FT book review

In: Daniel In The News

29 Oct 2016

This is the text of my review of  The Market as God for the Financial Times. It was published on Friday 21 October.

 Just across the piazza from Milan’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, the Duomo di Milano, stands one of the first shopping malls in the world. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a temple of modern consumerism, was clearly built as a commercial replica of its venerable Catholic neighbour.

This uneasy contrast symbolises what Harvey Cox, an emeritus professor of divinity at Harvard, wants to explore in The Market as God. His goal is essentially to compare and contrast classical faith with what he refers to as “ersatz” religion. In his view, the market perspective bears all the characteristics of a traditional religion except it is constructed by human beings. He seeks to uncover the market theology, which he sees as comparable in scope, if not profundity, to traditional religion.

His interest in the subject was piqued when, on a friend’s advice, he started reading the business pages to help him understand the real world. To his surprise he found that the Financial Times’s lexicon (among others) “turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans and Saint Augustine’s City of God”.

Of course, he was not claiming that the financial press literally focuses on divine matters. Rather that the preoccupations of finance strangely parallel those of theology. Each of them has its own grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history. Theologians have their myths of origin, legends of the fall and doctrines of sin and redemption. Finance has similar concerns but in disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptation of over-regulation and salvation through the advent of free markets. Even entrepreneurs can, in his view, be seen as a secular version of saints.

Cox is at pains to emphasise that he is not opposed to the market itself. His objection is what he sees as its aspiration to divinity that has emerged over the past couple of centuries. It has become, in his view, a hubristic outlook that inspires wastefulness, cupidity and avarice.

Such criticisms are in line with two papal encyclicals (letters) that are approvingly cited by Cox at the start of the book. In 2013, inEvangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel) the newly elected Pope Francis criticised a “deified market” and “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace”. Two years later, Laudato Si, the Pope addressed the growing planetary crisis brought about by climate change. Indeed, Cox dedicates his book to Pope Francis “with gratitude and hope”.

In principle, Cox’s project of examining the values and symbols of the market is a good one. It could help yield a better understanding of how the capitalist economy works.

Unfortunately, he makes a fundamental error that plagues countless critiques of the market system. He assumes that a confident pro-free market perspective is the dominant outlook. But even on a descriptive level, leaving aside any debate about the desirability of such a worldview, this is simply not true. Free market economics is not prevalent at the level of the workings of the market system or in relation to public discourse.

Despite the occasional flourishes of free market rhetoric the overwhelming reality even in the US is of huge state intervention. Government spending in the US is expected to amount to about 36 per cent of GDP this year, or $6.6tn, according to the International Monetary Fund. It is hard to square this reality with claims to the economy’s free market status.

On the level of ideas, pervasive doubts about the free market most often take the form of concerns about its alleged damaging effects. For example, the widespread idea that climate change represents a huge market failure, one that potentially threatens the future of humanity, is hardly a ringing endorsement of capitalism. Similarly, the often expressed concerns about the damaging effects of extreme inequality suggest a lack of confidence in the market system.

What Cox presents as a humane critique of the mainstream free market outlook is in fact an expression of the contemporary orthodoxy.

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