Last Sunday I was watching The Big Questions on BBC, a programme that is best described as a Sunday morning shout-fest. The studio audience usually consists of a fair number of religious zealots and assorted weirdos together with sceptics and rationalists who seek to challenge their beliefs. Last week’s discussion was about religious cults and whether they are any different to mass religions. In truth, the mass religions are the same as cults, they just have better PR and more members. This got me thinking: what about those obscure economic cults like Objectivism? What about all those tiresome free-marketeers who slavishly follow the curious fiscal asceticism of Hayek or Friedman? Are they any different to Scientologists or Moonies? Well, no.
Cults are always organized around a charismatic leader. We see this with the Scientologists, the Moonies, the Children of God (now called Family International) and small Healy-ite cults like the Workers Revolutionary Party. The economic cults are no different; they are all obsessed with ideological purity. The leader’s word is supreme.
All cults, like mass religions, require fetish-objects (Islam and Judaism have no fetish-objects). These fetish objects can range from supposed relics like a nail or a splinter from the True Cross ( in the case of Reaganites, a vial of Ronald Reagan’s blood) to holy icons; an image of some saint or other. These economic cultists have money, which, as a fetish-object, serves much the same purpose as praying to an icon of the Virgin. “With this money, I am free! With this money I can enslave others and tell them that I am doing it to make them free”! Of course they would tell you that they don’t worship money but that wouldn’t be true because cultists are always in denial about something.
Blinded by their unswerving devotion, right-wing economic cultists will tell you how “flat taxes will benefit us all” and that ‘wealth’ will “trickle down” to those below, even though they produce no hard evidence to support such claims. They will produce the holy icon of the Laffer Curve and, without a trace of irony, proceed to tell you why this curve is so significant and why those at the bottom of the economic ladder must take pay cuts while those at the top award themselves even bigger bonuses. This is voodoo economics. It’s magic, maaan! You will find them reciting passages from The Road to Serfdom, one of the holy books of right-wing economic cultists and they will tell you, with a straight face, that fascism and socialism are the same thing and that only they hold the keys to your freedom. It isn’t and they don’t. But cultists won’t listen to anyone but their cult-leaders. Hayek’s word is holy writ. He speaketh the Truth and we must listen. Just ask High Priest, Dan Hannan of The Freedom Assocation.
You won’t find the working class or the lower middle class subscribing to these notions about ‘freedom’ and there is a very good reason for this: they can’t afford them. Only those who have a substantial amount of personal wealth can become cult members and take part in the liturgy.
These cults also have their priestly caste that is formed from a hardcore of free-market economists who are gathered together in think-tanks like the Adam Smith Institute, the Taxpayers Alliance or the Institute of Economic Affairs. It is within these bodies that the doctrines are formulated and the high priests of late capitalism worship at the clay feet of their dead idols. The Adam Smith Institute, for example, practices a strain of laissez-faire economics that is based on a highly selective reading of The Wealth of Nations , for which they rely on people’s ignorance of Smith’s theories in order to promote “The Invisible Hand” of the free market; the rest of the text is discarded and ignored.
The right will make the counter-claim that the Left (to the Tories this is just anyone who just happens to be vaguely to the left of them) worship John Maynard Keynes and have formed a cult around his ideas. They can make that claim as much as they like, but I have seen little evidence to support this notion. They would also point to Marx and shout “Look! You worship Marxism”! But that’s only true of a handful of left-wing cults and, at any rate, there is always an ongoing debate about Marxist economics. The same cannot be said for the Right, who are hopelessly devoted to their idols and accept their ‘wisdom’ without criticism. But this deference shouldn’t surprise us: the Right doesn’t like to criticize what they see as unassailable truths; the holy word of Hayek or whichever economic theorist they happen to be praise-singing at that moment in time. This is the truth and all those who deny it shall be cast into eternal darkness!
The problem with economic cults is that we are forced to live with their mistakes. Privatizations are forced onto us and all social relations are marketized – all for our own good, you understand. After all, this is the word of the Lord! He hath spoken! Have faith and enjoy the Kool-Aid!
Interesting article from Alternet about Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman.