a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

spirituality, capitalist

by Richard King

From feng shui to holistic medicine, from aromatherapy candles to yoga weekends, from Christian mystics to New Age gurus, spirituality is big business. We now see the introduction of modes of spirituality into educational curricula, bereavement and addiction counseling, psychotherapy and nursing. Spirituality as a cultural trope has also been appropriated by corporate bodies and management consultants to promote efficiency, to extend markets and to maintain a leading edge in a fast-moving information economy. Spirituality is celebrated by those who are disillusioned by traditional institutional religions and seen as a force for wholeness, healing and inner transformation. In this sense spirituality is often taken to denote the positive aspects of the ancient religious traditions, unencumbered by the ‘dead hand’ of the church, and yet something which provides a liberation and solace in an otherwise meaningless world. However, is this “feel good” term always what it is advertised to be?

Capitalist spiritualities involve the subordination and exploitation of religious themes and motifs to promote an individualist or corporate-oriented pursuit of profit for its own sake. They have emerged in response to the rise of global finance capitalism, the shift to post-Fordist modes of production and the growing cultural influence of transnational corporations and neoliberal models of governance. Like the individualist or consumerist spiritualities of the 1960s and 1970s upon which such trends have developed, they tend to be ‘de-traditionalized’ and syncretic in nature. Use whatever you like, as long as it works. As the postmodern spiritualities of globalization and new information technologies these trends mirror the deregulation of economic markets and the easy transfer of electronic data across national boundaries. Unlike the individualist spiritualities of the Sixties and Seventies however, such trends remain institutionally embedded and represent an uncritical assimilation of business values into their rationale. What characterizes such trends is a subtle shift beyond an exclusive emphasis upon the individual self and towards a concern with making the individual employee/consumer function as effectively as possible for the benefit of corporate organizations and the global economy.

Many scholars have suggested that what we have seen emerge in the last few decades of the twentieth century is something new, which has been variously described as “New Age capitalism,” “millennial capitalism,” or, as David Loy has written, “the most successful religion of all time … the religion of the market.” Yet, in many respects the ‘free market’ values embodied in these ascriptions are not particularly new. In 1944 Karl Polanyi traced similar tensions and issues to the Industrial Revolution. However, the intersection of such an ideology with the collapse of Soviet communism, the rise of globalization, the proliferation of new communications technologies, and the possibility of mass advertising saturation through corporate-owned media outlets have moved the free-market agenda onto an unprecedented scale. However one chooses to characterize these developments they now offer a significant challenge to the indigenous civilizations and ancient cultures of the world that they are in the process of colonizing, strip-mining and transforming. Harvey Cox describes the long historical arc of markets and their relation to religion in this passage:

Since the earliest stages of human history, of course, there have been bazaars, rialtos and trading posts—all markets. But The Market was never God, because there were other centers of value and meaning, other “gods”. The Market operated within a plethora of other institutions that restrained it. As Karl Polanyi has demonstrated in his classic work The Great Transformation, only in the past two centuries has The Market risen above these demigods and chthonic spirits to become today’s First Cause.

It is in this particular market moment that we consider the meaning of the term spirituality. For historians, the term “spiritualité” seems to have first emerged in seventeenth century France (as did its close relation–“la mystique”) where it was associated with the devout or contemplative life in general and it is from this word that we derive the modern English term “spirituality.” By this time, the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis upon the individual’s unmediated relationship to God and the importance of an interior faith had created a climate within European Christianity which allowed the first steps towards the privatization of religion to occur. Thus, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, influenced by figures such as Madame Guyon (1648-1717), a new sensibility began to emerge which specifically associated spiritualité with the interior life of the individual soul.

The development of the modern notion of spirituality as an interiorized experience was inflected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the European colonial encounter with Asia and the growing influence of the science of psychology as an authoritative discourse of the human condition. There have been countervailing trends that associated “spirituality” with the struggle for social justice. Yet the predominant trend has been to see the “spiritual” as a discourse associated with the private, individual self.

By the second half of the twentieth-century, religion had entered the marketplace of human choice and experimentation, resulting of course in the development of that eclectic and amorphous phenomenon known today as ‘the New Age.” All of these factors have had a profound impact upon the reception of Asian religious traditions and philosophies in the western world where they have overwhelmingly been translated into introspective and otherworldly spiritualities concerned primarily with the achievement of individual enlightenment with little in the way of a social conscience or orientation to change the world in which that individual lives. Indeed, for someone like Paul Heelas, this individualistic focus means that the New Age movement can best be characterized as a loose network of “self-religions” or “spiritualities of the self.” We might call this process the individualization of religion.



It is often recognized that, since the Enlightenment, organized religion has been subjected to an erosion of its social authority with the rise of scientific rationalism, humanism and modern, liberal democratic models of the nation-state (a process often called secularization). In modern western societies, to varying degrees, this has usually manifested itself as the relegation of “the religious” to the private sphere. What has not been sufficiently appreciated by contemporary social theorists however is that the later stages of this process have become intimately intertwined with the global spread of corporate capitalism. We can describe both of these trends as the privatization of religion, but in two distinct senses.

In the first instance, the European Enlightenment led to an increased tendency to exclude religious discourse from the public domain of politics, economics and science. In the main this was achieved by representing ‘the religious’ primarily in terms of individual choice, beliefs, and private states of mind. For philosophers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant, it was important to demarcate the precise domain in which religion should be located, in order to preserve the secular space of liberal political governance from the conflicts, intolerance and violence arising from the conflict between competing religious ideologies and groups within European societies. Religion in this context becomes a matter of personal assent to a set of beliefs, a matter of the private state of mind or personal orientation of the individual citizen in the terms set out for it by modern (i.e. Enlightenment-inspired) liberalism. A consequence of this approach is that, in different ways and variegated forms, religion has been formally separated from the business of statecraft in contemporary Northern European societies (though with different inflections and degrees of smoothness).

In the late twentieth century, however, there has been a second form of privatization, and this has been largely ignored in the sociological literature on the subject. This trend partially builds upon the previous process, but also has important discontinuities with it. It is linked to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the end of the Cold War and the global emergence of a triumphalist form of corporate-oriented capitalism, intent on spreading its influence across the globe. The second privatization that this cultural phenomenon represents partially builds upon the previous individualization of religion, but also has important discontinuities with it. Generally speaking, it can be characterized as a wholesale commodification of religion that is the selling off of religious buildings, ideas, and claims to authenticity in primary service to profit.

In the context of this unprecedented cultural bombardment of information, images, and advertising through the various mass media we are witnessing a wholesale commodification of our varied cultural histories and traditions. The practices, texts, and belief-systems of ancient traditions are now routinely exploited for their cultural capital with the purpose of increasing consumption and corporate profit. Much of the conceptual work for achieving this is carried out by the modern concept of spirituality. Marketing the spiritual allows companies and their consumers to pay lip service to the rich and historically significant religions of the world whilst at the same time distancing themselves from any engagement with the specific world-views and forms of life that they represent. Religion is re-branded as “spirituality” and the net result is the vigorous promotion of the ideology of capitalism. This emerging phenomenon is what Jeremy Carrette and I have coined “capitalist spirituality.”



We do not need Karl Marx or Max Weber to tell us that those traditions classified as ‘religions’ in the modern consciousness have always been bound up with economics and more generally with modes of exchange. However, a fundamental ground shift has taken place in North American and British cultural politics in the last twenty years, one specifically tied to the deregulation of the markets by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and this is changing the relationship of cultural forms to the market. At the beginning of the twenty-first century what it means to be human has been increasingly influenced by a discourse of rational choice, game theory, and the notion of homo economicus. The language of the market, of competition, consumption, of built-in obsolence and auditing has exerted an influence upon more and more dimensions of life in capitalist societies. Passengers, hospital patients, students become customers, citizens become consumers, and employees become “human resources.”

How has this general cultural shift affected the realm of “the religious”? With the emergence of capitalist forms of spirituality we are seeing a shift in relation to the ethico-cultural space traditionally inhabited by ‘the religions’ in terms of its increasing subordination to a particular economic ideology. Entering public institutions that provide education, health-care and professional expertise within society as a whole, the ideologies of consumerism and business enterprise are now infiltrating more and more aspects of our lives. The result of this shift has been a curtailment of the social and ethical concerns associated with religious traditions and communities and the subordination of “the religious” and the ethical to the realm of economics, which is now rapidly replacing science (just as science replaced theology in a previous era), as the dominant mode of authoritative discourse within society. Capitalism and consumerism have become, for many today, a powerful life-orienting ideology—a new world religion, and “spirituality” is at the frontline of the missionary activity to spread this religion and its impoverished view of the human around the globe.