Capitalism as Religion?

The research carried out while at the Department of Religious Studies, University of Vienna, concerns the theoretical formulations of the relationship between religion and modern economy (capitalism). This theoretical thread is running through the classical German-speaking social and philosophical thought, which itself constitutes one of the most permanent reference points of my academic work. I have already published translations of books of Max Weber and Niklas Luhmann and I am preparing for print a translation of a collection of writings of Georg Simmel, whose theory of religion was the topic of my habilitation thesis. 

My current research interests focus on the much discussed claim about religious character of modern capitalism. One of the best-known classical formulations of this claim is contained in a rather cryptic fragment left by Walter Benjamin, entitled "Capitalism as Religion." According to Benjamin, capitalism is "not only a religiously conditioned construction," but "an essentially religious phenomenon": "Christianity did not encourage the emergence of capitalism, but rather changed itself into capitalism." Benjamin's thesis is usually interpreted as an inversion of Max Weber's conceptualisation of the relationship between Christianity and the capitalist system. There is, however, some evidence that the stimulus for this inflection of arguments was given by Weber himself. On the other hand, "Capitalism as Religion" might as well be seen as a continuation of Georg Simmel's study of the structural homology of religion and monetary economy.

Georg Simmel is widely recognised as a prominent turn-of-the-century German philosopher of culture and one of the founding fathers of sociology, but he could quite properly also be described as a classical theorist of religion. Despite his eminent position in the history of Western thought, Simmel's work on religion continues to be neglected—especially by comparison with that of Durkheim and Weber. His concept of religion was not yet reflected in its full complexity, and the task of incorporating it into the contemporary academic discourse remains unfulfilled. This still not properly appreciated part of Simmel's legacy is most intimately connected with the two much better known areas of his research: monetary culture and general sociology. Simmel's analysis of the homology of money, society, and the idea of God provides a good argument that, even many decades later, Robert A. Nisbet's (1959: 81) appraisal of Simmel as the most relevant of all the pioneers of sociological reflexion still holds true.

The thesis on homology of money and the idea of God is a recurrent theme in Simmel's writings. In his philosophically informed sociology money serves as a symbol of modernity, expressing its contradictory character. Moreover, being a symbol of unity, money has remarkable affinity with the Judeo-Christian concept of God. At the same time, God constitutes a conceptual equivalent of society; and a notion of society shares certain characteristics with money. The main common feature of money and society lies in fact that they both are transindividual constructs of universal and yet not abstract character. 

What is even more important, both money and society are based on acts of exchange. In Philosophy of Money (1901) Simmel argues that exchange does not simply promote sociation, but exchange itself is a form of sociation: a relationship which transforms a sum of individuals into a social group. Money serves as a universal medium of exchange, and thus should be seen as entirely sociological phenomenon, a form of human interaction, whereas society (Gesellschaft) is understood as a synthesis or the general term for the totality of interactions.

The next important equation of Simmel's conceptualisation of the mutual relationship between religion and monetary culture is the thesis on homology of society with the idea of God. All these terms—money, God, society—are thus inextricably intertwined. It should come as no surprise, then, that in Simmel's view there is at least a kernel of truth in the lament that "money has become the God of our time." The question emerges: what are the implications of this claim? Although Simmel refers explicitly to monetary economy/culture, and not to capitalism, his analysis of the relationship between religion and free-market economy should be discussed in the context of other classical formulations, in particular those by Max Weber (religious roots of capitalism) and Walter Benjamin (religious character of capitalism).