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Beyond capitalism as religion: Disenchanting modernization for a radicalized project of modernity

Lukas Meisner

“Marx’s critique of capitalism from the beginning is intertwined with his critique of religion […] one cannot understand one without the other.”

— Martin Hägglund[1]

Platypus Review 145 | April 2022

AGAINST THE CLASSICAL LIBERALIST trope of modernity as rational, disenchanted, and enlightened, this article argues to reconstruct it as spell-bound by religion – namely, by capitalism as religion.[2] The argument is drawn from combining a line of thinkers starting with Karl Marx and ranging from Max Weber via Georg Lukács and Walter Benjamin to Lucien Goldmann and Marshall Berman. At the latest since the Marxian twist, any consequent emancipatory critique of religion incorporates a critique of capitalism as well — any project of modernity that is not self-contradictory can no longer be identified with capitalist modernization. More succinctly, the former, conceived of as a political project, must precisely be about overcoming the latter. This is because, if capitalism is to be grasped as a religion, any humanist or enlightened society would have to be postcapitalist. Accordingly, since we are not postcapitalist today, we are not humanist or enlightened either. The article will deliver the foundation of that argument by demonstrating why capitalism must be deciphered as an immanent material cult religion whose worldview is tragic, if not bleakly apocalyptic.

The Problem of Economic Theology

“Hence, there are theological roots of our economy that are still active, but the problem of economic theology — as distinct from political theology — may not even be recognized as a problem for us yet, let alone be solved.”[3]

The standard narrative about modernity to date is that it is an enlightened age, this is, an age in which rationality rules instead of religion, humans instead of gods, democracy instead of theocracy. Yet, from various backgrounds and disciplines inside and outside of academia, capitalism and its concomitant societal infrastructures have been grasped as religious entities. To start with, the historian Yuval Harari calls capitalism “the new religion,” arguing that “the main dogma of capitalism is that economic growth is the highest good.”[4] In the same vein, the sociologist Harald Welzer has underlined that “meanwhile, a category like ‘growth’ is of civil-religious quality.”[5] Similarly, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han traces a “negation of death” in the belief in endless growth, concluding that “capitalism inherits metaphysics. It constitutes a materialist metaphysics that seeks for infinite capital.”[6] As to support Han’s analysis, today’s finance avant garde, Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists, invest heavily into the “quest for immortality,”[7] and Mark Zuckerberg has identified Facebook as the “new church.”[8] The computer scientist Jaron Lanier even uses the same words as Harari when he claims that what “we are seeing is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture.”[9] Accordingly, Donna Haraway attests that modern “machinery is an irreverent upstart god,”[10] and Bruno Latour warns that “the new Inquisition” is “economic rather than religious.”[11]

Next to the belief in the infinity of growth and the power of technoscience, neoliberalism — with its grand narrative of the “greater good of all” conjured up by private vice — is regularly described as religious.[12] In commonsense notions, the very belief in money (as “mammon”) is likened to variations of religious faith if not to idolatry (“in go(l)d we trust”). Indeed, the Marxian critique of fetishism has led to various critiques regarding the aestheticization of products, the commodification of objects, the ritualization of consumption, and the interplay between culture industry and church services as “neo-religious” practices.[13] And it “is hardly news, especially to anthropologists, that the repressed fetishes of the commodity are always part of the lunatic edges of modern capitalism, thus giving rise to many brands of casino capitalism, evangelical entrepreneurship and proletarian life-wagering.”[14]

In recent academic literature, the discourse on capitalism and religion mostly circulated around the nexus of morality and economy, or guilt (German: Schuld) and debt (Schulden). Already Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s stepson, pointed out that, in the Christian confession of faith, the line “dimitte nobis debita nostra”[15] refers to forgiving one’s guilt as debt (debita). Later, Friedrich Nietzsche will draw on this double-meaning in his Genealogy of Morals, to be taken up in the 21st century by the debt theoreticians Maurizio Lazzarato,[16] David Graeber,[17] and Giorgio Agamben.[18]

Whatever one thinks of these genealogies, if the general analysis of capitalism as a religion is correct, its glorification (or damnation) as rational and enlightened is to be replaced by excavating its irrational and enchanted aspects. From this point of view, with the transition to capitalism, the transcendental god in heaven was replaced by an immanent god on earth, and thereby hidden: “God’s transcendence has fallen” — in modernity, God “must be concealed.”[19] Precisely to those spell-bound by capitalism, it appears as an irreligious yet natural, necessary, almost omni-present, omnipotent, omniscient — though not very benevolent — higher force. Vis-à-vis this force, we humans find ourselves as if fallen into an eternal sin in whose “hell” a war of all against all is waged without any hope for redemption. Under capitalism as religion, not some but all are cursed, including those that rule.

Since the critique of religion entails a critique of capitalism, the critique of political economy incorporates a critique of economic theology. From this very critique, however, it follows that the “God of capital” and the “religion of capitalism” are not real superhuman forces but instead the creations of humans themselves. As a result, the end of the subsumption of humans to capital is begun by humans reappropriating their own products — from dead labor to fixed capital.

With Weber against the “Rationalization Thesis”: On vocational asceticism

“The modern, fully rationalized world is disenchanted only in appearance; upon it rests the curse of demonic objectification and deadly isolation.”[20]

Max Weber has helped in approaching capitalism as both a system rooted in religion and a rationalising system. On the one hand, he identified formal rationality with the capitalist economic sphere.[21] On the other hand, he derived this very rationality from “religious roots.”[22] Put more critically: Weber does not sufficiently differentiate between the irrationalism of the capitalist “self-running machine”[23] as an “end-in-itself”[24] on the one hand, and the bureaucratic, methodological, and calculating “rationalization” towards a means-ends-logic on the other. Rather, in his “iron cage,” both fall together as if they were one.[25] As a result, it has become fashionable — at the latest since the Romantic period — to make not capitalism but “disenchantment” or “the Enlightenment” the scapegoat of modernity’s alienations.[26]

Still, Weber makes clear that, since for the “iron puritan merchants,”[27] God is the end-in-itself for which humans become mere means,[28] their material rationality is homological to profit, surplus, or accumulation as an end-in-itself. Consequently, economic “rationalization” is only apparently “formal,” signifying quite “materially,” say, the abolition of humans from (automatized) production. Arguably, thus, with Weber’s term “spirit,” capitalism gets denaturalized and thus reculturalized, rehistoricized, and even repoliticized.[29] With this move, the allegedly rationalizing, disenchanting, enlightening features of capitalism are questioned: the “spirit” of capitalism is, indeed, a “holy spirit.”[30] As partaking in the counter-spirit of the Enlightenment (as a critique of religion towards emancipation), then, one can conclude with Siegfried Kracauer: “capitalism does not rationalize too much but too little.”[31] At the very least, it is to be stated “that the process of demythologization has not been brought to an end” yet.[32]

To do so, Weber is of great help. He put into the center the religious roots of the seemingly most rational process of capitalism, namely, (re-)investment. For him, the very logic of reinvestment of surplus for the sake of more surplus is synonymous with the infinite postponement of satisfaction, enjoyment, and life —as known from religion. Indeed, under capitalism, labor becomes the “god-given purpose of life.” Without its “vocational asceticism,” no “ascetic compulsion to save,” and thus no “capital accumulation” would even be thinkable.[33] Weber, in short, deconstructs investment as a form of saving (as asceticism), which is opposed to consumption (as enjoyment). The Protestant ethic, therefore, is a materialized value system. Its very this-worldliness, however, points towards heaven, where the final reward or “wage” of work is supposed to be waiting infinitely. In other words: the fruits of labor shall not be enjoyed here and now, since the calling calls for sacrifice, or to always invest into the future. (“Futures” markets, in this sense, may be seen as forms of speculation on “heaven”). Under capitalism, the mission is profit instead of the satisfaction of needs: its puritanism wants us not to enjoy and to rest but to work harder to be able to reinvest more — a vicious circle without an imminent end. As a result, even the rich cannot enjoy their richness and become lazy, since they too have to continue working hard to compete with their “equals.” Weber follows from this that capital’s toil throughout the classes without this-worldly remuneration — indeed without any reward on earth (social class and power positions exist merely as a division of labor through “character masks,” not as the abolition of labor for some) — can only be explained by a materialized religious ethos. Weber has famously called this ethos a Protestant ethic, which can be translated as an ascetic vocation to work without even wanting to be compensated before the end of one’s life (which is synonymous with the end of one’s labor).

Now, at the latest since the late 20th century and its excessive forms of consumerism, Weber’s analysis of the capitalist logic as an ascetic enterprise seems to be antiquated. From this point of view, no Protestant ethic is sufficient to explain the spirit of capitalism since capitalism more and more resembles a “Catholic” spirit — from lustfully wrecking the earth and delving in abundance to cynical double standards. Certainly, this argument has a point. Still, I would like to defend Weber’s diagnosis of capitalism as driving on an ascetic logic for today.

To begin with, under contemporary “neocapitalism(s),” the madness of productivism is not so much replaced by as it is supplemented with the madness of consumerism. Equally, the hedonism that supersedes asceticism in our days remains essentially ascetic. In which sense? Arguably, the working conditions of the “new spirit of capitalism”[34] — focusing on creativity and teamwork — have not decreased but increased “vocational asceticism.” This is the case because classical forms of exploitation from “above” are now extended into additional forms of self-exploitation from “below” and “within.” Of course, for this extension and intensification of exploitation, the affective incorporation not just of some mechanized units but of the whole personality of workers into the firm became necessary. A similar ascetic tendency is to be found not only in the realm of production but also in that of consumption. Under consumerism, the products to be consumed — as commodities — are designed less to satisfy needs than to manufacture addictions. In fact, this is the very point of consumerism: transforming the consumption of use-value as a means to satisfaction into the circular end-in-itself of addiction for the sake of profit. Importantly, this addiction on the side of subjects cannot be individualized as a personal problem. Rather, it is necessitated by the very logic of infinite growth, since to continue selling the overproduced, nothing is as helpful as people that feel structurally insufficient. More generally, under “anomizing” neoliberalism, the coercions of competition, wage slavery, fear of poverty, and habitual recognition have become more rather than less extreme. Neo-capitalist hedonism turns out to be even more ascetic — even in its wealthiest nations — than the culturally bourgeois capitalism that Weber still had in mind. This is the case particularly regarding the neoliberal under-satisfaction of basic needs like unconditioned joy, financial security, psychological health, inter-human trust, effortless enjoyment, inner calm, or recreation in nature. And of course, the fact that the coerced competition for survival — even among capitalists— has not ceased but both fastened and accelerated is no sign of great hedonism either. Not to speak of the fact that, under the hegemonic austerity measurements, to consume is forbidden by the compulsion to save.

Hence, Weber’s diagnosis remains correct not despite but because of the transformation that capitalism underwent since his death. Usually, capitalism gets criticized from a moral standpoint as greedy, hedonistic, and egotistic. This is what makes Weber’s association of capital, profit, and labor with ascesis, sacrifice and waiver so interesting. With its help, one can understand the “job/calling” to acquire “money and always more money”[35] as being not a eudaemonist fulfilment but the opposite: an infinite postponement of satisfaction — or a fixation on the ritualized practice of asceticism. Hence, as a result of the “Protestant” calling to manage oneself according to the duty to labor, even the Godly “reward” of success (as “gain”) springs less from self-interest than from the fulfilment of duty.

In effect, the goal or telos of such a formal “rationalization” is no longer necessarily a materially rational one — to say the very least.[36] Weber derives modern “rationalization” from a methodological (if not Methodist) ethic that is “rationalizing” in the sense of organizing, optimizing, and serializing one’s vocational asceticism — as if in a self-observing “management” of one’s sins and virtues. Weber thus knew very well that capitalist rationalization — with aduty to labor in its core — is, basically, an irrationalist enterprise: “We are interested here in the origin of that irrational element which lies in this as in every concept of ‘calling/ job.’”[37] What Weber refers to as the irrational element in capitalism is that “humans are there for their business, not the other way around.”[38]

Capitalist irrationalism thus goes back to the inversion of means and ends, or of the end (humans) becoming a means (human resources). Consequently, the former end (humanity) has become the new end’s (capital’s) mean: human capital. Formal rationalization, in this sense, proves to be synonymous with “material irrationalization.” The detailed purposive rationalization of the process of modernization and its means has forgotten about the totality of its own purpose, end, goal, telos, or direction.[39] Or, even worse: the only material rationality — the only purpose — left under capitalist modernity is capital and its accumulation. For it, meanwhile, all means are right and just.

“Secularization”? On capitalism as a material cult religion

“Consequently, it now becomes apparent that modernity itself has produced a secular, even profane, theology.”[40]

The previous section has shown that capitalism — due to its logic of reinvestment / postponement instead of consumption / satisfaction (due to surplus generation for the sake of more surplus) — is inscribed into a formalized vocational asceticism. As such, it is lacking a self-determined material rationality because it is enchanted by a material end-in-itself, which is capital. From that, one can already follow why capitalism is not just a spirit rooted in Protestantism (as Weber has it) but an essentially material or immanent religion (as Walter Benjamin stresses).[41]

Capitalism’s religious nature comes fully to the fore if religion is defined, with Friedrich Schleiermacher, as the “feeling of absolute dependence”[42] — as the feeling of not-being-master of one’s own fate; of being lost in a state of completely “being-bound” (religari)[43] to and serving an allegedly higher power. With this definition, the God of the capitalist religion can be deciphered as capital, which is an impersonal “genius malignus” that binds us and becomes our fate — making us fatalist and fatal. To serve capital, we bring all the fruits of our labor to its altar, sacrifice our lives and lifetimes on it, postpone our reward on earth infinitely, and wait for heaven — perhaps until the very death of humanity on earth. Hence, whether through a protestant ethic or not, modern “secularization” has not meant the disentanglement of religion from politics but, rather, the switch of religion from a transcendent to an immanent category — from an institutionalized church-heaven equipped with one God to a decentralized market-blessing equipped with many commodities.[44] Yet, one should not be lured into this pseudo-polytheism that hides behind the mask of syncretic power tactics. The apparent plurality of immanent gods, in fact, is eclectically spell-bound by one supreme deity, which is the “super-God” of capital. Its exchange-value homogenizes heterogeneity behind its own back.

In that sense, the question is not whether capitalism is a religion but which kind of religion it is. With Benjamin and beyond Weber, we can state that the roots of the capitalist religion are not to be found in the genealogical row Methodism – Pietism – Puritanism – Calvinism – Protestantism – (modern) Christianity. Rather, what Benjamin stresses is that capitalism as religion is “a purely cultic religion,”[45] that is, a religion not so much of the word, the book, and the preaching but of the deed, the ritual, the sacrifice.[46] Indeed, long before Benjamin, Paul Lafargue emphasized the same insight, writing in the tongue of the capital-labor nexus: “I do not pray with words. My prayer is the work. Any speaking of a prayer would disturb my real prayer, the work.”[47] This is to say that capitalism as a cult religion — with its “godless mythological cult”[48] — is less an orthodoxy than an orthopraxis. This orthopraxis, as it is practicing the ritual of non-symbolic sacrifice, has neo-pagan features.[49] Capital’s cult tries to appease the gods (creditors) and to reconcile destiny (imminent crisis) with the constant sacrifice of time (labor), lives (workers), and living conditions (environment). As Michael Löwy phrases it: “Human sacrifices are now no longer performed on a visible altar of idols but in the name of a

‘scientific,’ this-worldly, non-religious factual constraint.”[50] “Cannibalism,” from this point of view, is a very modern, capitalist, neoliberal approach to one’s fellow human beings.[51]

Moreover, as an orthopraxis, capitalism does not need to be believed but only practiced. Whether people have faith in it or not, as long as they partake in it (in working, consuming, competing etc.), they reproduce it.[52] Yet, even if capitalism is a “purely cultic religion,” it is not true that it has “no special dogmatics” and “no theology,”[53] as Benjamin believes. To begin with, advertisement may be understood as its gospel; shopping malls as its houses of worship; and the market as its parish. Indeed, the belief in the purity of the free market and its uninterested benevolence comes close to a cosmological mysticism of equilibrium (and its justice). Not only do neoclassical economics textbooks read like bibles. Even more, the Schumpeterian — very orthopractical — “propaganda of the deed” is blessed with its belief in the demiurgic businessman and the cathartic force of invention, as much as in the “new (hu-)man” it creates.

For sure, “real existing capitalism” is something very different from what its ideologues claim. The “free market” is not a reality but a dogma; the “spontaneous order” of supply and demand is not a reality but an orthodoxy; and “evolutionary self-regulation” qua an all-knowing prize system is not realistic but theological.[54] In fact, the “invisible hand” as a mediator of personal egoism with the greater good of all — by raising the general standard of living — is a figure of theodicy.[55] In short: “The bourgeoisie did not make the kingdom of heaven disappear through secularization but transformed it into a social myth of market harmony. [...] Market harmony became the great inner-worldly religion of salvation.”[56]

Nevertheless, capitalism remains a material cult religion, since it is less a question of belief than one of practice, ritual, and (this-worldly) coercion.[57] More precisely, it is a cult religion “sans rêve et sans merci,” that is, a religion in “the permanent duration of the cult”[58] — without weekend, if not: without end.

The dialectics of capitalist modernization, or, the “Eternal Return of the New”

“For the ideal of the eternal return, the fact is significant that the bourgeoisie no longer dared to face the imminent development of the order of production which it had set in motion.”[59]

The materiality of capital’s cult becomes abstract the moment it becomes endless. Indeed, in the capitalist reinvestment of surplus, no end is programmed. The circularity of capital circulation Marx’s M-C-M’ – is as infinite as every circle. We humans are encircled by capital’s endless circularity which leaves increasingly less space for anything outside of it. This is the way, to phrase it experimentally, in which “dead labor goes into paradise”: capital’s accumulation is supposedly external to the sources and resources of our world. Capital lives by the death of our labor; and the longer it lives, the more it kills our living conditions. Its circularity is a vicious circle in which we — the living — are trapped.

Throughout his oeuvre, Benjamin has brought and thought together capital’s circular “progress as procession” with Nietzsche’s “eternal return.”[60] For Benjamin, the “eternal return” is an idea not only of Nietzsche but a dream of the late 19th century — a nightmare of a world in which the logic of capital would soon reveal itself.[61] Indeed, the very process of capital circulation — including the development of its productive forces — is a cyclical and not just a linear process. This is what Schumpeter grasped with his term “creative destruction”: bust and boom, ups and downs, prosperity, and crisis together form the dialectics of capitalist development, not just one side of them.[62] Herein resides a fresh understanding of the dialectics of “enlightenment”: the circle being the repeated regression of modernity into myth, but into capitalist myth. The ritual of this myth, accordingly, is a commercial ritual. It is the cultic ritual of fashion, which Benjamin describes as the “eternal return of the new.” [63] He explains: “Fashion prescribes the ritual according to which the commodity fetish wants to be worshipped.”[64] Fashion’s eternal return of the new is part and parcel of the capitalist logic behind the supposed “dialectics of enlightenment” — the notorious return of myth in modernity.

In that sense, capitalist development may be described as a “spiral,” combining linear and cyclical times.[65] The “idea of the eternal return” is not a premodern but a capitalist idea that “turns the historical event itself into a mass article.”[66] Everything becomes circular due to capital circulation, even the supposed linearity of modern history. Capital’s immanentist version of transcendence — infinity — results from its circularity. From that also follows why capitalism is without redemption. The rule of capital is timeless inasmuch as it consumes all three time-dimensions: the past as ossified dead labor; the present as exploited and alienated living labor; and the future as debt (sold) and as economic externalization.[67] Hence, capitalism’s immanence is not ‘this-worldly’ at all — since it consumes this world: it knows no limits.

The way humanity is “bound” (religari) to the religion of capital is by being-bound to boundlessness and deregulation: to breaking, destroying, collapsing, and overwhelming what is. Capital’s drive towards an absolute state of negative freedom, thus, is well analyzed as an unhampered “death drive” (Byung-Chul Han): the real abstraction of capital will only be free of everything once nothing concrete remains. Hence, capitalism can be approached as a “nihilist” yet “mystical” religion ranging between sheer ecstasy and nothingness. Its God, capital, is not transcendent in an Apollonian but transgressive in a Dionysian way. Its metaphysical promise is to shrink space, to shorten time, to bring the future into the present; but its reality is destruction. The more capital accelerates the world, the more obvious it becomes that the world may not survive its own acceleration.

Capitalism thus resembles an apocalyptic religion — yet without the last judgement, ultimate justice, and finalized salvation known from chiliastic outlooks. Under capital’s abstract “eternity,” Armageddon can be nothing but universal catastrophe: not final order but final chaos. This is what comes up and is postponed from crisis to crisis. Capitalism is endlessly “indebting” (verschuldend), so that its end is not an end of guilt and debt (Schuld/en) but their climax; “no longer reform” or atonement but the “total indebtedness of God” (völlige Verschuldung Gottes) — completed guilt.[68] Hence, the end of capitalism, if it is left to itself, can only lie in the “extension of despair to a religious state of the world.”[69] Capital’s phantasmagoria of infinite growth, in fact, is a raging race to the bottom as abstract, as murderous vis-à-vis the material finiteness of planet earth.[70] At this point, we may conclude that capitalism is not only a religion but even the most irrational religion that ever existed, since it not only wants people to believe in something (good) that one cannot see, but in something whose visible effects are the worst imaginable.

Amor fati – embracing fatality – heroic fatalism: “Modernization as tragedy” and the “tragic worldview”

Industrialization as “fate,” domination as “fate” — Max Weber’s concept of “fate” shows in exemplary fashion the material content of his formal analysis. “Fate” is the law of an economy and society which are largely independent of individuals […] Weber’s concept of fate is constructed “after the fact” of such coercion: he generalizes the blindness of a society which reproduces itself behind the back of the individuals, of a society in which the law of domination appears as objective technological law.[71]

Behind the dramatic alarmism of the apocalypse resides a fundamentally tragic worldview as it was investigated by Lucien Goldmann. From Blaise Pascal via Nietzsche to Weber, Goldmann finds a “tragic worldview” (vision tragique),[72] namely, the vision of a senseless, mute, authorless world; of an absent, mute, dead god; and of lonely, mute, isolated individuals. The only difference between the just-mentioned intellectuals is that Nietzsche does not derive an “inner-worldly rejection of the world” from this vision but precisely its affirmation: “amor fati” — even if the beloved fate turns out to be fatal.[73] And Weber follows Nietzsche in this by embracing from within the “doom” of the “iron cage,” since it is supposed to be an “inescapable power over humans.” In fact, it is hard to find stronger words than Weber himself does for the structural violence, irrationalism, and devastating dominion that capital exerts over humanity. Literally, he speaks of capital as an “overwhelming coercion”[74] and as the “absolutely inescapable spell of our whole existence.”[75] For Weber it is clear that the “most fateful power of our modern life” — is “capitalism.”[76]

The closer one came to the culturally “post-bourgeois” epoch since around 1900, the more did bourgeois sociologists openly declare capitalism to be coercive (Sombart), a fateful iron cage (Weber), and a cultural tragedy (Simmel).[77] In this period, bourgeois thought became thoroughly negative: without being able to get rid of its capital-bias, it got rid of its own political hope which was so alive until, at least, the French Revolution. Interestingly, though, Goldmann’s “tragic worldview” is to be found not only in liberal, conservative, or reactionary thinkers of the early 20th century but also, say, in the progressive Left of the 1970s. A case in point is Marshall Berman’s theory of modernity as modernization where Berman speaks of the “tragedy of modernization”[78] as a “tragedy of development.”[79] Namely, in modernization’s tragic “maelstrom”[80] and “whirlwind,”[81] for Berman, “all individuals, groups and communities are under constant relentless pressure to reconstruct themselves; if they stop to rest, to be what they are, they will be swept away.”[82] Even more, Berman — as Nietzsche, Weber, and Schumpeter before him — romanticizes the resulting despaired “heroism” of artists, politicians, and entrepreneurs as “fortunate.”[83] That modern “society can thrive on crisis and catastrophe”[84] is laden, for him, with the “desperate dynamism”[85] and “perpetual flux”[86] of “insatiable desires and drives, permanent revolution, infinite development, perpetual creation and renewal in every sphere.”[87] Together, these “creative destructions” of “development” bring about the Faustian, ambivalent, modern hero(-ine) who is rough enough to face “capitalism as destiny.”[88] Besides such desperate individualized heroism, however, there is only the bleak vision of a structural “tragedy of modernization” which smashes everything that dares to stand in its way. 

Concluding by remembering a way out: The project of modernity beyond capitalism as religion

“All the way from our production of goods to our education and other forms of socialization, we must actively promote the value of leading a free life and the challenging responsibility of being spiritually free, rather than subordinated to capital or religion.”[89]

As has been demonstrated in this article, capitalism equals “an economic fundamentalism which, at the same time, demands fatalism from humans.” This is because, regarding the whole of societal reproduction, “not humans are the subject but the market.”[90] Accordingly, coming from the critique of religion, Marx saw in capital — precisely as a ‘new god’ — not a person but a process of depersonalization (this much he took from Max Stirner). The early Frankfurt School was still aware of this background. For Max Horkheimer, under capitalist modernity, not freedom but “the blind economic mechanism” has replaced “arbitrariness” — a mechanism which he also describes as “an anonymous God that enslaves humans.”[91] Mark Fisher, writing almost a century later yet taking up the legacy of a critique of religion as a critique of capitalism, has gone even further. For him, capitalism functions as a kind of “negative atheology.” In it, “the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there — it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility.”[92] Consequently, this “new god” (or the new “absence”), is “the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.”[93] In that sense, capitalism is a religion not so much because its agents believe in a supreme actor that orders the world from above but, on the opposite, because “[c]apitalism’s alienation has bred an ‘authorless world’ to which we can only respond to religiously.”[94] Hence, the tragic worldview spell-bound by the economic “blind mechanism” of capital comes down to a specifically immanent cosmology; and the ritualized cult of capital is religious in a specifically modern or material way. This, however, does not mean that any immanent, modern, or materialist approach to the world would necessarily coincide with capitalism and its religiosity.

Arguably, there are two modes of the tragic worldview within the academic Left. One, similar to that of Berman, but known best from versions of poststructuralism (like from Deleuze), is about affirming, embracing, and immersing (in) the capitalist dynamic, whatever this dynamic may bring. The other — prototypically represented by Frankfurt School figures like Adorno — is attempting to negate, criticize, and distance itself from the damaging reality of modernization. Yet, however different these two traditions may be in other respects, the tragic worldview finds fertile ground to blossom in both. Regarding the Frankfurt School, it blossoms in every conflation of the emancipatory project of modernity with the process of capitalist modernization. It blossoms from the thesis of a “dialectics of enlightenment” (Horkheimer and Adorno) to the supposed “aporias” (Habermas) and “paradoxes” (Axel Honneth) of “modernity,” as if it were a single bloc. Indeed, the three terms of the three generations — dialectic, aporia, paradox — suggest an inescapable, irresolvable, quasi-tragic internal identity of modernity and capitalism.

The main counter-interpretation to this defeatist suggestion is to be found by returning to the very cradle of critical theory — this is, to a version of Marxism known from Lukács or Karl Korsch. It is to be found in a project of modernity whose critique of religion incorporates a critique of capitalism. From this perspective, those theoreticians of modernity that cannot detach modernity from capitalism, like Weber — and, following him, much of the later Frankfurt School — generalize “the blindness of a society which reproduces itself behind the back of the individuals, of a society in which the law of domination appears as objective technological law.”[95] For sure, however, not all technology must remain capitalist; not all society must stay blind; and not all modernity must be stuck in “creatively destructive” dialectics, aporias, or paradoxes.

Instead, an emancipatory project of modernity is thinkable that demands a critique of religion whose main object is capitalism as religion. For this critique, Adorno reminds us, “as impenetrable the spell is, it remains only a spell.”[96] The way capital binds us (religari) is as much a projection as the way “God” has bound humans before. That the societal tendency itself is supposedly “transcendent” to humans is just because it is outside of their conscious political control.[97] “Development” only turns “tragic” because its “transcendence” is synonymous with an externalization of the economy from the realm of democratic deliberation. As a result, people are abstracted from the very (re-)production process of their social context, thus becoming mere spectators vis-à-vis their own societal whole.[98] In Lukács’s analysis of reification, the “abstract” and “contemplative” relation to the world is similar to a fatalism regarding the fatal development of society as a whole.[99] Hence, capitalism as a “second nature” or “false necessity,” as destiny and fate, leads to forms of subjectification that accept crises as inevitable catastrophes, and creative destruction as an ontological demise without alternatives. The tragic worldview as the subjectivity of capitalism as religion is a subjectivity incompatible with any emphatic political self-consciousness.[100]

From this perspective, we indeed have never been modern, but in a different sense than Latour’s: we have never been humanist or sufficiently autonomous as a species; we have never been enlightened or sufficiently rational as a society; we have never been politically self-determined or sufficiently democratic as citizens. Yet, we have only never been modern because, so far, we have remained spell-bound by capitalism as religion. Therefore, from the critique of capitalism as a critique of religion, the call for a postcapitalist project of modernity can be concluded. As the early Horkheimer still knew beyond all constructions of tragic dialectics: “Of course, fate rules over human events only to the extent that society is not able to self-confidently regulate its affairs in its own interest.”[101]|P


[1] Martin Hägglund, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 2020), 329.

[2] This project received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (GA n. 725883 EarlyModernCosmology). The paper benefited from discussions in the study group “Critical Theory and (Capitalism as) Religion” that I organized with colleagues at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies; I am particularly indebted to Moana Jean Packo and Ramón Soneira Martinez.

[3] Thomas Macho in Peter Sloterdijk, Thomas Macho, Manfred Osten, Gespräche über Gott, Geist und Geld (Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 2016), 41: “Es gibt also theologische Wurzeln unserer Ökonomie, die immer noch wirksam sind, aber das Problem der ökonomischen Theologie — im Unterschied zur politischen Theologie — ist für uns vielleicht noch gar nicht erkannt, geschweigedenn gelöst.”

[4] Yuval Noah Harari, Eine kurze Geschichte der Menschheit (Munich: Pantheon, 2015), 384–85: “Der wichtigste Glaubenssatz des Kapitalismus besagt, dass Wirtschaftswachstum das höchste Gut ist.”

[5] Harald Welzer, Selbst Denken. Eine Anleitung zum Widerstand (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2013), 58: “dass eine Kategorie wie ‘Wachstum’ inzwischen zivilreligiöse Qualität hat.”

[6] Byung-Chul Han, “Kapitalismus und Todestrieb,” in Kapitalismus und Todestrieb: Essays und Gespräche (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2020), 23: “Mit seiner Negation des Todes beerbt der Kapitalismus die Metaphysik. Er stellt eine materialistische Metaphysik dar, die nach unendlichem Kapital strebt.”

[7] Adam Gabbatt, “Is Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality a fate worse than death?,” The Guardian, February 23, 2019, available online at <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/feb/22/silicon-valley-immortality-blood-infusion-gene-therapy>.

[8] Cf. Felix Allen, “Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is ‘the new church,’” New York Post, June 29, 2017, available online at <https://nypost.com/2017/06/29/mark-zuckerberg-says-facebook-is-the-new-church/>.

[9] Jaron Lanier, quoted in Jonathan Taplin, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy (London: Pan Books, 2018), 86.

[10] Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century (1985), in The Cybercultures Reader, eds. Barbara M. Kennedy and David Bell (London: Routledge, 2007), 294.

[11] Bruno Latour, “Agency at the time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History 45 (2014): 3.

[12] E.g., Markus Metz and Georg Seeßlen, Kapitalistischer (Sur)realismus: Neoliberalismus als Ästhetik (Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2018), 28: “Weil der Neoliberalismus als Medienspektakel und als Geschmacks-Wolke Anti-Intellektualismus, Anti-Humanismus und Anti-Demokratisierung erlaubte, weil er zu hassen erlaubte, eine Kultur der Verachtung erzeugte, weil er Kriege inszenierte und benutzte, die Welt zugleich in einen Marktplatz, einen Spielplatz und ein Schlachtfeld verwandelte, weil er vor alledem zu entfliehen immer neue Möglichkeiten auf den Markt warf, weil er nichts mehr zu denken und zu träumen ließ als sich selbst, wurde er zur verbindlichen Religion, zur alles umfassenden ‘Erzählung’, zur ideologischen Verklärung des Status quo.”

[13] For the latter point, I am thankful to Alberto Moreira’s presentation at the conference “‘Kapitalismus als Religion’ Internationale Fachtagung” in Frankfurt am Main, October 29–31, 2021, organized by the Institut für Theologie und Politik of Münster, Germany. The concomitant publication can be recommended; see Kapitalismus: Kult einer tödlichen Verschuldung. Walter Benjamins prophetisches Erbe, eds. Kuno Füssel and Michael Ramminger (Münster: Edition ITP-Kompass, 2021).

[14] Arjun Appadurai, “Welcome to the Faith-Based Economy,” The Immanent Frame: Secularism, religion, and the public sphere, October 14, 2008, available online at <https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/10/14/welcome-to-the-faith-based-economy/>.

[15] Cf. Paul Lafargue, Die Religion des Kapitals (1887), in Das Recht auf Faulheit: Die Religion des Kapitals (Cologne: Anaconda, 2015), 115, footnote.

[16] Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012).

[17] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (London: Melville House, 2014).

[18] Giorgio Agamben, Creation and Anarchy: The Work of Art and the Religion of Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), 69: “Creditum is the past participle of the Latin verb credere: it is that in which we believe, in which we put our faith.”

[19] Walter Benjamin, “Kapitalismus als Religion” (1921), in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. VI (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), 101; “Capitalism as Religion,” in Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1913–1926, eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Rodney Livingstone, et al. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 2004), 288–91.

[20] Jürgen Habermas, Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne. Zwölf Vorlesungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2019), 134: “Die moderne, die vollends rationalisierte Welt ist nur zum Scheine entzaubert; auf ihr ruht der Fluch der dämonischen Versachlichung und der tödlichen Isolierung.”

[21] Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1972), 59.

[22] Max Weber, Die protestantische Ethik und der ‚Geist‘ des Kapitalismus (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2017), 227 and 181: “Diese Rationalisierung der Lebensführung innerhalb der Welt im Hinblick auf das Jenseits ist die Berufsidee des asketischen Protestantismus.” Weber looked at the homelands of capitalism, like the Netherlands, Britain, or the US, as at a protestant ethic, so that one may ask: what with Northern Italy and Spain, what was the role of Catholicism in the birth of capitalism? On the other hand, with the Protestant Reformation, what happens for sure is that the new logic now sinks into individuals, gets internalized, becomes immanent and “empirical.”

[23] Ibid., 30: “selbstlaufende Maschine.”

[24] Ibid., 28, 192: “Selbstzweck.”

[25] Ibid., 230.

[26] Cf. Christoph Henning, Theorien der Entfremdung zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 2015), 154.

[27] Weber, Die protestantische Ethik, 108.

[28] Ibid., 93.

[29] By introducing the concept of the spirit of capitalism, orthodox Marxism’s too rigid (or unidirectional) base-superstructure model is problematized. As a result, it is not only that the spirit cannot be divided from the base but also that the base is not free of spirit – even the productive forces incorporate and embody a certain spirit, instead of being merely objective, neutral, rational, scientific etc. Here, the bourgeois sociologists in their reaction to Marxism — from Weber to Simmel — were closer to Marx than Marxism itself. Indeed, for Marx, it is not the case that the base is without ideology but rather that it is a material ideology (alienation, reification, fetishization — all hiding the political side of exploitation), which then gets “mirrored” in the ideal ideologies of the superstructure.

[30] Sombart Werner, Der Bourgeois. Zur Geistesgeschichte des modernen Wirtschaftsmenschen (Reinbek: rororo, 1988), 177.

[31] Siegfried Kracauer, “Das Ornament der Mass,” in Das Ornament der Masse: Essays (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977), 57; “The Mass Ornament,” in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, ed. and trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 81. Habermas will repeat this later on in Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne: Zwölf Vorlesungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1988), 361: “nicht ein Zuviel, sondern ein Zuwenig an Vernunft.”

[32] Kracauer, “Das Ornament der Masse,” 58; “The Mass Ornament,” 82. Cf. also Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[33] Weber, Die protestantische Ethik, 221, 197, 226.

[34] See Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1999).

[35] Weber, Die protestantische Ethik, 49, 28.

[36] Ibid., 53: “Man kann eben das Leben unter höchst verschiedenen letzten Gesichtspunkten und nach sehr verschiedenen Richtungen hin ‚rationalisieren.‘”

[37] Ibid., 54, emphasis added: “Uns interessiert hier gerade die Herkunft jenes irrationalen Elements, welches in diesem wie in jedem ‘Berufs’-Begriff liegt.”

[38] Ibid., 47: “das Irrationale dieser Lebensführung, bei welcher der Mensch für sein Geschäft da ist, nicht umgekehrt.”

[39] Cf. Georg Lukács, “Die Verdinglichung und das Bewußtsein des Proletariats,” in Frühschriften II. Geschichte und Klassenbewußtsein (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2013), 367; “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1971), 182: “For the fact that there exists the illusion of a rationalism perfected in every detail — dictated by class interests and hence subjectively based — makes it even more evident that this rationalism is unable to grasp the meaning of the overall process as it really is.”

[40] Franz Hinkelammert, “Der Kapitalismus als Religion,” in Ulrich Duchrow, Franz Hinkelammert, et al, Kapitalismus als Religion (Berlin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2013), 23: “Folglich wird nun erkennbar, dass die Moderne selbst eine säkulare, ja sogar profane Theologie hervorgebracht hat.”

[41] Benjamin, “Kapitalismus als Religion,” 102; “Capitalism as Religion,” 288, 290: “An essentially religious phenomenon,” “religious structure of capitalism,” “The Christianity of the Reformation period did not favor the growth of capitalism; instead it transformed itself into capitalism.”

[42] Cf. Katharina Gutekunst, Die Freiheit des Subjekts bei Schleiermacher: Eine Analyse im Horizont der Debatte um die Willensfreiheit der analytischen Philosophie (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), 4, 8, 187.

[43] Cf. Gunther Wenz, Religion. Aspekte ihres Begriffs und ihrer Theorie in der Neuzeit. Studium Systematische Theologie. Band 1 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005), 92 ff.

[44] Cf. Max Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf (Ditzingen: Reclam, 2020), 34: “Die alten vielen Götter, entzaubert und daher in Gestalt unpersönlicher Mächte, entsteigen ihren Gräbern, streben nach Gewalt über unser Leben und beginnen untereinander wieder ihren ewigen Kampf.”

[45] Benjamin, “Kapitalismus als Religion,” 100; “Capitalism as Religion,” 288.

[46] Cf. Il culto del capitale. Walter Benjamin, capitalismo e religione, eds. Dario Gentili, Mauro Ponzi, Stimilli Elettra (Macerata: Quodlibet, 2014).

[47] Lafargue, Die Religion des Kapitals, 79.

[48] Kracauer, “Das Ornament der Masse,” 62; “The Mass Ornament,” 85.

[49] Cf. Benjamin, “Kapitalismus als Religion,” 103; “Capitalism as Religion,” 290 (here heidnischer (“pagan”) is translated as “heathen”).

[50] Michael Löwy, “Der Götze Markt. Die Kapitalismuskritik der Befreiungstheologie aus marxistischer Sicht,” in Die Religion des Kapitalismus. Die gesellschaftlichen Auswirkungen des totalen Marktes, eds. Jacob Willibald, Jakob Moneta, and Franz Segbers (Luzern: Edition Exodus, 1996), 117: “Die Menschenopfer werden jetzt nicht mehr auf einem sichtbaren Götzen-Altar vollzogen, sondern im Namen eines ‚wissenschaftlichen‘, weltlichen, nicht-religiösen Sachzwangs.”

[51] For this use of the term, see Jean Ziegler, Ändere die Welt! Warum wir die kannibalische Weltordnung stürzen müssen (Munich: Bertelsmann, 2005).

[52] Cf. Metz and Seeßlen, Kapitalistischer (Sur)realismus, 53: “So wie man der Religion dann nicht mehr ‘glauben’ muss, wenn man sie nur kräftig genug ‘praktiziert’, ist auch der Neoliberalismus von einem Ritus der Überzeugung zu einer rituellen Praxis geworden.”

[53] Benjamin, “Kapitalismus als Religion,” 100; “Capitalism as Religion,” 288.

[54] In Smith, this theology was not only inspired by stoicism (cf. Adam Smith, Theorie der ethischen Gefühle (Hamburg: Meiner, 1994), 47 f.) but derived from deism — namely from a deity “guaranteeing harmony and stability” (see Christoph Fleischmann, “Kapitalismus als Religion” (2007), in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, 1/2007, 77-85, available online at <https://www.christoph- fleischmann.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/kapitalismus-religion.pdf>). Much later, Hayek drew the same consequences as Smith, but without the premise necessary for their logic: a benevolent deity and the mathematical-moral perfection of creation.

[55] This argument was developed in Joseph Vogl, “Das seltsame Überleben der Theodizee in der Ökonomie” (2016), a presentation given at the HUBerlin for the Mosse Lectures, available online at <https://www.exploring-economics.org/de/entdecken/das-seltsame-uberleben-der-theodizee-in-der-okonom/>.

[56] Franz Hinkelammert, Die Dialektik und der Humanismus der Praxis. Mit Marx gegen den neoliberalen kollektiven Selbstmord (Hamburg: VSA, 2020), 23.

[57] Cf. ibid., 196 f.: “Die irdischen Götter hingegen können auch unabhängig vom Glauben existieren.”

[58] Benjamin, “Kapitalismus als Religion,” 100; “Capitalism as Religion,” 288.

[59] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2017),  173: “Für den Gedanken der ewigen Wiederkunft hat die Tatsache ihre Bedeutung, daß die Bourgeoisie der bevorstehenden Entwicklung der von ihr ins Werk gesetzten Produktionsordnug nicht mehr ins Auge zu blicken wagte.”

[60] Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstraße (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1955) 63; One-Way Street, in Selected Writings: Volume 1, 464: “The eternal recurrence of all things has long become child’s wisdom, and life a primeval frenzy of domination.”

[61] Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 169:“Mit allem Nachdruck ist darzustellen, wie die Idee der ewigen Wiederkunft ungefähr gleichzeitig in die Welt Baudelaires, Blanquis und Nietzsches hineinrückt.” Cf. ibid., 176: “Die Lehre von der ewigen Wiederkehr als ein Traum von den bevorstehenden ungeheuren Erfindungen auf dem Gebiete der Reproduktionstechnik.”

[62] Cf. Theresa Walter and Lukas Meisner, “Vorwort: Kapital – Avantgarde – Großstadt. Die Umwertung der historischen Avantgarden: vom Schock der Metropole zur Norm schöpferischer Zerstörung,” in Avantgarden vom Kopf auf die Füße gestellt. Kritik an Kunst vs. Künstlerkritik, eds. Theresa Walter and Lukas Meisner (Berlin: Humboldt Universität Press, 2020), 6–24.

[63] Walter Benjamin, Band I. Abhandlungen. 2. Teilband (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), 677.

[64] Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk. Erster Band (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2015), 51: “Die Mode schreibt das Ritual vor, nach dem der Fetisch Ware verehrt sein will.”

[65] This take is developed in more detail in the not yet published article Eef Veldkamp and Lukas Meisner, “Beyond Capitalist Acceleration: For a re-teleologised Left” (2021).

[66] Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 159:“Der Gedanke der ewigen Wiederkunft macht das historische Geschehen selbst zum Massenartikel.”

[67] Cf. Lukács, “Die Verdinglichung und das Bewußtsein des Proletariats,” 367; “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” 181: “But this only means that there is an antagonistic process that is not guided by a consciousness but is instead driven forward by its own immanent, blind dynamic and that this process stands revealed in all its immediate manifestations as the rule of the past over the present, the rule of capital over labor.”

[68] Cf. Walter Benjamin, “Schicksal und Charakter” (1919), in Gesammelte Schriften II.1. Aufsätze. Essays. Vorträge. 3 Teilbände (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977), 173; “Fate and Character,” in Selected Writings: Volume 1, 203: “Thus, to mention a typical case, fate-imposed misfortune is seen as the response of God or the gods to a religious offense.” Guilt and the tragic doom of destiny, thus, follow from each other.

[69] Benjamin, “Kapitalismus als Religion,” 100–01; “Capitalism as Religion,” 288–89.

[70] For the concept “raging standstill,” see Paul Virilio, Polar Inertia (London: Sage, 1999); Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014); and Hartmut Rosa, Klaus Dörre, and Stephan Lessenich, “Appropriation, Activation and Acceleration: The Escalatory Logics of Capitalist Modernity and the Crisis of Dynamic Stabilization,” Theory, Culture & Society 34, no. 1 (2017): 53–73.

[71] Herbert Marcuse, “Industrialization and Capitalism in the Work of Max Weber” (1965),in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (London: Mayfly, 2009), 161.

[72] Lucien Goldmann, Der verborgene Gott. Studie über die tragische Weltanschauung in den ‚Pensées‘ Pascals und im Theater Racines (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985), 9, 42. For Goldmann, the prime “tragic” figures of the “tragédie du refus” (67) are Pascal, Kant, and Racine.

[73] Ibid., 86, footnote 21.

[74] Weber, Die protestantische Ethik, 230: “überwältigendem Zwange.”

[75] Ibid., 236: “die absolut unentrinnbare Gebanntheit unserer ganzen Existenz.”

[76] Ibid., 237.

[77]Cf. Sombart, Der Bourgeois, 339: “Kein Puritanismus hat den Unternehmer in den Strudel der besinnungslosen Geschäftigkeit hinabgezogen: der Kapitalismus hat es getan.” He continues on capitalism: “Nun rast der Riese fessellos durch die Lande, alles niederrennend, was sich ihm in den Weg stellt” (345). Whereas, in Goldmann’s analysis, Pascal stands for the end of the aristocratic rule, Nietzsche may be said to stand for the end of the classical bourgeois rule (a diagnosis, by the way, that is in accordance with Lukács’s interpretation of Nietzsche). Put differently: inasmuch as for Goldmann, Pascal, and Racine represent the tragic mindset of the noblesse de robe in decline since the rise of absolutist monarchy, Nietzsche, Simmel, and Weber (as well as, for that matter, Camus) represent the tragic mindset of the bourgeoisie in decline since the rise of “post-bourgeois” capitalism. For more on Goldmann’s Dieu caché (hidden God) see Leszek Kołakowski, Die Hauptströmungen des Marxismus. Entstehung. Entwicklung. Zerfall. Dritter Band (Munich, Piper: 1989), 362 f.

[78] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London: Verso, 1999), 70.  

[79] Ibid., 40.

[80] Ibid., 114.

[81] Ibid., 17.

[82] Ibid., 78.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Ibid., 103.

[85] Ibid., 95.

[86] Ibid., 104.

[87] Ibid., 102.

[88] Cf. Kapitalismus als Schicksal? Zur Politik der Entgrenzung, eds. Karl Heinz Bohrer and Kurt Scheel, special issue of Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken 51, no. 9/10 (Sept./Okt. 1997).

[89] Hägglund, This Life, 266. To be clear: from a liberation-theological approach, one may argue that the critique of religion is itself religious in the sense that it partakes in transcending what is and believes in the better — like in “heaven on earth.” As humans, from this perspective, we are religious “by culture” already due to our need for the meaningful, the invisible, the inexpressible from love to the sublime. This kind of transcending (not transcendent) “religiosity,” indeed, transcends the immanent religion of capital with its visions of justice, utopia, dialogue, satisfaction, and hope beyond that which is. Of course, however, Hägglund — whether rightly or wrongly — would not allow the term “religion” to be filled with such this-worldly, earthly, living contents.

[90] Franz Segbers, “Wider den Götzen Markt — Athen und Jerusalem im Erbe,” in Die Religion des Kapitalismus. Die gesellschaftlichen Auswirkungen des totalen Marktes, 77: “Nicht die Menschen sind die Subjekte, sondern der Markt […] ein ökonomischer Fundamentalismus, der zugleich auch vom Menschen einen Fatalismus abverlangt.”

[91] Max Horkheimer to Friedrich Pollock, quoted in Rolf Wiggershaus, Die Frankfurter Schule (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2010), 45. For Marxian analysis, the reason for that is clear; see Nikolai Bukharin, Science at the Crossroads (London: Kniga Ltd., 1931), 22, 30: “the idea of the impersonal force of fate, of the elemental process, of the impersonal God in capitalist commodity-society” comes from the fact that “society itself is subjectless, blind, unorganised.”

[92] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009), 65.

[93] Ibid., 70.

[94] Jonas Staal, Monument to Capital: Notes on Secular Religiosity (2017), 152.

[95] Marcuse, “Industrialization and Capitalism,” 161.

[96] Theodor W. Adorno, “Einleitungsvortrag zum 16. Deutschen Soziologentag,” in Spätkapitalismus oder Industriegesellschaft? Verhandlungen des 16. Deutschen Soziologentages vom 8. bis 11. April 1968 in Frankfurt am Main (Stuttgart: Enke, 1969), 25.

[97] Lukács, “Die Verdinglichung und das Bewußtsein des Proletariats,” 379; “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” 192: “It could even be maintained that the equally revolutionary Calvinist union of an ethics in which man has to prove himself (interiorized asceticism) with a thorough-going transcendentalism with regard to the objective forces that move the world and control the fate of man (deus absconditus and predestination), contain the bourgeois reified consciousness with its things-in-themselves in a mythologized but yet quite pure state.”

[98] Cf. Max Horkheimer, Traditionelle und kritische Theorie. Fünf Aufsätze (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1992), 248: “In ihrer Reflexion sehen sich die Menschen als bloße Zuschauer, passive Teilnehmer eines gewaltigen Geschehens, das man vielleicht vorhersehen, jedenfalls aber nicht beherrschen kann.”

[99] By contrast, in his early — pre-Marxist — years, Lukács himself was still convinced of the “powerlessness of the subject vis-à-vis societal facticity.” See Konstantinos Kavoulakos, “Kritik der modernen Kultur und tragische Weltanschauung. Zu Georg Lukács’ Die Seele und die Formen,” in Zeitschrift für Kulturphilosophie. Sonderdruck. Band 8, Jg. 2014, Heft 1, eds. Ralf Konersmann and Dirk Westerkamp (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 2014), 135.

[100] See Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), 224: “Every doctrine of inevitability carries a weaponized virus of moral nihilism programmed to target human agency and delete resistance and creativity from the text of human possibility.”

[101] Max Horkheimer, in his Habilitation (1930), quoted in Gerhard Schweppenhäuser, Kritische Theorie (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2010), 30.