Let’s think of capitalism as a religion. If capitalism is a religion — if it needs disciples to adhere to and pass on certain doctrinal truths to survive as an ideology — what are its foundational precepts? For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s hypothesize that clues are found in some of the dominate secular tropes of capitalist societies.
In this post, I contemplate the idea that the so-called, unofficial ‘State Religion of Capitalism’ has evolved four central tenets:
- Be your authentic self
- Do what you love
- You only live once
- Follow your dreams
It is important to acknowledge that most adherents of this creed are inadvertent disciples. Devotees to this religion are not ‘born again’ so much as they are ‘born into’ the cult. Their beliefs are as invisible and ‘natural’ as they air they breathe; the truth of their tenets is as self-evident as the wind.
Be your authentic self
First, Be your authentic self serves as the basis for the whole religion. Capitalism requires a population that conflates consumption with identity. Stuff must equate to status. Nothing is more precious to capital than a population in need of differentiating themselves as distinct individuals. Therefore, as in most religions, disciples of capitalism are required to believe that they possess some special inner spirit seeking expression in a physical world. Accordingly, activities and purchases become the holy indulgences that give manifestation of this inner self.
Above all, a devoted follower of this religion must seek to find their ‘true self.’ This pursuit is paramount — the holiest of pilgrimages. The ambition to ‘know thyself’ and ‘to thine own self be true’ must be elevated to the status of spiritual conviction. To second-guess the presence of one’s inner deity amounts to doctrinal heresy and threatens to pave the road to hell itself: a psychological crisis of identity.
(The apex of religious indoctrination is achieved when supposedly avowed skeptics of capitalism signal their counter individuality through consumption — consumption that is branded to advertise opposition to capitalism itself.)
In the religion of capitalism, authenticity is the golden rule. To find and express your true self is the highest call. (Is your ‘true self’ the ‘self’ who does the searching or the ‘self’ you find? Ignore this blasphemous the doubt! Just keep searching! You’ll find the ‘authentic you’ eventually.) Your self-actualization is your promised land. Your nirvana. Your heaven. But until you reach it, you should try buying something else to see if it helps you express or uncover some ephemeral kernel of your essence. Individuality is the kool-aid. In the final analysis, the quest to find and express your ‘true self’ is mostly corporately-sponsored nonsense.
Do what you love
This holy preoccupation with self — its passions, its identity, its expression — leads to the second tenet of the religion: Do what you love. Once you have internalized the myth of an invisible, indivisible, sacred self, you must do what this inner god commands. After all, to do anything otherwise would be inauthentic — and nothing could be more sinful than inauthenticity.
The oxygen of capitalism thus becomes a mass neurosis: the desirability of some occupations above others. This cultural dogma declares that you can’t possibly live a happy and fulfilled life as a janitor or barista. No, you must do something more: you must do something you love. You must do something that rings true to the spirit of your inner entity. Failure to do this is failure to live fully.
The treadmill of capitalism is fuelled by insoluble discontentment. Chronic dissatisfaction gives power to the myth of eventual self-fulfillment. In this religion, you are not only compelled to find your imaginary, make-believe inner self, but you must also find a career that is worthy of your divine royalty. This goal, of course, impossible for everyone to achieve: at least as long as someone still needs to clean the toilets and spread the manure. If ‘salvation’ means crossing the finish line having achieved the promised nirvana of self-actualizing career, then the religion is a sentence to futility and purposelessness for far more people than for whom it serves as the liberating promise of equality and opportunity.
You only live once
The third doctrine in the canon of capitalism: You only live once. This statement, of course, is descriptively true, but capitalism turns the assertion into a value-laden, normative teaching. There is no objective reason why paying someone to jump out of an airplane with a parachute is necessitated by the fact that you only have one life to live. But slapping the #YOLO hashtag on the activity now gives it transcendent value. This attribution of spiritual meaning is the power of religious practice, and #YOLO is spiritual practice par excellence.
To survive and thrive, capitalism must co-opt #YOLO. In truth, there are an infinite number of ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’ that arise every day — more potential opportunities than can be experienced in any lifetime — and there’s no reason why missing any of them somehow makes the rest of life any less worth living. In fact, one might see such ‘lost opportunities’ as salient reminders of one’s temporality and impermanence, pointing to the inherent limitations of existence itself. And this might lead one to contemplate the finitude of ‘experience.’ Capitalism can have none of this. Capitalism exists to commodify, package, and sell experience to us. Ergo, experience must be detrivialized in the name of self-identity. #YOLO thus becomes a currency to increase the net worth of the authentic self.
Follow your dreams
The final tenet of this religion is to Follow your dreams at all costs. At first, this doctrine seems benign — if for no other reason than for its sheer ambiguity — but it has startling implications.
If you were an alien explorer, investigating planet Earth for the first time, you might justifiably conclude that the Walt Disney enterprise is some cult, too. At the heart of all things Disney, you will find admonishment to believe in your dreams, no matter what. “If you keep on believing,” sang Cinderella in 1950, “The dream that you wish will come true.”
A few years ago, my family made the pilgrimage to the Disney World shrine in Florida. To be a guest of the Disney corporation is to be reminded at every turn that you are ‘a very special person’ and that you should ‘never give up on just being yourself.’ From the rides to the stage attractions, the clear mission of a Disney theme park to wrap you in a blanket of positivity before herding you through the turnstiles of endless souvenir shops. The idyllic and surreal design of everything manifests the Disney doctrine through sheer repetition: if you keep believing in your dreams, one day they will come true.
But is this true? What evidence supports this claim? What do we accept as evidence? More importantly, should we repeat this mantra to children as if it is gospel truth?
I might pray to God for my dreams come true. The fact that my dreams have not yet come true does not prove that God doesn’t exist. It just means I’m still waiting on God to answer my prayers. The Disney creed is equally unfalsifiable: there is nothing empirical that can disprove Cinderella’s dogmatic belief in the inevitability of her dreams, either. The lack of fruition means nothing.
Capitalism requires me to believe the same thing. My dreams are the promise that this religion sells back to me. If my dreams have not yet come true, it is only because capitalism hasn’t delivered yet. As long as I am willing to believe that my dreams will come true — despite any and all indicators that nothing is changing — I will continue to reverently chase my own tail through the holy of holies. For as long as the religious order requires that a majority of us minions to do our menial tasks obediently, the system will continue to promise us that our work will set us free.
Doubting the religion
For most of us, denouncing these doctrines of capitalism amount to something like a crisis of faith. We are equipped with an array of neurological defense mechanisms, ready to thwart any attack on the institution of our convictions. Besides, most of us are already now so invested in the religion — our meanings, our careers, our identities — that to question the cult now seems dangerously destabilizing. As with most religious brainwashing, the cost of leaving the faith seems higher than the cognitive dissonance that comes with saving face.
I should confess that I remain a believer in many aspects of capitalism. In fact, I still cherish the freedom, innovation, and creativity that is inspired by the religion. But I do not buy the underlying mythology that corporate priests preach about the nature of personal identity and value. Beyond religion, we find a world is that is not so binary, either/or. Capitalism, like most every other religion, wants you to believe that it is the only means of salvation. But it has plenty of dark corners, too.
Perhaps the next time your television, magazine, or social media network tries to leverage and exploit your authentic self, your passion to do what you love, your devout commitment to carpe diem everything with a hashtag, or the unique sanctity of your dreams, perhaps you will think to yourself… “When did I explicitly sign up for this religion? When did I declare my adherence to this doctrine? Who is selling me the supposed ‘self-evident’ truths of this belief system?”