Theology of capitalism (Khatib, Stimilli, Homburg)

Chair: Sašo Furlan

The relation between capitalism and religion is usually conceived by two seemingly divergent approaches. In the first case, a specific religion is regarded as a condition of the emergence of capitalism, such as in Max Weber’s “Protestant ethics thesis”. In the second case, most common in the Marxist tradition, religion is grasped as an ideological phenomenon, which originates from, or is materially conditioned by, the economic structure of capitalism. Despite their differences, both approaches share the conviction that capitalism itself is a profane phenomenon. Capitalism influences religion or is influenced by religion, without having inherent religious characteristics. Contrary to this presupposition, Walter Benjamin proposed a provocative thesis that capitalism itself is essentially a religious phenomenon. According to Benjamin, capitalism is a religion, which does not rely on a specific dogma nor has any need for a transcendent god, but rather amounts to a “pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was”.

The aim of the panel is to critically evaluate “the Benjaminian gesture”, which suggests that capitalism, insofar as it is a religion, should be grasped in terms of theology. Namely, establishing close connections between the critique of political economy and theology appears as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the discourse of theology can be employed for the sake of a radical critique of capitalism, as was already the case with Marx. On the other hand, various attempts of reconciling Marx’s theoretical project with theology have also served the opposite goal by depoliticizing it. Moreover, the elucidation of political and economic conflicts in religious terms is today regularly used in reactionary discourses, such as the one on “the clash of civilizations”. The Benjaminian gesture thus cannot be simply redeemed without hesitation. Its progressive potential as well as its possible hazards should be addressed once anew.

Sami Khatib: Capitalism as Religion or Religion as Capitalism? Why the Former Cannot Do Without the Latter

My paper starts from the assumption that today’s capitalism cannot operate without religion. There is no such thing as ‘capitalism as capitalism’. As argued by critical theorists since Marx, capitalism is not merely an economic system but a specific social relation that (re)produces and relies on political, theological, libidinal, symbolic etc. economies. Even non-Marxist theorists like Max Weber grasped the inextricable link of capitalist “spirit” and Protestant religion. In my paper, however, I contend that religion in the age of its capitalist reproducibility is not defined as a specific (monotheist) religion but rather as a practice generating meaning with or without a codified set of beliefs. Here, I take my cue from Walter Benjamin’s fragment “Capitalism as Religion” (1921) in which he characterized capitalism as an atheological religion. If the capitalist religion is a “religion of pure cult, without dogma,” we could conclude that today religion has responded to this challenge by providing capitalist practice with pragmatic theology in dogmatic disguise. One could even argue that Benjamin’s polemic thesis has been superseded by capitalist reality. Yet Benjamin’s thesis holds true ex negativo: any thematization of current forms of religion amounts to ideology (i.e. reactive nihilism, culturalism, identity politics, laicism etc.) if it does not take capitalism into account. Or, to paraphrase Max Horkheimer’s famous dictum on fascism: whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about religion. So-called religious “extremism” or “fundamentalism” emerge from or are based on a certain regime of capitalist accumulation. It is very telling that already Marx in Das Kapital had to “take flight into the misty realm of religion” to find an analogy explaining the mysterious “fetishism of commodities.” Apart from obvious structural and historical parallels, Marx’s extensive use of religious metaphors, biblical paraphrases and quotations raises the question whether religion and capitalism can be easily separated in metaphor and meaning, signifier and signified.

Sami Khatib teaches at the American University of Beirut. He was a researcher at the Theory Department of the Jan van Eyck Academie Maastricht (2012) and earned his PhD degree in Media and Communication Studies from Freie Universität Berlin (2013). His main research interests are in Walter Benjamin Studies, Critical Theory, Art Theory, Modern Continental Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and German Studies. Recent publications include a book on Benjamin’s figure of the messianic and articles on Benjamin, Marx, Brecht, and Nietzsche. More at

Elettra Stimilli: Practices of Life and the Religious Character of Capitalism

In recent years the links between politics and religion have been much discussed in light of current changes. Nevertheless, a reflection that critically takes into account the religious dynamics within the current economic power is perhaps just dawning. This approach aims to understand the mechanisms that allowed the current economic power to intertwine with individual lives in a manner so widespread to encompass them in new forms of public and individual indebtedness.

The purpose of this paper is an analysis of the work of three authors – Weber, Benjamin and Foucault – in particular their critique of the capitalist economy beyond the strictly economic field. In this analysis, areas seemingly unrelated to the economy emerge as essential to understand the fact that if there is a «religious mechanism» that governs today, in the predominance of neoliberalism, this is not related to theology, but to the effectiveness of the religious practices of life.

Elettra Stimilli is currently a researcher at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. She is the author of numerous essays that focus on the relationship between politics and religion, with particular attention to contemporary thought. In 2011 she published Il debito del vivente. Ascesi e capitalismo, which will be published in English at Suny Press of New York in 2016. She also published Jacob Taubes. Sovranità e tempo messianico (2004). In 2015 she wrote the book Debito e colpa (Ediesse).

Phillip Homburg: Sign, symbol or fetish? Against the Sociological Understanding of Money

This paper criticizes the displacement of capitalism that occurs in the standpoint of modernization most closely identified with Jürgen Habermas. Central to his evolutionary theory of modernization is the separation of system and life-world. While the colonization of the life-world by systems of money and power must be pushed back against, according to Habermas they are essential to the functioning of highly complex societies. My critique of Habermas takes aim at this understanding of money as a neutral and necessary medium. In particular, I will examine the ways in which his understanding of money as medium resembles the conception of money as arbitrary sign that Marx sees as characteristic of Hegel and the Enlightenment. In short, Habermas replaces the specific problem of the capitalist form of money and the money-fetish that Marx develops with a rational and neutral understanding of money as an essential element within the process of modernization.

My focus for the middle part of this paper is on the concept of the symbol in relation to Marx’s notion of the money fetish. I begin by outlining Marx’s understanding of the symbolic nature of the fetish and the importance of a dual understanding of the money-form as both an arbitrary sign and a necessary symbol. Understood only as a sign, money seems to be an arbitrary form of representation. Following my examination of Marx’s critique, I conclude by making use of Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the symbol in his Trauerspielbuch in order to elucidate an understanding of money as a quasi-religious symbol that gains its peculiar symbolic quality through exchange. Benjamin’s account of the symbol allows for the conceptualization of a form of the symbol that is specific to capitalism, something that I term the profane symbol. This form of symbol expresses the profane (but not secular), mythic and cultic quality of capitalist social relations.

Phil Homburg recently completed his PhD in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex. His thesis examined the development of a materialist standpoint in the early writings of Walter Benjamin through the critique of post-Kantian forms of Romanticism, empiricism and neo-Kantianism.

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