Unearthing the Religious Roots of Capitalism

Mark Ajita Ph.D.
Oct 27, 2015 · 15 min read

The long and intimate relationship between Religion and Capitalism makes for a rather scandalous history. Neither economists nor religious believers really like talking about how closely related they really are. For instance, Pope Francis claims to hate Capitalism. On the other hand, so does ISIS. Unfortunately, for an awful lot of people, Capitalism carries with it little more than an association with the idea: “Greedy people winning.” And greed would seem to be a Sin, of course. So if that’s all there is to it, there isn’t much to say.

Consider what we see when we google “capitalism definition”

Why are economic systems based on private property and the pursuit of private profit called Capitalism?

Because “Capital” is the term for property put at risk in the pursuit of profit.

Here, though, is the problem I want to talk about in the rest of this post:

When and why did people start thinking that Capitalism was a good idea? The idea of Capitalism and arguments for this idea of Capitalism have a history that predates the word, “Capitalism.”

Only if we dig that far into human history, can we actually understand the roots of the modern world’s signal ideals: democracy, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc. and, yes, also Capitalism.

Religion plays a major role in telling the origin-story of our idea of Capitalism.

To tell the story of Religion and Capitalism, we need to begin at a point before the idea of Capitalism existed at all and where Religion as we know it was just barely arriving on the scene. Beginning with the religions of the first great agricultural civilizations and then tracking the major shifts in religious and economic culture over the last 10–12 millennia provides what I think you will find is absolutely necessary perspective upon the origins of our idea of Capitalism.

Why is it so important to understand the origins of the idea of Capitalism, the idea that economic systems based on private property are better than state management of property?

{Read my piece on the twelve major events of “Big History” here.}

Because today’s discussion about Capitalism is polarized. People do not understand where their ideas about economic organization have come from. And this dilemma can basically be summarized this way:

What Capitalism really means is more complicated than “Greedy people winning.” It is also more than giving the government to the wealthy. We have to understand where the vast and conflicted set of ideas and phenomena that we think of as the beliefs of Religion and as the economics of Capitalism came from. Religion has a huge role in that conceptual history. But it is probably not what you think.

Only if we dig that far into human history, can we actually understand the roots of the modern world’s signal ideals: democracy, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc. and, yes, also Capitalism. We have to go deeper. Like 12 millennia deep. This is going to mean surveying about 12,000 years of human history in about 12 minutes (maybe closer to 15). That may sound intimidating but it can be done.

We need to work through 12 millennia in 12 minutes if we want to understand why 99% of people don’t know what they’re talking about when they talk about capitalism.

We need to start with what has been called “The First Economic Revolution:” Agriculture. It is well known that at around 10-12,000 years ago, humans first began building entire societies based on breeding and cultivating useful species of animals and plants. Humans began planning the entire lives of other species across generations and generations for the purposes of supplying, food, fiber, and medicine for themselves. That dates to around 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East — modern day Egypt, Syria, and Iraq interestingly enough.

The full-fledged idea of a capitalist society, we should understand, only came along a good deal later.

First, you might ask: Well, what was Religion like — and for that matter, what was human culture in general like — before agriculture? It is hard to say. Everything that we think of as History — names, dates, cities built and destroyed, nations that rise and fall — these all seem to be available only after agriculture has already arrived.

History begins with agriculture. And in a way, so does Religion.

FYI: Anthropologists refer to the massive alteration in the human lifeway that came along with agriculture as the Neolithic Turn. First in the Fertile Crescent, then in India, China, Indonesia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas, the modus operandi of entire societies became centered upon the accumulation of surplus agricultural produce — mainly grain. And rather suddenly — that is within just a few thousand years, or between 50 and 100 human generations — human populations reached organization at a scale that would have boggled the minds of the foraging ancestors who, for millions of years, had lived in bands that had never grown to a size much greater than 200. Suddenly human societies are scaled up a hundred, even a thousandfold to hundreds of thousands of people and by the final millennium BCE, millions of individuals.

Of course, the human species had living as hunters and gatherers for quite some time before the turn to agriculture: at least a couple of hundred thousand years — perhaps even a few million years. No matter how restrictive you think the definition of what counts as human ought to be, we have been human or near-human for a duration orders of magnitude longer than our agricultural history — as this chart indicates:

This long earlier period of toolmaking, hunting, and foraging (2.6 milion years or more) which brought human ancestors out of Africa, and into Eurasia and Australia (and just before the dawn of agriculture into the Americas) left little in the way of properly historical or cultural evidence. The 12,000 years or so since the dawn of agriculture — our “Long Now” — has left us immeasurably more to sift through than that longer foraging period.

Before the “Long Now,” Archaeologists can document at least a few million years of progress and increasing sophistication in stone tools for hunting and processing food. Evolutionary biologists observe clear evidence of increasing sophistication of the oral and respiratory organ systems which make language possible, a biological development that arrives at something close to our human vocal abilities about a two hundred thousand years ago. Humans began burying the dead around 100,000 years — or 500 generations — ago. Then, cave drawings and carved bone artifacts have been discovered that date from as far back as 70,000 years ago. Settlement size seems to have really begun to increase around 20,000 years ago. But as far as culture or history before agriculture, what remains for us to look at today is quite scant.

However, once agriculture began to fuel the economic, human, and architectural expansion of formerly meager human settlements into city-states of people who numbered greater than 100,000, a whole new set of cultural requirements arose that give shape to our historical reconstructions. Most importantly, keeping track of human populations and the resources that sustained them necessitated writing and record-keeping, something that never seems to have been a big part of earlier foraging societies. Architecture would be used like never before to enforce hierarchical social structures onto the lives and populations of these great societies built around agriculture.

This 100 fold expansion of human societies and the functioning of these new great civilizations depended upon a complex differentiation of social roles: Between the leaders who planned and monitored the economic organization of agricultural surpluses from above and the workers and soldiers who executed the plans down below. Social strata were set up in hierarchies which assumed a pre-eminence they had never attained within the kind of foraging groups in which the biology and psychology of hominids had existed for millions of years before. Naturally, membership in these social strata was not optional. These societies had endogamous caste structures, which meant individuals married and reproduced internally to the strata within these hierarchies. Caste status was inherited.

This is where Religion really becomes important to the story.

But neither could these castes have been entirely the product of constant violent coercion. The submission of subjects to caste hierarchy was voluntary because it was made to seem natural. It was Religion that was used to justify non-innate socio-economic hierarchies to the humans who came to live within them. The stratification of these earliest civilizations were justified by reference to Ritual, Architecture, Statuary, and new kinds of Belief that enveloped the unchecked power of kings and priests over laboring subordinates within an aura of permanence, certainty, and infinite power. In short, Religion made the economic power structures of these agricultural societies seem at one with the infinite power of the gods themselves. And priests and kings used Religion’s divine power to promise to their subjects — in exchange for loyal obedience — a level of rewards and compensation that they could never grant in tangible material goods. Unquestioned loyalty was rebranded as participation in something greater, something eternal, something absolute, something so much greater than actual oppression, suffering, and death in ostensible slavery.

For the most part, it worked very well — as long as the agricultural basis of a society’s economy continued to thrive and expand.

Yet, none of these societies nor their religious rituals has survived intact to the present day. We feel their influence, but only at a remove because Religion as we know it today was born from a transformation that pushed humans away from the hierarchies of agricultural control economies. The most powerful religious institutions that have survived to our contemporary moment — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Buddhism and Hinduism from India; Taoism and Confucianism from China— were all born from a rebellion against the control economies of earlier theocracies.

Religions as we know them today all emerged out of a skeptical turning away from the religions of the first great agricultural societies.

And my main point in this article is that the central ideas of Capitalism are of similar provenance:

The notion that Private Property and Voluntary Exchange — i.e. Capitalism — are good emerged at the same time as the notion that economies controlled by status-based theocracies were bad.

This was a rebellion from the economic control and caste-embedded religious power that had characterized most of the societies of history.

The Axial Turn is the name that scholars of Religion have given to this great shift in human consciousness, whose temporal epicenter lies somewhere around the final millennium BCE.

For a crucial example of the Axial rebellion, consider the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis. It may be the earliest example of skepticism about the gods of agriculture who had long loomed unchallenged over societies Egypt, Babylon, Sumer, Ur, and the Hittites since before 5,000 BCE.

Depending on how exactly you look at it, the story of Adam and Eve’s Fall from Grace is either the earliest fable to caution humans about ecological mismanagement or it is the earliest surviving cultural artifact of anti-agricultural propaganda.

Adam’s and Eve’s choice to make a god-given forageable forest into a labor-intensive farming society was clearly a great error. And all of humanity after it would suffer for it. Hence, all those seemingly powerful gods who had blessed the cultivation of grain for thousands of years, the priests and kings who had overseen the laboring classes in the great fields of the ancient Middle East: All this had been based in mere illusions. This was Judaism’s claim.

This is the truly destabilizing meaning at the core of the opening chapters of Genesis.

No existing civilization could claim to be a gift from the gods. According to the story of Adam’s fall in Eden, the agricultural economic order born of the Neolithic Turn that grew into civilization itself had proceeded from human’s distancing themselves from God, a consequence of human hubris and human error.

Judaism’s significance for us today lies not merely its propagation of monotheism and its rejection of polytheism. Judaism was, above all, a rejection of the existing hereditary power structures of the foregoing Fertile Crescent theocracies in favor of a society where these castes and the divinities who legitimized their power would be wiped away. It was a vision of a revolution where groups of itinerant slaves would seize a new level of power by uniting under a God who would destroy all others.

Factually, the vision of agriculture as the destruction of an Edenic foraging paradise deserved the currency it gained amongst the Hebraic slave populations of the ancient Near East. After all, the agricultural techniques upon which early civilizations were based precipitated ecological disaster — especially in the Fertile Crescent. Desertification from soil mismanagement had probably decreased arable land in the Middle East by a factor of 10 by the third millennium BCE.

Status-based theocracies failed. Over and over again. They were top-heavy, often conquest-oriented to the point of being suicidal, and extremely prone to throwing good resources after bad economic practices in the interests of preserving their status quo.

Judaism was perhaps the first movement to challenge that economic and religious order of agricultural civilizations. However, an entire series of movements would begin to unfold shortly after the dawn of Judaism. Scholars of Religion generally refer to this great series of cultural movements across the ancient world as the Axial Turn.

See how closely grouped the great religious revolutions of the Axial Turn are in relation to the “Long Now” of agricultural civilization:

Somewhat later, and further east in Brahmin India, the Buddha rejected his own inherited status within the Brahminic ruling caste. Leaving behind his sumptuous life in an isolated palace and the polytheistic cults upon which leaders in Indus valley city-states had justified their authority for thousands of years, Buddha would teach that power, knowledge, and some form of divinity existed more authentically when divine kingship had been left behind. This was a rebellion against the most fundamental economic principles of Brahmin society.

In imperial China at around the same time as the Buddha, Lao Tzu would provide a polished articulation of the idea that the knowledge of leaders was not absolute and everlasting. Individual virtue consisted not in loyalty to the command of the divine king. Instead, all individuals — emperors included — must conform their plans and predictions to constantly changing circumstances. Confucius, similarly, while he did insist on the importance of ritual and respect for social order, nonetheless based his notion of virtue on the idea that it was an individual’s behavior and not his inherited caste that made behavior correct.

Among the conceptual revolutions within the Axial Turn, the teachings of Socrates in Classical Athens and later the teachings of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels are the closest to familiar histories of Western ideas and culture. These further iterations of the Axial economic message at first undermined the principle of caste that had dominated the earliest societies of history.

The thrust of the radical teachings of these Axial Mediterranean sages can be summed up this way: The plans of the powerful are not inherently correct. A solution that worked once is not certain to succeed permanently — no matter how eminent the individuals or groups who advocate it.

The plans and purposes of God are never made known in full certainty to human knowledge. Of course, these teachings are crucial to the words of Christ in the Gospels even if they were deprivileged and even suppressed in later Christian tradition.

Several hundred year after Socrates and Christ, Muhammad — an orphan by birth and merchant by livelihood — would give the world a doctrine with all kinds of innovations that resonate with the notion of axial economic suspicion of inherited caste power. And, in fact, the scripture and economics from Islamic civilization is a major wellspring — usually ignored by Western economic thinkers — for creative ideas about how to organize a society’s economy.

The main problem is that across the board, religious traditions and institutions as we know them today were formed through the distortion of the economic meaning of all these major Axial revolutions.

In no instance, did the economic radicalism of the initial Axial teachers truly remain in the religious tradition that followed. Compromises all along the line made Judeo-Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, Confucianism and Taoism, then finally the Islamic interpretation of Judeo-Christian history (several centuries later) more amenable to power structures. Hence, divine kingship survived — weakened but intact and in different ways — in imperial China, Brahminic India, Rome and Byzantium, Feudal Europe, Persia, and in the Islamic Caliphates. Luckily, scriptures preserved the axial ideas even if tradition usually taught the faithful to ignore or misunderstand the words they contained.

Modern Europe and the modern revolution in the ideas of Capitalism and Democracy may entail a rejection of traditional religious institutions in favor of science and free speech. However, Modernity and Capitalism were rooted in a great resurgence of Axial skepticism about the divine power of governments and kings to control unstable economic reality.

Capitalism — the emphasis on Private Property and Voluntary Exchange — was born along with the Axial rebellion against the Archaic religions which legitimized caste in earlier complex societies.

Tracing our current economic policy debates deep into the furthest reaches of the “Long Now” generates a genealogical picture that looks essentially like this:

Capitalism — at least the idea of Capitalism — has its roots in the skeptical origins of Axial religions. But the problem is that not everyone who advocates for Capitalism gets where the idea comes from. A lot of times, when people argue for Capitalism it is just a vast money grab, and attempt to government to the service of the people who can afford to manipulate state institutions.

If we go back just a few hundred years earlier, in the modern European economies that flourished after the Columbian exchange of 1492, when the philosopher Spinoza was declared a heretic for claiming that the will of God was simply nature itself, or when Locke argued for liberty as the essential principle of a functioning society, or later when Adam Smith claimed that the Wealth of Nations was best secured by the Invisible Hand of a free economy rather than by the machinations of kings and ministers, or in the 19th century when John Stuart Mill that the individual in liberty must be defended from the tyrannic whims of a majority as well as from the grip of kingly tyrants, these philosophies are as Taoist as they are Darwinistic. By the time the twentieth century economist Friedrich Hayek declared the task of economics to be that of showing to men all that they cannot know about everything that they imagine they can plan, the ancient reference points were only occasionally evident.

Understanding the beginnings of the philosophy of the free market in this deeply historical way, can help us to separate reasoned concepts from mere rhetoric. And it is only from a perspective addressed to the entire span of human history that we can hope for an adequate grasp on the way individuals and groups will best organize in an unfolding reality that is much more contingency than predictability. Modern efforts to encourage the economic process of trial and error by industrious entrepreneurs over the plans of state-builders are the direct descendent of the Axial religious revolutions which overthrew (or at least conceptualized the failure of) the grand control economies and their theocracies which had grown dominant during the first few millennia of the Neolithic.

The idea of Capitalism is wedded to the radical (but frequently ignored) roots of Religion as we know it by the idea that human knowledge can never encompass our world in its totality.

This is an idea that was suppressed by the first agricultural societies and the kind of Religion that made their castes seem natural and unquestionable. And it is an idea that we are still struggling to come to grips with today as we struggle with how to think about Capitalism. However, concepts always have a history. And by attending to the linked histories of Religion and Capitalism, we get an essential perspective on the meaning of Capitalism grounded in the “Big History” of the human species.

What we learn when we sprint through 12 millennia in 12 minutes (maybe closer to 15?) is that the past and future of our species is entwined with how markets will help us negotiate decisions under conditions of uncertainty.

Or please, go and check out my other posts.

On the ancient origins of modern economic thought.

On a new way of explaining the Gender Wage Gap.

On why schools should be teacher-owned but are not.

Reflections on what schools are and what they are supposed to be.

On the failures of new media to inform like old newspapers used to do.

Or, on the problem of why someone like me is publishing these long pieces on a format like medium.

Mark Ajita Ph.D.

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Learn more about Mark Ajita’s research into intellectual history at http://markajita.wordpress.com