Rishi’s one real god

What is this mysterious thing called ‘the market’ that proposes and disposes of prime minsters? Paul Demarty looks at what controls the controllers

So it is all over. After a brief, black-comedy moment, when it seemed that Boris Johnson could barge, bully and bribe his way back into No10, the Conservative Party’s immune system reacted to pull off the one thing it needed - a coronation, specifically of ‘Dishy’ Rishi.

Yet, though Britain’s first non-Christian prime minister, an observing Hindu, he is, like every prime minister before him, a worshipper of a one real god.

Sunak has been carried up to the top job amid a flood of rhetoric, exemplified by an op-ed by Andrew Neil in the Daily Mail - “It’s time for the Tories to put the country first and vote for Rishi, the man the markets trust.” You cannot find anyone more ‘trustworthy’ from that point of view than a Goldman Sachs alumnus and hedge-fund guy with a pragmatic Thatcherite outlook.

That, however, is the funny thing about this sort of language - what is ‘that point of view’? Can a market really be the sort of thing to trust a person, whether a yuppie creep or anything else? The recent British political crisis has been a timely reminder of many things - not least the peculiar effect subjection to the rule of capital has on our perceptions of social life.

We have, thanks to some spectacularly strained readings of the US 14th amendment, the legal proxy fiction that a corporation is a person. That perhaps makes sense, since a corporation has a board of directors and executive officers, through whose ordinary human agency a corporation can have a kind of agency itself. (The word is, itself, a pun on the Latin for ‘body’ - see corporal punishment, corpse, and so on.) The market is a rather different sort of being - omnipresent, multiple, and yet it has a single (invisible) hand. It is, in other words, a kind of god. Or perhaps it is rather a divine name - like Yahweh, or the 330 million gods from the Hindu tradition that are reduced to Vishnu or Shiva. The ‘god’, or ‘gods’, so named are better known to Marxists as capital.

This is a very old theme in our tradition, of course, stretching from some of Marx’s earliest writings to the playfully eldritch ‘dark Marxism’ of political economist Ian Wright in our own day.1 There are many variations on the theme, as there should be in what is a metaphor extended over centuries. The core, however, is common: it is not sufficient to simply deny that capital is (a) god, and that people who treat it as such are merely mistaken. They understand, perhaps preconsciously, something important when they so misrecognise capital; as Wright puts it, capital is a “real god”.

Marx’s works are full of strange supernatural creatures - vampires, spectres, frightful hobgoblins (in Helen Macfarlane’s memorable translation), and all the rest. The hobgoblin is, of course, the communist movement; but most of the necromantic flourishes pertain to the movement’s great enemy. In the Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844, we catch an early rendition of the theme, riffing on Goethe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Goethe’s lines - “Six stallions, say, I can afford. Is not their strength my property? I tear along, a sporting lord. As if their legs belonged to me” - stresses that money offers the possessor a more than human power:

The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my - the possessor’s - properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.2

In relation to Shakespeare, Marx emphasises the double quality of money as an agent of quasi-divine transfiguration, and by the same token an agent of corruption - both “the visible divinity” and “the common whore”. Later, in the Communist manifesto, the human agents of the domination of money - the bourgeoisie - are famously attributed the same solvent power on the settled relations of the world:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.3

Totem and taboo

Yet this is not quite the whole story. Capital (or money, or “the markets”) veils as it unveils. Without the complacent ideologies of traditional societies, relations between people seem to be laid bare: the division between those who fight, pray and work turns out to merely have concealed exploitation of the last by the two former. Now, the worker - duly emancipated - is free to work for whoever he or she wants. It does not, of course, quite work out like that, as laid out by Marx in his mature works of political economy, principally in Capital, which demonstrates with great dexterity the essential shape of exploitation.

His argument in that work, however, begins further back - with the apparently ‘obvious’ character of the commodity, the yard of linen being worth a shilling, or the hat worth sixpence. Yet this involves a very curious elision, whereby what is ultimately a relation obtaining between purchaser and seller appears as an essential property of the commodity itself. The commodity has the character of a fetish, which brings immediately to the contemporary mind good, honest fun with leather and chains, but then called to mind the self-satisfied attitude of imperialist anthropologists, who catalogued and smugly mocked the religious practices of the ‘savages’ they studied; fetishism was supposing some inanimate object to be a god, a secularised synonym for idolatry. Marx’s point was to unsettle this complacency - there was no greater fetish religion than capitalism itself, but, being wholly immersed in it, we cannot see it. Our god, as they so often do, had hidden himself from our sight.

There is a certain strain in Marxist theory that has interpreted all the ideological ghouls and ghosts of capitalist modernity as children of this one, the great fetish statue called the commodity. György Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist philosopher, wrote: “It might be claimed … that the chapter [of Capital] dealing with the fetish character of the commodity contains within itself the whole of historical materialism and the whole self-knowledge of the proletariat.”4 We need not go that far, and indeed ought not - the great failing of Lukács and his philosophical descendants is to suppose too sharp a break between capitalist and pre-modern society, and thus underestimate the strength of ideological forms that have a firm basis in social and economic life, but are not outworkings of the commodity fetish. It takes its pre-eminent place as the only truly unavoidable ideology, the one written even into working class resistance to exploitation (‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’). Lukács’s overstatement does at least have the virtue of highlighting its pervasiveness.


Of course, if capital is a real god, it is nonetheless not really a god, which is to say, it is really something other than a god with a (necessarily) godlike form of appearance. Fake gods are as old as religion itself. It seems appropriate to quote at least one theologian on this little journey through the numinous, so here is David Bentley Hart on the theatrical hoaxes of late-Roman mystery cults:

We know of mechanical devices, optical illusions and combustible chemicals, used to simulate miracles and divine visitations: conjurers’ tricks with fire, automata used to give the impression of idols brought to life by the descent of daemons, hidden speaking trumpets for producing the voices of unseen gods, light reflected from hidden pans of water onto reflective surfaces in darkened temples’ ceilings, skulls cunningly fashioned from friable wax that would ‘miraculously’ melt away after delivering their oracles, shadowy temple vaults suddenly transformed into the starry heavens by light projected upon fish scales embedded in the masonry, temple doors designed to open on their own as the ‘god’ passed through them, and so on.5

Nothing so extravagant is necessary to fool someone as credulous as Andrew Neil. What does it mean for the great god, “the markets”, to “trust” his anointed, Christos Sunak? Such a question is surely inseparable from another: how is it that Kwasi Kwarteng did not earn the god’s trust, or Liz Truss? The story is perfectly well narratable in - ahem - ‘secular’ terms. As inflation increased over the summer, the Bank of England implemented a strategy of quantitative tightening (basically the opposite of the quantitative easing that followed the 2008 crash - selling rather than buying government bonds, and reducing the money supply). That had already produced notable wobbles in the gilt markets in August.

When the dynamic duo made it into Numbers 10 and 11, and announced their cunning plan of extensive supply-side deficit spending, the bank made it clear that interest rates were going to rise. That threw off the maths of a bunch of interest-rate derivatives owned by pension funds, who faced margin calls that would force them to post more collateral. Collateral must consist of liquid assets, and pension funds are positively drowning in long-dated government bonds. But they all wanted to sell at once, causing a price crash. But that merely meant that the margin calls could not be met, and the losses would ultimately fall on the people the other side of the bet - the banks. The BoE then had to step in to act as a buyer of last resort, essentially to prevent financial contagion from knocking out the banking sector (BoE does not protect pension funds).

This whole sequence of events is, of course, not intelligible without the political background of the west’s proxy war against Russia, and innumerable other not-immediately-economic questions. This, then, is the true face of “the markets”, which so trust Rishi Sunak. They trust him to do what he is told, to meet any emergency with sycophancy and obedience disguised as pragmatism, who will pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Despite landing in the top job, he seems ill at liberty to do anything much, as in fact he always has (such an odd choice to front up ‘pandemic socialism’). This unfreedom in the hands of the jealous god, capital, was most succinctly described by Max Horkheimer:

In socialism, freedom is to become a reality. But because the current system is called ‘free’ and considered liberal, it is not terribly clear what this may mean … [A man] may, for example, ask an acquaintance for a job in his firm … But his acquaintance knits his brow and says that that is objectively impossible. Business is bad, he says, and he’s even been obliged to let many employees go. The man should not be angry with him, for it is not within his power - his freedom does not extend that far. The businessman is subject to laws … which the big capitalists and perhaps he himself skilfully make use of, but whose existence must be accepted as a fact.6

Thus, also, Wright’s characterisation of capital as an “egregore” - an occult being that emerges from the ritual practices of devotees, “yet operates autonomously, according to its own internal logic, to materially influence and control the group’s activities”. The god emerges from the believers to dominate the believers. Their freedom is freedom only to serve.

The burden falls unusually heavily on Sunak; but the extremities of this god’s wrath are reserved for those impudent souls who suppose they can coupon-clip his gifts - even the most anaemic social democrats like Francois Hollande have felt the heat. We do not like to think what would have become of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Deicide, not clever tricks with mirrors and fish scales, must be on the agenda for socialists.


  1. ianwrightsite.wordpress.com/2021/11/25/dark-eucharist-of-the-real-god.↩︎

  2. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/power.htm.↩︎

  3. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm.↩︎

  4. www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm.↩︎

  5. D Bentley Hart Atheist delusions New Haven 2009, p142.↩︎

  6. martinluiga.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/the-little-man-and-the-philosophy-of-freedom.↩︎