The Commodification of Everything   /   Summer 2003   /    Articles

The Commodification of Religion or the Consummation of Capitalism

Graham Ward

Detail from The Calling of Saint Matthew. Caravaggio (c. 1600).

In The Imaginary Institution of Society, Cornelius Castoriadis, commenting critically on the Marxist understanding of economic development, writes:

Reification, the essential tendency of capitalism, can never be wholly realized. If it were, if the system were actually able to change individuals into things moved only by economic “forces,” it would collapse not in the long run, but immediately. The struggle of people against reification is, just as much as the tendency towards reification, the condition for the functioning of capitalism…. Capitalism can function only by continually drawing upon the genuinely human activity of those subject to it, while at the same time trying to level and dehumanize them as much as possible.11xCornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Cambridge: Polity, 1987) 16.

This is a curious statement for Castoriadis to make, but before I develop just why, allow me to clarify four points of his argument.

First, for Marx reification and commodification are the two fundamental processes of capitalism. Reification [Verdinglichung] is not a synonym for the production of commodities [Produktionprozess der Waren]. Rather, reification is associated in Marx with what happens to human beings—the transformation of persons into things.22xKarl Marx, Capital, vol. l, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976) 1054. All subsequent references to this work are made parenthetically in the text of the essay. For the German text see Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, vol. I (Leipzig: Knoener, 1929). Commodification is what happens to the products of human labor when they are placed in systems of exchange.33xMarx himself never used the word “commodification”; there is no German equivalent. While different, these two processes are intimately related. If reification can never be completed, as Castoriadis argues, then neither can commodification. Second, reification, according to Castoriadis, cannot be completed because of the residual and resistant humanity that prevents that completion. Ironically, that prevention opens up space for the continuing process of producing commodities. That is, human beings remain free and independent from the processes of capitalism—and this freedom ensures a future for the capitalist system. Third, this freedom and independence is rooted in the fact that individuals are a) not turned into things and b) not turned into things “moved only by economic ‘forces.’” Finally, capitalism requires the freedom and independence of human agents in order to continue as a process and not collapse immediately.

What is so surprising about Castoriadis’ statement is that he also argues that “the individual is a social institution.”44xCastoriadis 247. In other words, what is human is a social fabrication; it is not some essential thing existing in a pre-social condition, in the way that the subject is conceived in liberal humanism. Certainly, he is critical of attempts to erase the subject—as in the poststructural “death of the author”—for he wishes to emphasize that all hope of social transformation lies in the ability to act both individually and socially. Nevertheless, what is “genuinely human” is never established by Castoriadis. Subjects are in possession of what he terms a “radical imagination.” They construct notions of their own identity and make sense of the world on the basis of a magma or “incessant flux in and through which anything can be given...this thick and continuous flow [of representations] which we ourselves are.”55xCastoriadis 331. Humanisms are institutions of this order; they are continually undergoing a process of modification. Even capitalists are of this order; they are made:

For someone who lives in a capitalist society reality is what is posited by the institution of capitalism as constituting reality.... This reality is, in any case, that of a host of second-level institutions, of socially categorized individuals (capitalists and proletarians), of machines and so forth— social-historical creations held together by the common reference to a magma of imaginary social significations which are those of capitalism, and by means of this common reference these significations actually do exist and exist as what they are both in general and for each individual. This reality as a social-historical creation, includes within it, and would be impossible without, the social fabrication of individuals who are capitalists.66xCastoriadis 319.

Whence then is this “genuine humanity” that struggles heroically against the humiliations and atomizations of capitalist hegemony?

While this is not an essay on Castoriadis, his work reveals a tension inherent in critiques of reification. This tension focuses around an understanding of what it is to be human. On the one hand, there is no place outside the immanent cultural logic of production. On the other, in order for there to be real transformation of and critical engagement with this production, a point has to be insisted upon that does lie outside this immanence—namely (here) “genuine humanity.” The question of what is genuinely human is, in fact, the crux of the matter.

In order to vouchsafe the possibility of resistance, the logic of capitalist production cannot be allowed to be a logic that subsumes all things. But the very inability to give an account of what is genuinely human raises the question of whether this logic does subsume all things, of whether the consummation of that logic is, in fact, the subsumption of all possibility of there being an externality, a transcending means of resistance, a dialectical other. Marx himself writes: “The inherent tendency of capitalist production does not become adequately realised...until the specific mode of capitalist production and hence the real subsumption of labour has become a reality” (1037). Antonio Negri argues convincingly that this “real subsumption” that “reduces dialectical possibilities to zero77xAntonio Negri, Time for Revolution, trans. Matteo Mandarini (London: Continuum, 2003) 41. now has occurred.

What I am wondering, in effect, is what Castoriadis would have made of a film like The Matrix. For capitalism to be possible, human beings must be impossible to reduce to productive-economic abstractions. In Marx’s terms, neither they nor the products of their labor can simply become bearers of exchange-value. This is, of course, precisely what Morpheus makes Neo see in the film: that human beings do need saving from their advanced reification and the advanced commodification that maintains all their illusions of free, autonomous individuals making significant choices about lifestyles. The truth is that human beings are farmed in order to be used as batteries to power a matrix that generates their own false consciousness of living in a Western liberal democracy.

Allow me then to make three observations. First, the Wachowski brothers and other film directors like Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers, Fernando Meirelles in City of God, and Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, are, in their different ways, portraying how human agency in the West and Westernized cities across the world is increasingly dominated by economic “forces.” Second, because of this reification of human beings as laborers (energy out-puts), the commodification of all things is becoming ever more realized. Third, capitalism as a system is not about to collapse because of this realization (though it may be overturned by an alternative system).

The basis upon which I make these three observations is Marx’s own analysis of how the process of commodification is profoundly associated with the development of a religious worldview, an enchantment of the material conditions for sociality. Commodification, for Marx, is religious, and the commodification of religion itself is a late stage in the process of commodification as it begins to feed upon its most essential character. Therefore, if religion is enmeshed in the production of commodities, then the processes of both reification and commodification are (pace Castoriadis) almost complete, and the matrix for generating virtual reality almost established.

These are enormous claims, polemical claims, to which I will add two more. First, never has there been a greater need to rethink Marx on economics, motion, and history. Second, never has there been a greater need to develop a theological anthropology that can challenge both the frailty of Marx’s humanism88xI am aware of some of the debates concerning this “humanism.” Certain French structuralists like Althusser wish to see Marxism as a profound anti-humanism, giving scant attention to any account Marx might have of “human nature” or agency. More recently, scholars like W. Peter Archibald [Marx and the Missing Link: “Human Nature” (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989)] and Sean Sayers [Marxism and Human Nature (London: Routledge, 1998)] have sought to excavate an anthropology in Marx that is philosophical, sociological, and even psychological. I am persuaded from my own reading that despite Marx’s attacks on liberal bourgeois humanism—in German Ideology, for example—and his method of abstraction, he does work with a presupposed account of what it is to be human. At the heart of this account is a notion of freedom: to be human is to be a free agent able to make informed choices. Furthermore, this account, indebted both to Hegel and Feuerbach, is a development of the Enlightenment’s “man of reason.” It is this account that I term his “humanism.” and the reduction of human beings by capitalism to units of productive power.

To back up these outrageous claims, I will first examine the nature of the production of commodities and the reification that ensues. Then I will address the question: In what ways does the commodification of religion now differ from its commodification in the past? The answer to this question will bear upon the advanced reification and social atomization that increasingly militates against the shared practices of a religious culture. While commodification has always been constitutive of religion, I am arguing that we have now entered into a more advanced mode of this process.

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