The Malta Independent 18 June 2019, Tuesday

Independence Day 2018: The Neoliberal Religion

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 23 September 2018, 09:24 Last update: about 10 months ago

In this second part of my thoughts stemming from Independence Day 2018, I want to discuss some aspects of the Neoliberal Religion – the Religion of the Market –  to which the West has wholeheartedly and unreservedly converted. This religion’s high priest in Malta is well known.


Religious Architecture


When travelling across Europe and you come across a Catholic church, there’s a high probability that you will find the extravaganzas – so beloved to us Maltese, a Baroque nation – of the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic ideology, then dominant, aimed to ensure that everyone understood the glory of the Church and that without the Church there is no salvation.

That same determination to save humanity has been taken up by the new religion that has swept the West, ousting Christianity: Neoliberalism, the Religion of the Market. It propagates the belief that without the Market, there can be no salvation, that economic growth is more important than individuals and that we all have our role in the Market’s Salvific Plan. Peoples have to make sacrifices (austerity) to redeem themselves from sin (recession, crisis) and enter Heaven on Earth (ever-increasing economic growth).

But whereas in Christianity it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, in Neoliberalism it is easier for said animal to perform said feat than for wealth to be distributed fairly. In Neoliberalism, the fat grow fatter, the lean leaner, and the middle classes defend the system while the poor eye them with envy and resentment.

Catholicism spread its influence through the erection of churches. Similarly, Neoliberalism – the contemporary religion – manifests itself in high-rise glass towers and skyscrapers, usually flashing the name of the patron brand on their topmost parts. Wherever you go in the West, you will find these cathedrals dedicated to Holy Capital – from the major cities (Paris, London, Frankfurt, the American cities, Singapore) to the minor ones (Vilnius, Prague, Luxembourg).

Malta Cattolicissima is also converting to this new religion. To my mind, just like Muslim Malta became Malta Cattolicissima, so Malta Cattolicissima is fast becoming Malta Neoliberalissima. Possibly, this is because we are a frontier territory, and the periphery always faces the overwhelming temptation to prove that it belongs as much as the centre. The towers have to go up not necessarily to satisfy the demand for housing (this can rationally be met by making good use of the oversupply of vacant properties) but to satisfy the demand for psychological reassurances that we are not ambivalent but are prime specimens of the Contemporary Man, the Neoliberal.

At this stage, the question is obvious. If we have the third-largest unsupported dome in the world (Mosta), the sixth tallest church dome in the world (Xewkija), and we are the best in Europe and these are best of times, shall we build one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world to show that, while in the past we were more Catholic than the Pope, now we are more Neoliberal than Whoever-It-Is?


Religious Behaviour

At its core, the question of “should” and “can” is essentially religious. The religious code of conduct is replete with ‘shoulds’, even if they are expressed as ‘shalls’. (According to our nitwit experts, it’s impossible to make this distinction – shall versus should – in Maltese!)

But philosophy also explores this territory. Neoliberal pundits – such as the pseudo-professor (in the sense of know-it-all) Martin Scicluna and the real professor Kenneth Wain – love (mis)quoting Immanuel Kant, one of the foremost philosophers of the Enlightenment. Kant argued that you “can” because you “must”. This imperative is important for liberalism, because it somehow justifies the autonomy of the individual by transforming an obligation (“must”) into an instance of freedom to act (“can”).

Slavoj ?i?ek, the contemporary philosopher and insightful follower of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, teaches that in our times, the imperative has been turned on its head: from “you can because you must” to “you must because you can”.

This is the danger (and pitfall) of neoliberal religious behaviour: because you can do something, then you must do it. The possibility of choosing whether to do or not to do something unleashes an anxiety so big that it can be resolved only by doing that something. Not doing it will simply fuel the anxiety. It’s a bit like antibiotics: you should not take them indiscriminately, but since you can, then you must take them, even if you know that you are contributing to the emergence of resistant superbugs.

All said and done, while Christianity is a religion of restraint, Neoliberalism is a religion of satisfaction of demand.

This explains why abortion, for instance, has become a common method of contraception in much of Europe and even in Muslim countries where Neoliberalism has spread and abortion is allowed.


No nation-state, only market

Whereas in a theocracy, state and religious institutions conflate, in the neoliberal system the nation-state dissolves into the acid of the Market, emitting a miasma of despair.

If you think about it, this receding of politics to allow power to be managed by economics was only bound to happen. When kings and other potentates used to decide to default on their loans, their creditors had to be mindful of the fact that their royal and noble debtors had armies and judicial mechanisms to carry out executions. The liberal constitutional system created legal ways and means to oblige the state to repay its debts toward private subjects of the law. Since power is money’s faithful servant, it was only natural that power should leave the Chamber of Politics and move to the Chamber of Economics.

The dissolution of the nation-state implies its replacement by supranational structures holding supranational markets. Is this a good or a bad thing?

For the so-called “populists”, it is a bad thing. They clamour for national identity, traditional values, religious cohesion, work for local workers. For the Neoliberals, it is a good thing as they seek economic growth more than anything else, arguing that economic growth translates into personal growth and increased autonomy for the individual. Clearly, the question is: which individual? Is economic growth egalitarian, or is it limited to the elite?


“Mercatus nunc religio et patria”

My Latinist friend whose name I shall not mention, was adamant I should not use the subheading that I, in my ignorance, had originally thought up: “Mercatus nova religio et nova patria est”. Instead, he convinced me to use Mercatus nunc religio et patria, and I paid heed to his advice.

Indeed the Market, with its ‘religious’ and ‘patriotic’ trappings, has become the new religion and the new homeland. Modes of behaviour are exhorted in order to lubricate the wheels of the Market, and sacrifices are expected for its sake.

To ease anxious consciences, the Neoliberal Religion – for example – insists on waste separation  (when many problems could be avoided just by reverting to glass instead of persisting with the use of plastic) and publicises multi-million donations to charity by billionaire Big Business.

The Market has become like a pre-Christian god who demands human sacrifice but, this time, in the name of endless economic growth. The question is: just like Christianity in its heyday could not be stopped, is the Market Religion today also unstoppable?

This question conceals the issues that need to be analysed by the political party associated with the battle-cry Religio et Patria, in the wake of Independence Day 2018.


My Personal Library (22)

The books of Slavoj ?i?ek and Diego Fusaro are good guides for the times in which we are living. ?i?ek is a Slovene philosopher referred to as the ‘Elvis of philosophy’ and Fusaro is an Italian philosopher who appears regularly on Italian TV talk shows. These two authors claim to be Marxists, but theirs is a strange Marxism.

Only recently, Fusaro participated in a book published in German, in Germany, called Marx from the Right (Marx von Rechts, 2018), a way of reading Marx and waving goodbye to Marxism without falling for Neoliberalism.

One of ?i?ek’s books is called Living in the End Times (2010), a title meant to gibe at a number of positions – but perhaps when you have rightists discovering, exploring and explaining Marx, we are really in the ‘end times’ and on the eve of something new and interesting.


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