The Church of England came up with a prayer for the financial crisis back in September. You’d imagine most City bankers wouldn’t be practising Anglicans, but, equally, I bet a lot have found God in the last few days.

A prayer is laughable. As if any self-respecting deity is going to respond to any prayer about a financial crisis with anything other than a derisive chortle. What sort of god do you people believe in anyway, to think he, she or it would play the markets?

But then again … capitalism does stand exposed as a matter of faith at this point.

And I don’t mean that in that trite way when reactionaries say “climate change is a religious belief”, delighting in the chance to finally throw back in the faces of those liberal secularists all their mockery of religion — all those smart-alec lefties with their fornication and their drugs and their atheistical ways — well who’s clever now, eh, with your world supposedly ending under rising oceans, hmmm?

Nor, yet, in that witless First Year essay way of slogging through Weber and Durkheim and your Das Kapital crib to do the “Marxism fulfils the basic requirements of a religion: discuss” topic worth 50% of the course mark. Except these days it wouldn’t be Marxism but something more fashionable like “Celebrity”.

Nor even in the way that the sacerdotal class of capitalism — investment bankers — have inflicted the same sort of damage on the brand as paedo priests have on Catholicism.

No, capitalism’s faith-like aspect is so strong now because like any decent, self-respecting, god-fearing religion, its attempt to coherently explain how the operations of the universe work just fine when everything’s going well, but fall apart the moment things turn to sh-t.

Because isn’t that part of the appeal of capitalism? It explains the world in a manner that sounds just and reasonable. It works the way we’d like the universe to work. Hard work, initiative, get-up-and-go, a willingness to take risks, all get rewarded. Sitting on your backside doing nothing, or being reckless, doesn’t.

Except, if we didn’t know it before, we sure as hell know it now — it’s a lie. The biggest rewards — the trillion dollar rewards — go to those who screw up, who deliberately act foolishly, who take absurd risks, or entirely abrogate their responsibilities for the sake of making a buck.

If you owe the bank a million dollars, you’ve got a problem, the old saw goes, but if you owe the bank a billion dollars, it has a problem. We never knew there was another extension to that, viz: if the bank owes anyone a billion dollars, it’s our problem.

We all knew beforehand that the “market” isn’t especially fair. If it was fair, footballers whose sole contribution to the world is degrading women and thanking their sponsors wouldn’t be paid 20 times average earnings. If it was fair, carers would be paid 10 times what lawyers earn. If it was fair, I’d be rich beyond the dreams of avarice and everyone who has ever annoyed me would be a pauper.

But the bailouts and bank protection on offer now dwarf all that. They’re the ultimate demonstration that capitalism doesn’t have much to do with fairness and appropriate reward.

There’s another way in which capitalism is like faith. I made mock before of praying about the crisis. On second thoughts, perhaps that’s not such a bad idea, even for those of us untroubled by delusions of anything beyond this vale of tears. Only a collective act of will, it seems, will restore the operation of the equity and credit markets. The trillion dollar packages haven’t worked, or the bank guarantees, but a suspension of disbelief might, an act of faith that the system can work again, a willingness to pretend once more that hard work and enterprise will be rewarded, that wealth isn’t arbitrarily doled out by luck or, worse yet, goes to those least deserving.

There are, to stretch an already overworked metaphor to breaking point, plenty of wounds in which the doubting capitalist can stick their money. But at the moment we all — well, all of us who prefer living in a civilized, well-functioning society — need to close our eyes and believe again.

Scary huh?

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW