The World is a Business

The mad alchemy that transformed the market into a god

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Network, a merciless and prescient satire of television released in 1976, is best remembered for its unhinged news broadcaster, Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), who exhorts his audience to go to their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Channeling popular frustration and fury, Beale becomes “the mad prophet of the airwaves” and his network’s number-one television personality. But in one of his diatribes he exposes a shady business deal that’s been brokered by the network’s management, and its top executive, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), decides to school Beale in the ways of the world. Summoning the prophet to the corporate boardroom—“Valhalla” as he calls it—Jensen preaches fire-and-brimstone in the film’s most ominous and clairvoyant moment. Bellowing that Beale has “meddled with the primal forces of nature,” he explains the axial principles of a thoroughly capitalist cosmology:

There is only one holistic system of systems. One . . . interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multinational dominion of dollars. . . . It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic—and subatomic—and galactic structure of things today. . . . There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and IT&T and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. . . . The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.

“I have seen the face of God,” the awestruck firebrand murmurs. “You just might be right, Mr. Beale,” Jensen replies. But in this eschatological narrative, composed in accordance with the hermeneutics of money, capitalism has supplanted God as the Alpha and Omega of human history.

The Great Chain of Buying

Delivered at the advent of the gilded age opened by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Jensen’s philippic is a brazen synopsis of the pecuniary ontology of neoliberalism. Baffler readers will need no convincing that neoliberalism is a pernicious political economy, the latest innovation in the capitalist machinery of injustice, indignity, and violence. Yet it’s also much more than the liberalization of trade, the privatization of public services, the elevation of corporate enterprise as a model for what’s left of the public sector (“running government more like a business”), and the insulation of the market from democratic supervision. Neoliberalism is a moral and metaphysical imagination in which capitalist property relations provide an all-encompassing template for understanding the world.

“There is no alternative,” as Thatcher once declared, because there truly is no alternative; there is only one holistic system of systems, and it’s capitalism all the way down. “With neoliberalism,” Wendy Brown observes in Undoing the Demos (2015), “the market becomes . . . the true form of all activity.” Once a forum for the production and exchange of commodities—a predatory but unavoidable ordeal of our bondage to the realm of material necessity—the Market assumes a Platonic character under the aegis of neoliberal ideologues, becoming an ontology, a hermeneutic, and an ethics for a guardian class of philosopher-capitalists.

In Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (2014), Philip Mirowski comes closest to capturing the supramundane ambitions of neoliberal ideology. In Mirowski’s account, neoliberals eradicate any lingering and nettlesome distinctions among the state, society, and the market, and reconfigure both personality and the cosmos in accordance with the logic of mercenary reason. Neoliberal humanism envisions an “entrepreneurial self,” Mirowski explains, a portfolio of salable talents and qualities: “a product to be sold, a walking advertisement . . . a jumble of assets to be invested . . . an offsetting inventory of liabilities to be pruned, outsourced, shorted, hedged against, and minimized.” According to this “catechism of permanent metamorphosis,” the neoliberal human must renounce “selfish arrogance”—i.e., resistance to the immutable by-laws of business—and “humbly prostrate . . . before the Wisdom of the Universe” registered in the vicissitudes of the market. In the neoliberal imagination, capitalism’s laws of motion partake of a supernal mysterium tremendum, and freedom is servitude to the regime of venality mandated and sanctified by the Logos.

While purely metaphorical in intent, Mirowski’s reference to a “catechism” points to the religious qualities of neoliberalism. God has had several claimants to His throne since He (allegedly) expired in the nineteenth century; among the substitutes for the universal Truth and Goodness that He provided before the Enlightenment: Science, the Nation, Socialism, Fascism—and as Terry Eagleton has argued, Culture. Although many think of our time as a secular age of irony, disenchantment, and suspicion of “metanarrative,” and despite its profane, technocratic veneer of econometrics and policy wonkery, neoliberalism is a story about the nature of reality, as well as a beatific vision of a heavenly city of corporate capital. As Eagleton might put it, neoliberals replace Culture with the Market as modernity’s surrogate for traditional divinity. Where the Abrahamic religions had imagined men and women in the image and likeness of God, neoliberalism sees entrepreneurial selves cast in the image and likeness of the Market. The Market suffuses the Great Chain of Being; it’s the marrow of neoliberal divinity. Far from merely allocating goods and resources, the Market is the ontological architecture of the universe, an inerrant, pansophical quintessence wiser than any puny and fallible human being. The world is a business, Mr. Beale; money is the mana and the élan vital, and the Market is the atomic—and subatomic—and galactic structure of things. It’s the newest impersonation of God.

Neoliberalism is more than a political economy; it is a story about the nature of reality, as well as a beatific vision of a heavenly city of corporate capital.

Of course, the holiness of capitalism isn’t a new idea in American history. From Puritans to Mormons to contemporary evangelicals, Protestant Christianity has long proclaimed the good news that mercenary property relations were inscribed into creation by the Almighty, and that success in competitive enterprise is a gilded token of providential blessing. But there has also been a secular spin, exemplified first in Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose astral antebellum hosannas to the market—chanted during the climacteric of the “Market Revolution” that unleashed American manufacturing—prefigured much in neoliberal ideology.

If Christ had warned his followers that God and Mammon were irreconcilable antagonists, Emerson announced that the animating spirit of the natural world was exchange value: “In Nature, nothing can be given, all things are sold.” A decade later, in “Wealth,” one of his most popular and oft-reprinted lectures, Emerson identified commerce as a sacramental vehicle of cosmic energies. Emanating from God, “the laws of nature play through trade, as a toy-battery exhibits the effects of electricity.” Because trade, money, and industry bore moral, ontological, and theological significance, Emerson saw a modern scriptural canon in the burgeoning literature of bourgeois economics. “Political Economy is as good a book wherein to read the life of man . . . as any Bible.” That political economy, as he clarified in “The Young American” (1844), was a chillingly Malthusian version of capitalism. Contemplating the “grinding economy” he saw rising around him—one that “crushed and straitened” its “poor particulars”—Emerson marveled at its “cruel kindness, serving the whole even to the ruin of the member.” “Our condition is like that of the poor wolves,” he reflected. “If one of the flock . . . so much as limp, the rest eat him up incontinently.” The Sage of Concord’s merciless wisdom presaged the wolfish humanism of Wall Street.

New Heaven, New Earth

Anchored in the University of Chicago’s economics and political science departments and in the infamous Mont Pelerin Society, the neoliberal movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century was the legitimate heir of Emerson’s mercantile Transcendentalism. Although Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and other founding fathers were often atheists or agnostics, they nonetheless attributed untrammeled ontological jurisdiction to the capitalist market. In the neoliberal cosmology outlined in their work—and dramatized in the fiction and philosophy of Ayn Rand—the Market suffuses the cosmos; money is the benchmark of rectitude; financial, technological, or professional prowess is the empirical proxy for blessedness; and the aggressive, unapologetic entrepreneur is the eidolon of existential superlativity.

Mises and Hayek fused hostility toward the strictures of traditional religion with obeisance for the Market. Ensconced in an unpaid academic position at NYU (he was bankrolled by the William Volker Fund), Mises authored two of the urtexts of neoliberalism: Socialism (1922) and Human Action (1949). In Socialism Mises sought to discredit not only the eponymous political movement but any form of opposition to the economics and morality of capitalism, up to and including Christianity. Mises argued that since Jesus and his disciples had displayed “resentment against the rich,” then “a living Christianity cannot exist side by side with Capitalism.” An agnostic who valued religion only for the penumbra of sanctity it cast over private property and the patriarchal family, Hayek contended in the third volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1979)—a kind of Summa Theologica of neoliberalism—that the “morals preached by prophets and philosophers” had inhibited the expansion of capitalism. Modern civilization arose, he continued, only through “the disregard of those indignant moralists.”

Yet Mises and Hayek’s account of political economy featured an ontological status for money and the market every bit as robust and fundamental as that of the God of medieval scholasticism. In a splenetic collection of essays on The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (1956), Mises gruffly restated the principle of scarcity, the stealthily ontological premise of every introductory economics course: “nature is not bountiful but stingy.” Faintly echoing Emerson’s “Compensation,” Mises reasoned throughout his work that nature’s parsimony both imposed the necessity of economizing and required the evaluation of economies by competitive and monetary standards. In short, he was seconding Emerson’s earlier judgment that nature was intrinsically capitalist. Money’s indispensable role, he had written in 1920, was in “determining the value of production goods.” Furthermore, since without money it is “impossible to speak of rational production”—“rational” defined as profit-making—then socialist production “could never be directed by economic considerations.” Because a socialist society would allocate goods and labor according to a different criterion of value, it could not be rational, in the Mises view. As with commodities, so with people: by the calculus of pecuniary rationality, “man deals with other people’s labor in the same way he deals with all scarce material factors of production”—as a resource “bought and sold on the market.” His entire argument pivoted on the transfiguration of reason through the alchemy of money: if money regulates both the value and the rationality of production, then both morality and reason are pecuniary. Currency determines the totality of life on this planet.

The Rage for Spontaneous Order

Mises was well aware of the moral revolution this stance entailed: economic growth and capital accumulation achieved the status of transcendental goods that overruled all other ethical considerations. For this irascible savant of the Market, the measurement of marginal productivity can be the only barometer of dignity and justice. “No religious or ethical tenet can justify a policy that aims at the substitution of a social system under which output per unit of input is lower for a system in which it is higher.” The basis of such an unconditional claim for the moral and epistemic hegemony of classical and Austrian economics lay in Human Action, considered by his acolytes to be the Mises masterpiece. In this leviathan tome on “praxeology”—the study of human behavior as intentional, not reflexive or unconsciously driven—Mises asserted that economics was “the philosophy of human life and action” as well as “the pith of civilization and of man’s human existence.” Crowning economics as the king of the sciences, Mises announced that it represented the foundation of “all the moral, intellectual, technological, and therapeutical achievements of the last [few] centuries.”

As the less pugnacious of the two godfathers of neoliberalism, Hayek was also the more philosophically agile. Revered for the overtly polemical The Road to Serfdom (1944), Hayek was more pedantic in volumes such as The Constitution of Liberty (1960), Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (1967), and his trilogy on Law, Legislation, and Liberty. The praise lavished on Hayek has stemmed in large measure from his contempt for the epistemological pretension he discerned on the liberal and socialist left—their hubris in believing that economies can be planned and regulated through reasoned political intervention. To his many admirers, Hayek’s brilliance and wisdom derived from his insistence on the virtues of humility and ignorance, which allowed a “spontaneous order” to flourish without the magisterial ineptitude of government.

Christ had warned his followers that God and Mammon were irreconcilable antagonists; Emerson announced that the animating spirit of the natural world was exchange value.

Yet Hayek himself contended that this “spontaneous order” was designed by capital and the state, and that its fabrication must be concealed from the general population. A masterpiece in the annals of sophistry, Hayek’s neoliberal ontology of “spontaneous order” was the latest Noble Lie in a lineage of recondite mendacity stretching back to the Platonic origins of Western philosophy. (Leo Strauss, the reactionary champion of Plato, was one of Hayek’s colleagues at Chicago.)

How did this subterfuge work, exactly? As in all neo-Platonic systems rationalizing deceit, Hayek’s thought carefully delineated a distinction between higher capital-T truth and a lesser world of mere appearances. Hayek posited a realm he called cosmos—impartial, spontaneous order—and a realm he dubbed taxis: premeditated, masterful artifice. In this schema, cosmos represented “a higher, supraindividual wisdom”—the Wisdom of the Universe, as it were—more sagacious than any person or group, no matter how intelligent or well-informed. Indeed, Hayek dismissed any appeals to rational apprehension of cosmos; “we normally do not know who knows best,” he held, and so we should leave decisions to “a process we do not control.”

The Market’s Mind

The meaning of this ontological indeterminacy for economics was clear: planning was impossible because it rested on the arrogant and fallacious belief that “reason is capable of directly manipulating all the details of a complex society.” Against the impudence of planners and bureaucrats, Hayek posed the happy nescience of market competitors, who acted with a modest sense of “how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action.” What Hayek lauded in The Road to Serfdom as “the impersonal and seemingly irrational forces of the market” became, in an ontological register, the secular mana of historical progress. “It was men’s submission to the impersonal forces of the market that in the past has made possible the growth of civilization.” Capitalism constituted the highest manifestation of the Logos that pervaded the universe.

Hayek’s elevation of the unregulated Market’s core indeterminacy into a central ontological principle is key to understanding not only his perverse praise of ignorance as a virtue but also his ill-concealed antipathy to democratic governance. He condemned all attempts by government to disseminate knowledge about market conditions as “an incomplete and therefore erroneous rationalism.” He objected to democratic restriction of the market not only because he dismissed the intellectual qualifications of ordinary citizens but also because it amounted, in his view, to a futile act of insolence against the sacrosanct order of things—meddling with the primal forces of nature. “There is not much reason to believe that, if at any one time the best knowledge which some possess were made available to all, the result would be a much better society.” Often applauded for his allegedly judicious reminder of the limitations of human reason, Hayek hoped instead to discredit any efforts to exert popular control over the power of capital. “The best knowledge which some possess” was nefarious when employed to regulate business and technology in the interests of a democratic society. “It is at least possible in principle,” he mused, “that a democratic government may be totalitarian and that an authoritarian government may act on liberal principles”—authoritarian meaning, in this context, any unnatural attempt to modify or direct the cosmic spontaneity of the market.

Lords of Misrule

Thus, democratic control over the market represented an attempt to substitute taxis for cosmos—a scandalous feat of ontological sacrilege, an interference with the primal forces of nature. Yet cosmos turned out to be itself an invention, as Hayek made clear that capital and the state lay behind the magic of market contingency. As he admitted, “an order which would still have to be described as spontaneous” rested in fact on “rules which are entirely the result of deliberate design.” Cosmos was nothing more than taxis occluded by philosophical palaver about “spontaneity.” Humble deference to the Logos of the market was not, in fact, a recognition of the Wisdom of the Universe; it was “a method of social control,” Hayek conceded in The Road to Serfdom—a way of reconciling us to a capitalist social order that “should be deemed superior because of our ignorance of its precise results.” (Alluding to the medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd, Mirowski characterizes all this as a “double-truth doctrine”: one truth for the rulers and the intelligentsia, and another for the credulous rabble.) And besides, look around, Hayek urged: all of us have granted the market our consent to govern, he insisted smarmily, because “once we have agreed to play the game and profited from its results, it is a moral obligation on us to abide by the results even if they turn against us.” In other words, freedom is subservience, if not to a larger wisdom, then to the machinations of the power elite.

Hayek realized that the authoritarian character of market forces could be veiled most effectively in the raiment of tradition and religion. “Submission to undesigned rules and conventions whose significance and importance we largely do not understand”—rules and conventions quite deliberately designed, by Hayek’s own acknowledgement—“this reverence for tradition, is indispensable for the working of a free society.” (This functionalist ardor for traditional wisdom as a means of social control ran deep in Hayek’s thought; even before he had immigrated to England ahead of the Nazi invasion of Austria, he was a hardcore Tory anglophile and he had originally wanted to name the Mont Pelerin group the Acton-Tocqueville Society.)

Openly acknowledging that the rules of competitive enterprise persist because “the groups who practiced them were more successful and displaced others,” he maintained further that the winners drape their victory in the robes of “tradition and custom.” (There is no alternative because there never has been any alternative; It has been since man crawled out of the slime.) If tradition failed to elicit an unquestioning subservience to the wisdom of the Market, God—properly shorn of His disapproval for acquisitiveness—could be resurrected from the depths of the historical mausoleum. Averse to religion when it frustrated capital accumulation, Hayek recognized its usefulness in consecrating bourgeois morality. “The only religions that have survived,” he reflected shortly before his death, “are those which support property and the family.” And if tradition and God weren’t enough, fascism was a crude but reliable expedient. In the 1920s, Mises had applauded Benito Mussolini for imposing a business-friendly dictatorship and wiping out the socialist opposition; later, General Augusto Pinochet enlisted Hayek, Friedman, and other Chicago Schoolers in making Chile into a neoliberal laboratory. (Likewise, when Howard Beale’s ratings nosedived, network executives had him liquidated—while he was on the air.)

Faith of the Makers

Respectful of Protestant moral and theological decorum, Hayek and Mises declined to engage in an overt assault on Christianity. Intended for the eyes of conservative intellectuals, their market cosmology was assimilated selectively and judiciously by the right-wing intelligentsia. (As Corey Robin has suggested, the reactionary mind seldom displays any adamantine commitment to orthodoxy when power and money are at stake.) What scandalized conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr. about Ayn Rand was not that she disavowed religion but that she conspicuously violated the theological politesse that was an essential ingredient of the postwar red-baiting conservative creed.

Rand’s open and pugnacious atheism is central to understanding her novels and philosophical treatises, all of which comprise an appallingly coherent worldview of pecuniary ontology. Scorning Christianity as “the best possible kindergarten of communism,” she vilified charity as a vice, an insidious affront to the productive and meritorious who, like Atlas, bore the undistinguished masses on their backs. “The ultimate viciousness of charity,” she mused, lay in its disregard for achievement as a criterion of human worth. Ignoring the “actual worth” of people—a value determined solely in the marketplace—the charitable cast pearls before the mediocre swine, bestowing “the moral or spiritual benefits, such as love, respect, consideration, which better men have to earn.”

Yet Rand then proceeded to create another religion. She was indeed a “goddess of the market,” as Jennifer Burns has dubbed her, and both she and her pet market catechism—which went by the typically heroic and immodest name of Objectivism—have spawned a large and acerbic exegetical canon. Descriptions of Objectivism as a “religion” or a “cult” began almost with the movement’s inception, and the interpretive imbroglio between the two main Objectivist bodies—the Ayn Rand Institute and the Institute for Objectivist Studies—is as bitter as any denominational dispute among the most convicted prophets of Protestant apocalypse. All the tell-tale elements of cult-worship were clearly there: a venerated founder; quasi-ritualized conversion experiences (many former Objectivists speak of moments of “epiphany”); sacred texts (passages of which are often memorized and cited in a manner similar to evangelical “proof- texting” of the Bible); and internecine factional and personal squabbles (the most acrimonious being that between Rand and Nathaniel Branden, her former second-in-command and paramour). Objectivism certainly shows strong structural affinities with other personality-driven brands of improvisational postwar faith such as Scientology. (Jeff Walker, author of the ham-handed but illuminating The Ayn Rand Cult, likens Rand to Mary Baker Eddy, L. Ron Hubbard, and Werner Erhard.)

Every president since Reagan has bowed his head and genuflected before what the Gipper called “the magic of the market.”

And even if we set aside the belligerent credulity of Rand’s followers (to which I can attest from many fruitless altercations with members of my own extended family), the basic credos of Objectivism present as the foundations of an ersatz religion—both a precursor to, and a branch of, the neoliberal confession. Chapter and verse can be cited from Rand’s own published and unpublished work. “A new faith is needed,” she surmised, “a definite, positive set of new values and a new interpretation of life.” “We will give people a faith,” she confided to a friend, “a positive, clear, and consistent system of belief.” “Objectivism” was that faith—“a spiritual, ethical, philosophical groundwork for the belief in the system of free enterprise.” When John Galt traced the sign of the dollar in the heavens at the conclusion of Atlas Shrugged (1957), he represented the crassly inexorable culmination of Rand’s covert theology of moneytheism.

Song of Myself

Rand’s divinization of money originated in her second and oft-overlooked novel, Anthem, written in 1937 and published in the United States in 1946 by Leonard Read, an evangelical Los Angeles businessman and director of the right-wing Foundation for Economic Education, one of the most prominent postwar venues for libertarian ideology. (Once again, we see how in the early flush of Cold War confrontation as in the decadent stage of Trump worship that the defense of capitalism overrides otherwise insuperable religious differences.) Set in a dreary post-capitalist future of hive-like collectivization, where citizens must use “We” even when speaking of themselves as individuals, Anthem chronicles the liberation of “Equality 7-2521,” who discovers the tabooed word “I” in a hidden cache of books from “the Unmentionable Times.” Equality renames himself “Prometheus,” while his lover, “Liberty 3000,” becomes “Gaea,” earth mother of the ancient Greeks. Prometheus and Gaea divinize themselves: “This god, this one word: ‘I,’” Prometheus exults, anointing Gaea “the mother of a new kind of gods.” Through Prometheus, Rand explicates a brash and even lunatic theology of unconstrained individualism: “I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction. . . . This miracle of me is mine to own and keep . . . and mine to kneel before!” The only god Prometheus recognizes is himself, the proprietor and votary of his own divinity.

In her subsequent fiction and philosophy, Rand transfigured this nervy divinization of the self into a pecuniary moral and ontological sensibility. Her paradigmatic dramatis personae—Howard Roark of The Fountainhead (1943) and Galt and the copper mogul Francisco d’Anconia of Atlas Shrugged—stride through her pages like capitalist Ubermenschen, vainglorious masters of their professions who double as prodigies of existential excellence. Dominique Francon, Roark’s rape victim and eventually his wife, describes her rapist-husband as having “the face of a god”—echoing the awe of an architectural critic who calls him “a religious man . . . I can see that in your buildings.” Roark’s faith is in himself as a “creator,” a “Prime Mover,” he reflects, who is, like a deity, “self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated.” Like Roark, Galt dwells in a resplendence beleaguered by the herd: “Galt’s Gulch,” the rugged sanctuary of free enterprise in the collectivist world of Atlas Shrugged, is a “Utopia of Greed,” he boasts, “a paradise which is yours for the taking.”

Thus for Rand, heaven is a competitive marketplace, and divinity turns out to be a function of productivity, assessed and sacramentalized in the medium of money. Like Mises, Hayek, and the principle of cosmos, Rand made commodity fetishism into an inflexible catechetical standard. “We exist for the sake of earning rewards,” as Galt avers in one of his monotonous, interminable tirades; as d’Anconia remarks, “money is the barometer of a society’s virtue.”

With Rand, all the tell-tale elements of cult-worship were there: a venerated founder, quasi-ritualized conversions, sacred texts, and internecine factional squabbles.

Fetishized in the dollar-shaped diamond brooch she often sported, Rand’s love of money as the root of all good was a deliberate reversal of traditional morality, a Golden Rule for capitalist modernity. Trade, she explained in The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), is “the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.” The Randian entrepreneurial self “does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues”; keeping the strictest of ethical accountancy, he “earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved.” Even romantic love followed the abstract equivalence of pecuniary reason, constituting, in Rand’s view, “spiritual payment” rendered for “the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another’s character.” Rand had augured this principle in Anthem, where Prometheus, having conferred on himself the mantle of skinflint divinity, asserted—or rather warned—that other people must henceforth “earn my love.”

Manicheans of the Cash Nexus

Supplied with greater intellectual heft by the philosophical economy of Mises and Hayek, this would be “the Message,” as Whittaker Chambers mocked in his notorious evisceration of Atlas Shrugged in the National Review, the ultimate revelation that sundered the world into “the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness”—or, as Rand conceived the chasm, the “doers,” “makers,” and “creators” against all “moochers,” “looters,” and “second-hand souls,” the incarnate apotheosis of market humanism against the bovine existential riffraff. Though still an archfiend in left demonology thanks to his role in securing the espionage conviction of Alger Hiss, Chambers captured the essential religiosity of Rand’s magnum opus, an abrasive and popular presentiment of the pecuniary ontology of neoliberalism. This was Emerson’s “grinding economy” fabulized in the avaricious denizens of Galt’s Gulch; Mises’ mercenary rationality vindicated in the moral monetization of love; Hayek’s cosmos enacted in the market heroism of Promethean capitalist avatars.

Chambers thought Rand’s blasphemies “sophomoric” and her influence evanescent—“patent medicine,” he scoffed, a “brew” that was “probably without lasting ill effects.” But Chambers never envisioned how swiftly and widely Rand’s appeal would metastasize, or how completely the Market would exercise full-spectrum dominance over the moral and ontological imagination of America’s financial, technological, and political elites. Sixty years later, Rand’s books continue to pile up money for her publishers, while Speaker of the House Paul Ryan—a Catholic devotee of Atlas Shrugged—has seen the enactment of much of his undergraduate kegger fantasy of destroying the New Deal and remaking the country into a continental diorama of Galt’s libertarian Elysium.

Ryan shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for this calamity; every president since Reagan has bowed his head and genuflected before what the Gipper called “the magic of the market,” and both major political parties are rival synods of interpretation in the broad established church of neoliberalism. These days the most radical disciples of neoliberal divinity reside in Silicon Valley, where a gulch of “innovators” and “disruptors,” epitomized by PayPal co-founder and vampiric plutocrat Peter Thiel (an enthusiast of Objectivism and a recent recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Hayek Institute), beatify themselves as the avant-garde of the species, entitled to upend and destroy any lives that stand in the way of whatever “creative vision” they seek to technologize. Some even aspire to attain eternal life in the empyrean of the technological singularity, uploading their consciousness to the Cloud before their corporeal bodies expire.

What can infidels against neoliberalism pose to counter its hegemonic moneytheism? Even if most of the left still upholds a secular, disenchanted worldview in which neoliberalism figures as yet another hegemonic opiate—a stance that might well appeal to increasingly irreligious or unchurched Millennials—most Americans will probably respond more readily to some religious critique of capitalism. Yet turning to organized religion may in fact be of little or no avail; most clerics, of whatever persuasion, are bought and paid for in the ideological currency of the Money Cult. As always, prophetic witness will have to come from outside the temples of capitalist enchantment. Throughout American history, isolated heralds from a range of religions have declaimed against the reign of the Dollar Almighty; today, figures such as Rev. Dr. William J. Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove call for a “third Reconstruction” of the nation’s political economy. But until we see some compelling and popular alternative to the neoliberal moral and ontological imagination—some “passionate vision,” in William James’s words, that denies that the world is a business—we will all, believers or not, be forced to live in accordance with the dominion of dollars.

Eugene McCarraher is an associate professor of history at Villanova University.

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