Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Religion Called Economy

Published also in Italian in "Effetto Cassandra

A post by Michele Migliorino

The idea that religions are giving way to a more advanced human level of existence is part of common knowledge. Science and technology are emancipating humankind from mythical and religious discourses under the effect of the belief that only rationality should guide us. Reason has replaced the old God.

Nietzsche, more than a century ago, warned that God was dead and that we had killed him. Nowadays a spectre wanders in our societies: it is nihilism, a consequence of God's death. What is it? According to Nietzsche, it consists in the "devaluation of all values," including the sacred ones on which the Western civilization was founded.

"What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.  This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here.  This future speaks even now in a hundred signs, this destiny announces itself everywhere; for this music of the future all ears are cocked even now.  For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect". (Nietzsche, Unpublished notes, 1887-1888)

It is not necessary for a God to be transcendent. A consequence of the secularization of society is a new, immanent, God: it is now called "Economy". No longer "intra-world ascesis" (Max Weber) and will of salvation; oikonomos (in greek, "home care") has become the only concern of humans. This necessity had been growing over the centuries, starting already with the Renaissance when the growth of global commerce started the process that would lead, today, to a planetary commercial machine generating billions or even trillions of monetary, computerized transactions every second.

Why is the economy a God? Because it has taken the place of the old values and because we use it to fill the gap left by nihilism. Very simply, nihilism is the result of the outdating of a fundamental value: the afterlife. We are now in the unconscious condition of no longer finding an existential sense because for two millennia (maybe a lot more) we believed that there wasn't a sense in this life. That implied the existence of an "original copy" of our existence somewhere else, in a transcendent world. From Plato to Catholicism, this is the fundamental matrix we have to deal with when we talk about "our culture".

The extraordinary fact of our situation is that we do not want to "see" what we have done! This is why we are so troubled and restless: we can't accept that there is nothing beyond death! Our historical condition rather makes us committed to understanding the meaning of a finite mortal existence. But, today, we are sure that there is no sense in our earthly life and therefore that is better grab every moment of this ephemeral existence; we cannot afford to lose any opportunity because "any chance you don't take is lost forever."

Economy is this "running" in an infernal circle reminding Dante's "Comedy." It is an infinite growth in a finite world free from any limit which could hinder it. Since there is no sense in anything, "everything is allowed" (Dostojevski) and there will never be consequences. No transcendent God is judging us in terms of good and bad deeds.

However, if there is no sense in anything, wouldn't it be better to end it all here and now? Wouldn't it be a better form of forward-thinking?
Never to be born at all is best for mortal men, and if born to pass as soon as may be the gates of Hades. (Hesiod)
Economy acts as a big "repression." It is just like we were producing the meaning itself by means of our everyday activities. Indeed, the busier we are, the more life seems to have sense. When we are moving - just as a kind of merchandise - we forget about that "deep cosmic noise", of that lack that sometimes nags us asking: what is the meaning of all this?

Risultati immagini per città movimento

No matter how bad things become, only a few people will be ready to accept that the Economy it is not a good thing. We believe in Economy, we do not discuss its existence, precisely as a religion does with God. Instead of an afterlife, we have a Money-God allowing us to do everything we want, or at least this is what we believe. Everything consists of believing in something - this is why is difficult to understand the term "religion" in its wider meaning.

But why the Economy is not a good thing? Because it is not possible to create prosperity for all. Wealth is a relative term, it is something that can belong only to a few. I can be rich only if you are poor; wealth is a relation: there has to be poverty in order to have wealth.

You can see this easily when considering the inequality issue. Although the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow decade after decade, the lifestyle of poor people has not really worsened. A success of Capitalism? Yes, sure. Here, our religion protects us from heresies such as the idea that we should reform the economic system, redistribute wealth, supervise big capital, control corporations! In this way, we save the world. So, we have to promote economic growth in Africa! And this justifies wars for exporting democracy. Only with democracy, the African governments will ensure that the Africans, too, will have access to wealth. 

You can see how the Economy religion destroys everything: forest, seas, living species, ourselves and our infinite cultures existing over the whole planet. By now, realism would tell us that it is time to throw the Economy GOd into the wastebasket history and try to create a society which won't imply such a despicable waste of energy and resources. It seems that it is time to become profane toward this religion. Yet, that doesn't seem to be happening.

The "crowd phenomenon" is hard to overcome because it is the very mechanism itself that generates our cultural evolution (according to Renè Girard). We are afraid of losing our ownership and we are afraid of each other. It is difficult to us to go against the others. It is extremely hard to reject what makes us living: The Economy-God.

But what if what makes us today prosperous is what will make us miserable tomorrow?


  1. Perhaps? I have a different take:
    We are slowly technogizing ourselves into extinction. Technology is seductive. Is it the power? Is it the comfort? Or is it some internal particularly human attribute that drives it? Technology surrounds us and becomes part of our story and myths. Technology tantalizes the human mind to make, combine, invent. There are always unintended consequences with technology. It effects how we experience the world in time and space. It affects how we feel the world. If all the externalities were included in the prices and cost to nature, we would be very, very wary of technology.

    I think we have moved from technology in the service of religion (pyramids and gothic cathedrals) to religion and culture in the service of technology. It isn't a deity that will save humanity but in the eyes of many - it will be technology.

    We will do more of the same, business as usual until there are no more holes in the ground to dig, no more water above and below to contaminate, no humans to wage slave, no other lifeforms to eliminate. Yes, we are building Trojan horses in our hearts, minds and spirits. It will be elitist and entitlement and hubris – it will end with both a bang and a whimper.

  2. Another take on the question, in another medium:

    A few years before the above came out, my son was kinda-sick abed. He could not stay up for more than a few moments, but he got bored being abed. (He was about ten years of age.) I went to talk to him.

    He told me, "Dad, I've figured out what life is all about." I sat on the edge of his bed and asked about that big it. He smirked and replied, "Eat, F**k and die." Of course I made him explain, which took well over an hour. Essentially, his point was that, in earthly-only terms, satisfying the biological imperative(s) is all that there is. Presuming there to be more, as Percey Shelley attempted in "The Cloud", is at least entertaining. And there are many attempts to find more than obeying my son's interesting phrasing of the biological imperative(s) and then going quietly into that great good-night.

  3. Yes, we killed God, but we have not replaced him with a real Economy God nor an Ecology one, as we should have. What we adulate is Money God, which is more virtual and fake than any Crypto-money.

  4. We, humanity, are on a highway to hell. Due to, collectively, refusing to recognize that you can’t continue to exponentially increase one species forever on a finite planet. Fortunately, for other life on earth, I may live long enough to see the peak person born.
    Our problem is that, collectively, we believe that we and our wondrous works are somehow outside of nature. Humanity cannot create anything unnatural. The changes we are making in the world is just the same as how any other species effects its environment by its existence. The difference is only scale.

  5. But what if what makes us today prosperous is what will make us miserable tomorrow

    Everyone is counting on the second "us" being different people from the first "us". It's really an "us" versus "them" situation. The "us" is us and the "them" is our descendants.

    On the other hand, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky were right. God is dead and without God anything is permissible. It is permissible to destroy a planet; the un-sentient Universe won't care.

    But the aesthetics are, to my mind, horrible. I know there is no accounting for taste, but a lush and vibrant earth is far more beautiful than a wasteland. That's enough reason for me to hope that the Economy will die before it destroys the earth.

    1. I guess since the wealthest among us hold the most influence, and they feel the pain the least, they have the least incentive to change paths?

  6. I hesitate to condemn all humanity for bad behavior as most eventually end up doing in both feature posts and comments.

    Our greatest failing and one of the biggest causes of our bad behavior is not putting any emphasis on understanding what it is about our planet that makes it special and most importantly, capable of supporting a huge array of life. Even many scientist, although well versed in certain areas don't know and don't seem to particularly care to know how it all works together to make it what it is.

    For me this has been the path of my education and once you catch a glimpse of what is there you can't help but treasure it and want to be a beneficial part of it, not harm it.

    Earths unique beauty should be common understanding and therefor ANY destructive actions should be frowned upon and punished. Instead we worship all of those destructive actions and life is punished.

  7. I also have a different take based on my interest in psychoanalysis and psycho-history: economy in its original meaning, "home care" is not an evil but a necessity. I fully agree eith Jef Jelten in this regard. We are not doing it, the economy that has become a religion is a perversion of the original idea. Although the idea of an afterlife is a great comfort to many, I don't think it is as essential as the original post puts it. It is possible to have a sense of eternity (an approximation of afterlife) in the mystical experience of being connected with everything around us. Scientific understanding of the com plexity of life and its web-like, cyclic nature is as powerful as the most touted miracle to inspire awe and gratitude to be alive.
    It is interesting that the great moral religion appear to have come up as a global phenomenon in societies that were very efficient providers of energy for their citizens. Societies that generated surplus are also the societies that had increasing levels of socio-economic inequality, and it was this issue that religions are trying to address, to remind us of our essential sameness onder our skin and other superficial attirbutes. That sense of essential sameness and need to look out for each other is an important maxime for sustained economic growth, but too often our short-sighted competition wins, and now is an extreme example of that.
    I further think that the idea of God is a reflection of the awareness that life existed before us, and to some extent of evolution. Since we are a hyper-social species, we symplized it as a person or persons. Economy is rooted in our bodies, because of how our metabolism works. As an encompassing system its structure is an easy substitute for the idea of God in the sense of "Providence" as the Founding Fathers conceptualized it. Again, what we are currently pursuing as "economy" is a perversion.

  8. Yes, existential dread seems widespread enough. It is not originally my idea but perhaps we have a 'Religion of Progress' and the Economy is it's Church. This religion postulates a kind of 'after-life' or continuity in material form? The Christian religion does seem to have in part morphed into this version. We could then understand maybe, for example, that the threat of climate change is a big challenge to Progress?

    It might be significant that many religious groups departed originally for North America with Utopian visions and a committment to manifesting God's Will in this material world. So it goes. I guess not everybody holds this faith. Our actual worlds are immaterial, by nature 'family' and 'memory'. Shakespeare put it better.


  9. A society abandons its religion when its gods stop speaking. The Economic-God still has enough answers for enough people, though fewer with each passing year.


  10. The real truth is that we sleep. The god of this world holds us to this world if we do not awaken. We must be born again into spirit. To awaken is to ignite the twin flame of your crown chakra. Sounds weird but true. Religion is slavery. Christ is everything and the key to understanding why we are here. Overcome this world and return to El.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)