Religion

Marxist Dictionary

A set of beliefs, rites and ceremonies that through the promotion of a series of values, asserts and maintains the characteristic morality of a given social organization.

Historically, religions have been the great ideological containers that attempted to give coherence and unity to the set of values and beliefs used to sustain a certain mode of production and the social dominance of its ruling class.

By themselves they do not necessarily include belief in supernatural beings, but the common meaning usually limits the term to churches and cults that are inheritors of one form or another of feudalism. This is not innocent.

Table of Contents

Why does the bourgeoisie embrace “Reason” and pretend to be a-religious?

Party of the Supreme Being organized by the state during the Jacobin government.
Party of the Supreme Being organized by the state during the Jacobin government.

The rupture between ancient religion and Christianity

Being the first class to perform the extraction of the product of labor by fundamentally economic means, apparently spontaneous and “natural”, it did not necessarily need to bind itself to a supernatural account, let alone choose one among them, in order to legitimize its power.

The Latin word “religio” from which “religion” derives only resembles the original its pronunciation, in the classical world “religio” was not a group of beliefs or doctrines, but a set of public administrative rituals.

There were no dogmas or sacred texts as revealed religions have and most of the “priests” were elected public officials. Taking part in rituals was a public obligation, but there was no need to “believe” in the gods. One could even be mocked for it, the job of various philosophical circles was to make sure that “superstitio” — irrational belief — did not get out of control, calling into question social relations and the state, even while formally maintaining religion.

When Christianity arrives in Rome, it is denounced as atheism by the authorities. The “religio” uses in its representations the ancestral cults and rituals of groups from the Roman Empire, yet the Christians are a new group with no history whatsoever that also refuses to follow administrative rites.

For Christians belief took precedence over ritual, exactly the opposite of the rest of the world. To try to escape Roman persecution, Christianity will have to invent a past. Since there is no ritual past before Christ, everything will have to focus on doctrine.

This will lead the church fathers to announce that in reality all religions follow the same original Christian doctrine, but corrupted. They thus invent Christian “universal history” with a common beginning, the coming of Christ to “settle the matter” and begin a historical march to salvation. When Christianity triumphs over Rome, the meaning of “religion” will have been almost completely inverted from the original. And so on for more than a thousand years.

The bourgeoisie and the reform of medieval religion

As the wars of religion return to Europe in the 16th-17th centuries, during the great crisis of the agrarian world part of the decline of feudalism, these questions are reopened. Isn’t belief more important than liturgy and ritual? Protestantism gives rise to religious groups less and less liturgical and with an increasingly abstract god, returning to a preoccupation with “natural religion.” At the height of the rationalization wave of the 18th century, the shift between an abstract god and universal reason begins.

From here it is half a step to throwing Christ out of the window and keeping all the Christian presuppositions converted into “universal reason”. “Religion” had been redefined several centuries earlier as belief, and therefore irrational, so moderns pretend to have no religion at all.

For the Enlightenment, religion is superstitious belief, it will suffice to eliminate belief and sift the good from the bad through the filter of reason.

But the cult of reason will soon reveal itself not to be an excessively useful tool in the government of the social masses. If state religion was the characteristic ideological form of the rule of the feudal classes, the combination of political ideology and nationalism will be so to the bourgeoisie.

Its “secularization” effort was immense: he wrested education from the greedy hands of the churches, instituted national cults to the flag and the fallen, temples to its own art and science (the “museums”, dedicated to the forgotten Greek muses), let the muezzin sing at his hours while building communications networks – media – capable of carrying its message to every living room…

But in spite of everything, especially while it had – or where it still has – large peasant masses, it could not do without the old ecclesiastical mammoth inherited from feudalism (Roman and Orthodox Catholicism, Anglicanism, Maliki Islam, Buddhism…) and its first ideological affirmations (the “Protestant Reformation”). The bourgeoisie “modernized” them, purged them of feudality with the necessarily watered-down ricin of “church-state separation” and after quite a few clashes and battles, put them to work in its service.

The three levels of religion under capitalism

1. Ideological apparatuses inherited from previous modes of production

Capitalism has kept the old mammon of feudal religion.
Capitalism has kept the old juggernaut of feudal religion.

What the bourgeoisie calls religions, i.e. religions prior to the establishment of capitalism. Religions that the bourgeoisie, at first, could only fight against. Firstly as part of its assault on the state. Secondly because it needed a morality functional to the new order.

That battle was called “secularization”, and if it was never completed this was not – as the “secularists” come to say – because there were feudal remnants left to destroy. Churches and cults are today as much a feudal remnant as the university, another feudal institution reconverted a thousand times according to the needs of the current ruling class.

2. The political religio: nationalism

Children from a Mexican school honor the flag of the nation state
Children from a Mexican school honor the flag of the nation state

Political religion, the bourgeois equivalent of the Roman “religio”: the set of ceremonies, rituals and beliefs that make up “the political community.”

Its fundamental expression, the political religion of the bourgeoisie par excellence is nationalism. Why? Because wage and capital are capitalist social relations, but capitalism is a complex and scale-dependent system. There can be neither “capitalism in a single enterprise” nor “in a single province.”

Small pockets of the wage-capital social relation appear from Roman times, and Florence in the 14th and 15th centuries will undergo utopianism and the capitalist program with Savonarola and even a proletarian insurrection, that of the Ciompi; but until the bourgeoisie managed to articulate a sufficiently broad national market, turning land into a commodity, subjugating the peasantry and raising agricultural productivity, it will not be able to establish the “double circuit” -circulation of merchandise and circulation of capital- that allows the systematic and relatively “automatic” accumulation of capital, which is what we call capitalism.

Thus the history of the struggle of the bourgeoisie for the establishment of capitalism is the history of the nation, which in turn is nothing other than the effective leadership of the bourgeoisie over the social whole it is creating. If nationalism sprouts again and again, it is because nationalism is the ideological glue which reflects that social whole and the bourgeoisie’s leadership.

The rituals, the ceremonies, the hymns, the “irrational belief” in the peculiarity of the national culture, in the originality of its institutions, in the uniqueness of the national… reveal the immediate mold in which the patriotic religio was formed.

“Secularization” was also the absorption and transcription by the state of quite a few celebrations of feudal religion. The Basque “aberri eguna” superimposed on the Catholic Easter Sunday, the Mexican Guadalupe, the Spanish Covadonga and Santiago – only half laicized with October 12 – among many others, from Poland to Argentina, testify to the extent to which secularization from a certain moment on, was not so much a battle as the negotiation of a symbiosis.

Symbiosis that is not always complete. Especially when the “political religio” blurs into the local. The old “confraternities” are still reconverting to provide social services complementary to those of the state and soccer, which reproduces feelings of belonging towards the state in part equivalent to that of the guild structure with the Catholic church, has not succeeded – although it will try in its origins – in linking itself to the workplace.

Even on a smaller scale, social and family ceremonies such as Christmas or Halloween are also part of the capitalist political religion, sometimes slightly problematic reconversions of old pre-capitalist traditions into messages characteristic of the mercantile society.

3. The religion of the commodity

The ritual of shopping: exchange of money earned by selling your labor power for goods produced by the social worker.
The ritual of shopping: exchange of money earned by selling your labor power for goods produced by the social worker.

The commodity religion is the deepest and most abstract level of capitalist religion. When Marx speaks of “commodity fetishism” he is not making an obscure semiotic game or a metaphor, he is exposing the fetish character of money, of “magical object” -an object imbued with social power- in the religio which conforms the ideological basis of the whole system.

What other name can be given to money in a society in which its mere circulation, it seems, is what creates value?

The mysterious thing about the mercantile form consists simply, then, in that it reflects before men the social character of their own labor as objective characters inherent in the products of labor, as natural social properties of those things, and, therefore, in that it also reflects the social relation that mediates between the producers and the global labor, as a social relation between objects, existing apart from the producers. (…)

The commodity form and the relation of value between the products of labor in which that form is represented, have absolutely nothing to do with the physical nature of the same nor with the relations, proper to things, which derive from such a nature. What here takes, for men, the phantasmagorical form of a relation between things, is only the determinate social relation existing between them.

Thus, in order to find a pertinent analogy we must seek refuge in the misty regions of the religious world. In this world the products of the human mind seem to be autonomous figures, endowed with their own life, in relation to each other and to men. The same thing happens in the world of commodities with the products of the human hand. This is what I call the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is inseparable from commodity production.

Charles Marx. Capital, 1857

Like all fetishes, “magic” here is nothing more than a way of covering up relations of exploitation and subjugation. Obviously, it is not money that creates value by multiplying the exchanges of equals, it is the exploitation of the labor of one class by another. A class, the bourgeoisie, which keeps part of what is produced and attributes it to the magic of exchange.

This fetishistic character of money, which is generally invisible to us, was nevertheless obvious to the pre-capitalist societies that encountered the European imperialisms in Asia and Africa.

It was said of the Bakweri of Cameroon that they were apathetic, squandered the land and had no interest in increasing their profits. If they accumulated some property, it was only to destroy it in potlatch ceremonies. The few who were associated with the colonial plantations and improved their economic status had the reputation of belonging to a new association dedicated to witchcraft. They allegedly killed their relatives and even their children by turning them into zombies to put them to work in a distant mountain, driving trucks, where the witches supposedly had a modern city. The word “sombi” means pledge or pawn; it was thus believed that under the new colonial plantation economy, kinsmen were turned into pledges or pawns so that a few could earn wealth. […] The elders warned that no money should be taken from the ground because it was being scattered to lure men to the waterside, where the “Frenchmen” would use them as zombies to build the new port.

Michael Taussig, The devil and commodity fetishism in South America

The religion of the commodity has its great fetish -money- its rituals -paying the payroll, paying for groceries, etc.- and even its small icons -coins. Ceremonies and objects that dress up supposed “individual decisions” as relevant social facts and also dress up as sovereign economic acts the commodification of the satisfaction of our needs.

But it also has its superstitious element: the idea that the exchange of equals (every commodity is exchanged for another of equal value) would produce an increase in global wealth through mere repetitive magic.

Commodity religion and capitalist morality

Leonardo da Vinci's
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” presents the isolated individual as the origin and measure of all things. It is an early depiction of bourgeois religion.

The morality of “free exchange”

The entire commodity religion is geared toward fostering belief in the self-sovereignty of the isolated individual (=individualism) and representing complex capitalist social relations as the “natural” product of the “spontaneous aggregation” of millions of individual sovereign decisions.

The result is the morality of mercantile exchange according to which “free” exchange would be by definition in “fair” and “egalitarian”.

By invisibilizing the social structure and letting us see only the isolated person (the individual), the individual expression of universal human needs becomes, without explanation, acts of freedom oriented toward maximizing individual pleasure (utility).

In this abstract and alienated world everything that is not the result of direct coercion is considered “free” and “egalitarian”. Coercion by the ruling class through social conditions does not exist. Those who have been dispossessed of the means of production and can only sell their labor power, sell it freely. Since in freedom only things of equal value are exchanged, any market wage happens to be by definition “just.”

The social morality of the commodity religion

But, make no mistake, it also has a social message. Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand” was only one of its primitive formulations, but Salamanca’s scholastics had already arrived a century earlier at something like the quantitative theory of money. Today, in its simplest form, it is part of the economic and media discourse and is continually repeated to us: “the increase in the number of free and egalitarian mercantile exchanges increases social wealth”.

But can the mere repetition of an exchange between equals in value increase the total value of what is exchanged? Magic!

The trick is none other than the fact that looking at social production and distribution exclusively from the perspective of individual exchanges ends up reducing the relations of production and the social structure producing it into a magma of equal consumers. Value, from the individual’s viewpoint becomes subjective and the concept of value itself is diluted as a social reality. Thus it is made invisible that the value is nothing but social labor expropriated by the exploiting class as a totality.

So the magic of exchange creating value is not innocent. Every religion, and that of the commodity is a religion, in the end has an “irrational” and incongruous little kernel, which is nothing but the shadow zone that allows the exploiting class to get hold of the results of social labor.

The result of all this complex operation is to lead us to the idea that “the more free exchanges there are, the richer a society will be”, which in reality means that the greater and more extended the commodification and exploitation of labor, the better it will be for the social whole. No other moral message could be expected from an exploiting class: its objectives are, contradictorily, dressed up as the goals of the social whole.

This morality is multiplied through a thousand cultural expressions, from music to television programs, and in the end it always leads to the same place: the individuation of universal needs and the universalization of the commodity through the commodification of human relations.

Freedom, equality, fraternity: free exchange between equal values and nation (=direction of the social whole by the bourgeoisie)

“Liberty Leading the People” by Delacroix, graphically represents the ideology of the revolutionary and nationalist bourgeoisie of the 1830s revolution.

Restricting the idea of what religion socially is to superstitious cults and ceremonies involving supernatural beings, souls, etc., is a grave error. These are a mere atavism. The latter are reborn and reappear now to plug the black holes of despair created by the system itself, but they are still a superficial layer of the alienating moral edifice of capitalism.

The capitalist religion is much more convoluted and, above all, complete. Its mechanism, if it were not so cynical, would even be beautiful in its sophistication, especially when compared to the first feudalism when exploitation was not disguised as an economic mechanism but directly appeared as exaction, as a forceful imposition standardized through custom.

At a first level, the morality of bourgeois society shapes how “individuals” are to be and what they are to expect from others and society. Its core, the religion of the commodity, has nothing to do with norms and restrictions, with social and sexual repression. On the contrary, the religion of the commodity is a religion of freedom and equality whose main sacrament is exchange, buying and selling.

The religion of the commodity founds the individual as an abstract being in permanent conflict with the environment, invisibilizes exploitation and above all educates in the “naturalness” of scarcity, in the need for property and in the acceptance of the reification of human relations and needs.

On a second level, this permanent individual cornered and defensive of others is then “socialized,” that is, moralized by the state and political religion. Layers of nationalist morality will always, sometimes also peppered with some democratic ideas, instruct him in the false “fraternity” he shares with his exploiters, from the most abstract – the nation– to the closest: the confraternity or the club. Nation, in the end, is nothing but the effective direction of the social whole by the exploiting class, i.e. the dictatorship of the needs of capital over human needs.

And only finally, on a third level, will the family, that pre-capitalist communal remnant, be given the opportunity to season all that with a bit of conveniently gentrified feudal and ancient “superstition“.