There have always been prophets of doom. History is punctuated by exclamatory voices crying, in one form or other, that catastrophe is imminent or the end is nigh. These voices often pronounce their message in the name of some divine authority, whether the Hebrew prophets, who spoke on behalf of Yahweh, the Greek Sibyls, who spoke as ones possessed by Zeus and the gods, or the first Christian prophet, who audaciously claimed, or at the very least insinuated, he was God. Subsequent doomsayers have varied, yet most all have grounded their proclamations on some other-worldly source, even if these are of an astrological, astronomical, or occultic nature. There are limits, however: few have prophesied an alien invasion, for example, simply because the doom, to be taken with any degree of credibility and seriousness, must seem plausible within our immediate context. The signs must be ripe – as signs of our times. (How can you predict, much less give credibility to, alien times?)
So it was as I listened several months ago to one of the latest prophets of doom to emerge, and who subsequently went, as they now say, “viral”, I was struck by the utter disconnect from any divine or other-worldly authority. Today’s messengers of doom no longer need divine underwriting, because humankind has advanced to a point where, in the last century, it has become capable of destroying the entire world completely by its own devices. This is not just imminent doom; it is now, and entirely, immanent doom.
Typical to our world, the latest prophets also carry no sustaining effect. They are five-minute prophets, fame-mongers with proclamations designed for the transience of the headline, the ephemerality of the sound-bite. In this sense they are seldom real prophets by any proper definition. What also struck me in this case, however, was that, though none had heard of his name before, and few have heard of his name since, and though he was clearly and unashamedly out for his micro-minute of fame, his message was able to plunge deep below the surface of ubiquitous political, social, and economic gloom, into the subterranean depths of immanent doom.
The doom I’m speaking about issued from a BBC interview of an independent stock market trader Alessio Rastani, who, even in his own industry, was relatively unknown – http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/09/trader-on-bbc-sounds-alarm-about-market-crash.html. His notoriety rose dramatically when, asked for a television on-air interview, as an expert in the trading world, to comment on the state of the world markets, and the Eurozone markets in particular, he held nothing back. The markets will crash, he exclaimed, without any prelude or fanfare, because “markets right now are ruled by fear”. We’ve all heard such prognostications before, and, quite frankly, few of us would take this seriously, because we all know the markets are virtually impossible to predict with any accuracy. But this claim, in a long line of many just like it, was not the source of the doom. It was rather what he admitted shortly afterwards: “personally, I’ve been dreaming of this moment for three years.” Here was the predatory trader acknowledging that market economies and market stability are not his, or any of his colleagues, concern. He just wants to make money, and if a market crash can make him money – in his eyes, a ton of money – then it cannot come soon enough.
This brought to my mind Walter Benjamin’s famous fragment “Capitalism as Religion”, in which he claims that capitalism holds a similar structure to religion, with four distinguishing characteristics: 1) it holds to no special dogma or theology; 2) it is ceaseless, with no ritualised sense of time (no Sabbath, no sacred holidays); 3) it is wholly guilt-ridden, rather than repentance based; and 4) it necessarily conceals its God.* Now much has been made of these nascent thoughts of Benjamin, and increasingly much justification has been found for them. Few today would contest the ceaseless nature of capitalist forces, or that its dogma, if it has any, is, like its God, concealed amid the worldliness of its operations. Economies are wholly human affairs, and the attainment of wealth through capitalist mechanisms, capitalist strategies, and capitalist motivations buries any religious faith and fervour well enough below the surface of its gross materialism. But occasionally a deep rumbling within – implosive bank greed, or wild market volatility that follows upon such events – shows up the tenuous nature of its belief system, and the “cultic” nature of its structure (Benjamin’s term) begins to suggest a different level of operation. And one simply needs to reflect upon the motto written on all American paper money to see that the connection is, as Benjamin had seen already in the early 1920s, more than suggestive: “In God We Trust”. (Benjamin went even further, and compared the human images on banknotes to iconography.)
But the third characteristic, Benjamin’s notion of guilt, has always been the most difficult to ascertain. Benjamin claims that the cult of capitalism engenders blame, that an “enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult”. Yet the statement remains oblique, and the author never elaborates just what this blame or guilt is for, and why it might include God himself in its comprehensive power. We are left, from the fragment, to supply our own reasoning: the guilt of profit for its own sake, perhaps, or in more Marxian terms, the guilt of alienation or of the exploitation of the labourer.
As I listened to Rastani, who was simply a momentary spokesman for the trading industry at its most voracious, the industry that brought a global fiscal meltdown through the sub-prime market, and against which a global movement has now begun to resist, I began to wonder if Benjamin had got this point about guilt correct. The revelation here was the very absence of any guilt. What left the interviewer’s mouth gaping, literally, was the vulture-like indifference to the suffering of the wounded animal. Or perhaps indifference is too kind – the rapacity. Guilt was not only missing; it was not part of this creature’s capability.
But there may be another way to read Benjamin on this point. The German word for guilt that Benjamin has used here is Schuld, which has two further related meanings: blame and debt. It is thus not simply that capitalism engenders culpability in either exploiting or being exploited; it is also that the system places us all in a position of unmitigated debt. And this is not merely financial debt, though for many, and increasingly, it may be financial. Like most religions, it involves a perpetual owing, a being on credit to the system (the gods/God), but now without ever a payment to come, or goods to be exchanged (exoneration, atonement, reconciliation, redemption). What Rastani, this current prophet of doom, betrays for us is that we lie in wait for a catastrophe that, whether it comes or not, never allows us to get outside the system that generates it. For if the market crashes, most of us are in debt for what we cannot pay. But the few who make money are also in debt, and at a more profound level – to the system that profited for them. They don’t make the money directly themselves; they are indebted to the system to enact this for them. (Money, we remember, has only ever been a token for what we have made. Commodities trading is only ever the exchange of tokens for what has been traded, money – an even further remove from reality.) We are all in debt to a system, to an economy of intangible forces, that we have no way to transcend, since what we’ve gained is itself the means for gaining it. As someone has astutely said of capitalism’s circularity, “Everything that has meaning is immediately identical with what it means”.† Our prophet in three years waiting is himself doomed, not because he may never strike it rich – enough in his industry clearly have – but because by striking it rich, he will, of necessity, be swallowed up in the despair of not being able to redeem himself, or of not being able to convert the material back into anything other than the material. Thus, as Benjamin says, all we attain is a “world of despair”.
Now the conversion of money back into material goods is precisely what any profit-seeker ultimately hopes for, since with material prosperity comes, the cult of the system tells us, peace of mind, self-direction, and the so-called good life. Yet every other religion, including even the ancient Epicureans, has taught the opposite: money does not bring happiness. This is a stock piece of wisdom. Why is it that the religion of capitalism has had such a difficult time understanding such a basic, and we might even now say, superficial teaching? Perhaps we can now answer: guilt – to abandon its God, Mammon, the concealed God of self-generating abstracted profit, or the commodification of money for its own internal sake, and not for the sake of the very self that is in despair, is to foreclose on the debt we owe it. But with such a guilt comes the very obliteration of our being, individual and collective. Such is the doom that awaits us.
That no one has yet found an alternative to this religion and its guilt, and least of all the religions of the West that have become synonymous with them – this is what is truly despairing. To their credit, the Occupy movements are trying to mount some countering force. If their momentum can be sustained, it may very well begin to disenfranchise capitalism in the form that we have come to know it. But this will not happen, I expect, unless that movement – any movement – sees and addresses the religious nature of the system, and addresses the immanent guilt and debt at its core.
*Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion”, trans. Chad Kautzer, in The Frankfurt School on Religion, ed. Eduardo Mendieta (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 259-262.
† Werner Hamacher, “Guilt History: Benjamin’s Sketch ‘Capitalism as Religion’”, trans. Kirk Wetters, in Diacritics 32.3-4 (Fall-Winter 2002), p. 87.