The idols are never satiated

On the border and beyond/3 - This market devours life and provides just a little money in return

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 05/02/2017

Sul confine e oltre 03 rid"(C)apitalism is a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was. Within it, everything only has meaning in direct relation to the cult: it knows no special dogma, no theology."

Walter BenjaminCapitalism as Religion (translated by Chad Kautzer)

The capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth century was animated by a Judeo-Christian spirit, a spirit of work, effort and production. But we no longer understand the spirit of our capitalism if we continue to look for it inside Christianity or the Bible. Market society in recent years has been increasingly resembling a religion, but the traits that it is taking make it more akin with the Middle Eastern cities of three thousand years ago, or the Greek and Roman ones of some later centuries. With their public spaces occupied by many statues, temples, steles, altars, shrines, and their private spaces filled with amulets, household gods and a huge production of household idols. And their many sacrifices, around which their life, parties and death were ordered. The Judeo-Christian humanism was, above all, an attempt to empty the world of idols and free it from the sacrifices. It was an only partially successful attempt, because the tendency to build idols to worship has always been too strong in men.

The prophets, the wisdom tradition (Ecclesiastes) and then Jesus have operated an extraordinary religious revolution also because of their radical struggle against idolatry. They tried to remove the idols from the temples and churches to create an environment free from things, one where you could hear the voice of a free and liberated spirit, its "thin voice of silence". Christianity has also surpassed the ancient sacrificial logic forever, because the sacrifice of people offered to God was replaced by the sacrifice-gift of God given to mankind, establishing the era of gratuitousness. But today, after two thousand years, capitalism - first fighting gratuitousness and then trying to put it to income - is reintroducing some archaic sacrificial practices in its own cult.

The sacrificial culture of capitalism can now be glimpsed everywhere. Consider, for example, how food and cooking have been turned into a spectacle on TV and in the media in recent times. In various cultures eating was a fundamental practice, always communal, the heart of family relationships, friendships and the maximum expression of solidarity. People ate together because food is the first resource, the decisive one for communities, and therefore it must be shared, "constructed" socially, not left to the natural play of the force and power of individuals. Food is the first language of fraternity, and through the universal institution of hospitality it is also open to those who knock on the door. That's why the place of eating was the house, the intimacy of the tent. The preparation of food was a private matter, generally entrusted to women, who were the producers of the meals that transformed the scarce products of the earth into conviviality and the goods into relational goods. Confidence in the person who cooked was the first word in the discourse on food. The sideboard (in Italian: "credenza") did not only preserve foods, it also kept the confidence and credence in the primary relationships of the home.

Eating in public, in the square, however, only happened on the occasion of festivals, which in the pre-Christian world were associated with animal sacrifices offered to the deity. The animals offered were then baked, cooked and eaten together in public. Christian civilization has transformed those ancient festivals, and to overcome the archaic sacrificial logic it has discouraged cooking, eating and drinking in public. On Christian holidays there was dancing, singing and games in public, processions were held, and above all the Eucharist was celebrated: the good (eu) gratuitousness (charis), in another dinner, another bread and another wine. But everybody ate at home, and the preparation of food remained something private and feminine. The great spectacle that food and cooking are being turned into is taking us back to the culture of the sacrifices, the sacred banquets offered to the idols, to cooking in the square. To understand the invasion of cooks and meals, it is not enough to resort to sociological aspects only (having to relearn how to cook, or questions of health): we must also discover their religious and sacrificial nature. The idols are continuously eating, they are never satiated.

In these new rites, celebrated by male priests, the food completely loses its intimate and familiar nature. Its solidarity and its sharing are totally deleted, leaving their place to competition and race. The good words of home become insults, the bread that falls to the ground is not kissed after it is picked up, only the echo of a shout is heard, cooking is no longer surrounded by good words and relatives of commensality: it is completely and only play, entertainment, business. And we forget and deny the basic rule of early education passed on by mothers to their children for millennia: "don't play with your food" - because it is too serious, the most serious of all, sacred. However, this ancient-new sacrifice of the food makes nothing and no one sacred, and it makes us fall back into a world full of parrots and victims: panem et circenses.

But sacrifice is also a keyword of new global corporations. To understand the universe of the corporate "sacred", we must not stop at its most superficial aspects - such as the presence of coaches in companies who try to mimic the old spiritual fathers; the use of words taken from the spiritual language, as "mission", "calling", "faithfulness", "merit"; the fake initiation of rites and liturgies by pseudo-marketing; the disesteem of the word "old" that by now has become a dirty word or an insult ("you're old!": all idolatrous cults worship youth). These phenomena are epidermal symptoms of something much deeper and rooted in the organism of capitalism.

After having used (until a few years ago) the lingo and metaphors taken from military life or sports, the big capitalist enterprises are now realizing that to buy the hearts of their employees they need a stronger symbolic code, and they're taking it from the religious sphere. But, even here, the symbolic register is not taken from the Judeo-Christian religious culture, or even from other major religions (Islam or Hinduism). These great forms of spiritual humanism are too complex and resilient to be easily manipulated by business. And so, with a leap back, passing thousands of years, they return directly to totemism and its sacrifices.

Sacrifice is a key word in the cult of business. Nothing more but sacrifice is asked of the workers of large companies: the sacrifice of their time, their social and family life. Work has always been strain, sweat, and so in a sense also sacrifice. But the sacrifice of the corporate culture of the twentieth century was transparent to those who made it and those who received it. The trade union movement had managed to contain it within political limits, and when it exceeded these limits it was not called "sacrifice" but "exploitation." We always knew that behind a lot of work there were far-away "gods" who lived from our sacrifices and the exploitation of our work in the fields and factories: but we were aware of it, we were suffering a lot, and we struggled to reduce or eliminate these injustices. Today the semantic manipulation of our age is managing to present the "more” of the sacrifice (the excess part of efforts - the tr.) as a form of free "gift". We are more exploited by rich gods now than we were yesterday, but, unlike yesterday, we have to be happy for our sacrifices and internalize them as a free gift offered. The sacrifice required of the workers by big companies is a necessary act to be able to hope in the "favour of the gods," that is, in making a career, earning a lot, having respect and recognition from above. But those who refuse to make these sacrifices and are committed to defending a boundary between business and family, those who do not accept requests to stay in the office until eleven at night, are left out of the number of the elect, and often develop severe guilt for being losers.

Furthermore, as in the sacrifices to the old gods and idols, offerings and vows could never pay off the debt of those making the sacrifice - today in these companies the more of our time and life are given, the more of them are required, until one day our offers get exhausted... But on that day, management will offer to us the "free" service of the right type of coach that will help us get back on our feet and to the altar to offer more sacrifices. The idol does not sacrifice itself; it can only receive sacrifices from its followers. The invisible and distant gods feed from the sacrifices of the workers, and they are developing a more and more vital need for it. But the stroke of genius of this type of capitalism lies in being able to cover the sacrificial structure of the "labour market" with "contracts". What they actually ask us is a sacrifice, but its true nature is hidden very well by presenting it as a free contract. Because they make payments, businesses become totally disconnected and ungrateful towards their faithful. And on the day when the market opportunity and profit change, they do not feel indebted to the many sacrifices they have received, they seek tax havens; and with a few thousand Euros - at best - they repay the sacrifice of a lifetime, the sacrifice of life. The sacrifice of the ancient cults had to be alive: the gods were offered animals, children, virgins, rarely plants (libations), but never objects. The new gods are also demanding life and offer money in return.

The sacrificial nature of this capitalism is not so much a moral property of people; it actually regards the system as a whole. Its first sacrificial victims are the very executives and managers, who are priests and victims at the same time.

The likely and gloomy scenario on the horizon of our civilization is a rapid growth of this new idolatry, which is gradually shifting from the economic sphere towards civil society, schools and health. There is no opposition in its path of expansion because it draws on those religious symbols that our culture no longer has the categories to understand. Those who want to understand and maybe control the economy and the world today must study less business and more philosophy and anthropology.

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