In a fragment written in 1921, Walter Benjamin wrote that capitalism is “a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed.” Spend an hour watching one of the cable business channels, whether CNBC, Fox, or Bloomberg, and you will likely come around to his opinion. The "Low Church" side of the cult is epitomized by Larry Kudlow’s evening show on CNBC. In the place of the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible,” Kudlow, who is a practicing Catholic, begins every show by intoning what he himself has dubbed, apparently with no sense of its inappropriateness, “The Kudlow Creed.” “We believe that free market capitalism is the best path to prosperity.”
“One fool makes many,” Adorno liked to say. With his hysterical delivery and the pep rally shouts of “boo-yah” that he trades with his callers, Kudlow’s CNBC colleague, Jim Cramer, illustrates the truth of that to a tee. But while these men come across as cheerful buffoons (Cramer has something of the 1960s game show impresario, Monty Hall about him, while Kudlow often seems like Glenn Beck in a good suit), their insistence that one must believe in capitalism, and its equally important corollary, that a belief in capitalism and a belief in America are one and the same, is shared by people of considerably more quality and consequence. For example, the money manager Peter Lynch, who before his retirement from Fidelity’s Magellan Fund was one of the most successful investors in modern American business history, wrote in one of his books (it was presented in passing, as if almost too obvious to spell out) that “keeping the faith and stock picking are normally not discussed in the same paragraph, but success in the latter depends on the former.”
And lest it be thought that this language of belief in the binity of capitalism and America is restricted to figures on the political right, Warren Buffett, the third richest man in the world and a great supporter of President Obama’s, has said, in praising the president, that “he believes in the same things I believe in. America’s best days are ahead.” Interestingly, Charles Munger, Buffett’s longtime partner, is less sanguine and recently published a piece about American decline called, “Basically It’s Over: A parable about how one nation came to financial ruin.” But Munger is a professional curmudgeon (allusions to this have been a well-loved and better-rehearsed part of Buffett’s routine at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting for years). To be sure, there are those in the business commentariat who seem to have become almost professional doomsayers—Peter Schiff, Marc Faber, and Nassim Taleb come to mind. But among people who, as major participants in the markets, speak with real authority, Munger is virtually alone.
The Church Father Origen distinguished between an exoteric Christianity for the masses of the faithful and an esoteric Christianity for the elite. The same duality describes the practice of capitalism today—as illustrated by the old Wall Street joke about the retail customer who, upon his broker showing him the slip where the yachts of the great money managers of the day are moored, plaintively asks “but where are the customers’ yachts?” Those individuals who watch CNBC and cruise the blogs for stock tips may delude themselves that the game is not rigged, but such a belief is well and truly a case of mass delusion and manipulation (it’s probably both). The ancients understood this. Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi—“What is legitimate for Jupiter is not legitimate for oxen.” Under sodium pentothal, I doubt George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein, or Carlos Slim would disagree. Hell, they probably wouldn’t even need the truth serum, just a dry martini or a glass of decent claret.
In “The Silver Blaze,” one of the best of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Gregory, the Scotland Yard detective, asks Holmes, “Is there any other point on which you want to draw my attention?” To which Holmes answers, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” Gregory replies. And Holmes retorts, “That was the curious incident.” Where contemporary capitalism is concerned, the dog’s silence consists in the fact that, even after the crash, with its revelations not just of how rigged the system was—particularly, but certainly not only in its post-Reagan, post-Thatcher iteration—but how stupid, self-destructive (Lehman Brothers, anyone?), and fundamentally nihilistic it was as well, there is not as yet credible opposition to capitalism as a system. Egged on by Fox News and politicians like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, a sizeable percentage of the American public probably does believe that President Obama is determined at long last to transform the United States into a socialist state. But the reality is that he has no quarrel with the basic parameters of the system, only with what he has called its “abuses”—a view that, if it causes alarm in business circles can do so only because from Reagan and Bush senior through Clinton and Bush junior, they have not had to live under any constraints whatsoever. And after his inauguration the president confirmed the extreme modesty of his goals by naming a financial team that, with the possible exception of former Fed chairman Volcker, before taking up their present posts never evinced the slightest doubt about casino capitalism.
That is the fundamental change since the collapse of the Soviet empire and the transformation of China into an authoritarian capitalist tyranny: All debate has been stilled, or, anyway, all debate outside a few groups like professors in the humanities departments of U.S. universities (the stupidity of whose analysis and the utopianism of whose solutions makes them well worth not paying attention to), rural jacqueries in the developing world like the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Naxalites in India (one more unfit to rule than the other), and the anarchist anti-globalizers (about whom the less said the better, and who may be more interesting in terms of their views on music than globalization). If they are irrelevant, they richly deserve that status. And there are profound arguments within capitalism, of course, above all concerning the role of the state, and increasingly different models and experiences in Britain and America, continental Europe, and Asia. But while few people believe that history is at an end, despite the recent crash, the view that political economy is at an end, that, for all intents and purposes, there is only capitalism, remains overwhelmingly the consensus view throughout the world.
It is this fundamental transformation not just of our economy but also of our polity as a (misplaced) locus of faith that has caused me to harp on the subject of American exceptionalism, moral authority, and pay more attention than they otherwise warrant to self-evidently indefensible moral and intellectual solecisms as the claim that the American nation is inherently good. For in an important sense, the cruder the iteration, the more revealing it is—vox populi vox Dei, and all that. Once it becomes respectable to substitute belief for reason, or (in a way this is worse) make the dire category mistake of mistaking one’s allegiances and cultural prejudices for objectivity, one is all but boasting one's ignorance of the world outside the United States. Again, I emphasize that I am talking about the language and mindset of faith tragically and inappropriately transposed to the political and economic sphere, emphatically not about belief in its proper context—that of faith. I am an adamant non-believer, no less firm in my atheism than any of the so-called New Atheists. But much as I respect the writings of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Jerry Coyne on matters upon which they are indeed consummate masters of their brief, I find their version of atheism beneath them—petulant, ill-informed, and, at best, supererogatory.
My mother liked to say that in a piece of writing a failure of language was actually a failure of thought. The language of reason is no way incompatible with the language of faith when, precisely, we are thinking and talking about faith. But to imagine the language of belief has any proper role or can be appealed to for legitimation in considering the merit of one’s own country, let alone of global capitalism, is not thought but, coming back to another phrase of Adorno’s, nothing more than intellectual “piety, indolence, and calculation.”