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Loewy, Capitalism as Religion: Benjamin and Weber

Loewy, Capitalism as Religion: Benjamin and Weber



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Published by: am050804 on Sep 16, 2009
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© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/156920609X399218
Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 60–73
Capitalism as Religion: Walter Benjamin and Max Weber
Michael Löwy 
CNRS, Parismichael.lowy@orange.fr
Benjamins fragment ‘Capitalism as Religion’, written in 1921, was only published several decadesafter his death. Its aim is to show that capitalism is a cultic religion, without mercy or truce,leading humanity to the ‘house of despair’. It is an astonishing document, directly based on Max Weber’s
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
, but – in ways akin to Ernst Bloch or ErichFromm – transforming Weber’s ‘value-free’ analysis into a ferocious anticapitalist argument,probably inspired by Gustav Landauer’s romantic and libertarian socialism. Tis article analysesBenjamin’s fragment and explores its relationship to Weber’s thesis, as well as to the tradition of romantic anticapitalism.
Benjamin, Bloch, Calvinism, capitalism, cult, despair, Landauer, religion, socialism, Weber
 Among the unpublished papers of Walter Benjamin which came out in 1985,in the sixth volume of the
Gesammelte Schriften
the fragment ‘Capitalism asReligion’ is one of the most intriguing and remarkable. Its relevance for thepresent state of the world is arresting. It comprises only three or four pages,including notes and bibliographical references. Dense, paradoxical, sometimeshermetic, it was not intended for publication and is not easily deciphered. Tecommentaries that follow are a partial attempt at interpretation, based moreon hypotheses than certitudes, and leaving out some shadow areas that remainimpenetrable. Tey may be read in the vein of Biblical or almudic exegeses,trying to explore each statement in some detail, and seeking to trace itsconnections and meanings.
1. Benjamin 1985. English translation in Benjamin 1996b. ranslations of the fragment areby the author.
M. Löwy / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 60–73
Te title of the fragment is directly borrowed from Ernst Bloch’s 1921
Tomas Münzer as Teologian of the Revolution
, which denounces Calvinismfor having completely destroyed Christianity’, replacing it with the elementsof a new religion, ‘capitalism as religion [
Kapitalismus als religion
or theChurch of Mammon.
We know that Benjamin read this book, because ina letter to Gershom Scholem from 27 November 1921 he told his friend:‘Recently [Bloch] gave me, during his first visit here, the complete proofs of his “Münzer” and I’ve begun to read it’.
Tis means that the date when thefragment was written is not exactly ‘at the latest in the middle of 1921’, as theeditors indicate in a note, but rather ‘at the earliest at the end of 1921’. Itshould also be noted that Benjamin did not at all share the views of his friendabout a Calvinist/Protestant treason of the true spirit of Christianity.
Benjamin’s fragment is clearly inspired by Max Weber’s
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
 Weber’s book is mentioned twice, once in the body of the text, and then in the bibliographical notes, which include the 1920 editionof the
Gesammelte Aufsätze sur Religionssoziologie 
, as well as Ernst roeltsch’sbook,
Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen
(1912), whichdevelops, concerning the origins of capitalism, similar theses as Weber’s.However, as we shall see, Benjamin’s argument goes well beyond Weber, and,above all, it replaces the latter’s ‘value-free [
]’ analysis with a passionateanticapitalist attack.‘One must see capitalism as a religion’: it is with this categorical statementthat the fragment opens. Tis is followed by a reference to Weber’s thesis, which doubles as a critical annotation: ‘o demonstrate the religious structureof capitalism – i.e. to demonstrate that it is not only a formation conditionedby religion, as Weber thinks, but an essentially religious phenomenon – wouldtake us today into the meanders of a boundless universal polemic’. Further on,the same idea appears again, in a somewhat attenuated form, in fact closer tothe Weberian argument: ‘Christianity, at the time of the Reformation, did notfavour the establishment of capitalism, it transformed itself into capitalism’.Tis is not so far from the conclusions of 
Te Protestant Ethic 
. What is new isthe idea of the properly religious nature of the capitalist system itself: this goes well beyond Weber, even if it relies on many aspects of his analysis.Both dimensions of Benjamin’s response to Weber are present in hisdiscussion of the main characteristics of the ‘religious structure of capitalism’.Benjamin does not quote Weber in this context, but his presentation is nourishedby the ideas and arguments of the German sociologist, giving them, however,
2. Bloch 1962. In this new edition, Bloch replaced ‘Satan’s Church’ with ‘Mammon’s Church’.3. Benjamin 1996a, pp. 212–13.4. On the relation between Benjamin and Bloch on this issue, see Hamacher 2002, pp. 88–9.
 M. Löwy / Historical Materialism 17 (2009) 60–73
a new meaning, infinitely more critical, more radical – socially, politically andphilosophically (and perhaps theologically) – and one in contradiction to the Weberian thesis of secularisation.Te first decisive trait of the capitalist religion is that it is
a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extremely cultic that ever existed. Withinit, nothing has meaning that is not immediately related to the cult; it has nospecific dogma or theology. Utilitarianism acquires in it, from this viewpoint, itsreligious coloration.
In other words, the utilitarian practices of capitalism – capital investment,speculation, financial operations, stock-exchange manipulations, the sellingand buying of commodities – have the meaning of a religious cult. Capitalismdoes not require the acceptance of a creed, a doctrine or a theology. Whatcounts are the actions, which take the form, in terms of their social dynamics,of cult practices. Somewhat in contradiction to his argument about Christianity and the Protestant Reformation, Benjamin compares this capitalist religion with pagan cults, which were also ‘immediately practical’ and without‘transcendent’ aspirations.But what is it that permits one to assimilate these economic capitalistpractices to a religious ‘cult’? Benjamin does not explain it, but he uses, a few lines later, the word ‘adorer’; we may therefore suppose that, for him, thecapitalist cult includes some divinities which are the object of adoration. Forinstance: ‘Comparison between the images of saints in different religions andthe banknotes of different states’. Money, in the form of paper notes, wouldtherefore be the object of a cult similar to the one of saints in ‘ordinary’religions. It is interesting to note that, in a passage from
One-Way Street 
Benjamin compares the banknotes with the ‘façade-architecture of Hell[
Fassaden-architektur der Hölle 
]’ which manifests ‘the holy spirit of seriousness’of capitalism.
Let us also recall that on the gate – or the façade – of Dante’shell stands the famous inscription: ‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate’. According to Marx, these were the words inscribed by the capitalist at theentrance of the factory, for the instruction of his workers. As we shall seebelow,
is, for Benjamin, the religious state of the world under capitalism.However, banknotes are only one of the manifestations of a much moreessential divinity within the capitalist cultic system:
the god Mammon,or, according to Benjamin, ‘Pluto . . . the god of wealth’. In the fragment’sbibliography, a violent and desperate attack on the religious power of money is mentioned: it is to be found in the book 
 Aufruf zum Sozialismus 
Call to
5. Benjamin 2001, p. 139.

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