writers like Maureen Tkacik, Matt Taibbi, or Thomas Frank, who memorably termed it The God That Sucked.
On the whole, however, The Market as God is richly worth reading. As a highly interested but not ordained reader of both Christ and Mammon’s theologies, I found some of the theology and the economic history familiar, but I didn’t see anything inaccurate in his discussion. The book offers a readable refresher on both that usefully highlights links and discontinuities between them.
Cox might have pushed his analogy one step further. It is a common move in religious circles—perhaps especially among cult leaders, fraudsters, and the more violent sorts of fundamentalists—to reinterpret outside disagreement as stupidity, perhaps mendacity. Ask a scientologist why it costs so much money to become an Operating Thetan, and instead of answering, he’ll call you a Suppressive Person. A similar dynamic unfolds any time a student asks one of the million obvious questions that the Econ 101 catechism raises: why climate change is an “externality” when it threatens the continued existence of capitalism itself; what to do when the resource “pie” is gigantic but almost nobody gets the slices; why the class textbook still insists, in defiance of all the history we can find, that economics began with barter; why government activities constitute “planning” and advertising, pricesetting, lobbying, and new product development don’t; how, if free trade, makes you rich, the world economy came to be dominated by a tiny club of avid protectionists; where, in all God’s creation, a “rational utility maximizer” is to be found. The instructor will adjust his glasses, smile contemptuously, and say: “You just don’t understand economics.” Like the scientologist, he will decline to elaborate further. Like the scientologist, he has a sales presentation to get through, and souls to destroy.