Negotiating Faith and Capitalism: An Exploration of Contemporary Spirituality

Born into a Muslim family, I regularly encounter people who come to my house to invite me to religious gatherings. In these times of neoliberal fascism, it is interesting to note the ideological experience that piety seeks to provide. The most recent person whom I interacted with attempted to root the everyday relevance of religion in the material contexts of social life. For him, Islam is essentially compatible with the reality of capitalism: the motivation and dedication required for the attainment of your desired profession is mirrored by the strong purposefulness of religiosity. What’s more, pro-careerist enthusiasm falters unless it is complemented by the existential coordinates of faith – the latter transforms the “negativity” of frustrations into the “positivity” of the knowledge that a divine Absolute is behind all the vagaries of one’s life. Thus, religion performs a fundamentally moral function, straitjacketing the excessive imbalance of capitalism (psychosocial desolation) into the well-worn certitudes of God.

As a Marxist, the congruence between religion and capitalism is not surprising. In pre-capitalist social formations, the moment of production coincides with that of reproduction, or the consumption of the produced goods. Individual labour is consciously directed towards the fulfilment of social needs that have been determined in a concrete and personal manner before the initiation of the production process. As Andrea Ricci notes, individual labor is “always and exclusively concrete labour, the producer of specific use values corresponding to the socially assigned task to each individual worker and intended for socially pre-determined specific consumers.” Insofar as labor is predetermined by the consumption patterns of use-values, it is expressed through the local networks of communitarian dependence. The structuring role of the community means that the organization of production is undertaken by political, cultural and religious institutions that normatively legitimize hierarchies through the sedimentation of historical ensembles of meaning. Custom becomes a fetishized representation of society’s actual efforts, exercising a supernatural power upon its normal workings.

Under capitalism, production is no longer determined ex ante in accordance with the ideological violence of tradition, but is the ex post result of generalized monetary exchange. Whereas pre-capitalist production is planned beforehand by the political force of religio-cultural codes, the emergence of the capitalist market makes it impossible to determine prior to exchange the amount of private labor that will be socially validated in the form of money. As Karl Marx states, “a priori, no conscious social regulation of production takes place” and the social character of labor “asserts itself only as a blindly operating average”. While pre-capitalist societies were dominated by the transcendental ideal of a supreme God, capitalist societies are guided by the spontaneous actions of independent private producers, who find their connection only in the marketplace. “The old magical and religious idols of transcendent nature,” writes Ricci, “are thus replaced in their practical economic functions by a new idol, immanent but always subtracted from the conscious human will, which reigns supreme over capitalist society, the value.”

Since capitalism replaces the externality of the divine Absolute with the internality of an egotistical economy, it represents an advance over earlier social formations. This can be explained in the form of the distinction between capitalist axiomatization and pre-capitalist symbolization. While the latter is based on the establishment of qualitative similarities and dissimilarities between concrete objects, the former involves a quantitative calculus that reduces everything to the abstract flows of surplus-value. The importance of symbolic codes and rituals of belief is overpowered by capitalist axiomatization, which creates, deforms and destroys local objects according to the dictates of profit. That’s why the bourgeoisie inaugurates a crisis of symbolization: “whatever local codes may temporarily spring up in the process will be merely incidental and strictly subordinate to capital’s axiomatic self-expansion. And so the form of coding characteristic of capitalism involves a contradictory process of decoding and recoding, whereby extant codes of meaning and conduct are swept away by a wave of axiomatization which generates a temporary recodification of new meanings and practices, that are themselves swept away in turn by the next wave of axiomatization, and so on.”

From the above, two points can be made. On the one hand, capitalism is progressive in terms of the havoc it wreaks upon the hierarchical symbolization that constitutes pre-capitalist social formations. On the other hand, it is regressive when it comes to its erection of a new One, namely capital, whose economic reign is functionally similar to the structure of divinity. As Wendy Brown puts it, “Money is at once a deity that displaces and replaces man’s natural powers and capacities and a profaning force that destroys what is most sacred about man and world.” Contemporary religion navigates between this dialectical dance: it tries to staunch the destructive energy of capitalism in the form of anti-modern discursive rigidity even as it supports the bourgeois subordination of life to the Profit-God.

The terminology that my religious interlocutor deployed – “positivity” and “negativity” – offers significant insight into re-invented forms of spirituality. The word “positive” comes from the Latin word “positivus,” which is derived from the verb “ponere,” meaning “to place” or “to put.” It indicates the certainty of facts, whose mere presence is supposed to be a sign of an affirmative truth. The word “negative” comes from the Latin “negativus,” which is derived from the verb “negare,” meaning “to deny” or “to refuse.” It conjures up the disruptiveness of oppositional denial and absence, which lurks as the excess of non-existence, lack or incompleteness afflicting any order. The association that my religious interlocutor drew between the “negativity” of student life and the need for spiritual education or stable positivity is not incidental. It evinces a concern with the radical potentialities of present-day students, who, instead of passively accepting the hegemony of surplus-value, question the internal dynamics of capitalist modernity. More often than not, this questioning leads to an a-religious, or even anti-religious, politics of socialism, in which capitalism’s lingering religiosity – its privileging of profit – is targeted to unleash the rationalist zeal of modernity, which doesn’t tolerate any figure of the One.

The Muslim person who was lecturing me ended his colloquy with the declaration that spiritual dedication is ultimately tied to the finality of Godly powers, before whom human beings have to realize their puniness. Every conservative ideology abases the plurality of our powers before the unity of the One, whether it be God or Profit. As a Communist, I don’t think that the competitive pressures and intense anomie of neoliberal student life can be combated through the equanimity of spiritual dedication. In fact, religious propaganda only force-fits us into the institutionalized architecture of a lifeless community, whose entire existence consists in supplicating before an alienated power. When boiled down to its formal structure, religiosity represents faith in faith, through which we abdicate our own responsibility for our lives and submit to an Other who is supposed to know. How can this highly impoverished practice alleviate the mental suffering of students? Student refusal, buttressed by dynamic networks of comrades committed to the revolution, is the only way to overturn neoliberal capitalism.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India. Read other articles by Yanis.