Capitalism as Cult

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

In one of his unfinished fragments, Walter Benjamin comes up with a simple and brilliant response to Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit Of Capitalism. For Weber, the “Spirit of Capitalism” draws from Protestantism a teleological postponement of materiality through the ethics of work. Rejecting Weber’s division between the ‘spirit’ and structure of Capitalism, Benjamin determines that it is instead “an essentially religious phenomenon”: “Capitalism has developed as a parasite of Christianity in the West…”, but now it reaches “the point where Christianity’s history is essentially that of its parasite”.[1] More interestingly, though, Benjamin concludes that rather than a dogmatic religion, “Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed”. Capitalism refuses the religious structure of the eternal deferral of salvation and the permanent futurity of the fulfilment of the Weberian ‘calling’ and exchanges it with an immediate and actual potential for salvation in the here and now. Under Capitalism “there are no weekdays”, writes Benjamin, “there is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us”. This rejection of dogma, of the supposition of a higher and external truth that ethically guides the individual in a pursuit of unattainable perfection, historically served as the axiom for most eschatological heresies and cults. But these groups always existed as subcultures whose interpretation remained subversive in relation to the official dogma. In the cult of Capitalism, though, this idea is no longer oppositional and is extended to society as a whole: if salvation is present and contingent then so is the apocalyptic moment already contained in the present. Like in a host of Sci-fi and horror films of the last decade, Constantine, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, The Others, to name just a few, the apocalypse had already occurred, the world is already dead and gripped by entropy and the only thing that holds together the semblance of life is an epistemological refusal to adhere to this truth.

If in Capitalism transcendence is replaced with immanence, Benjamin continues, salvation is replaced by guilt. If the potential to achieve absolution exists in the actuality, if one can be saved in the here and now, then any failure to do so, any disappointment or unhappiness in the present immediately manifests itself as guilt: “Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement”.[2] In this formulation, the substitution of salvation for guilt correlates to the fulfilment of desire and the production of guilt in Freudian psychoanalysis, as well as to the consumerist cycle that ties self-actualisation to debt. As a consequence, “Capitalism… is a religion which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction”: the fulfilment of its prophecies can only come true in a complete eradication of its most basic assertions.[3] This is why the counter-cultural absolute rejection of reformist and participatory politics and its flipside, the ethos of uncompromising political purity against a more benign realpolitik are essentially the greatest expressions of belief in the system laid out by Capitalism, a system in which one is forever complicit in one’s own passive collaboration. “God”, writes Benjamin “may be addressed only when [man’s] guilt is at its zenith”.[4]

But the implications of Benjamin’s hypothesis, that Capitalism isn’t merely a counterpart to protestant values but actually forms its own religion, go beyond an individual subject constituted by this creed. According to Emile Durkheim, a religious practice (whether organised or cultish) is defined by its social nature and its function in defining and organising societies: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things […] beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”[5] Religious rituals, far from being secondary expressions of faith, are where society creates and recreates its own ideal every time it repeats them communally:

Thus is explained the preponderating role of the cult in all religions […] This is because society cannot make its influence felt unless it is in action, and it is not in action unless the individuals who compose it are assembled together and act in common […] A society can neither create itself nor recreate itself without at the same time creating an ideal. This creation is not a sort of work of supererogation for it, by which it would complete itself, being already formed; it is the act by which it periodically made and remade.[6]

In this definition, Durkheim makes a clear distinction between religious practices, which are for him always collective, and magic, in which “the magician has no need of uniting himself to his fellows to practise his art”. Furthermore, even if such a community of magicians exists, it extends only to those practising magic and not necessarily to anyone believing in it: “A church… is a community formed by all believers in a single faith, laymen as well as priests. But magic lacks any such community”.[7]

In light of this, the implication of Benjamin’s assertion that Capitalism is the dominant religion of our time is that the guilt at its centre (which is also debt, as neatly encapsulated in the German Schuld) is also the thing that bonds the community together. Not only are we a community because we are all indebted to each other, in an ironic fulfilment of the solidarity whose absence Marcel Mauss bemoaned in early Capitalism, but even those who choose not to practise Capitalism, the laymen in Durkheim’s account, still belong to the church.[8] Benjamin writes: “religion… regarded individual who were irreligious or had other beliefs as members of its community, in the same way that the modern bourgeoisie now regards those of its members who are not gainfully employed”.[9] As we can see, Benjamin does not leave any space outside the community encircled by Capitalism and his description acknowledges the incredible flexibility and elasticity of the practise of Capitalism, redefining itself again and again to include all under the auspices of guilt and debt. This is why art practices which seek to reject the ethos of work and to withdraw completely from the cycle of consumption and production (from the art strikes of Gustav Metzger and Stuart Home to Michael Landy’s Breakdown) are tolerated or even encouraged by the art market, declining to participate does not deny you of membership.

Miller: Well, I don't see it like that. I mean, I feel like that -- as long as there's life, there's hope. That's my faith.

Jones: Well -- someday everybody dies. Some place that hope runs out, because everybody dies. I haven't seen anybody yet didn't die. And I'd like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I'm tired of being tormented to hell, that's what I'm tired of. (Pause) Tired of it. Crowd: Applause

Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, The Jonestown Institute.[10]

The ultimate act of ‘dropping out’, of exodus from the Capitalist church is the suicide cult. It is also, paradoxically, the ultimate expression of the logic of Capitalism, and in it the accumulation of the guilt produced by Capitalism is finally given a generative act of resistance, of selfhood. This is the cultic potlatch, the destruction of the thing one holds dearest, of the very life of the community, as a ritualistic gift to the world. In Benjamin’s words: “it is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation”.[11] The mass suicide of the Jim Jones’ ‘Communists’ as he called them should have been the last and final move in the dialectical relationship between religion and Capitalism. The birth of the new Capitalist subject is announced by Jones in the last sentence before sipping the cyanide-laced grape flavoured ‘Flavor Aid’: “We didn't commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world".[12] This is a very short distance from the black Panthers’ transformation of the ‘slow suicide of the ghetto’ into a triumphant death (the elevation of economic despair into action) and a firm step in the direction of suicide bombers, edging on the territory of ‘bare life’ that Giorgio Agamben borrows from Benjamin, the sacrifice of life as a gesture caught in the cogs of the dialectics of political action.[13]

Durkheim defines sacrifice as the linking together of two religious elements – the communion with the gods and the offering or oblation, “a gift and an act of renouncement”.[14] Why else would the gods require food from the believers? He explains this interdependence as a consequence of the idea that without the faith of the community, the gods would literally die. In other words, the sacrificial rite is both a union of a society with its gods in a joint act of biological constitution (you are what you eat – if men and gods share food they become the same, and by extension, so does the entire community) and an offering to the gods who, according to Durkheim, depend on men as much as men depend on them. Hence, the sacrifice of the self in the suicide cult is twofold: it is a symbolic act of unification which implicates all under Capitalism. If in Capitalist society consumer relations dominate, this is an act of supreme consumption, in which modern man cannibalises and deifies himself at once. We all drink from the fountain of Flavour Aid.

Yet, if we continue Benjamin’s dialectical model in which Capitalism grew on religion as a parasite to the point where it has supplanted the host, the new religious movements that keep emerging from within Capitalism as mutations in the body politic could well surpass it as a historical moment. This is certainly the explicit aspiration of Scientology, which is fast growing into a bizarre synthesis of religion and Capitalist enterprise that could replace both. Unlike the hippie cults of the 1960s and ‘70s was established by L. Ron Hubbard in concomitance with contemporary power, rather than as a radical break with it: “We seek no revolution. We seek only evolution to higher states of being for the individual and for society”.[15] From the outset, scientology organised itself as a cross between a self-help seminary, designed to help middle managers achieve maximum success in their careers and a dualistic eastern philosophy. Set up as a religion (initially off shore) for tax evasion purposes, it was also registered as a business, to protect trade secrets, and continues to mix dry yet enthusiastic Californian corporate sloganeering with a stern authoritative moral tone. “We welcome you to Scientology. We only expect of you your help in achieving our aims and helping others. We expect you to be helped”.[16]

For Weber, the Protestant idea that one was either saved or damned at birth led to a need to verify this status. In the absence of a higher authority like the Catholic priest, worldly accumulation became the measure of salvation: one knew one had been chosen because one had been successful and prosperous, and therefore work became a means of glorifying God.[17] In accordance with Benjamin’s ideas of a Capitalist cult and as a logical conclusion of the Protestant ethic as identified by Weber, Scientology does not externalise salvation as unattainable by the practicing individual but locates it in the process of auditing, the cleansing ritual itself becoming equated with spiritual fulfilment:

Salvation in the Scientology religion is much different and much more immediate. In the tradition of certain Eastern religions, Scientology teaches that salvation is attained through increasing one’s spiritual awareness. The complete salvation of the thetan, called ‘Total Freedom’ in Scientology, is attainable through the practice of Scientology religious services.[18]

This ‘total freedom’ is achieved by “a precise and practical route […] through personal revelation”, gives birth to a renewed ‘native personality’, or ‘clear’, who through auditing manages to erase the residual traumas stored in the ‘reactive mind’. It is immanent, and can be located in practice, dispensing with the Christian emphasis on faith. Salvation comes from the organisation of life itself.

This process, while staged in the group setting of the ‘org’ or organisation, is highly solipsistic. A central principle of the religion is the division of the urge to survive into eight dynamics, beginning with the self and leading in concentric circles to the sex or family; group, nation or race; mankind or species; life forms, or animals and plants, universe (MEST or matter, energy, space, time); theta or spirits; and supreme being or infinity.[19] This emphasis on self-improvement, central to most new religious movements, is at the core of the ascension to various stages of enlightenment, towards "the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, others and all of life”.[20] Scientology aims to teach its adherence ‘self-determinism’, opposed in its tenets to ‘other-determinism’, literally seeking to abolish politics as the interplay of power between people. Recruits have to learn not just a higher awareness and control of their own emotional responses and decision-making processes but also to project these onto others. According to the Fishman Affidavit, which made confidential documents from training sessions widely available, exercises include the following at level Operating Thetan VII:

OT7-30 Locate a person from whom you are separate.
Locate a person who is separate from you.

OT7-31 Point out a difference between that person's body and yours.

OT7-35 Think a thought in (on) that person
Do you see that person?
Think a thought in (on) him/ her
Did the thought appear where it is?

OT7-36 From that person make a choice between (indicated positions or objects).

OT7-37 Putting the decision on (in) that person, make a decision about him/her.[21]

Thus, the social body is understood only as an extension of the self, to be manipulated and controlled in order to ensure maximum self-expression (creativity being the province of the thetan). Interestingly, this essentially liberal notion mirrors the avant-garde premise that private artistic expression ultimately leads or equates to a universal fulfilment of freedom for all.

Chapter three of the Creed of the Church of Scientology teaches us that “increased spiritual awareness brings about greater responsibility and participation as regards one’s family, one’s group and all the other dynamics, including the Supreme Being”.[22] We see here that instead of the rejection of bourgeois morality and the fundamental structures of modern society that typified the cults of the 1960s, Scientology adopts these values and extends Capitalism’s historical moment into the eternity described by Guy Debord as pseudo-cyclical time.[23] At the same time, social responsibility is expressed in self-determinism, the aim being total control over ones circumstances rather than negotiation of these with others. If before the demand was to externalise guilt as revolt, thereby accepting its domination, Scientology unites the suffering subject with the causes of his torment: in the corporate neo-speak of Scientology, auditing is when one finally ‘banks’ on the “the accumulation of his pains and misfortunes, confusions and his own moral transgressions”. [24]

If Salvation and spiritual awareness does not mean ‘dropping out’ anymore but a renewed faith in the foundations of the Capitalist religion, Scientology is possibly the first religion to acknowledge the fact that social responsibility and a shared communal project of well being under Capitalism are simply systems of distributing guilt (the tenets of the religion being to an extent secret, one has to incur debt in order to access them, becoming one with Capitalism in the most concrete fashion – spiritual salvation as a return on investment). In Scientology, this rationalisation and compartmentalisation of guilt, the imprint of violence on the psyche that latches on to the originally pure but corrupted ‘thetan’ through several life cycles, is linked to a project of survival. Infinite survival is defined as “the primary goal of all life forms” and forms “the dynamic principle of existence”.[25] The Church thus takes on the role of the state as a bureaucratic organisation whose sole purpose is to ensure the existence of bare life, the body’s basic right to survive.

To return to the question posited by our mapping of Durkheim’s understanding of religion onto Benjamin’s conflation of religion and Capitalism: what becomes of a society forged in the rituals of free enterprise? An uncorroborated wikipedia entry suggests that at OTVII it is revealed that the “physical body is not just covered with Body Thetans, but is literally composed of them".[26] Regardless of whether or not this is true, this final dispersal of the body, like a minion of Satan in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness whose insect body is revealed to have no core, is a perfect metaphor for what becomes of the body politic when the ideal of society is constituted by the religion of Capitalism. Despite being increasingly networked, we remain atomised within a boundless social body: all that is solid melts into air.

[1] Benjamin, Walter “Capitalism as Religion” in: Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol. 1 1913 – 1926 (Jennings, Michael W. ed), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004 p. 288.

[2] Benjamin, W. “Capitalism as Religion”, p. 288.

[3] Benjamin, W. “Capitalism as Religion”, p. 289.

[4] Benjamin, W. “Capitalism as Religion”, p. 289.

[5] Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, George Allem & Unwin, London, 1976, p. 47.

[6] Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, pp. 218 - 222.

[7] Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 45.

[8] Although Mauss’ The Gift is an anthropological study of gift based economies, its explicit purpose was to understand the relationship of the obligations they set up to the those of the modern money based model. Mauss ends with a complaint that the use of money in modern western society evacuated the social bonds formed by the elaborate rituals of exchange he found in Papua New Guinea and among the Inuits. Mauss, Marcel, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, Routledge: London, 1990. Bataille and later the Situationists took up his description of the potlatch, an escalating gift exchange that ends in self-annihilation, as a template for overloading the system of infinite desire posited by Capitalism. Marcus, Greil, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

[9] Benjamin, W. “Capitalism as Religion”, p. 290.

[10] Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project: Transcripts, Transcript prepared by Fielding M. McGehee, III, The Jonestown Institute, Tape Number Q 042, at: [accessed 12.3.08].

[11] Benjamin, W. “Capitalism as Religion”, p. 289.

[12] Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project: Transcripts

[13] Benjamin developed the idea of bare life, which Agamben draws on heavily in Homo Sacer, in the same year he researched Capitalism as a religion. In “Critique of Violence”, he rejects the notion of the sacredness of life as mere, or bare life, and claims that it serves as justification for the mythical violence which constitutes the power of the state. In order to bestow rights on its citizens, the state has to exclude a prior form of naked life that has no rights. Benjamin, W., “Critique of Violence”, in: Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol. 1 1913 – 1926 (Jennings, Michael W. ed), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004 p. 236-52.

[14] Durkheim, Emile, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 342.

[15] Hubbard, L. Ron, The Aims of Scientology, 1954, at:

[16] Hubbard, L. Ron, The Aims of Scientology, 1954

[17] Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Routledge: London, 2001.

[18] “The Creed of the Church of Scientology”, chapter 2, p. 9 [accessed 12.3.08].

[19] “The Creed of the Church of Scientology”, chapter 2, pp. 10-18 [accessed 12.3.08].

[20] “Introduction to Scientology” at: [accessed 12.3.08].

[21] The Fishman Affidavit is the case file for Church of Scientology International v. Fishman and Geertz, in which the Church sues ex-Scientologist Steven Fishman after he revealed some of its secrets, available at: [accessed 12.3.08].

[22] “The Creed of the Church of Scientology”, chapter 3, p. 1 [accessed 12.3.08].

[23] For Debord, the linear notion of ‘irreversible’ time that came to replace agrarian cyclical time no longer applies to the society of the spectacle. Time as a commodity is disguised as a pseudo-cyclical time made of homogenous and exchangeable units. False cycles of product innovations, vacations and other consumable time blocks serve to differentiate time units that are in reality the same, the only purpose of these distinctions being the creation of new products and services. Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle [Donald Nicholson Smith – tr.], New York: Zone Books, 1997.

[24] “The Creed of the Church of Scientology”, chapter 3, p. 0 [accessed 12.3.08].

[25] “The Creed of the Church of Scientology”, chapter 2, p. 10

[26] [accessed 12.3.08].