Capitalist Leveling and the Problem of Pagan Values
In my essay from April 27th, “Towards a Pagan Politics”, I claimed that capitalism levels all values while paganism is committed to a pluralism of irreducibly different values. I lacked time and space then to fully flesh out this point, but I would like to dedicate myself here to clarifying and expanding upon the claim.
What is Value?
I think that my claim could have been made even stronger, specifically that while capitalism starts out as the dominance of one value over all others it becomes a complete loss of all sense of value. Capitalism is a nihilism of the most banal sort. Paganism, on the other hand, is dedicated to the rich complexity, vibrancy and value-laden nature of life. To see how and why this is the case we need to investigate the concept of value rather closely.
Today we have a highly subjective concept of value (which is, itself, largely an effect of capitalism). In other words, we understand the noun “value” from its verb form – we primarily understand value as what a thing has because it is valued by someone. Without human valuing, on this reason, nothing would have value. In other words, value has no reality in and of itself but rather derives from human actions or resides in human minds alone. The models here, of course, are the little pieces of paper and metal which we make into valuable money because we treat it as such.
But the actual word for value, and the origins of the concept behind the word, comes from words for strength and power. Relative terms, surely, but not subjective ones. Value, valor, virtue, virility all share the same origin. Far from the model of money, their most primordial model is fire (another word which is cognate with value) and, we might suggest, the incontestable importance of light and the sun.
Value shines. It is that which shines-out to us, that which shines for us. It does not shine because we make it shine, but rather it calls to us as the sun draws the plant that leans towards it. Nature, everywhere, values because it responds to the obvious presence of real value. At the most basic level we might say that wherever there is the force of attraction there is value. The earth values the sun when the day-star sets its path and motivation.
Human values are no different, they are the draw of things of power and importance that appear to us and define us as those who can see them. Value, then, is inseparable from the concept of a calling. We do not, cannot, determine or choose what will call us. We can only listen, or refuse to listen, to the call.
If we contemplate the model of values as fire and as light we see that values determine how the world shows up for us. Certain things leap out at us, whether dramatic or small, as important, worthy of respect, or in need of a response from us. Values, then, are reality’s opening of a conversation with us – a conversation to be enacted through what we do. The light determines the look of things, what shows up and what doesn’t, and how things appear. It is in the light of how reality reveals itself to me, as value – worth – beauty – truth – that I become who I am and act upon the world as it has appeared.
Divinities and Nature
One of the oldest forms of value are the goddesses and gods whose shining appearance cast the whole of reality into a certain aspect and form. Since before history, when values called to humanity they called through the voice of the divinities. For the same reason, when ancient heroes displayed valor or virtue they were understood to embody or be empowered by one of the gods, they become the active body of value. This is, in fact, what virtue first meant, to embody value i.e. the power and truth of a divinity. Far from subjective creations, value was understood to be the revealing of a truth most frequently encountered as a divinity.
This connection between values and divinities explains, as well, the connection between divinities and nature. In the power and beauty of the river shone forth the face of a goddess or god, the aspect of a value. In the terror and force of the mountain or storm unveiled the might of some divinity and a demand – a value.
None of this is to suggest, however, that divinities are symbols of values. The situation is far more the reverse. We have emptied values of their active vitality, and so find it hard to understand that values are experienced in the action and event of basic truths, forces, powers and realities appearing to us. Values, as active agents, are better taken as symbols of the divinities than the reverse.
To repeat a few points from my previous essay, pagan values will be distinct in being plural. The recognition of several diverse and separate divinities is, at the same time, the recognition that reality is made up of a plurality of irreducible forces and truths. There are always many values, and they cannot be translated one into another or reduced one to another. The many values, as the many gods, are incommensurable – they share no common measure against which they can be organized and unified. There is no unity, no totality, no final truth and ultimate value. Despite that, however, certain values and gods will call to each individual in a unique manner. I will serve certain divinities, enlightened by certain values, and you others. It is only together that we gain a better grasp of the endless plurality that is reality but not through totalizing the diversity of values, truths and ways of life.
Profit and Power
Capitalism is necessarily monotheist in its metaphysics in the sense that it reduces all values to one ultimate value, specifically the standard of price. The market admits, indeed relies upon, the fact that people will value different things and disagree about a given thing’s value but one element is asserted (and echoed in economics) without question – that all things will be reducible to a price either individually or based on the statistical average of what people are willing to pay. We see obvious examples of this in terms of risk calculations that determine how many people can be injured or killed by a product before the risk gets too expensive for a company. Human life, suffering, and death can all be reduced to a price. So too can environmental destruction. How much profit, it is asked, can be extracted from the earth before the destruction outweighs and benefit? Forest and mountains, entire species and nations, all have their price. For the market and the capitalist there is absolutely nothing which can not be numbered, calculated – price checked. In this sense capitalism is leveling, it levels the diversity of values to the basic point of price.
It is easy to assume, then, that capitalism places wealth or profit as the ultimate value to which all others may be reduced but this is, in fact, naïve. For many the goal might be wealth or profit, but the illusory nature of wealth is inherent to capitalism’s own system. Money is just worthless paper and metal unless people behave as if it is not, and the wealthiest people and wealthiest businesses have far more money than the search for wealth would really justify. Wealth is a finite value, but capitalist leveling knows no end. Wealth is finite in the sense that it can only be used and enjoyed up to a certain point, beyond that point you have more than you can use or you have too much for there to be anything or anyone left to buy. A society made up of three wildly wealthy people and a hoard of the desperately poor is a society in poverty for poor and rich alike, there will be nothing to own because nothing produced and no one to sell it. This is why the collapse of the middle class is always the death knell for those who value wealth.
Capitalism knows no limit because it isn’t about wealth, it is about power and control. The rise of capitalism wasn’t about the desire and valuing of wealth conquering all other values, it was about certain social classes and members of professions attempting to gain power over other classes and roles. In this sense the dream of capitalism and science are similar: complete and total control – the ability to order and measure all things. This move, however, from profit to control is the move from leveling to nihilism. We might, similarly, understand it as a transition from trade to The Market. To understand this transition it will be necessary to briefly turn our eyes to Karl Marx and the analysis he offers in Capital.
Money and Market, from Leveling to Nihilism
Money and trade have been around for a long time, long before capitalism proper. The most ancient cultures engaged in trade and, indeed, had gods of trade. But despite the existence of money trade wasn’t about profit measured in cash, it was about concrete diverse goods. In Capital Marx lays out two primary and different processes of exchange in which money might function. First, and most ancient, is the use of money as a medium for exchange. We can represent this in the following way in terms of Money (M) and the concrete goods of Commodities (C):
C -> M -> C
This process represents the use of a good you have, say grain you have grown, to arrive at money through trade that is then used to purchase another good such as shoes. This is the same basic process as direct trade of goods where grain would be exchanged for shoes but money as a medium allows for a wider range of trade since it can be used to buy many things and so doesn’t require the grain producer to find a shoe maker in need of grain. The goal here is goods, or commodities, and the process can be used in service to any set of values since various values can be served through the goods/commodities we aim to purchase. This process can also be in service to wealth, as the collective commodities the process aims at might by those of luxury, riches, and so on. This is what, indeed, most people think goes on in the market, which misses the fundamental nature of capitalism.
The above ancient process transforms in more modern capitalism into this process:
M -> C -> M
We can see the contrast between these two processes clearly if we consider the difference between ancient trade, and the values it frequently served, and the modern Market economy. Ancient trade was most distinctly in service of diversity and plurality. Its gods, such as Janus and Hermes, were gods of new beginnings and doorways. Trade was united, unavoidably, with travel and so the gods of trade were also the gods of travel. The collection of values which group around these related ideas of newness, beginnings, openness, and travel make clear that trade was undertaken in the spirit of curiosity and cultural enrichment rather than strictly of profit or wealth. The image of ancient trade was the wild diversity of the agora marketplace or bazaar. The marketplace was a failure if it lacked a pluralism of goods and life. Money, while perhaps used for exchange (though not always so used), hardly features into it at all.
In contrast, the image of the modern Market is the bank or stock exchange, replete with numbers and abstract symbols of exchange-value – money. An ancient marketplace can’t function without diversity and strangeness, but the modern Market does not require diversity. This is why it is possible to use money to buy money and then, in turn, to make money from the exchange. This is what happens in currency exchanges, or the purchasing and selling of debt. The modern Market can be strictly empty of commodities and still function, because what is being bought and sold are certain patterns of money. It is not, however, just that the modern Market doesn’t require diversity of goods. Rather, it actively militarizes against it. Since all things on the Market must be reduced to price, i.e. exchange-value, there is already inherent in the Market a basic drive towards interchangeability and similarity. Things that are too new, or too weird, become difficult to price and must, at all cost, be either dismissed from the Market or made to conform to the Market’s prices. But, of course, in contemporary capitalism the world is the Market, and vice versa, so all things must be reduced and ordered. Even “priceless” works of art are insured for specific amounts.
The fact that money itself, much like luxury and wealth, can be exchanged and priced makes clear that the final goal of capitalism and its one world Market is not money, wealth or profit. The goal is order, of a very special sort. The Market’s goal is an ordered world in which all things are reduced to their Market price, a world in which one need never deal with faces, textures, sights or feelings but rather numbers alone. The essence of the Capitalist Market is the force of translation and reduction. In this it shares an essence with modern industrial science, whose goal is the reduction of all things to raw materials from which power (might like price) is to be extracted and transformed. Mountain to coal, coal to energy, energy to work and so on – the process of transformation pursues only its own growth so that anything that is produced is so only to increase the power of production. Ultimately in each case power seeks only its own growth without end or purpose, and this growth of power is a process of leveling or pricing.
It is precisely this lack of goal or purpose that represents the nihilistic nature of the Capitalist Market. It ultimately knows no goal and no specific values. It is without commitment. In this sense, it is also without actors. The C.E.O. is a tool of the ongoing growth and ordering of the Market as much as anyone else. None escape the invisible claw. There is no outside the process, and so no ultimate leader or beneficiary of it. Even the richest and most powerful people in the world have a very specific market value that marks the point at which they can be exchanged for someone or something else.
This unbounded nature of capitalism may derive from its historical and conceptual connection with monotheism with its transcendental creator god. For many pagan theologies the divinities are present within, indeed are part of, reality. For most forms of monotheism, on the other hand, the one god transcends reality and pre-exists it. Taking this one transcendent god as an ultimate value requires a rejection, whether explicitly or implicitly, of nature and the world.
We see here, for example, the place of the myths of the Fall which define both human nature and nature in general as corrupt and human life as a punishment and trial. Paganism, on the other hand, most frequently embraces life and the world while avoiding the world and life rejection of transcendental monotheism. Max Weber demonstrated convincingly that capitalism is deeply tied to Christian theology. It enshrines the virtues of hard work and moderation and translates the presence of god’s grace and salvation into success on the market. Since, however, the ultimate goal of salvation is never to be found in this world, the “grace” experienced or demonstrated through work and capitalism similarly aims at an infinite transcendent goal that can never be captured in this world. We should not, then, be surprised that capitalism disregards all worldly values, realities and lives (human, animal or plant) in much the same way monotheism frequently does.
Integrity and Reality
There is, ultimately, one thing that the Capitalist Market cannot tolerate, and that is integrity. We have made clear the sense in which the Market process is a process without limit. It will allow, and can calculate the price and profit of, any action. Cities and nations have a price, as indeed the capitalist resistance to acting on Climate Change makes clear, as do capitalist machinations leading to warfare. The day will come when the full planet will have a price, once the possibility of moving elsewhere becomes a reality.
Integrity consists of a commitment to a given value or set of values, it marks the limit of action beyond which a person will not go. We use the term “integrity” because it is the unifying point, the ultimate defining commitment, which constitutes any given person’s character. Discover what is most important to a person, what they will never harm or destroy – what they will die for the sake of, and you have uncovered that person’s character and the point of their integrity. The Market has no such limit, and those in full service to it such that they will always do what the Market reveals as profitable likewise have no character. They exist in a world in which the call of reality – its revelation in terms of beauty, divinity, or truth – is ignored as impractical.
In this way we can see that the Market requires a dramatic ignorance of reality and truth which results in divorcing what it insists is “practical”, “profitable” and “reasonable” from what is grounded in reality and the world. The Market is a phantom, an illusory claw, a mathematical dream run hopelessly awry. It demands that we ignore, at first seemingly temporarily but ultimately permanently, everything that calls to us as worth pursuing or preserving and all that we are drawn to love and revere. For many of us this is the earth and its children – animal, plant and human. Also it might be the full richness of different ways of life, various cultures, complex history, the spectrum of visions revealing the wild complexity of meanings and values. In the face of the Market the pagan says “No” to the dominance of any one value and “No” to a limitless nihilistic process of destruction and control. Here, in part, is our integrity, where we draw the line and state clearly that some things, many things, even most things have no market price. We live in the Priceless World because it is a world of Real Values.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .