Detroit Publishing Co. Trinity Church and office buildings, New York 1915
French President Hollande declared on TV on his nation's national holiday that the recession in France is over. You can just see the discussions in the Elysee Palace: we can't say that!, well, we have some graphs that show a little recovery, we just need to hide the ones that don't, and the president desperately needs a positive message to look presidential on Quatorze Juillet, so why don't we just go for it, instruct the interviewers not to push too hard; what's important is not whether it's true or not, but whether or not we can make people believe what he says, if only for the day. And so it was decided: the emperor would have clothes for a few hours.
In that vein, why don't I try and tackle a subject so grand in a few hundred words that if you were to write a book about it would still be unsatisfactory in every imaginable regard, and risk coming out looking like a fool? I guess because some subjects can't be ignored, and you might as well start somewhere. The intersection of money (or economics) and religion (faith) so obvious in Hollande's claim is a topic I've touched upon numerous times in the past from several different angles, and I'd like to see if I can bring some of them together in a more or less coherent way; either that or fail horribly, and state beforehand I have no illusion of being comprehensive, just posing questions and don't shoot the piano player.
My renewed interest in addressing the topic was triggered by Joris Luyendijk, the Dutch anthropologist turned journalist slash banking blogger for the Guardian, whom I talked about recently, and who also writes a column in Dutch newspaper NRC, in which he discussed religion and banking last week.
Joris describes that a finance veteran he knows talks over tea, prior to a seminar in the City on "standards" (which play a prominent role in aviation but not finance), about how Thatcher's 1986 "Big Bang" deregulation changed 'everything'; before, most people worked at a bank for decades, but after, they change employer much more often. The "American thinking" – mindset – took over, and on the side of both employers and employees, "loyalty has been traded in for liquidity". Add giga-profits, opaque financial instruments and too big to fail banks, and you got your recipe for the next crisis.
Once the actual seminar, which turns out to be very boring as usual, gets under way, Joris starts looking out the window, sees a church spire, and ponders how churches, once the tallest buildings in a city, are now dwarfed by the glistening high-rises of investment banks' headquarters.
On his phone he looks up the seven christian virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Hope, and Charity. He wonders what a medieval monk would have thought of today's world of high finance with its monster bonuses, hyper risks, after-me-the-deluge attitude, £1000 champagne bottles and stripclubs. The monk would think this is the work of the devil. Of the seven deadly sins, Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, the only one bankers cannot be accused of is Sloth.
Joris concludes the problem in the banking sector is "passive compliance": people obey the letter of the law without having any affinity with the spirit in which the letter was written. More rules won't solve this, but what will? He doesn't want to return to a time where religious figures dictate what he can and cannot do, but he wouldn't be surprised if the next, even bigger and "economically fatal" crisis were followed by a religious revival.
Interesting thoughts, and in my book Joris Luyendijk is a very good writer. Plus I mostly agree with his conclusions. Both Nicole Foss and I have repeatedly mentioned at The Automatic Earth that the next crisis, or rather the next step in the present crisis, will risk a resurgence of political extremes and religions old and new. When confronted with sudden and life-altering change, people habitually flee into whatever makes them feel safer, and this time will be no different.
But I still would go a step or two further than Luyendijk does. I think what we might be looking at when the real depth of the crisis hits will be a change of religion, rather than a revival of religion. Religion never went away or diminished, it just – temporarily – put on a different hat. Even in times of plenty, people never lose their need for religion; they just switch to different beliefs, namely the ones they think provided the plenty.
Those church spires haven't just been dwarfed by the banks' high-rises, they have been outright replaced by them as both religious symbols and as symbols of power. Which are more or less the same to begin with. The tallest, strongest, most expensive, most enduring structures of any culture that has built them, have always been symbols of both. Even a king's castle would reflect the notion that the inhabitant had been elected to his position through divine intervention.
If you want to talk religion in the western world, in the face of a financial crisis like the one we're presently living through, you can't really ignore the biblical stories of Mammon, one of the seven princes of hell (he represents Greed). Christianity overflows with warnings about adulation of this "false god", but apparently that doesn't sufficiently warn us away. Given the historic display of greed and wealth and lust for power by the Catholic church, perhaps that shouldn't be too surprising; how can you be expected to follow rules that your leaders do not?
The “American mindset" that the trader in Joris's story mentions, seems to make it possible for people to chase Mammon, and still label themselves Christians. It takes a bit of interpretative rule bending, but if and when what you do is accepted as normal by a majority of those around you, who are you to question it, and why would you? A prime example: there is no doubt about what is meant in the US by looking out for no. 1; it's not Jesus, and once he is seen as no. 2 by a nation's entire population, that's it, no matter how differently this was and is viewed in different times and different places. In the end all is relative.
The Christian warnings about the worship of Mammon have of course had one major effect: nobody sees themselves as money worshipers. "Greed is good" has taken a firm hold on western societies, but no-one will admit to believing in it, in money, in the religious sense of the word. For one thing, you don't go to a bank, or to your corporate job, to do penance (if there is such a place in greed-is-good, it's probably the IRS, or a favorite charity). As an aside, one might be forgiven for wondering why the Catholic church has never resorted to building worship skyscrapers in the City, or lower Manhattan, or Hong Kong. Intriguing question?!
In the religion of greed a.k.a. Mammon, the priests work in banks, governments, economics faculties and media, preaching eternal growth like their Christian peers preach eternal life. There are various kinds of high priests (the distinctions can be blurry) : those who make billions of dollars a year (which must be because they are superior people), those who spend trillions of dollars of their inferiors' wealth creating those conditions that should without a shadow of a doubt facilitate and accelerate eternal growth (also requires superior intelligence), and those who develop and teach theories designed to prove the logic, inevitability, infallibility and overall blessings of eternal growth.
All make sure they both work and reside in structures fit for their status, lest the people can see on a daily basis who are the most important members of their societies. A status confirmed, on an increasingly frequent basis, by the media, playing the role once, in the times of Luyendijk's medieval monk, reserved for church bells and town criers. Now, as then, a monotonous drone of identical messages intended to subdue the populace into submission and unquestioning faith.
There are different factions, for sure, but they concern differences in opinion on how best to reach the stated goal, not whether the goal is attainable – or even desirable – in the first place. You got your Keynesians, monetarists, neo-monetarists and so on, all claiming that their ideas for achieving more growth, faster, are superior and the others' are a sure path to damnation. Their debate, however, leaves no space for questioning the validity of the ultimate goal.
Now, obviously, we need to be careful with the term "American mindset": it may describe an origin, but it has evolved into what can better be described as an Anglo-Saxon mindset, and even that may fall short, since the whole of western Europe, plus many Asian countries, if not most of the rest of the world, have adopted it and made it their own, each of them perhaps in their slightly different versions, but still.
And that makes me think about another apparent paradox. Not only have we created a way of thinking – a western mindset – that has us convinced we can chase maximum profit and still serve our deity of choice (in the west, principally the "Lord"), even if the chase causes us to do great harm to the planet he is claimed to have created (for one thing, we can simply state that this, too, is his will). We also, and the US is once again in the vanguard of this, have built highly militarized societies that invest huge amounts of the fruits of our daily labor in armies and weaponry.
Which seems hard to blend in with the very clear message of peace that the man who gave his name to Christianity has so -seemingly – successfully spread around the world. It fits quite well, however, with money as a religion, and with the accumulation and defense of accumulated wealth. Of course you can say that Jesus didn't want you to be overrun by your enemies, but then again, Martin Luther King was very much a Christian.
In the American mindset, being successful means making lots of money, accumulating substantial wealth. Without money, you will not be considered successful. You can do things that will tempt the media in particular to – all too eagerly, albeit just for a day – label you a hero, you can save countless lives, you can alleviate an ocean of pain or facilitate millions of people to blossom who otherwise couldn't have, but unless you're rich to begin with or make a lot of money in the process, you will not be considered successful in the eyes of society at large.
In a society where success is directly linked to the amount of money one makes or possesses, it's not surprising that many who strive for immortality, which in other places and times might be sought through good deeds, seek to do so through the accumulation of wealth. Even though it is written in their very own holy book that wealth makes it much harder for them to pass through the eye of a needle.
There are of course many people who simply call themselves non-religious, though that's not a very common notion stateside, you see that much more in western Europe. And perhaps, though I'd have to think about it, that's somehow linked to the fact that Europeans tend to put less emphasis on money as a deciding factor for success as a label. In large parts of Europe, you can still be considered a successful writer or doctor or nurse or philosopher without any direct connection to your bank account.
I could write a lot more about this, and you could find a lot more faults with it, but I wasn't going to write a book. The underlying idea is already clear. In my view, we haven't so much lost religion, we've exchanged one for the other even as we try to incorporate both into our life philosophies.
And however you see all this, there is no denying that we have given money and wealth increasingly prominent positions in our lives and our societies. So much so that we see it as an almost divine right to have our houses and cars and gadgets and far-away holidays and pension plans, and we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if all that fell away one day. Indeed, our societies would collapse without all of the (ever increasing) accumulated wealth. Even if we as individuals would say we have enough, our societies would still demand growth, or else; it's how we built them. There is no denying, either, that this comes painfully close to the biblical story of Mammon (I've left out the Golden Calf), and even if you don't call yourself a Christian, you can still understand what the intrinsic meaning is of that story.
As a result of his two-year+ intensive contacts with the inner workings of the banking world in London, Joris Luyendijk concludes that a next big financial crisis – or the next step in the present one – is all but inevitable, simply because that world operates the way it does. But we won't just have a financial crisis, we'll have a crisis of faith as well. Which will lead to many people turning their backs on the Mammon religion they will continue to claim they were never card carrying members of, simply because it failed to deliver on its promises. These people will seek another belief, another faith, certainly when times get much harder then they've ever seen. That's human nature. Whether they choose one of the many Christian factions, or perhaps an eastern religion, is hard to predict. And I think it's perhaps not the most relevant issue either.
What is, is that we begin to recognize how close to a religion our pursuit of material wealth has become, replete with its own versions of temples and high priests and holy books and all the other symbols and symbolism. That to an extent, we can all be said to have traded in loyalty for liquidity.