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Cooking the Books 1:God and the Market

Commenting on the current world financial crisis former 1968 student leader and now a Green MEP, Daniel Cohn Bendit, said that “the belief that the market is god is over” (Guardian, 17 September).

Someone who should know more about God, the Archbishop of Canterbury, hopes this is so as he thinks that the Market has become a rival to his god. In an article in the Spectator (26 September) Dr Rowan Williams in effect accused “market fundamentalists” of breaking the First Commandment – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”.

He even called in Marx to back up this charge of idol worship: “Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else. And ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry.”

Dr Williams is said to be a learned man and he is right: Marx did see capital as the product of human labour which had come to dominate those who produced it (except that he saw this as applying to capitalism in general not just to “unbridled capitalism”). This was in fact his whole “critique of political economy” (the subtitle of Capital), that the economic laws of capitalism were not the natural laws that Adam Smith, David Ricardo, the Rev Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill and the others thought but forces that came into operation only because society was organised in a particular way.

Market forces were the result of human activity which had escaped from human control and which had come to dominate them as if they were a natural force. Dr Williams may also be aware that here Marx was applying to economics the theory that Ludwig Feuerbach had applied to religion in his 1841 The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach argued that, far from God making man in his own image, it was the other way round.

Humans made God in their image and attributed to him the powers which they collectively possessed, and then bowed down and worshipped this figment of their imagination. If humans were to realise this and take their own destiny in hand there would be no need for God or religion. So, according to Feuerbach, the Archbishop’s god was also an idol. The Archbishop was getting a dig at Marx in when he said he said he was right about this “if about little else”.

But Marx once made a harsh comment about the Church of England, writing in the Preface to the first edition of Capital, that it would “more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income”. It is interesting to speculate what the one article it would keep might be. At one time it would have been obvious – Article 38 that “the riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast . . .” If he keeps on reading Marx maybe the Archbishop might be prepared to abandon this one too.