Economics as a Secular Religion

Importantly, the Enlightenment’s search for rational principles as a secular alternative to traditional religious authority and beliefs to justify our moral decisions is itself a religious search, serving the same dogmatic and legitimating functions of what Bergson calls static religion.[30] Economics claims to provide that secular justification for many contemporary policy choices. As a result, economics threatens to become the dominant rationalist and fundamentalist religion of contemporary capitalist society and of the emerging global civilisation. This threat is aided by its attempt to appropriate the prestige associated with the natural sciences. Importantly, it is easy to slip between the uses of individualism as an analytical tool to a promotion of individualism as a normative ideal. This religion is of particular appeal to business and political elites because it tends to legitimise greed, love of money and power. It is leading to the commercialisation of all human activity, while aiding the atomisation and privatisation of competing values and groups. It has elevated money beyond a convenience to the means of salvation and the source of meaning, values and security, turning it, and the mechanism for acquiring it, into idols.[31]

Economists—the prophets and priests of this new religion—preach about and have a major impact on public policy and our institutional arrangements. Economics therefore provides an alternative faith tradition, complete with values, ideas of welfare and of progress—usually defined in terms of quantitative economic indicators, which dominate public discourse and which seek to reshape our institutions and organisations.[32] With their influence on government, economists are the new theocracy, the contemporary manifestation of Plato’s guardians. In particular, the economic theologian’s rhetoric resembles contemporary process theology. In this school, although God will possess the classic attributes of omnipotence (all power), omniscience (all knowledge) and omnipresence (present everywhere), He does not yet possess them in full. Such a theology offers considerable comfort to the economic theologian, explaining the dislocation, pain and disorientation that are the results of transitions from economic heterodoxy to free markets. THE MARKET is becoming more like Yahweh of the Old Testament: not just one superior deity contending with others, but the Supreme Deity, the only true God, whose reign must now be accepted universally and who allows no rivals. There is no conceivable limit to THE MARKET’s inexorable ability to convert creation into commodities. In the church of THE MARKET, everything—no matter how sacred—eventually becomes a commodity. This radical de-sacralising dramatically alters the human relationship to land, water, air and space. Indeed, human beings themselves start to become commodities as well. This comprehensive wisdom of THE MARKET is something that, in the past, only the gods knew. In ancient times, seers entered a trance and informed anxious seekers of the mood of the gods and whether the time was auspicious for particular enterprises. Today, the financial media are the diviners and seers of THE MARKET’s moods, the high priests of its mysteries. THE MARKET has become the most formidable rival to traditional religions, not least because it is rarely recognised as a religion. The contradictions between the world-views of traditional religion and the world-view of THE MARKET religion are so basic that no compromise seems possible.

This critique has much in common with the critique of ‘autonomous technology’ developed by Jacques Ellul[33] and by Langdon Winner and Weber’s critique of the ‘iron cage of reason’.[34] For Ellul, la technique is sacred in our society. No social, human or spiritual fact in the modern world is so important. It transforms everything it touches—including the socio-politico-religious software that runs the system—into a machine. It is the pattern of organisation, the rationalisation of society, beyond the willingness of anyone to accept responsibility. Technical means have become ends in themselves. This attack is directed particularly against the technocrats to whom we have handed over our ethical responsibilities. In the process of implementing their utopian vision, a narrow technological and theocratic elite is in the process of redefining the evaluative methodology for social action, our social goals, our social institutions and who we think we are.

Efficient ordering is the only principle of the ever-expanding and irreversible rule of technique. It is the unconscious response to every challenge and is being extended to all areas of life. Means are remade into ends as we are committed increasingly to continually improved means to ends that are examined only poorly. Of particular concern to Winner are the changes that have taken place in ordinary language, traditional social institutions, earlier kinds of artefacts, human identity, personality and conduct. Efficiency, speed, precise measurement, rationality, productivity and technical improvement have all become ends in themselves and are applied obsessively to areas of life from which they had previously been excluded. In particular, efficiency has become a more general value—the universal principle for all intelligent conduct. It is not that such instrumental values are themselves perverse, but the fact that they have escaped from their proper sphere.

Technique refuses to tolerate competing moral judgements, excluding them from its field in favour of its own technical morality. Consequently, human beings have become objects—no longer choosing agents, but devices for recording the results obtained by various techniques. Decisions are no longer to be made on the basis of complex and human motives, but only in favour of the technique that gives maximum efficiency. In the process, the qualitative becomes quantitative and every stage of human activity is forced to submit to mathematical calculations. Whatever cannot be expressed numerically is to be eliminated. All the technical devices of education, propaganda, amusement, sport and religion are mobilised to convince us to be content with our condition of mechanical, mindless ‘mass man’, and to exterminate the deviant and the idiosyncratic.

In particular, technique forms the very substance of economic thought. Technical economic analysis has been substituted for political economy and its concern with the moral structure of economic activity. In seeking to grasp, but also to modify, it is no mere instrument but possesses its own force. This technical orientation is evident particularly in the application of mathematics and statistical techniques to economics. In the economic sphere, as in others, the technicians form a closed fraternity with their own esoteric vocabulary from which the layperson is excluded.

Technique involves the progressive dehumanisation of the economic sphere in which the abstract concept of Homo economicus becomes real. Not only has the entire human being been absorbed into the economic network validating the producing–consuming parts of the human, the other facets have been progressively devalued. Consequently, all values have been reduced to money values. The whole of human life has become a function of economic technique. This is particularly so in respect of work.

Politics in turn becomes an arena for contention among rival techniques. The consequence is the progressive suppression of ideological and moral barriers to technical progress. In this environment, the conflict of propaganda takes the place of the debate of ideas. Technique permits public discussion only of those ideas that are in substantial agreement with the values created by a technical civilisation. This technical economy is anti-democratic and a form of slavery. Despite all the talk about freedom and popular sovereignty, people are unable to exert any genuine influence on the direction of the economy, and their votes count for very little.

For technique, there is there no mystery, no taboo and no rules outside itself. Because people cannot live without a sense of the secret, or the sacred, they have created for themselves a new religion of a rational and technical order. Since the religious object is that which is worshipped uncritically, technology has become the new god. Technique has become the essential mystery. For the technician in particular, technique is the locus of the sacred, an abstract idol and the reason for living. Without technique they would find themselves poor, alone, naked and stripped of all pretensions. They would no longer be the heroes, geniuses or even ‘archangels’. Technique is thus the god that brings salvation.

These technological influences—these economic influences—have become so much part of everyday life that they have become virtually invisible. For Ellul and Winner, there can be no human autonomy in the face of technical autonomy; people have lost their roles as active, directing agents:

Each individual lives with procedures, rules, processes, institutions, and material devices that are not of his making but powerfully shape what he does. It is scarcely even imaginable what it would mean for each of us to make decisions about the vast array of sociotechnical circumstances that enter our experience.[35]

Consequently, technical rationality and modernisation pose a particular and significant challenge to liberalism. They are incompatible with the central notion that justifies the practice of liberal politics: the idea of responsible, responsive, representative government. In the technocratic understanding, the real activity of governing can have no place for mass participation. All of the crucial decisions, plans and actions are simply beyond their comprehension. This technological society is not governable. Rather, the ideal is of a self-directing and self-maintaining system, requiring no human direction. This is true even of the means of analysis itself—the meaning of ‘rationality’ having been distorted and corrupted by these technocratic tendencies. For Ellul, ‘Every intervention of technique is, in effect, a reduction of facts, forces, phenomena, means, and instruments to the schema of logic.’ Similarly for Weber, ‘The fate of our time is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all by the “disenchantment of the world”.’[36]

The price for this rationalisation is the loss of freedom. It is ironic that the libertarians’ search for increased human autonomy ends, in practice, in the loss of the value that they claim to hold dearest.