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Capitalism as a Secularized Religion

by Tomasz Konicz
Capitalism is a relatively young crisis-prone formation of society that gained acceptance a few centuries ago, not an eternal constant of human existence. Capitalism is a fetishist form of rule. People are ruled by abstract social structures as automatic subjects, not persons over persons. Capitalism turns out to be the most bloodthirsty sacrificial cult of humanity's history. Whole regions and economies are driven into collapse and massive impoverishment to pay for the debt arising out of the self-contradictions of the capital cult. Human sacrifice is offered for expansion/


The heated public discussion of the pope’s capitalism criticism reveals this is ultimately a conflict about religion. Capitalism as a secularized religion. Part 1

By Tomasz Konicz

[This article published on 12/25/2013 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

For many conservative capitalism fans, the sharp criticism that Pope Francis directed at late capitalism in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [Joy of the Gospel, (1)] doubtlessly represents a kind of stab-in-the-back or dagger thrust. No radical criticism of the existing social order could be expected from this school that for decades was regarded as a loyal ally in the battle against godless communism, above all from conservative apologists of capitalism who preach recollection of religion and family in crisis times.

The skilful balancing act carried out by the influential radio commentator Rush Limbaugh in his criticism of the pope [2] in order not to offend the hosts of believing Catholics among his ultra-conservative followers. Before Limbaugh literally accused the pope of “Marxism,” he expressed his hope that the statements of the pope were intentionally misunderstood “by leftists” [3].

The American economics magazine Forbes even urged the Pontifex to pay the necessary respect to capitalism and show some “gratitude” [4]. The humble bow of the “Holy Father” before the principles of capital would only be appropriate because of the hallowed growth generated in the past 200 years by the capitalist world system, Forbes said. This is “nearly 60 times as much as all that the Catholic Church produced when it ran the show.” The Forbes writer projects the present social state into late antiquity to mutate the Catholic Church into an inefficient “socialist” government of the middle Ages.

Welt Online [5] was somewhat nicer in criticizing the outrage of the pope. Welt-Online actually dared to discuss an assumption that is commonly covered with a taboo: “capitalism kills.” Francis should be “a real man” but he acts almost “superhuman,” the conservative Tageszeitung jumped in. Instead a Hallelujah for the “driving force of capitalism” would be appropriate “that catapults people out of poverty,” as clearly proven by the global development of the last years. A eulogy of the market economy from his mouth would have done the world good.”

Welt-Online is convinced the church should “appreciate capitalism.” Oh yes, we should praise the “driving force of capitalism” in view of the increasing impoverishment in Germany [6] and the 43 million Europeans who depend on food aid [7]. Creeds are presented here, not empirical facts or perception of reality. The statement “capitalism creates prosperity” represents a pseudo-religious dogma that may not be shaken even if the social disintegration tendencies increase in the centers of the capitalist world system and thousands of desperate people drown in the Mediterranean Sea who try to flee the collapsing periphery of this disintegrating world system.

Germany’s leading conservative medium, the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper also spits out its capitalist creed in reaction to the Evangelii Gaudium. [8] Firstly, the FAZ obviously believes capitalism always existed. The apostles whom Jesus assembled are described there as “very successful small entrepreneurs” and as the “stable middle class”… At the same time the FAZ noted an “extremely distanced relation” of Christianity to private property and wealth. Christianity is marked by a “utopia of a Christian communism.” For centuries this gave believers a “bad conscience” regarding the noble capitalist values like greed and pursuit of gain that acted like a strong “prosperity brake.” Despite all historical research, the FAZ sees a cause – and not a consequence – of the crisis and the ruin of the authoritarian and extremely repressive late-Roman empire (with which the author obviously identifies) in the acceptance of Christianity. “Christians preached poverty to Europe – and the lights went out in Europe since the 5th century.” What follows from this story time is the usual capitalist confession. “This pope cannot see that the market economy and capitalism are needed to defeat poverty.”

Significantly, it is not the adherence to archaic dogmas and the continued discrimination of homosexuals within the church – as denounced by the gay catholic theologian David Berger [9] – that are now under constant mass media fire but rather the only progressive moments in apostolic letters and in the rhetoric of the pope. With his intensified capitalism-criticism, the Pontifex reacted to the massive crisis-conditioned impoverishment tendencies in Spain and Italy, Europe’s two most important catholic states. Nevertheless papal capitalism criticism is a genuine new phenomenon. Already in 1991, the anti-communist Polish pope John Paul II warned [10] of the risk of the rise of a “radical capitalist ideology” that would hand over the solution of all problems to “the blind free development of the market forces.”

What sends the editorial writers and opinion makers – the high-priests of the capital cult – into rage with the pope’s recent capitalism criticism if tried and tested anti-communists like John Paul II often ran down capitalism? It is undoubtedly the radicalism and precision of the papal analysis that causes the broad displeasure in the middle class media. While this may seem surprising, the “Holy Father” underlined the causes and consequences of the permanent capitalism crisis – as much as possible in an apostolic letter. [11]



Firstly, the correct observation that capitalism as an economic system “kills” runs diametrically counter to the dominant worldview. The mountains of corpses produced by the market economy every year are either ignored in the dominant mass media perception as an inevitable natural phenomenon or are reduced to individual offenses of the victims. Hunger, homelessness, malnutrition and estrangement are not inevitable blows of fate or personal failings for Francis. They are the systemic result of a perverse economic system that produces material surplus and obscene misery at the same time.

The Pontifex makes his confession to radicalism – and to the necessity of a radical social change – in the statement that “the social and economic system is unjust in its root.” Latin experts know the term “radical” originated out of radix, the Latin word for root or origin. Therefore the pope with good reason can be called a radikalinski.

The pope sees the new character of enormous impoverishment in late capitalism. This engendered an “economy of exclusion” in which “great masses of the population are or will be excluded and marginalized without work, without prospects and without a way out.” The whole society is subjected to the “criterion of competitiveness” and “the law of the stronger” “where the more powerful destroy the weaker.” This crisis competition and the totalitarian economization [12] of society produce a growing host of human “waste” or “rubbish” who are subject to the capitalist system pressures – especially the pressure to sell one’s labor power on the labor market – without ever being able to meet these pressures.

The pope emphasizes this crisis process, this production of a “superfluous humanity” [13] by late capitalism rather exactly with the term “throw-away culture.”

“The person is seen as a consumer article that can be used and then thrown away. The “throw-away culture” is even promoted. Something new is highlighted, no longer simply the phenomena of exploitation and oppression. With exclusion, membership in the society where one lives is attacked at the root. Through it, one stands outside and is not in the lower class, at the margin or among the powerless. The excluded are not “exploited” but waste or “refuse.”

Several public taboos of the capital cult are already broken in this radical and correct criticism. The pope says what is unspeakable. The capital relation no longer appears as a natural phenomenon whose boundless exploitation logic should serve as a normal basis for all thinking. The all-pervasive misery that is spreading in the centers of the capitalist world system loses its natural appearance. This misery is explicitly referred back to the capitalist “economy of exclusion” that is “unjust in its root” and cannot be reformed.

Naming the causes of these crisis tendencies bursts the framework of publically tolerated capitalism criticism – and seduces liberal opinion-makers like ZEIT editor Josef Joffe (“The pope wants capitalism to go to hell”) to protest [14]. The Pontifex names the “fetishism of money” as a cause that is typecast as a “dictatorship of the economy.” The “denial of the priority of the human” who decays to a “consumer article” of the capitalist exploitation machine results here.

“One of the causes of this situation lies in our relation to money since we peaceably accept its hegemony over ourselves and our societies. The financial crisis that we suffer through makes us forget that a deep anthropological crisis was part of its origin: the denial of the priority of the person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32, 1-35) has found a new merciless form in the fetishism of money and the dictatorship of an economy without a face and without a real human goal.”

Finally, the pope recognizes in capitalism an ideological competitive arrangement, a religiously established fetish system, a cultic idolatry around the fetishized and boundless exploitation movement of money as capital animated with its own life. People worship the worldly “golden calf” of capital and no longer the God of the world to come. They do not do this only on a weekday – Sunday – as in the past. The cult of capital is celebrated permanently and globally. Seven days a week and 24 hours a day, the inmates “in the dictatorship of an economy without a face” strive to make more money out of money – even if human civilization threatens to collapse with this boundless realization of this absurd end-in-itself. This accumulation of money in blind rage through ever greater quantities of expended dead labor is then sold by the mass media high priests of this fetishizing cult as the “effect of capitalism increasing welfare.”


The journalist Christian Caryl in his Foreign-Policy-blog underlined the religious character of this dispute – in which the pope declared himself a capitalist heretic [15]. The pope urged no longer worshipping capitalism as a religion and provoked conservative journalists to endless foaming “sermons.” For capitalism apologists, the honesty of the capitalist system is an “article of faith.”

“Following the system of free entrepreneurship has become a new secular religion. They cannot bear the idea that someone with the spiritual authority of the pope dares to question them. For them, the pope has simply become a heretic.”

The pope made explicit the religious cultic character of capitalism and thus triggered this schism. The noted US magazine The Atlantic even speaks of the pope’s declaration of war on capital as the end of a “long journey from anti-communism to anti-capitalism” [16]. With his apostolic letter, the Pontifex “officially named a new enemy.” “Progressive” and leftist groups will profit, The Atlantic speculates.

A strategic reorientation of the church under Francis is more likely than a “pull to the left.” The pope criticizes capitalism as a pseudo-religious fetish system. The fetish character of capital is obvious in its present deep systemic crisis – for the catholic religious rivalry that has never completely internalized the capital logic. In an organization existing for 2000 years like the Roman Catholic Church – that unlike the corporation listed on the stock exchange – can pursue a strategy for decades, capitalism is understood as a relatively young crisis-prone formation of society that first gained acceptance a few centuries ago, not an eternal constant of human existence.

With his distancing from the crisis-plagued capital relation and the corresponding fetishism, the pope could bring his church into position for the coming time of global upheaval and the era of emerging system transformation.



No opposition seems more crass than between capitalism and Christianity. Most capitalism apologists have emphasized this apparent gulf between capital and the Vatican in their replies to the pope’s capitalism criticism that marks his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [1] [see Part 1: The Schism of 2013 [2].

The enormous growth dynamic of capital [3] is often contrasted to the inertia of medieval Christian societies, the Christian focus on the world to come, the self-restriction and self-sacrifice on account of God’s eternal reign oppose the capitalist orientation in this side and the selfish pursuit of happiness and wealth [4] in the here and now. Everyone could strive to realize his/her very personal heaven on earth benefiting the whole society in the long term. That is the promise capitalism gives its inmates.

Modern rationality and efficiency on which science and the economy are based are often summoned against Christian “superstition” and religious irrationality. The dynamic capitalist society seized by a permanent scientific and economic revolution appears as the concrete inheritance of the period of middle class enlightenment with which the demons and delusions of the dark middle Ages should be expelled. Nevertheless the thoroughly rationalized capitalist world is marked by escalating contradictions and increasing conflicts. The capitalist system that seems to rest on rationality, optimization and permanent innovations brings to light the delusions and demons that should have long been banished to the realms of fantasy and crazy ideas. An irrational core indwells the system despite all its rationality that reconciles the millions of death by starvation with the obscene waste of food [5] or increasing homelessness [6] with the demolition of empty living space [7] – without the absurdity of these4 conditions striking the inmates of this system.


The linkage between capital and religion are closer than appears nowadays. In fact, the genesis of capital that pretends to be naked rationality is deeply interwoven with the history of “irrational” Christianity. Important impulses for establishing capital relations came from Christian reform movements. This religious-cultic theme or fetishism is still dominant today. The irrationalism of our “administered world” (Adorno) now openly coming to light is based on this religious moment that includes a process of secularization in the course of the historical acceptance of capital.

The foundation of the capitalist work society – the expenditure of labor power in the form of paid labor – can be referred back to a genuine Christian origin. The Christian monastic orders – especially the Benedictines – conferred a sacred appearance to physical work in the late middle Ages with the term Ora et labor (this cannot be found in the original Rule of St. Benedict from the 6th century). Ora et labora is commonly translated “pray and work” but the Latin verb laborare has a broader significance. Alongside work, the verb means suffering, slaving away and being in distress.

First of all, this ambiguity of laborare intimates that the positive significance as meaning of life or theme of life attached to the labor term in capitalism did not exist in the whole earlier history of humanity. No great distinction was made between suffering and working in the Middle Ages and in antiquity. Physical work was regarded as travail and curse that the ruling classes imposed on the slaves (antiquity) or the third estate (Middle Ages). In the Bible, as everybody knows, Adam and Eve were condemned to lifelong work for the fall of man. “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground for out of it you were taken,” we read in the corresponding Bible passage [8].

Therefore the rule of the Benedictine order could also be translated “pray and suffer.” Through the drudgery and the suffering of harsh physical labor, the monks imitated Jesus Christ’s suffering to come nearer to God’s reign. As a result, concrete physical activity was a mere means to reach an abstract goal existing outside it, the salvation of the working monk who hoped to enter paradise through prayer and work creating suffering. Work also became a religiously interpreted end-in-itself carried out independent of concrete activity and its benefits so workers could realize an “outward” goal of the world to come.

For that reason the work of monks in its religious connotation was fundamentally different from the drudgery that slaves had to perform in antiquity or serfs in bondage in the framework of the brutal statute labor in late medieval Eastern Europe. Their coerced work was the basis for all great rebellions in the history of humanity – from the Spartacus rebellion to the rebels in the Peasants’ insurrection movement. In Europe’s monasteries, work was given its “halo;” work was ascribed with a higher meaning “making people blessed.” In the course of centuries, a change of meaning of the monastic idea of work began. The consciousness of “suffering” disappeared with the internalization of work discipline. The sacred salary gained importance.


Christianity gave work a “halo.” Christianity made concrete drudgery directed at a clear goal into a sacred end-in-itself oriented on reaching an abstract goal of the world to come. Thus the church planted the seed of the work society in which work became a foreign-determined end-in-itself.

Christian dogmatics also laid the foundation for the capitalist ideology that faults marginalized groups with all possible negative consequences of capitalist socialization. This personalization of social dislocations or crisis consequences that is also very widespread in the present crisis [stateless Roma gypsies between segregation, pogrom and expulsion [9] began with the changed meaning of anti-Semitism in the ending middle Ages. In the middle Ages, Jews were forced to a few economic niches denied Christians on account of religious commands. In particular the Catholic Church’s medieval prohibition of interest led to Jews becoming active as money-lenders in the financial sphere from which finance capital later developed. Christian anti-Semitism that sees the “murderers of Christ” in the Jews decried wealthy Jews who identified with their social position and with money.

Christian anti-Semitism reached its medieval culminating point in the late middle Ages, in a phase when the social dominance of church dogmatics experienced a rapid erosion process. In the 15th century, Jews were expelled from most imperial cities – because Christians pressed in their lucrative economic niches. Thus Christians took over the economic positions of Jews as bankers or moneylenders. However the negative moral judgment of these activities in the nascent financial sphere held Jews responsible. The interest prohibition of the Catholic Church continued until first formally rescinded in the 19th century.

The ideological separation between a “good productive” industrial capital and an “evil accumulating” finance capital that recalls religious systems like Manichaeism was clearly emerging in the late Middle Ages. The labor of the Rule of St. Benedict making people blessed opposed the money-lending Jew and personified the rising financial sphere. Thus the church prohibition on interest shared as in the rise of all ideologies erroneously sees the causes of capitalist exploitation and estrangement in interest in the financial sphere and therefore in accumulating capital – and not in the rise of estranged paid labor. With its formation in the late Middle Ages, the capital cult bestowed a halo on the caused of the exploitation and estrangement in capitalism – paid labor – and delegated all negative consequences of capitalist socialization to an external group of persons (Jews) and sphere (financial circulation). The a priori division in good and evil is the basis of every cult.


With the establishment of Protestantism, paid labor was religiously rarified in the framework of the Protestant work ethic. The accumulation of capital that spread in the early modern age is surrounded with a sacred aura by Calvinism and its doctrine of predestination. The inner worldly success of believers is regarded as a certain evidence of their election by God. Worldly riches are considered an expression of the favor of the God of the world to come who helps all those who help themselves. With the greatest possible occupational success, the believer can assure himself of his – predetermined – arrival into heaven.

Accumulation of capital can seemingly serve a religious goal of the world to come. Through economic success, the believer will find out whether divine grace will fall to him in the scope of the predestination of the universe. Thus the accumulation of wealth did not occur with the end of enjoying their fruits or “squandering” them as carried out by the slaveholders of antiquity or the higher nobility despised by the middle class. Early Protestantism – and especially Calvinism – scorned the material enjoyment of the material fruits of lifelong rapacity to which it condemned its believers. The accumulation of capital appeared as a religiously justified end-in-itself that went along with renunciation, asceticism and hard work. This Protestant ethic of work, self-discipline and religiously motivated accumulation of wealth that changed into capital lent wings to the take-off of capitalism in early modern Europe, as the sociologist Max Weber argued in his famous treatise “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” [10].

Capitalism has more than a religious origin. In the course of its historical acceptance, it literally assumed the absurd form of a secularized religion. The Calvinist may think the accumulation of capital serves the goal of proving God’s grace coming to him in Paradise. However the exact opposite is carried out in reality. The believer serves in the accumulation movement which has its own idolatrous fetishist life on the macro-social plane. The fetishism of capital, its end-in-itself dynamic of boundless multiplication, is not a false appearance. Life was breathed into the Golden Calf; it is reality, not an illusion. All economic subjects – from capitalists to paid laborers in today’s late capitalism – participate in this idolatry, not only the earlier Calvinist capitalists.

To avoid his own destruction, every economic actor strives for the highest possible profit in goods production. Otherwise shipwreck in the market competition threatens. The total movement constituted by the individual acts of market subjects and characterizing capitalist markets represents more than the sum of its parts seeking maximum profit. That total movement counters the inmates of capitalist treadmills as a foreign quasi naturally-growing power, as a subject seemingly animated with its own life, striving for the greatest possible self-exploitation and demanding ever new sacrifice in the form of ever greater “practical constraints.” According to Marx, this process takes place unconsciously “behind the backs of the producers.” Marx summed up this absurd state of a seemingly “enlightened” society standing under the spell of a self-produced uncontrollable capital dynamic with the term automatic subject. [11] The automation of perpetually expanding capital exploitation assumes the form of a subject that gains an overwhelming divine fullness of power over against members of society.

Therefore the capitalist society seized by an uncontrollable capital dynamic represents an end-in-itself and by no means helps attain the widely propagated “prosperity.” Similar to Protestants and Benedictines, we are forced to endure in the greatest possible asceticism and readiness to sacrifice despite all our material wealth, to tighten our belts more and more, to mobilize the last work reserves and push self-optimization to the extreme. This is the case with “management” who has no time to spend and enjoy the accumulated riches. On the other hand, divine anger threatens us sinners. “The markets devastate whole national economies and regions as soon as their inhabitants can no longer serve as bearers of the nascent exploitation movement. Thus capitalism represents a sacrificial cult to which in its crisis ever more human sacrifice must be brought as in pre-Christian times. Money must bring more money. Human sacrifice is offered for the maintenance and permanent expansion of the fetishist dynamic ravaging the whole planet even though society suffocates in material surplus.


Money has its own movement in capitalism and exercises “its hegemony over us and over our societies,” we read in the pope’s capitalism criticism. All changes in form that capital assumes in its boundless exploitation movement – that is money, commodity and labor – are moments of capitalist fetishism. Capitalist paid labor is also estranged to paid laborers. It also serves the world to come of the foreign end-in-itself of capital and the instrumentalization of the workers. The work products and goods – seized by the exploitation movement – also seem to live a life of their own as soon as they are introduced to the market sphere by the rival producers. The irrational accumulation of profit, of dead overexerted labor, is at the center of this idolatry around the fetishist automatic subject who is warded off with the application of the highest instrumental rationality.

The capital-idol appearing on this side forces humanity to a sacrificial cult in which believers must maintain its blind usurious growth under ever new privations through all changes in form of the transformation process. Consequently capitalism is also a fetishist social formation in which members of society are subjected to social forces produced – unconsciously – by them but eluding their direct control. Thus capitalism can be equated with other religiously marked fetishist societies. In the middle Ages, religious dogmas developed a life of their own and influenced the structuring of society. Religion could become a very concrete and deadly force in the form of the holy inquisition…



By Tomasz Konicz

Walter Benjamin’s 1921 fragment “Capitalism as Religion” describes the present crisis. Capitalism, as secularized religion – Part 3

[This article published on 12/27/2013 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

The description of the capital relation is not new. The “theology of liberation” anchored in South America criticizes “the market as an idol and neoliberal capitalism as a doctrine of salvation and sacrificial cult,” as the theologian Heribert Bottcher formulated [1]. In reaction to the neoliberal revolution in the 1980s, liberation theology continued the biblical distinction between the Christian “God of liberation” and the “idol of death” which is identified with the capital relation literally striving for total rule.


In reaction to the deep crisis of the capitalist system in the 1970s [The End of the “Golden Age of Capitalism and the Rise of Neoliberalism (3)], neoliberalism turned into an offensive in which the system principles were literally pushed to the extreme. Everything became a commodity. All social areas became subject to the laws of the capitalist market. All people have to spend their lives in continuous capitalist self-optimization. The capital fetish does not tolerate any alternative forms of reproduction or non-capitalist niches beside itself.

This market-mediated totality of the capital relation that was driven to the extreme in reaction to its ever stronger crisis has allowed this to become an “all-determining reality.” This term functions “as a generic term for the divine… in pluralist theory,” as Bottcher explains following a thesis of the theologian Thomas Ruster.

“Capitalism and no longer Christianity represents the religious experience of an “all-determining reality” and thus becomes the religion of society. Ruster understands capitalism as exchange of goods mediated by money. Its end-in-itself is the multiplication of money. Money replaces God and becomes the “all-determining reality.”

Thus the capital-cult pushed to the extreme in reaction to its deep system-crisis [4] is first recognizable in its all-devouring totality as a religious system and “all-determining reality.” In its crisis, the irrational idolatrous character of the automatic subject [see Part 2: Ora et labora (5)] dominating people – and by people – first comes to light.


The religious character of the capital-cult was recognized very early by the philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin. His 1921 fragment “Capitalism as Religion” [6] reads like a prophecy of the current crisis dislocations. The author regarded his time as premature for the general acceptance of this discovery.

Capitalism can be seen as a religion. Capitalism essentially serves as the satisfaction of the same worries, torments and disturbances to which the so-called religions gave answers. The proof of this religious structure of capitalism is its essential religious appearance. We cannot pull tight the net in which we stand. This will be explored later.

As a result a concrete historical dynamic is specific to the capitalist system. This system does not represent a “natural” supra-historical constant of human existence as propagated continually by the eternity-claim of the capital cult. Capitalism is a fetishist social formation that had its beginning in the historical constitution phase in the early modern age, reached its peak in the high capitalism of the late 19th and 20th century and entered the historical period of the descent of late capitalism around 40 years ago. The nature of capital as an “essential religious phenomenon” was first revealed with its full historical development – namely with the total unfolding of the inner contradictions of capital relations as soon as it struck the total limit of its reproduction capacity.

The net of intensifying system pressures and escalating contradictions tightens for the inmates of the capitalist treadmill. The mesh becomes visible and the cultic character of boundless capital accumulation by the automatic subject becomes evident in the globally escalating dislocations and breakdown tendencies. The absurdity of increasing accumulation of abstract riches in which more and more people are excluded is manifest in view of its disastrous social and ecological consequences.

Therefore the current crisis proves that capitalism is a cultic affair. Benjamin names three characteristics specific to this religious structure of capitalism.

Firstly, capitalism is a pure cult religion, perhaps the most extreme that has ever existed. Everything in it only has meaning with reference to the cult and has no special dogmatic or theology. Utilitarianism gains its religious coloring under this point of view. A second feature of capitalism is joined with this concretion of the cult. Capitalism is the celebration of a cult sans reve et sans merci. There is no “weekday” there, no day that cannot be a holiday in the dreadful sense of the unfolding of all sacred pomp and the most extreme exertion of the worshippers.

The capital-cult marked by utilitarianism and blind usefulness thinking that must be practiced uninterruptedly is based on a foundation regarded as sacrosanct in late capitalist ideology: paid labor. The religious appearance that protestant ethics and the monastic orders of the middle Ages bestowed on work descends from the world to come into this side.

The performance of paid labor is the cultic act all paid employees have to perform every day. Concrete labor in capitalism serves an abstract “foreign” goal that is entirely this-sided and need not be projected into a world-to-come as with the Benedictines or Calvinists. Labor has a double character and is only performed in capitalism when it helps increase profit and create useful goods.

Since paid labor is the substance of capital, the capital dynamic ultimately has its end-in-itself in the accumulation of ever larger quantities of expended labor, the capitalist labor process is the real foundation of the capital-cult. The creation of useful goods only serves the automatic subject by realizing objective profits in them. The concrete (the useful good, the concrete work activity) is only important as bearer of the abstract (profit and abstract-general labor). Concrete work is only socially valid with simultaneous realization of profit.

Therefore destroying masses of “unsaleable” dwellings or food – that cannot realize profit – can be very “sensible” in capitalism while people are starving or freezing to death. The cultic essence of paid labor as a source of the exploitation movement of the automatic subject produces goods that should break right after the expiration of the guarantee or become outdated as quickly as possible to create the basis for a new exploitation cycle.

This means the term automatic subject has a double meaning. On one side, its own movement and uncontrollable social dynamic of the market-mediated exploitation movement – that they produce themselves - faces market subjects as a foreign “divine” power. At the same time the term implies that subjectivity in capitalism is only possible within the automatism of the exploitation movement.

“Economic subjects” can actually only assert their subjectivity in the decision how the boundless accumulation of capital can be accelerated and optimized. The persons trimmed into powerless objects of the administered world (Adorno) can only dream the perverted dream of a high-handed subject behind the cultic character masks (Marx) of their economic function – by permanently optimizing the automatism of the exploitation movement under their own direction.

The desolation of this cult is obvious. All human activity and all production of this society only promote the usurious growth of the automatic subject – by confirming persons as automatic subjects.

The utilitarianism mentioned by Benjamin, a hollow rationalist usefulness thinking that abandons the irrational goal of the exploitation of paid labor, is actually the supportive movement of the capital-cult. The dynamic of the automatic subject is accelerated by a stubborn instrumental rationality that leads to a constant revolutionizing of the productive forces. However the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production will also intensify. The capital-cult whose only cultic act consists in the endless expenditure of paid labor strives to banish paid labor from the social reproduction process through rationalization. Capital successively loses its own substance – labor – so capitalism can only be maintained [7] by globally contracting debts as a total world system.


The increasing breakdown of persons in this escalating contradiction of the capitalist mode of production – that produces a superfluous humanity – creates growing mountains of debt and an “enormous debt consciousness” that rises into a cult in order “not to atone for this guilt but to make it universal. Capitalism does not represent a liberating religion, Benjamin explains. It does not offer any redemption from guilt and the literal debts but produces their universalization.

“This cult is owed to a third party. Capitalism may be the first case of an indebted cult, not an atoning cult. In this religious system, a gigantic guilt consciousness that does not know how to atone seizes the cult in order to make this guilt universal, not to atone for this guilt, to drum it into consciousness and finally include God in this guilt to ultimately interest God in atonement. This cannot be expected in the cult or in the reformation of this religion…

Holding out to the end, to God’s ultimate complete indebtedness, the attained world state of despair for which people still hope, lies in the nature of this religious movement which is capitalism. The historically-unheard-of characteristic of capitalism is that this religion is the demolishing of being, not the reform of being. Despair is expanded to a religious world state from which healing is expected.

Capitalism according to Benjamin is a religion of death that carries out a “demolishing” of social existence to expect a “healing” from the expansion of despair into a religious world state. The indebtedness arising from the cult – charged to the “malicious” Jewish-connotated financial sphere – is countered with the production of guilt consciousness. This guilt consciousness is the foundation on which sacrifice can be demanded.

Thus capitalism ultimately turns out to be the most bloodthirsty sacrificial cult of humanity’s history before which the sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs or Incas pale into insignificance. Whole regions and economies in the present crisis are driven into socioeconomic collapse and massive impoverishment to pay for the debt arising out of the increasing self-contradiction of the capital-cult. Millions were driven into poverty; hundreds of thousands have lost their housing and thousands their lives to do penance for the “offenses” of the past without which the cult cannot be maintained. Greece and Spain now pay the capital for their sins. The guilt consciousness whose genesis Christianity set in the world to come with the fall of man also experiences a process of secularization here.

The German austerity sadism spreading all over Europe is the perfect example for capitalism as an “indebted cult.” By “holding out to the end,” by austerity measures and “pushing to the extreme” of the cultic acts of an increasingly more efficiently and brutally organized work regime, people hope to overcome the crisis and bring about a “healing.” Instead the huge mountains of debt of crisis states rise higher and higher while the system-immanent contradictions escalate. The more efficiently and rigorously paid labor is organized in the present crisis, the more intensely rationalization tendencies spread in goods production intensifying the crisis of the capitalist work society – and make further debt-making indispensable for maintaining the exploitation movement of the automatic subject.

Paid laborers literally work for their crisis. The more harshly and ruthlessly this cultic act of paid labor is carried out, the more intensely the noose of systemic contradictions tightens around the necks of the capital-believers. The “world state of despair” is reached. “God himself is drawn into this guilt” with the massive devaluation-push that ultimately must seize money.

The capital-god can now be recognized as such. Another characteristic of the capital-cult according to Benjamin is that its “god” must be hidden and may first be addressed at the zenith of its indebtedness… Every conception and every idea of this god violates the maturity of the mystery.


Nothing is more inverted than the often postulated “death of God,” Benjamin said. God’s transcendence has fallen. But God is not dead; God has entered into human fate.” The historical acceptance of the secularized religion of capitalism involved God’s change from transcendence to immanence. The end-in-itself movement of capital now acts as a revengeful, moody and capricious god who seems to originate from ancient sagas of pre-Christian time or the Old Testament.

This automatic subject dominating people can devastate whole continents if the capital-cult is not practiced with the necessary efficiency. The social collapses triggered by the Old Testament rage of the “markets” in the stricken countries assume the dimension of biblical plagues. In the crisis, the world of gods and sagas of antiquity seems awakened to life.

As a result, paid laborers powerlessly face these idols perishing in their inner contradictions. The basic contradiction of the capital relation, according to crisis-theoretician Robert Kurz, consists “on one side in making the expenditure of human energy an end-in-itself and on the other side in making labor unnecessary in the production process of capital by means of science through mediation of anonymous competition on the growing ladder.” [8]

The cultic act – the “expenditure of human energy as an end-in-itself” first awakens the capital idols to life. The cult action of this secularized capital-religion is capable of something that all followers of religion have long dreamt for thousands of years: the awakening of their gods to life carried out by cultic acts. However the work regime perfected in a utilitarian way again and again brings about the death of this god walking among us and devastating the world.

This overwhelming foreign power that wildly thrashes about in its agony seems divinely-invincible. However at the same time it represents a fetishist form of rule and is – unconsciously – produced by people everyday. The social rule in capitalism consists in the rule of people by abstract social structures constructed by humans, not in the rule of persons over persons. We make our gods – and consequently can overthrow them.

Robert Kurz, Marx lesen, Die wichtigsten Texte von Karl Marx für das 21.Jahrhundert, Frankfurt am Main 2000, S. 139.

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