The Sacrificial Rites of Capitalism We Don’t Talk About


Author Supritha Rajan argues that self-interested competition may be the official line, but it’s far from the whole story

Every society has at least one dominant story. Think of it as the official line: Here’s who we are, what we’re doing and why. But if you pay attention, you may notice other stories, too. Stories that circulate below the radar — and sometimes right out in the open — contradicting the official narrative. Most people don’t openly acknowledge them, but the signs are everywhere.

Think of Catholic saints beaming their polytheistic, atavistic messages on brightly colored church windows. See the majestic Mary, whose exaltation helps to hold at bay the tensions of a monotheistic, father-centered religion officially in denial of the divine feminine. The Queen of Heaven papers over gaps in the main story, making it more appealing, more workable.

The Church needs Mary. Without her, the dominant story might fall apart.

So deployed, counter-narratives are not necessarily a threat, but can serve to constrain a system’s instabilities, balance its tensions. Supritha Rajan, an English professor at the University of Rochester, sees the dominant story of capitalism working in this way. Part of a wave of humanities scholars taking a closer look at the meaning and history of capitalism, her book, A Tale of Two Capitalisms, reveals how the fields of anthropology and economics, along with the literary form of the novel, which developed together in the late 18th and 19th centuries, cross-pollinated each other and worked in tandem to investigate and offer new theories about human nature and culture. Together, they helped create a new story for the citizens of an emerging world.

Rajan was born in India and emigrated with her family to Massachusetts at the age of seven. She is attuned to how the dominant narrative of capitalism appeared at the height of Britain’s colonial power, a time when major thinkers often looked to far-flung countries like India as sites of static, superstition-ridden, “primitive” cultures that the capitalist system would render obsolete.

Capitalism’s official story, Rajan explains, charts a linear progression from magical-thinking hunter-gatherers doing their “trucking and bartering,” as Adam Smith would have it, to today’s rational global capitalists engaged in free competition. This story insists — and here we come to a tricky part — that when individuals act in their own interest, the best results occur for everybody. Millions of self-centered actions add up to create an equilibrium that gives birth to a society that is fairer and more stable, creative, and abundant than ever before.

Quite a tale! But far from the whole story, says Rajan. She warns that accepting it at face value blinds us to the ways it damages our lives.

Rational Agents, Ritual Actions

Rajan charts the development of anthropology as a distinct field of study at a time when practitioners tended to separate things like ritual and magic — often performed communally — from the main flow of modern life. By then this stuff belonged on the periphery, contained, perhaps, within a few hours at church on Sunday or in entertainment halls. Anthropologists held that the relegation of the “irrational” to the margins was what distinguished advanced societies from the backward places where such activities remained central to life.

Rajan started with a hunch that magical rites, sacrificial rituals, and sacred values were not just relics of a pre-modern past, but actually woven right into the story of capitalism from the beginning. They exist everywhere under our noses, popping up in everyday economic activities and permeating even the high-tech exchanges of the global marketplace. What we are taught to think of as irrational and rational are actually mobile, flexible categories that continuously overlap.

To test her hunch, Rajan revisits the time when capitalist speculation and credit was replacing Britain’s traditional land-based economy. Technologies like the telegraph were collapsing time and space, and social life was morphing from extended kinship models to the nuclear family we know today. At this time, anthropologists were shaping a story that human society developed from a focus on primitive religion to the embrace of scientific rationalism. Any pre-modern ideas that might appear in the new forms were supposed to be merely fading ghosts.

Political economists, she notes, went even further: They insisted that the capitalist economy had exorcised these ghosts altogether. The new human being was hailed as “homo economicus” — a rational person who pursues wealth for self-interested motives. He, for such a being was imagined to be male, belonged strictly to the realm of the profane.

The great Victorian novelists, who were very much engaged with these developments, sensed that something was not quite right in the story. They noticed that capitalism was producing not just abundance and stability, but inequality, alienation and misery. Yet in criticizing the new system, they tended to accept and even buttress the separation of categories of experience insisted upon by social scientists. Thomas Carlyle’s famous condemnation of the “cash-payment” as “the sole nexus” of capitalism, for example, posited an economic realm as one in which ethical and religious values hold no sway.

But was it really so?

Rajan takes up the case of Charles Dickens, often viewed as the great anti-capitalist of Victorian literature, who observed that a society of self-interested economic actors could produce tremendous horror. Ideologically opposed to various aspects of capitalism, he turned to sacred ideas like sacrifice and ritual to imagine a community invested in values like disinterestedness, reciprocity, and communality — the very values endangered by the capitalist model of self-interest.

In A Tale of Two Cities, whose plot begins in year 1775, Dickens depicts Paris as a city stuck in backward economic and social modes in contrast to the more productive, modern city of London. But in order for capitalism to work harmoniously in London, something of the religious sphere had to be added to the sauce. Dickens casts a woman, Lucie, as the person who takes the stink away from all the selfish business conducted by the men — a Victorian “angel in the house,” an emblem of all the non-utilitarian values that homo economicus supposedly had no use for. Lucie, like many other female characters in Victorian novels, is supremely compassionate and sacrifices for the greater good: she is homo communis.

Dickens makes this female homo communis the servant of homo economicus, keeping his house and guiding his better nature. Like Mary’s role in the Catholic Church, she makes the official story of capitalism more palatable and helps conceal its failures. Contra the popular view of Dickens as something of a radical, Rajan points out that with his storytelling, he reintegrates sacred values in a way that ends up helping capitalism to expand. (As a popular author selling books, she notes, capitalism was serving him quite well). What had been disinherited from economic thought and pushed out to the colonies returns to the city as the domestic woman who synthesizes market and non-market values. This move, Rajan argues, is a frequent pattern not just in fiction, but in all of economic thought. It’s a second narrative that conceals the gaps in the official story.

The Visible Hand

Like their novelist friends, early social scientists were not insensible to the possibility that a society of self-interested economic actors might end up in constant warfare. When they asked how the interests of individuals could be harmonized, they often ended up thinking about ethical values. Homo economicus might drive the story of capitalism, but political economists kept coming back to ideas like communality, consensus, reciprocity, and just distribution — even ritualistic behavior.

Rajan notes that theorists of economic equilibrium, for example, tended to present society as achieving a balance between self-interest and self-sacrifice for the success of the whole. Leading 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill and William Jevons, an English economist and logician, described the ideal modern capitalist as a person who has the discipline to make sacrifices — abstaining from short-term pleasures and working hard today in order to stockpile money for the future. This ethos of sacrifice becomes key to social cohesion and stability — just as it was, Rajan points out, in so-called “pre-modern” societies.

The ideas of sacrifice and sacred values also come to play in theories of labor. Adam Smith described labor as “the most sacred and inviolable” form of property a person owned, positing it as a sacred source of the nation’s wealth, the pious foundation of the economic system itself: “We sacrifice ourselves in our labor in order to have the gift of ourselves in return,” he wrote in The Wealth of Nations. Labor is sacrificed, sacralized, and regenerated. British political economist David Ricardo, Mill, and Jevons followed him in describing a circular, gift-sacrifice economy embedded within the labor theory of value.

John Ruskin, a critic of industrial capitalism, glorified the worker as a kind of holy martyr who ensures the reproduction of life and the stability of society through the sweat of his brow. In the creation of the worker-martyr, Ruskin bridges the rift between the secular and the religious. In colonized places, a herder sacrificing a cow to promote the well-being of the community would be considered primitive, but a modern person sacrificing her labor was something else entirely. (Rajan notes that Karl Marx also picked up the idea of labor as sacrifice, although for him it was obscene, rather than glorious, that capitalists accumulated wealth on the backs of sacrificing laborers).

Economists, despite their professed adherence to rationality, also continually presented economic forces as quasi-magical energies. Think of Smith’s famous invisible hand, a sort of god of the market that coordinates human actions and somehow overcomes atomized individuality. Rajan astutely observes that the notion of communality lurks here — people unconsciously coordinating their actions to arrive at a societal consensus.

Late 19th century economist Alfred Marshall went so far as to invoke the concept of medieval chivalry to explain how modern economic systems should function. In “The Social Possibilities of Economic Chivalry,” he criticized contemporary accounts of the free market and described a middle path between government non-interference and a systemic welfare state, calling on a “spirit of chivalry” which could drive people to combine self-interest with self-sacrifice. This model would function to uphold the paternalistic administration required for the British Empire.

As the discipline of economics continued to develop, Rajan shows that while professional practitioners might come to focus more on mathematics, scientific objectivity, and moving far from their roots in moral philosophy, they could never fully banish the old ghosts — chiefly because they weren’t ghosts, but central players in the new order. The modern capitalist system, she argues, can’t do without the ethics of communality, interdependence, and reciprocity that are officially associated with pre-modern, pre-capitalist societies. Market and non-market values always operate right alongside one another.

Finding a New Plot

If you have lived and breathed global capitalism since birth, examining its narrative can feel a bit like a fish analyzing water. But, as Rajan argues, we have to examine it because its flaws and strains are threatening to dry up the entire pond.

It gets tougher every day to deny the human wreckage wrought by capitalism everywhere it exists — the steaming heap of alienation, market failures, inequalities, and rigged outcomes. Proponents of globalization cheer unfettered capitalism as the vehicle for spreading democratic values, freedom, and reciprocal exchange, but in reality, as Rajan notes, entry and participation are not equally open to all. This reality is currently erupting into worldwide unrest and the rise of right-wing populism. Clearly, the official story and what happens on the ground don’t match: Lots of people work hard but get little benefit, while plenty who do not work at all get rich.

Belief that the magic of markets will result in global solidarity, progress, and wealth for all is sounding a bit like magical thinking.

The official narrative of capitalism is easy to recognize, but the second one is harder to see: You have to piece it together. Marx described capitalism as ideological false consciousness, but Rajan detects something more complex, arguing that if you can show the ethical ideas and the sacred, communal values baked into capitalism’s own paradigms and premises, you can begin to hold it accountable for those ideals in the globalized world economy.

For starters, we can acknowledge that human beings are not simply atomistic competitors, but beings that seek to share a common experience and fate. Perhaps that is why the Occupy Movement was such a heady experience for many. The slogan “We are the 99%” was a respite from the oppressive “I” — the painful anomie of individualism that the official story insists upon.

When we speak about this unspoken narrative of capitalism, we can give up pretending that moral and economic values are opposed or somehow separated. We can say clearly, for example, that the financial crisis of 2007-8 was not just a failure of markets, but a failure of morality — for what else can you honestly call it when predatory banks escape justice as ordinary people suffer? We can question who is doing the sacrificing, and for whose good the system is working.

We can also see how the strategic deployment of sacred values and ritual can be used to conceal harmful activities. In Silicon Valley, executives instill eastern values like mindfulness and meditation into workplaces in a way that covers up the exploitation of employees and consumers that many companies are built around. A firm may spy on people to turn a profit, but the espousal of sacred values (recall Google’s former “Don’t be evil” motto) helps hide the exploitative mission. We can call out executives who ascribe intrinsic value to people, even as they strip away what people need in order to survive.

If we can clearly see the double narrative at work, maybe we can insist that homo communis should not be the servant of homo economicus, but the master.

Share your perspective