The power of consumer society works precisely by blurring the distinction between the street and the interests of financial markets.

By George González

“Do You Really Think 3000 People Are Here at This Park Today to Make a Point About Nothing Important?”–Sign written by one of the protesters at Occupy Wall Street in New York City

In his national debate-stirring NY Times op-ed, “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich,” Warren Buffett calls for “shared sacrifice” in American public life. Specifically, he argues that current tax codes allow the “super rich,” a group he certainly belongs to, to pay into the public trust at much lower rates than the working and middle classes, who are increasingly squeezed by unemployment and underemployment. Buffett identifies this one important aspect of the disparities he, I and many Americans bemoan: the fact that income produced by wage labor is taxed at higher rates than are the financial gains made by those who “make money from money” or even off wage laborers.

As an ethnographer who tends to understand practices and ideas as dimensions of the human experience within the context of specific life-worlds (or what some anthropologists call cosmologies), the question of what causes a society to value some kinds of labor over others is exceedingly complex. I would look to social practices—not just normative ideas—in an effort to tackle such a question.

Yet idea-heavy analysis pervades our thinking about economic life. We all know the drill, don’t we? Right-wing market fundamentalists argue that if the wealthy are taxed at higher rates, this would have a chilling effect on investment, which would in turn, slow job creation for “everyday” Americans. Critics on the left are stuck scratching their heads, wondering what is still wrong with Kansas, incredulous that those who support such policies could so clearly work against their own interests.

I show my cards in many ways here, but the most interesting aspect of Buffett’s piece was the throw-away sarcasm he used to drill home his point. Legislators in Washington, he writes, “feel compelled to protect us, much like we were spotted owls or some other endangered animal.” In fact, Buffett says that these “blessings…are showered upon” the super-rich by politicians. Whether evoking religious ideas of blessing or the “save the whales” passions of environmentalists, it is as if Buffett is equating the misrecognition of political and economic reality with expressions of empty zeal and unreasoned enthusiasm.

The “oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffett

Later on in the piece, Buffett worries that unless policy changes are made soon, frustration will morph into hopelessness. This matters, he argues, because “that feeling can create its own reality.” If we follow sound political and economic logic now, Buffett suggests, we might spare finding ourselves, as a society, living and breathing this dangerous space of amorphous and pervasive dissatisfaction. For the stewards of capital, a social lack of faith in the institutions of capitalism, with its attendant fog and lack of clear definition, is a more dangerous proposition than are specific complaints made in the language of economists and politicians. The latter is to pitch right into the strike zone of money, which is sometimes necessary, while the former calls the very rules of the game into question.

If one is interested in the relationship of public spectacle and economic power, there’s no better event to consider than the annual shareholder’s meeting of Buffett’s own company, Berkshire Hathaway. The meeting is a grand occasion, replete with Hollywood movie effects, carnivalesque opportunities to shop and, as some who attend say, opportunity to partake of the “magic” that the “oracle of Omaha” possesses and imparts. Who’s blessing whom and what exactly are they sharing? An ethnographer might be particularly interested in the fact that the program book for the annual meeting suggests, among other consumer excursions, that shareholders visit the oracle’s favorite Omaha restaurant and order his favorite item on the menu. What does this tourism have to do with the kind of instrumental economic logic Buffett exhorts us to consider in his op-ed?

Fast forward a few weeks to some recent responses to the youth-led occupation of Wall Street and other US cities. They similarly reveal this tendency to disavow the extra-economic within economic structures, the subjective realities within the objective dimensions of economic life, the aesthetic trappings of consumer society, and the passions that, while not reducible to economic logic, sustain and make such a logic possible. In her opinion piece, also in the New York Times, journalist Ginia Bellafante accuses protestors of gunning for Wall Street, with good reason, but misfiring because, rather than announce specific goals like the “implementation of the Buffett rule of the increased regulation of the financial industry,” they have chosen to voice their grievances as a leaderless and diffuse group that is, she writes, “indistinguishable from street theater.” The suggestion is that the discontented masses therefore lack seriousness and rigor.

In my view, Bellafante, like Buffett, ought to go back and read her Naomi Klein and countless other social critics who know full well that the power of consumer society works precisely by blurring the distinction between the street and the bottom-line interests of financial markets. Starbucks, Klein wrote in No Logo, wants to “stare into your soul.”

Too an oracle of sorts, but for the left, Klein introduced many of us to the ways of guerrilla marketing–which covets the styles, rhythms, sounds and colors of dissidence and seeks to commodify resistance precisely by appropriating non-economic and even anti-economic language to benefit multinational corporations. The passionate devotion of the street is precisely something corporations crave. After all, we live in an experience economy where all of business is theater, as more than one marketing academic has written. Indeed, one of the first marketing books I ever read is boldly titled The Experience Economy: Work is Theater & Every Business a Stage.

Adbusters poster for Occupy Wall Street

Cultural theory, too, is rife with views that disrupt any neat division between economics and everyday life. Theodor Adorno knew that the culture industry seeped into all spheres of life, even critical social analysis. Chewing gum is metaphysics, he once famously suggested. Adorno understood popular culture as a straight jacket and held out some dim hope that avant-guarde art had the capacity to break the hold of commodity logic by exposing contradictions and performing disruptions. Jean Baudrillard saw in commodity signs the very erasure of any differentiation between reality and appearance. George Orwell called consumer society “the air we breath.”

For Pierre Bourdieu, aesthetic values and practices are not autonomous but instead, in their very differentiations, reflect the structured logic of capital. Cornel West has suggested that any democratic intervention that seeks to bypass youth culture is doomed to irrelevance and worse. Michael Eric Dyson writes that we live in a “market marsala.” Juliet Schor, one of my graduate school teachers, reminds us to contextualize the linguistic and existential dimensions of consumer practices within the reproduction of conditions of structural inequality and environmental degradation. In the end, this literature suggests, it is Bellafonte who misfires. As Guy Debord argued, we live in the “society of the spectacle.”

Looking carefully at what Bellafonte considers mere street art, I think we see some sophisticated social analysis that calls the very basic premises of capital rule into question. Implicitly echoing the Marxian notion of use-value, some placards ask whether houses are homes first or, as the banks would have it, abstract debt in a game of financial musical chairs? Are markets really here to create jobs for common people? What’s money and private property anyway? Should we not value democratic access to education more than we do?

This last question is asked by a generation most burdened by the realities of corporatized and privatized education. Heretical and metaphysical, the critiques of capital are lodged within religious zeal and colorful ritual. They mirror the spectacles of capital orthodoxy. Rather than question the aim of this cast of characters, I see in their theatrics the attempt to force economic ideology to account for and reckon with the lives of the “everyday people” Cornel West, channeling Sly and the Family Stone, makes his moral touchstone. They perform anti-totalitarian and dialectical gestures.

I also think there is more to Bellafonte’s critique than a misrecognition of the “emotional content of economics,” as the historian of American religion, Bethany Moreton, succinctly puts it. The very engine of capitalist growth is a diffuse trust in capitalist structures, argues neo-conservative philosopher Francis Fukuyama. In those places where it occurs or takes hold, a diffuse mistrust in capitalist institutions poses an equal measure of danger. Diffuse malcontent on the ground, as a Marcusian “great refusal,” might seriously challenge the discipline and control of contemporary economic institutions.

What does any of this have to do with religion, though? The answer is, well, diffuse. First of all, Marx famously suggested that commodities were “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” a perspective that influenced generations of anthropologists to examine the ways in which capitalism, as a world view, functions much like a “religion.” These often functionalist approaches have proven a bit course for more contemporary anthropologists interested in questions of practice. Upon this view, deep sociological truths are not merely expressed by the movements of bodies engaged in practice, but instead are constantly negotiated amidst a field of dynamic tension between domination and resistance that defies ideas about simple coercion or the notion that practices are the mere epiphenomena of underlying structural truths.

Put simply, rituals and performances do not simply mirror back the underlying sociological structures of culture but, instead, reproduce those structures, also necessarily altering them in the process. The slogan one sometimes hears that capitalism is our religion is, while rhetorically important, not the only thing we can or should say on the matter. Perhaps ritual, ritualization, performance and praxis provide more empirical leverage. As a concept, “religion,” as it often does, abstracts too quickly from the facts on the ground.

In her now classic, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, the late ritual theorist, Catherine Bell turns to the work of Michel Foucault on power to examine the ways in which ritualization implies a confounding of the idea that political rituals are add-ons to politics. Instead, Bells sees in political rituals the very doing of politics, its instantiation and negotiation. There is a necessary flexibility and open-endedness to political ritual since, Bell argues, “ritual symbols and meanings are too indeterminate and their schemes too flexible to lend themselves to any simple process of instilling fixed ideas.”

Seen in this light, Occupy Wall Street’s blurring of the line between “street theater” and the political critique of capital and open-ended indeterminacy make perfect sense. The “kids” have lived with the dynamics of capitalism and their role in reproducing the relations of capital, through linguistic and bodily forms of discipline. They understand that experience, relationships, bodies and art are not other than capital but the very things that speak it. If we as students of religion have come a long way in understanding these aspects of gender and race, we still resist coming to terms with the extra-economic dimensions of economic life.

All too often we revert to an unquestioned disciplinary faith in the ability of economists, entrepreneurs and their idioms to properly diagnose economic reality. We stand mystified. No doubt Warren Buffett has much to say that we ought listen to, but this does not mean that the street performers occupying Wall Street can’t teach us much too. With every chant, new sign and costume change, they are breaking down the idea that economic realities are best attended to by the official economic ideologies of economists and big business. A people’s movement will necessarily democratize the stakes and add new strategies and perspectives to our critical vocabularies.

In making our way as students and theorists of religion through this neo-liberal landscape where both brand narratives and activist-dissenters possess a carnivalesque instinct, we need look no further than Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise to begin to gain new disciplinary bearings that cut past dichotomous approaches that either, celebrate reason in the doing of politics or celebrate its convenient opposite. In practice, it turns out, economic ideology confounds modernist categories.

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Photo by Michael Tracey of VisionCache Photography, http://visioncache.com/

Of particular interest, Moreton looks at the ways in which popular religious beliefs and practices—especially patterns of gender and race—helped reproduce the servant economy of the Ozarks, which was itself eventually outsourced nationally and beyond. A particular “religious ecology,” she writes, helped “compensate for the yeoman dream of self-sufficiency” and “raised degraded service labor to the status of a calling.” Throughout this story, Moreton carefully examines the relationship between economic orthodoxy, management theory and popular religion. For example, she suggests the souls of Latin-American converts to Wal-Mart-style neo-liberalism were won through pious singing in the pews, where corporate beneficence in the form of scholarship programs abroad was tied to religious narratives and embodied forms of religious solidarity. There is missionary zeal in these relationships and Moreton remains ever attentive to the existential needs that are met by economic conditions that some of us on the left would dismiss as patently oppressive.

A more interesting question than “what is the matter with Kansas?” might be why economic elites often make alibis of dispassionate economic orthodoxy when the facts on the ground, what Moreton calls the do-so of neo-liberal economics, speak to a much more complicated state of affairs? What do these moves occlude and what kinds of diverse spaces for critique do they foreclose? As Moreton notes with her many anecdotes, we actually live a national economic reality wherein Sam Walton can dress up as George Washington at the annual meeting of his company’s shareholders and Wal-Mart store managers dress up in drag to reassert their masculine authority. If the leaders of the economy—whether Warren Buffett or Sam Walton—seem to respect and use emotional and aesthetic power, doesn’t it stand to reason that their critics would go there too?

If I take my academic cues from Moreton with respect to this neo-liberal erosion of the line between hard and soft issues, I also can’t help but remember, with a sense of pride, the work the youth of my generation did back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Adbusters and culture jammers, dismissed by some of my professors as dated footnotes, understood quite well the interests big business had in blurring distinctions with the “street” and parodied corporate narratives by rewriting the symbols and signs of advertisements. Joe Camel was redrawn as a cancer ridden victim of the very activity he signified and Nike’s attempt to brand itself as a progressive brand with respect to gender was challenged when the images of white female consumers “just do”ing it were replaced with the images of the brown maquilladoras who made the vehicles of supposed female empowerment under the worst of conditions that reproduced violence against women.

These activists exploited the indeterminacy and flexibility of political symbols and did so through a “street art” that deployed bodies and signs to speak back to “corporate art.” In order for my discipline, the study of religion, to better learn from important events on the ground, we must reconsider some of the assumptions we tend to work with. First of all, as Bethany Moreton deftly shows through a key case study with broad implications, business covets affectivity and understands the place of subjectivity, narrative, embodiment and of managed forms of practice in reproducing its economic order. As contextually appropriate, it can easily come to Jesus. While it is certainly true that the activity of ritualized agents cannot be reduced to consciousness, I think we have veered too far in our critiques of subjectivism to be able to appreciate the ways in which adbusting concedes that we are shaped by society but also proposes ritual strategies for willful critiques of that order. For all that is gained, Catherine Bell’s use of the work of Michel Foucault makes her succumb to this kind of tendency.

Finally, rather than accept that reasoned economics or its purported antidotes such as desire, spirituaity or zeal will save us, we should appreciate the complexity we see on the ground and ask why the neo-liberal order covets non-economic power but returns to the supremacy of reason whenever the “underside” begins to prove too dangerous and unruly. Bell writes that “the evocation of ritualizing strategies by activities that do not wish to be considered religious ritual is a very common feature particularly in the secularism of American Society.” How this is the case and how ritualizing strategies, using the language of religion or not, are used to resist domination is precisely what I think could be of great interest to those who study religion.

I hope the “kids” continue to lead the way. As a weathered gen-x’er in his late 30s, I’d like to offer up Naomi Klein’s sobering analysis as a caveat, though. American economics understands the relationship so well that it is very good at adapting critical styles to its own ends. The new movement must be careful. The aesthetics of critique can become the very bedrock of consumerist anti-capitalism. We found this out, having failed to learn the lessons of previous generations of anti-modernists. As soon as we feel liberated, we are most under discipline’s control, suggests Michel Foucault. And as Juliet Schor writes, even “No Logo” can become yet another brand.

Capitalism buys and sells futures and shares in the ideas of its own enemies. Yet, I find in Moreton’s work certain kinds of critical openings. As she writes, “the ideological work required to attach…human impulses to the market or contain them within a narrow definition of the sacred was breathtaking.” What is bandied about as inevitable is not. It is not the heroic rational economic actor who will save the day. Instead, new practices, performances and narratives–that is, competing forms of ritual politics—can help us engage in a new critical politics which sees “no bright line dividing hard issues from cultural distinctions, the bread from the roses.”

What would it look like if we expected neither economic reason nor its purported antidotes like embodiment, desire, enthusiasm, narrative and religion to either save or damn us? What if we forgo such closure and instead practice and perform open-ended critiques that double the very kinds of moves capitalism itself makes, meeting ritual power with ritual power? If consumer society is a highly ritualized society, this means that the spaces, signs, narratives and experiences of economic ideology shape our souls, as it were.

But, as Foucault understood it, even if he seemed to occlude the role of subjective agency in this, the power of discipline is that it also implies negotiation and insubordination. The “kids” Ginia Bellafante is so hard on seem to know this. Rather than lodge critiques their way that dismiss their actions as the expression of misdirected, if very real, frustration, we might change our perspective. Adbusting has been around a long time by now. Perhaps “the kids” are still ahead of the game. What does that say about us?

George González completed his doctoral studies in Religion and Society from Harvard Divinity School in 2011 and is currently working on a manuscript, based on his dissertation, entitled Shape-Shifting Capital: Spiritual Management, Critical Theory and the Ethnographic Project. His research explores the ways in which neo-liberalism and the discourse of globalization imply new institutional constructions of religion, spirituality and economics.