Monday, December 29, 2008

Decoding the “invisible religion”- our market economy

In the Fall'08 semester, I took a class on "Theological and economic ethics of globalization" with Prof Nimi Wariboko at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary. In this class, we learned the framework of Max Stackhouse in examining the forces of globalization, and the principle of neo-classical economy from Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert. In writing my final paper, I was able to tap on their insights and William Schweiker's analysis of the meanings of market economy. My learning is also made possible by the support of my family members, brothers and sisters, especially those from Chinese Graduate Varsity Christian Fellowship and Providence Presbyterian Church. I will write briefly on what I have learnt about the implicit meanings of market economy.

1) Very brief background of market economy
First of all, what is market economy? It was first espoused by Adam Smith in 1776, and he advocated a type of economy characterized by "system-wide resource allocation [that] occurs as a consequence of many individual market transactions, each of which is guided by self-interest."[1] This economy built on the self-interest of individuals would self-regulate to maximize returns. This self-regulation or the "invisible hand" of the market will guarantee optimal price and quantity of goods due to the law of supply and demand. This is the assumption made by modern neo-classical economists. As long as the economy grows, all will prosper from the system by participating in it. The undergirding value behind this principle is that human nature is individualistic and all economic activities should lead to growth. Since US was founded, they have been practicing market economy as the default mode of economic growth.

Now that we have a rudimentary understanding of the operating principle of market economy, we have to ask why market economy is such a dominant force now. In the aftermath of WWII, the US was the only country to enjoy economic growth as the European powers were vastly weakened in the war. The Bretton Woods agreement in 1944 set up: (1) a framework that imposed US dollar as the world currency; (2) the IMF, and World Bank (originally International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), supposed to invigorate economic growth of devastated countries, that played according to the US rules; and (3) an international trade system that reduced tariffs. These set the stage for US-based transnational corporations (TNCs) to expand their market into other parts of the world. By establishing overseas markets, and setting up production base overseas, the TNCs created a globalized market. To show how US is dedicated to this globalized market, I will quote directly from Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert's Property for people, not for profit: Alternatives to the global tyranny of capital.
On 16 October 2001, during the preparatory stages of the UN Conference on Financing for Development, the US representative, Terry Miller, declared bluntly: 'We start with three commitments: a commitment to peace; a commitment to freedom and rule of law; and a commitment to capitalism. Governments that make these commitments have a chance to develop. Governments that do not have no chance at all.'[2]

2) Economy as our dominant worldview
According to Max Stackhouse, every society can be identified by the different dominant powers governing the society. Each of them has their own separate sphere and he labels them as Mammon (economy), Mars (system of legitimatized authority to reduce violence), Eros (human sexuality), and the Muses (fine arts and mass media).[3] Religion is the "identifying center of being, meaning, and morality that bonds people and the powers together in a shared system."[4] The overriding concern of "mammon" in the neo-classical economics is that we can be so fascinated and devoted to it such that we define our lives by "a commodity and thus deny our dignity by equating worth with things having only use, exchange, and sign value."[5] We allow the mammon which is only a subsystem within the whole system to convert and homogenize values, norms, authorities, and relations, and other subsystems.[6]
As religion becomes a private sphere, we tend to keep it to one aspect of our life, and allow economy to be unchallenged driving force structuring our worldview. The economy "mingles and mediates cultural meanings in a plethora of ways that affect cultures powerfully and unpredictably,"[7] and becomes our religion as it takes on the role of the center of being, meaning, and morality. "The greatest force in any society … is the cultural power to define and transmit values, to determine what matters and how much it matters and thus to saturate consciousness with those values."[8] This greatest force, originally the domain of religion, is now transferred to the mammon. It is so subtle that it has become our invisible religion, and has seeped into our sub-consciousness without us knowing it. In fact, we are already practicing it. In the words of Peter Berger,
Socialization…has a crucial dimension that is not adequately grasped by speaking of a learning process. The individual not only learns the objectivated meanings but identifies with and is shaped by them. He draws them into himself and makes them his meanings. He becomes not only one who possesses these meanings, but one who represents and expresses them.[9]

In our socialization, we reinforce this invisible religion, and measure ourselves by the living standard erected on the edifice of mammon. We are the embodiment of this invisible religion when the goal of our lives is to pursue personal happiness by spending money.[10] We define ourselves as consumers; understand our economic growth by the amount of consumer spending; measure the health of our economic system based on consumer confidence index; inculcate our values through advertisements and soap operas; put on name-brand products as if it shapes our identities; work longer and extend financial credit for fancier car and bigger house as if our success are measured by it.
When the transnational corporations are the main exporters of production modes, distributors of goods and services, they also export their economic model in order to ensure their efficiency. Individuals across the globe are being rationalized into a common economic model, and more people become commodified and their worth reduced to monetary scale of exchange. US culture and value have been effectively exported to other countries, supported by an artillery of their mass media. Our worldview is permeated by this invisible religion and this "religion" gradually replaces indigenous culture, value and worldview, and we call it the globalization process.

3) GDP as the measure of economic growth
When economy permeates our worldview, it will be the only set of lens in telling who we are. We also unconsciously subscribe to commonly used model to measure our economic progress. Some economists claim that economic model is impartial to ethical values, and they are right. A good example is the most widely-used tool to measure a country's economic growth, the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which is the sum of all financial transactions within the country. This does not take into account the type of transaction taking place. Turning on the air-conditioner rather than opening the window, driving a car rather than walking, police activities to curb crimes, cutting down trees, are examples of financial transactions, hence are part of the GDP. Unpaid housework, child care, elderly care, volunteer work are not counted as financial transactions, and are excluded from GDP. The depletion of natural resources, the destruction of natural environment, and the pollution of environment are similarly not included in the GDP. Do you think GDP is an adequate model to measure our country's economic growth? What's the underlying assumption of GDP? Do you see how the neo-classical economic model does not warrant the sustainability of our earth and responsibility of those empowered to protect the weak and poor from exploitation?

4) My reflection

There are various professional theologians who have responded to the forces of market economy. Having alternative worldview is important to challenge the one offered by market economy. Because I believe that we are made in God's image, and have been restored to a relationship with God, I have sufficient ground to affirm that I am not a consumer. I am a human being, valued by God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. I want to quote Philip Wogaman's paraphrase of Karl Barth's statement on Christian ethics,

Christian ethics is existing in grace….it means at least that one lives through the acceptance of being affirmed by God and invited into fellowship by God. It means that one is not substituting for this some form of acceptance based upon some other notion of the good; one is not under the control of economic force, political realities, cultural pressures. This freedom is not necessarily the freedom to do—for what we are able to do is certainly affected by these things. But it is the freedom to be: to be what, through God's grace, we are.[11]

The cornerstone of Christian's identity is anchored in God's grace. One's worth and value are established by accepting God's affirmation and invitation into fellowship. When that has been established, one has no need of further assurance from economical, political or cultural sphere. One has therefore the freedom to be whom God calls him to be, and this rests upon the foundation of God's grace. Let us not sell ourselves to commodification. We are worth so much more than a commodity. The sign-value conferred by commodification is broken when one's self-understanding is saturated by one's relationship with God.
The ironic fact is that many Christians subscribe to economy-driven values and we practice these values even in our church. Do you recall the minister saying "Wow! She is a doctor!" or "Our speaker has a PhD from Harvard University, and we are so privileged and honored to have him here." How about being harassed with questions like "Where did you graduate from?" or "What type of housing do you live in?" in order to assess your socioeconomic status? They are just short of asking "How much do you earn?" I am not trying to discredit the hard work, discipline, and time invested in getting higher level education or landing oneself in a world-acclaimed institution. What I want to point out is that every Christian is a priest. We serve one another before God in different capacity according to our gift in order to build up the body of Christ, and we bring other people before God, as well as bringing God to other people. Our identity is not defined by socioeconomic status or characterized by economy-driven values, but by a lasting and fulfilling relationship with God, and nourished by community of people redeemed by God.

William Schweiker has pointed out the significance of sign-values propped up by the market economy. As I think of the advertisements that bombarded me daily when I was in Singapore, Jurong Point shopping mall that I used to frequent, I can't help but to imagine myself as a consumer. The hand phones, gadgets, clothing, the shopping mall culture seem to be dictating to me "who I am," rather than me who decide "who I am." In my work place in Singapore, my work performance determines my bonus and rate of promotion. Instead of knowing "who I am," I have measured myself by monetary worth of labor exchange. I have been surrounded by various sign-values fueled by the invisible religion, i.e. market economy, without myself knowing it. In fact, "who I am" has already been decisively determined when I entered into a covenantal relationship with the triune God, purchased at the price of Jesus Christ. It is by living without television, rampant advertisements, shopping malls; by entering into more meaningful conversations with other people; and acquiring the tools to decode this invisible religion that I learn to see my past in a new light. I have sold myself out to this invisible religion in the past, and I am starting to reclaim my self-identity in Christ. So, God help me as I learn to locate my locus of self-identity within You, the ground of all beings, and not in the mammon (economy).

End notes:
[1] Steven C. Hackett, Environmental and Natural Resources Economics: Theory, Policy, and the Sustainable Society (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 33, quoted in Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 76.
[2] Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert, trans. Elaine Griffiths, Trish Davie, Michael Marten and Paraic Reamonn, Property for people, not for profit: Alternatives to the global tyranny of capital (London, New York: Zed Books, 2004), 100.
[3] Max L. Stackhouse, “General Introduction,” eds. Max L. Stackhouse and Peter J. Paris, God and Globalization Vol. 1: Religion and the Powers of the Common Life (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 37.

[4] Ibid., 38.[5] William Schweiker, “Responsibility in the World of Mammon,” eds. Max L. Stackhouse and Peter J. Paris, God and Globalization Vol. 1: Religion and the Powers of the Common Life (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 113.
[6] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983) quoted by Schweiker, “Responsibility in the World of Mammon,” 118.
[7] Schweiker, “Responsibility in the World of Mammon,” 119.
[8] Ibid., 123.
[9]Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1969, 1990), 15.
[10] Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 84.

[11] J. Philip Wogaman, “Formative Christian Moral Thinkers,” Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 221.

1 comment:

zyds, 志勇, Chee Yong said...

Brother Ruilong, I enjoy reading your post :) I'm reminded that indispensable duties like taking care of children and aged parents are not included in the calculation of GDP.

Ever heard someone describe weekly visits to MacDonald's restaurant as a Holy Communion service? Children go up to the counter to "give offering", receive their "bread and wine" (hamburger and coke), and return to their seats happily, knowing that they've been blessed.

This analogy just shows how deeply entrenched we are into the false identity as a consumer. :(