The Market as God
Reviewed by Chris Mohr
By Harvey Cox. Harvard University Press, 2016. 278 pages. $26.95/hardcover or eBook.
The ancient view of the world as populated by mysterious forces that need appeasement for their fickle moods—the gods—often makes little sense to me as a contemporary Westerner.
Yet one such implacable, persistent, and nearly omnipresent force is alive and well today across much of the globe. This force is written about in daily, weekly, and monthly publications. It must be appeased by corporate employees, government regulators, and ordinary consumers alike. If not appeased, its wrath descends on entire nations.
This force is named in The Market as God by Harvey Cox. As Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, Cox received advice from a colleague that if he wanted to understand the world, he should read the business press. So he did. He noticed striking similarities between the way the press writes about the market and the way religious traditions write about divinity. Thus he named this contemporary godlike entity “The Market” in this illuminating and compelling book about this false idol of today.
Overall, Cox’s tone is scholarly and genial. Even while being critical of the ideology of the business world, the author notes the ways institutional Christianity has fallen prey to the worship of money as well. As a result, it feels more even-handed than most critiques of corporate capitalism are.
The capitalization of the word “market” denotes its apotheosis as The Market—that is, the concept of markets in general being raised to the level of a godlike being. The Market is frequently spoken of as a seemingly sovereign entity with quasi-divine status, as opposed to merely being the sum total of all the individuals within various markets. Reports on radio or TV news may say, “Today, The Market was happy with news of the latest jobs report,” or “The Market responded to the latest financial bailout request with displeasure.”
Cox recognizes the necessity for humans to exchange useful goods and services, and acknowledges the utility of markets for such exchange. Yet, he points out, humans have organized other ways to make exchanges, such as barter or gifting. To lift up the market as a be-all, end-all purpose of history, however, is to go too far. For one thing, doing so may require economic policy to sacrifice human well-being to keep The Market happy.
A key theme in the book is the relation between evolution of the church and evolution of markets. As markets developed in the last three centuries, and became “The Market” in the last 50 or so years, there have been striking divergences as well as convergences with the history of the Christian church. Cox draws on his wealth of scholarly knowledge of Christianity to draw uncomfortable parallels between today’s sometimes overbearing focus on financial markets and such practices as the selling of indulgences in Medieval Europe and the desire for Holy Years to increase the worldly profits of innkeepers in Rome or near pilgrimage sites.
This book has value both for Quakers in business and for Quakers who may feel misgivings about the business world today.
Finally, though Cox does not claim the mantle of prophet, The Market as God has a prophetic edge to it that calls us back to our faith traditions’ teachings, in particular those of Jesus. Cox points out there is “one contradiction between the religion of The Market and the traditional religions that seems to be insurmountable. All of the traditional religions teach that human beings are finite creatures and that there are limits to any earthly enterprise. . . . For [The Market] the First Commandment is ‘There is never enough.’ Like the proverbial shark that never stops moving, The Market that stops expanding dies.”
Quakers in business could read the book for its useful insights and critiques, and not dismiss it as just another anti-business screed. Similarly, Quakers who are skeptical of the business world could read it to be able to distinguish idolatry of The Market from the often useful functions of markets with a small m. I recommend The Market as God for readers interested in a faith-based perspective on economic issues today, and a solid theological and economic history that adds depth and context to the topic.