Scott GUSTAFSON. At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015. Pp. 200. $22.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-7280-7. Reviewed by Nathan R. KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY 14618.
At the Altar of Wall Street is both a typical exposition of the economy as religion and an excellent review and critique of our current economic system’s sacred and unquestionable beliefs and activities.
Gustafafson does not define religion, his central metaphor, but rather suggests that “religion” is what “religion” does in our society. Thus we should look to what those entities we call “religion” say, do, and believe and ask if the modern global economy also functions in a similar way in our society. His answer is that it does function as such.
The global economy certainly has sacred rituals, beliefs, moral virtues, and organizations similar to what we see in classical religions. Gustafson explains how the rituals surrounding a market collapse provide us hope that present economy is real and will continue to give us the necessaries of life, how advertising rituals transform us into consumers, how Christmas is the celebration of our sacred identity, and how our home and our Malls are the sacred places of consumer virtues and attitudes. Some of the myths and beliefs that form the foundation of this religion are: that the market economy predates governments, that it is the most natural way for human exchange of goods, and that “credit” is founded upon such exchange of goods. Then too there are other beliefs such as when people act out of selfishness they benefit the whole (invisible hand), a rising GDP benefits all, and markets are both all-knowing and all powerful in providing what we need for both life and prosperity.
Gustafson deconstructs these beliefs by challenging both their historical and scientific basis – “science” understood as imitating the physical sciences, not the professional construct of the economists. Such deconstruction is a joy to read but when the believers of Modern Economy continue to adhere to these beliefs in the face of the facts it is as devastating to human beings as adherence to communist ideology was devastating to citizens of China and Soviet Russia when Mao and Stalin forced them into collectivized farming. Lawrence Summers’ memo to the World Bank titled “Dirty Industries” (Dec. 12, 1999), sadly, reflects some of the same ideological extremism of those who follow the Economy religion that results in poverty and death for millions.
These religious rituals and beliefs find their expression within the community of the Global Economy’s disciples called corporations. “The modern corporations are to The Economy as the churches and synagogues are to Christians and Jews.” The difference between these diverse religious communities in American society, of course, is that the corporations have strong governmental and legal support for their continued existence. The difference too is in their sets of values. The corporate values of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control expressed through their sacrament of money result in the existence of a large group of people, the limited liability corporation, that effectively can exist forever with little accountability to others.
Throughout the book Gustafson provides an excellent deconstructive critique of this religion. Obviously he, as so many atheists vis-a-vis the classical religions, believes that this religion is destructive of humanity in general and each human in particular. In his last chapter he argues for new myths as a foundation of our economic life and, thus, provides a reform of the religion of the Modern Global Economy.
The book is an easy read, sometimes repetitious and always provocative for those who would accept the presuppositions of the establishment’s economic theory and practice. The easy use of “religion” to refer to almost anything humans do without a scientific basis is questionable – as any of us who have pondered long and hard the challenge of defining religion would admit. After reading this book one will have a broader understanding of the Global Economy and the shaky ideological basis that supports it.