Oikonomia/1 - Evidence and questions regarding the spirit of capitalism and its parasitic relationships
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 12/01/2020
«If we wanted to define human civilization in one meaningful phrase, we could say that it is the formal power and ability to pass what in nature would run towards "death" as "value"»
Ernesto de Martino, Death and ritual tears in the ancient world
We now begin a new series of articles on the relationship between capitalism and religion, between Christianity and oikonomia. How much and which aspects of Christian values have entered current capitalism? And is Christianity only its nest?
The twentieth century left us with a most rich and harsh debate regarding capitalism. It’s been more and different than the usual intellectual or academic debates. It’s been blood and flesh, life and death, heaven and hell. There have always been many critics of capitalism, but capitalism has shown a surprising ability to adapt to changing conditions of context. It knows how to change its shape by absorbing the demands of its critics, and like all great empires it has only been made greater and stronger by the enemies incorporated in their own troops and culture. It has changed to the point that the very word "capitalism" today has lost its power - I keep using it for lack of better words. In the last few years, however, some global, dramatic and sudden changes have complicated the scenarios, but have also greatly reduced and simplified the debates on the ethical evaluation of capitalism. Because it is all too evident that when it comes to some fundamental variables of individual and social life, capitalism has not kept its promises of progress and well-being at all. The health conditions of common goods, relational goods and of the Earth itself are clearly telling us in unison that there is a radical incompatibility between their safeguard and capitalist logic. From this increasingly decisive perspective, neither the wealth of nations nor public happiness is increasing. There is nothing serious left to debate about this. We simply have to change our logic, we need new paradigms, and above all we have to hurry: time has run out, or better yet we and the planet and all human communities find ourselves in full "Cesarini time" (the last minutes of extra time during a football game).
Capitalism has experienced a vast array of very different assessments within Christian Churches and Catholicism as well. One recurrent subject concerned (and concerns) the alleged Christian nature of the spirit of capitalism. That capitalism should somehow be "Christian" is tautological, being something born and developed in Europe, and until a few decades ago saying Europe essentially meant saying Christian and Christianity. From this perspective, modernity and modern times as well as the Enlightenment were basically "Christians", but so were fascism and communism. But we haven’t really said much by saying this. It does not help much, therefore, to paraphrase Carl Schmitt's famous incipit of "Political Theology" (1922), and say that all the most meaningful concepts of modern economy are secularized theological concepts. The most interesting things start when we try to ask ourselves "second" additional questions: what aspects of Christianity entered and became part of capitalism? What was left out? How did get in? The new series of articles we begin today is an attempt to answer these (and other) questions. But first we should be aware that the history of the relationship between Christianity and the economy is truly complex, probably more complex than those who have written so far on this topic have told us. First of all because the theological categories (Christian and biblical) that modernity has transformed, secularising them, into economic categories, had in turn already been influenced by economic categories. The theology that inspired economics was first inspired by economics itself. While working in recent years on economics, the Bible and theology, we have discovered improbable and unexpected intertwining connections between these areas of life. And with considerable amazement, we repeatedly stated in the beginning that the first homo oeconomicus was really homo religiosus. Before becoming the golden rule of trade, do ut des was the iron cast law of the sacrifices offered to the gods: "Here is my butter: where are your gifts?" we find in the Brahminical ritual of the offerings at the temple. Many elements on which economic science was founded bit by bit in modern times - such as price, exchange, value, debt, credit, merit, order, gift, tribute, prize, the oikonomia itself - were inherited from religion and medieval Jewish-Christian humanism; but if we dig deeper, we realize that those theological-religious elements were in turn created and formed in the constant exchange going on in the economic life of communities. At the roots of ancient societies we find coins in sarcophagi to accompany the dead to pay the price of entry into the afterlife, or the economic vocabulary applied to blame, debts, penances. The Hebrew Bible itself and then the Gospels and Paul make abundant use of economic images and language to speak of faith. We find ourselves within a mutual contamination, where it is not easy to understand who influenced who, nor what the direction of the causal link is.
The most probable thesis is that businesses and religions developed together, with the arrival of the agricultural revolution, and that the marriage between the economy and the sacred took place naturally at the dawn of the great civilizations. The birth and development of the coin system took place around the temples, they were used to measure sacrifices, faults and merits, and from there their use gradually expanded to the more profane economic sphere. The Latin word pecus (flock) from which pecunia derives, primarily indicated the livestock offered in the sacrifices, counted and accounted for in a commercial relationship and exchange with the divine. It was the sacred that offered the necessary context of fait-and-trust to enable the coins to run their course. The first place for valorising "things" - animals and plants - destined by nature to death, was the altar: presenting them as a ritual offering exempted them from the ordinary fate of mortals. So when it comes to the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, we should clearly bear in mind that the economic ethics that informed medieval Christianism about itself was much more similar to the economic culture of the late Roman Empire than to the economic principles of the Gospels. We will then see that the operation that capitalism is carrying out with Christianity today (taking over its role), Christianity had already done since the 4th-5th century to the religion and ethics of the Romans - with the only difference being that in this second replacement there haven’t been centuries of persecution and martyrdom: the Constantine of capitalism was Nero or Herod, because he was enthusiastically received from his first appearance. Now the questions become more complicated however: what Christian economic ethics would then have entered (assuming they did) and become part of modern capitalism? Was it more Cicero or the Gospels that entered, the stoic ethics of virtues or the ethics of the beatitudes?
For the purpose of our research, we will not start from Max Weber nor from Amintore Fanfani or Giuseppe Toniolo, but from a German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who we have repeatedly encountered and discussed during these years of exploration. In a very short and prophetic text, "Capitalism as Religion" (1921), unlike Schmitt, Benjamin does not speak of capitalism in terms of a "secularization" of theological elements and categories, but of an entirely new religion: «In the West capitalism developed parasitizing on Christianity ... during the Age of the Reformation Christianity did not facilitate the rise of capitalism, but actually turned into capitalism». Here, we get two opposing images or concepts. Because on the one hand Benjamin says that capitalism is a parasite of Christianity; on the other, he says that Christianity, as in a metamorphosis, has effectively become capitalism. Both powerful images, which, although taken only as a first approximation, will still make us turn to exercises that may prove fruitful. Fruitful and partial, fruitful because partial. Indeed, other interesting things could be said starting from the thesis of Weber or of other more "classic" authors. The parasite and metamorphosis are quite extreme images and therefore highly questionable. But, as often (not always) is the case, if used well extreme metaphors can show more generative aspects of reality than more moderate metaphors.
This is why we take Benjamin's thesis very seriously, preferring however the metaphor of the parasite to that of the metamorphosis. From biology we know that metamorphosis consists in the transformation that an insect (or organism) undergoes when passing from the larval to the adult phase. The caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, because the process is part of the insect's life cycle. Parasitism, on the other hand, is a profoundly different phenomenon, which in turn takes many forms. The word was born in Greece to describe some social behaviours, such as enjoying benefits without sustaining the costs involved, such as for example profiteers or freeloaders slipping into public banquets without paying. Parasitism is very different from the mutualism of symbiosis. Symbiosis is a "positive sum game", while parasitism is a "zero sum game", a disharmonious relationship, because the parasite feeds at the expense of the host, without any reciprocity in the advantages. The parasite, then, not only uses the host to feed itself, but uses it as its "ecological niche" to which it entrusts the task of regulating its relations with the outside world (the virus does not possess the apparatus required for reproduction). In certain cases (called parasitoids) the asymmetry is so radical that the relationship ends with the death of the guest. Because parasites lack the intelligence to understand that killing the body that hosts them is against their own interest; but in the course of their evolution some have lengthened their life cycle with the host - killing it more slowly: no intelligent freeloader wants the death of the banquet organizers.
The relationship between capitalism and Christianity contains elements of all these forms of parasitism, including lengthening the life of its host in order to continue feeding on it; as well as other elements not captured by the parasite metaphor - there are aspects of mutualism and even sonship. The parasite metaphor does not show us everything, but allows us to discover something new. Among the many possible forms of parasitism, cuckoo parasitism is very useful as a tool to investigate the nexus between Christianity and capitalism. The cuckoo practices hatching parasitism: it lays its egg in the nest of other birds (the blackcap or the reed, for example), and without knowing it the host bird ends up laying on and hatching it because of the similarity between the foreign egg and its own eggs. Once it hatches, the cuckoo's young one gets rid of the other eggs present in the nest and remains the only occupant. The mother bird feeds the small cuckoo as if it were its own. One of the many mistakes that the law of life uses. Cuckoo capitalism has laid its egg in many Christian nests (Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists ...). It did not lay them in the nests of other religions because they would have most probably been rejected immediately. Christianity raised the capitalist egg because it looked a lot like its own, and this great similarity in the shells deceived the mothers. They hatched and protected it for centuries, during the long period of time when the eggs all looked the same. Until only recently, in the moment of hatching, when a different and bigger bird is starting to throw the other half-siblings out of the nest. But, as in nature, this mother, having found herself only with this one child, continues to feed it unaware of the replacement and cheating. Because life is lager, and transforms what should die into value. It may not be a child of the blackcap, but it is still a child of the same forest.
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