In both religion and economics, absurd belief too often leads to atrocious action.
While the consequences of misguided belief are well-documented in the study of religion, we rarely use comparable standards to critique the religious-like faith bestowed upon our current economic system. We believe that economic "growth" is the single most important key to unlocking the sacred doors of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, the facts of the matter and narratives of the masses reveal a far different picture. As our globalized fiscal cycle is now calibrated to impose repeated tragic failures, and because it seems to legitimize inequality and destruction of the Earth as virtuous and inevitable, the time is long overdue to expose the false beliefs and oppressive impact surrounding our contemporary economic edifice.
Our present condition, often known as "neoliberal capitalism", which rose to prominence through Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, seeks to transfer control of the global economy from public to private sector under the belief that such a transition will produce a more efficient government and improve the livelihood of all nations. Through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO), neoliberal policies are currently imposed - often without civic consent - upon much of the world, to the detriment of both people and the planet. As Naomi Klein accurately stated, "our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life". Through massive tax cuts for the rich and methodical annihilation of trade unions, the neoliberal movement has led to massive consolidations of power and privilege, thus multinational enterprises - motivated by profit and mostly unaccountable to any electorate - use their strong financial influence to push governments into deregulation-orientated policies for the steady flow of products, currency, and factories. While such strategies have created tremendous financial wealth, the distribution of positive and negative consequences is increasingly disproportionate, and the current world population of seven billion is mostly controlled by an overlap of a few hundred billionaires.
As Jim Wallis correctly indicated, we possess an "un-Economy" that is un-fair, creates a world that is both un-stable and un-sustainable, and leaves the far majority of global citizens totally un-satisfied. Why do we continue to believe in such a damaging arrangement? The negative consequences are both ethically alarming and empirically clear, yet similar to the ways in which some people of faith are conditioned not to interrogate their longstanding religious customs, it appears that far too many citizens are forcibly encouraged not to examine the basic practices of our dominant and destructive economic structure. Furthermore, just as there is sparse awareness of alternative approaches to the organized religion of certain faith traditions, there is insufficient knowledge of diverse methods in the realm of economics. For too many of us, we simply cannot imagine another way. In the midst of it all, our collective and blind faith in the divine-like invisible hand remains strong, and we relate to it like an omnipotent deity that must be piously and repeatedly praised and pleased. As a result, one can persuasively argue that we are increasingly "Economistic", as production and consumption has become our communal worship, because rising gross domestic product is our salvation, the market is our god, and "Economism" is now our most popular and prosperous religious practice.
Economism, a term coined by Joel Kassiola in 1990 and later used by Paul Ekins and Manfred Max-Neef in 1992, is our most organized and flourishing popular religion. As theologian John B. Cobb wrote at the turn of our current century, religion is ultimatley "whatever binds the multiple aspects of human existence together", and faithfulness to the holy creeds of economism redefines citizens into consumers and affirms competition as the defining characteristic of all human interactions. In doing so, Economism requires people as homo economus to believe that economic growth will somehow directly solve any and all of our most pressing problems, and ultimately, provide the resources needed to pursue any and all of our most important values. The dogmas of economism require, both directly and indirectly, that the structures and systems we set are all designed in such a way that our faithfulness is judged primarily in financial terms, as if our deliverance is somehow determined by whether or not the invisible hand is worshipped and pleased. Our ultimate concern, therefore - especially in times of difficulty - becomes a narrowly and erroneously defined notion of public health and personal wellbeing, and our prayers are most zealously offered to the real god of our communal devotion: the almighty market.
During a previous time of economic transition, Victor Lebow stated that "our enormously productive economy ... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption ... we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate." Is this a redeemable description of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? As is the case with other destructive beliefs and practices, in order to break free from such chains we must recognize consequences and propose alternatives. Thankfully, resistance and revolution is already happening, as more people are awakening to the knowledge that what they have been sold in recent decades is contrary to what reality can actually deliver. In addition to the popularizing of democratic socialism, we also hear more about a "sharing economy" or the "commons" and "peer production", all in order to shape our society around innovative and life-giving metrics such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and Economic Bill of Rights. By providing such means to organize and assess our global household, together we might re-learn how to define human interactions not by what we buy or sell to and from one another, but through a collective affirmation that our lives ultimately do belong to each other.
Our religion of Economism is bankrupt, yet the spirit of our human community is overflowing with abundance, and a more liberating collective faith can point us toward a more authentic flavor or freedom. The rules which were made can also be unmade, and the ill-advised trust that supports such repressive rules can also be rejected and transformed. We are better together when we share a vision of a more benevolent and balanced economic order - based on representative planning and cooperative market mechanisms - to achieve an equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a nourishing environment, sustainable development, gender and racial equity, and non-oppressive relationships. The scales which blind us to such emancipating truths must fall off our eyes, to imagine and ignite new ways of being, and to experience the gift of life in its fullness. Since our beliefs do indeed lead to our actions, the most important step forward might be to believe that such a way is indeed possible.
The 52nd Nobel Conference, "In Search of Economic Balance", will take place at Gustavus Adolphus College from September 27-28, 2016. For more information, including tickets and livestream viewing, see https://gustavus.edu/events/nobelconference/2016/