A short engagement with political theology

I would argue that one of the most important passages on the relation between Christianity and Capitalism comes from a Walter Benjamin fragment titled Capitalism as Religion. Benjamin was a contemporary of Carl Schmitt, and the two of them often argued in journals in early 20th century Germany. For those who aren’t aware Benjamin was a German Jew who killed himself while attempting to escape Nazi occupation. Schmitt was a German legal scholar who was known as the ‘crown jurist of the Third Reich). Both are integral to the formation of we today call political theology. This area of study follows Schmitt’s formulation of the political by his essay Political Theology:

All significant concept of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development–in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent lawgiver–but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts (Schmitt 2006, 36).

Schmitt held an authoritarian, Hobbsean grasp of political theology–most famously made in his claim that “Sovereign is he who decides upon the exception” (Schmitt 2006, 1). From this it might be clear why he was comfortable within the Nazi regime. Benjamin also argued in favor of a ‘state of exception’, but he calls it a ‘state of emergency’. This is perhaps, most prominent in his famous On the Concept of History where he states:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. — The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable (Benjamin 1968, 257).

Here the ‘state of emergency’ or ‘exception’ holds with it a messianic potential. Schmitt’s emercency situation is merely a lie reproduced in order to keep the current order of things in place. Benjamin, on the other hand, wishes for a messianic event–what we might consider as an ‘explosion’ to the current world in the production of the new. This would be the complete and utter destruction of contemporary rules, issuing a new set of rules that cannot be determined prior to the event. This messianism resembles Nitetzsche’s Overhuman or Deleuze’s aleatory point, as a complete and utter break from the current order of things.

What I find most prominent in the fragment linked is the way that Benjamin understand’s Christianity’s role in the production of our contemporary regime. I find that the most important paragraph, to me, comes at the end, with Benjamin stating,

Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, without dogma. Capitalism itself developed parasitically on Christianity in the West–not in Calvinism alone, but also, as must be shown, in the remaining orthodox Christian movements — in such a way that, in the end, its history is essentially the history of its parasites, of capitalism. Compare the holy iconography of various religions on the one hand with the banknotes of various countries on the other: The spirit that speaks from the ornament of the banknotes (Benjamin 2005, 260).

This continues on the next page with an even more informative and damning claim, which is imperative to our study:

Christianity in the time of the Reformation did not encourage the emergence of capitalism, but rather changed itself into capitalism (Benjamin 2005, 261)

If one is to call oneself a Christian, one must realize that the religion we claim is itself the very thing that we struggle against. This is the fundamental contradiction within a radical Christian tradition, and one that cannot merely be ignored, but must instead be a central insight and understanding of our investigation. It is a recognition that it is not we who have a good, and right understanding of Christianity, but instead the recognition that, in the very act of naming ourselves ‘Christian’ we are complicit in the capitalist project (much as whiteness is complicit in slavery, by its very essence).

For more resources on political theology, please see: Political Theology: A Reading List

  1. Benjamin, Walter. “Capitalism as Religion.” In The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by Major Figures, edited by E. Mendieta, translated by C. Kautzer, 259–62. New York: Routledge, 2005,
  2. Benjamin, Walter “Theses on the History of Philosophy,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), 257.
  3. Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Translated by George Schwab. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

PhD Student at University of Western Ontario in Theory/Criticism. Deleuze/Laruelle/Nietzsche. Current research on Plants/Spinoza/Simondon.

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