Neoliberalism as a religious movement is an economic doctrine that can only be accepted by faith. This neoliberal faith is based on the power amassed by a decentralized network of institutions, and the militarily “advanced” nations it profits, which in turn verifies the universality of its economic doctrines. There can be no salvation outside the global market forces of “free trade.” An alternative to the spirit of neoliberalism can be found within the faith of the people. Within the present post-modern condition, a space has been opened—perhaps inadvertently—for the sacred. In this space, the faith and/or spirituality of the people can directly challenge global capitalism. The alternative to neoliberalism, the hope for the vast majority of the world’s population, will be found within their own faith traditions—specifically, how those faith traditions equip the marginalized within their midst to seek their own liberation. Although the actual tenets of any faith are important, the poor and disenfranchised usually approach their faith tradition differently than those who usually serve as the academic or ecclesiastic spokespersons of the faith. Any attempt to understand the faith of the people from the margins of the community will find itself rooted in the everyday, attempting to discover how their faith provides the means of surviving the condition of their disenfranchisement.

Our world is one in which 850 million people (or 12.5% of the global population) were malnourished during the 2010–12 period;1 meanwhile, people in the United States spend millions of dollars annually trying to lose weight. By 2010, of the seven billion earth inhabitants, 1.75 billion in 104 countries (about a third of their populations) lived in multidimensional poverty, reflecting acute deprivation in health, education, and standard of living. This block exceeds the 1.44 billion people in those same countries who live on $1.25 a day or less, but not the 2.6 billion living on less than $2 a day. The 2008 Great Recession only exacerbated the situation, pushing 64 million more people under the $1.25 a day poverty threshold. In Africa alone it is estimated an additional 30,000 to 50,000 children died as a direct result of the 2008 financial crisis.2

Dire economic situations are not limited to the Global South. Even within the richest nation ever known to humanity, the gap in income and wealth is greater now than during most of the twentieth century. At the close of the century, in 1999, the top 1% of US taxpayers each had on average $862,700 after taxes—more than triple what they had in 1979. Meanwhile, the bottom 40% had $21,118 each, up by 13% from their average $18,695 (adjusted for inflation) in 1979. Moreover, although median household incomes reached their peak that year at $53,252, the year 2000 proved to have the greatest economic disparity since 1979, when the Budget Office began collecting such data. The National Bureau of Economic Research—a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group—claimed the top 1% enjoyed by the close of the millennium the largest share of before-tax income for any year since 1929. For the next decade, all incomes, except for the ultra-rich, steadily fell, so by 2010, real median household income dropped by 7.1% to $49, 445, literally wiping out almost two decades of accumulated prosperity, according to the Federal Reserve. The US poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1%, with 46.2 million people (the largest number in 52 years) living in poverty.3Because the 1% controls the vast majority of the wealth, by extension they also control the political systems protecting their riches.

These economic disparities did not arise by chance. Global policies are maintained and sustained to make an economically disproportionate world possible. The gluttonous consumption of the world’s elite is not only morally indefensible, but also the root cause of much of the present instability in the world. This instability is a breeding ground for violence, fertilizing the mindset which birthed the 9/11 tragedy. Massive poverty is, without a doubt, the greatest threat to world peace and security. According to former general secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, “No one in this world can feel comfortable or safe while so many are suffering and deprived.”4

When we think of violence, we think of physical conflict, such as wars and revolutions, where blood is indiscriminately spilled. Although global policies responsible for much of the world’s disenfranchisement may appear as the legitimate norm, they are, nonetheless, violent. This institutionalized violence can be understood as violence created, supported, and rooted in institutions and powerful groups the purpose of which is to maintain an unequal and unjust socio-political and economic order blocking the human development of its citizens, especially those considered inferior, abnormal, or threatening to the given global order. Institutional violence is more than the inadequate distribution of a country’s or community’s resources; it presupposes a justification and normalization of unjust socio-economic relationships through legal and cultural frameworks undermining the mechanisms of justice, and establishes a coercive force to maintain an inequitable established order. This form of violence is maintained through a repressive social structure validating its existence and incorporating its premises into the cultural, educational, and daily experiences of a given society. The system vindicates the cycle of violence protecting the structures and the social groups most benefiting.

The death of the world’s wretched can be understood as the byproduct of institutional violence. The normative everyday experience of violence found throughout the Global South, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable, is closely linked to the reality of socio-economic injustice, ecological destruction, militarization of society, uneven distribution of wealth, poor access to education and health care, poverty, unemployment, racism, ethnic discrimination, gender inequality, and global economic policies benefiting a small portion of the world’s elite population at the expense of the many. Violence moves beyond the personal dimension when the socio-economic and political dimensions are considered. True, shooting a child in the face is an act of immediate and bloody violence; nevertheless, the death of a child from lack of food or sanitary conditions over a period of years may not be immediate nor bloody, but it is no less violent.

According to Latin American liberation theologian Franz Hinkelammert: “[T]he existence of the poor attests to the existence of a Godless society, whether one explicitly believes in God or not.”5 Nevertheless, most people within the US hold the assumption everyone can succeed if they just work hard enough. That anybody can grow up to become the president is the myth we install in our little boys (sexism starts young). The only thing holding them back is their own lack of initiative. But it seems, no matter how hard the poor work, they often continue to slip into greater poverty. The growing disparity of wealth between the poor and the rich leads us to question if it is a “work ethic” that is at stake or perhaps a “neoliberal ideology” allowing the wealthy to rationalize their power and privilege.

Underdevelopment of the periphery became a byproduct of development of the center. What was once accepted as colonialism, when world powers directly occupied foreign lands with boots on the ground to extract their national resources and human labor, has been replaced with a modern form of global exploitation termed “neoliberalism.” Underdevelopment persists so long as neoliberalism continues to privilege the nations who have placed themselves at the world’s center. This is why any ethical response to global injustices must start with a comprehension of neoliberalism.

“Neoliberalism” is a relatively new economic term coined in the late 1990s that describes the social and moral implications of the free-trade policies of global capitalism (liberalism) since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc (hence neo-, meaning new or recent). Critics maintain neoliberalism is responsible for the increasing disparity in global wealth, and has created a parasitic relationship through which the poor of the world sacrifice their humanity to serve the needs, wants, and desires of a privileged global few. The privileged few are provided with the right to determine what will be produced, who (the nation state or group of individuals) will produce it, under what conditions production will take place, what will be paid for the finished product, what the profits will amount to, and who will benefit from the profits. In spite of foreign aid programs designed by rich nations to assist so-called underdeveloped countries, most of the world’s wealth in the form of raw materials, natural resources, and cheap labor is extracted through unfair trade agreements rather than returned under the guise of humanitarianism or charity. The First World continues to appropriate the resources of weaker nations through the open market, causing internal scarcities in basic living needs required to maintain any type of humane living standard.

Ensuring stable political systems, regardless of how repressive they may be, becomes a prerequisite for the economic marketplace to function. Political stability is needed to safeguard the steady and profitable flow of goods, superseding the need for liberty. Thus, a history exists of the US toppling democratically elected governments to install tyrants charged with securing stability (as has happened with the governments of Abenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile, and Mossadegh in Iran). Ironically, supporters (such as neoconservatives) of the continuing expansion of neoliberalism often confuse this economic structure with democratic virtues like liberty, guaranteeing any questions raised about ethics of the present economic structure would be construed as an attack on democracy.6

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has emerged as the undisputed economic and military world power. The rise of the US Empire was neither an accident nor the result of luck. At the close of World War II, the Bretton Woods Conference (1944) attempted to create an economic order charged with rebuilding Europe so as to prevent further world wars. Free trade was perceived as the means by which to bring stability to the global order. Although the original intentions may have been noble, in the end, the new economic order promoted the development of First-World banks and institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund [IMF] were both created at Bretton Woods), and transnational corporations. This new global economic order facilitated the United States and its Western European allies to develop their economic wealth at the expense of the peripheral nations who provided raw materials and cheap labor. The term “empire” was no longer narrowly defined as physical possession of foreign lands paying tribute. Empire is today understood as a globalized economy providing monetary benefits to multinational corporations whose influences are secured through the military might of one superpower responsible for fostering what was once called “banana republics.”

Whereas empires of old relied on brute force, the US Empire of today relies on economic force; this is not to disregard the fact that by 2012, the US military spending surpassed the $711 billion mark, representing about 41% of the world’s total military spending,7 or equal to the next fourteen countries combined.8Through an economic might sustained through military power, the United States dictates terms of trade with other nations, guaranteeing benefits flow to the United States and the elites in countries with whom trade agreements are signed. US superpower status facilitates the ever-expanding influence of transnational corporations, the single goal of which is to satisfy their stockholders by increased profits. The globalization of the economy, coupled with the military strength of a few nations (specifically the United States), ensures and maintains a continual flow of cheap labor and raw materials to a small privileged minority of the world’s population. Not surprisingly, the rich become fewer yet wealthier, while the number of poor continues to grow as they slip into greater poverty. Ironically, those who benefit from these arrangements have constructed a type of religiosity that justifies global structures responsible for much of the world’s economic misery.

One way to keep profit margins high is to pay low wages. Wages paid to workers, especially workers from the Global South, are not determined by textbook economic theories of supply and demand nor by the laborer’s need to survive, but by the needs of the transnational corporation to increase profits—by whatever means possible. Many theologians, such as Enrique Dussel, remind us God’s reign in community is an affirmation people are created to live in a positive relation with the Divine and with each other. This cannot happen when individuals are reduced to their economic value, when they become objects or resources to be exploited.9

These disenfranchised become a commodity—an object—within an integrated global market, whose sole purpose is to provide the world’s elite reservoirs of cheap labor. As theologian John Cobb observes, “Now that Marxism has been discredited … the capitalist countries no longer find it necessary to check the concentration of wealth in fewer hands. By moving from national economies to a single global economy, they can pit the workers of one country against the workers of all others.”10 The ever-present corporate goal of increasing profits creates a race among transnational corporations to the bottom as they seek the lowest possible wage to be paid. There was a time when business innovation (the automobile, camera, plane, television, computer) provided long-term economic growth, providing millions of jobs. Today, however, nothing anchors an American business to the USA.

This new neoliberal model can be understood as a religion, with the World Bank akin to its ecclesial institution. According to economic development experts Susan George and Fabrizio Sabelli, the World Bank is “[a] supernational, non-democratic institution [that] functions very much like the Church, in fact the medieval Church. It has a doctrine, a rigidly structured hierarchy preaching and imposing this doctrine [of neoliberalism] and a quasi-religious mode of self-justification.”11 The World Bank and the IMF become key institutions (churches?). They impose “conditions” and “structural adjustments” (normally severe cuts in health, education, and social services) on member states starving for credit. A key component of “structural adjustments” is turning national enterprises over to private investors.12 The privatization of national economies shifts the emphasis from achieving social goals to profit-making. Workers most often face massive wage cuts and layoffs as private owners seek to improve their bottom line by cutting labor costs. Privatization in many underdeveloped countries entails a disappearance of social benefits and a direct reduction of the standard of living for workers.

Now the market dictates how a society is to be ruled. Global financial institutions set political policies impacting millions of lives. The power of the World Bank and IMF to impose structural adjustments facilitates their ability to force nations to participate in the world economic order even if the terms of participation are unfavorable, especially to those who are disenfranchised.13 These structural adjustments invariably include devaluing the currency, correlating price structures to global markets, terminating import restrictions and exchange controls, imposing user fees on services (such as water, health care, and education), and reducing national sovereignty. The consequences lead to the world’s marginalized witnessing the weakening if not the outright dismantling of their economic safety net (protection for women and children in the workplace, social security benefits, labor unions), coupled with increased unemployment and pending ecological collapse. In a twisted form of logic, the increase of unemployment, which leads to increasing poverty and misery among the world’s poor, is hailed as a positive. For the World Bank, unemployment means “bloated” enterprises become lean units capable of competing in the open world market.

Relegating the world’s marginalization to the underside underestimates the potency of globalism. Neoliberalism moves beyond an economic order based on private property where buyers and sellers compete to obtain the best price on goods and services, becoming a “spirit” encompassing both an emerging culture and a morality that justify the new economic arrangements that dehumanize those made poor by neoliberalism. When the world’s disenfranchised are commodified, cultural consequences follow—specifically the disintegration of communal and familial life. As the world’s poor compete with each other in the race to the bottom of global compensation, traditional institutions fostering faith also suffer, not due to lack of interest, but to a lack of time, as more waking hours are expended in the pursuit of the basic life necessities (food, clothing, shelter).

The emergence of a global culture complimentary to neoliberalism provides both a model for the world’s poor to emulate and a substitution for the role faith traditionally played. A century ago the “white man’s burden” was to bring civilization and Christianity to the world’s heathens and savages (understood as nonwhites). Civilizing and Christianizing natives was a cover story for the colonial venture of subjugation (mainly through military might) of the vast majority of the world’s resources and people for the development of imperial centers in Europe and North America. Today, rather than bringing the natives civilization, we bring them democratization—the new buzz word. Rather than bring them the faith of Christianity, today we spread the gospel of neoliberalism. As a spirit, neoliberalism has become the major competitor of Christianity for the souls of humanity, but not just of Christianity; I would argue neoliberalism as spirit is more successful in winning converts than any other faith tradition in existence.

Neoliberalism as a religious movement is an economic doctrine accepted by faith. The economic Truth of neoliberalism is maintained through a rigidly structured nondemocratic hierarchy in the forms of the World Bank and the IMF. As guardians of economic Truth, these institutions succeed in making their neoliberal theories appear as the norm—the only legitimate choice for rational beings. Belief in the market, and its free flow of goods, leads to a salvation characterized by “a rising tide that lifts all boats,” regardless of what the empirical data show. Such beliefs are perpetuated through institutions functioning much like a church claiming its own religious form of self-justification. Like most faith traditions, neoliberal economic pronouncements are accepted by faith—a faith lacking any moral or ethical foundation. This neoliberal faith is based on the power amassed by a decentralized network of institutions, and the militarily “advanced” nations it profits, which in turn verifies the universality of its economic doctrines. There can be no salvation outside the global market forces of “free trade.” Even if these market forces create widespread devastation, destitution, or destruction, neoliberalism by faith continues to be confessed as the only way to salvation. Whereas past evangelists attempted to convince the nonbelievers to believe in their doctrines of God, today’s neoliberal evangelists seek to convert nonbelievers into entrepreneurs who can in turn intensify and expand the market.

Neoconservative Catholic ethicist Michael Novak, commenting on the collapse of the Eastern bloc, boasts, “We are all capitalists now, even the Pope. Both traditionalists (Third World) and socialist methods have failed; for the whole world there is now only one form of economics.”14 Novak is not alone in his assertion that capitalism is compatible with (in his case) Christianity. Capitalism as God’s ordained economic order is a presupposed concept found within many mainline churches of the so-called First World—a presupposition we can witness spreading to impoverished societies (within both the so-called “First” and “Third” World) in the form of prosperity theology.15 Regardless of the neoconservative agenda of linking God with a neoliberal economic order, liberative theologians have resisted neoliberalism. Unfortunately, this resistance has failed to be effective, mainly because the global forces of neoliberalism were and continue to be underestimated.

Part of this underestimation was manifested in the misplaced trust Latin American liberation theologians had in the state as the means for creating a more humane society. Through the democratic process, attempts were, and continue to be made to elect individuals sympathetic to the marginalized. Although such a strategy may have previously proven effective, now it is naive. The move, specifically in Latin America, from right-wring US-sponsored dictatorships toward a more democratic process should be welcomed as good news; still, any good coming from democratization is forfeited because the sovereignty of states has been coopted by neoliberalism. Regardless of leftist-leaning policies, the state remains in danger of becoming the means by which market forces organize what is produced, who produces it, what is paid to those doing the producing, and who profits from what is being produced. Rather than protecting the poor, even in states headed by leftist elected leaders, the state’s raison d’etre has become securing territories so production of goods or harvesting of resources can take place, and if need be, suppressing any resistance to this global order. In effect, sovereign nations have been overrun by neoliberalism, either through imposed “structural adjustments” or a self-interested willingness to be aligned with the world’s only superpower. Any hope the state could have had of being a check on the operations of neoliberalism has led to disappointment, for states are now constrained by external economic forces constructed to serve the neoliberal global order.

For theologians Clodovis Boff and George Pixley, “The theological status of [neoliberalism] today is precisely that of a vast idolatrous cult of the great god Capital, creator and father of so many lesser gods: money, the free market, and so on.”16 The economic pronouncements expounded by the World Bank or IMF can be neither validated nor invalidated, but accepted on faith. The ethics employed by these institutions is not based on concepts of morality, but on interpreted principles of economics and the power amassed by the institution. Brian Griffiths, vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International and member of the British House of Lords, best illustrates this point: “What should be the Christian response to poverty? First, to support global capitalism by encouraging the governments of developing countries to privatize state-owned industries, open up their economies to trade and investment and allow competitive markets to grow.”17 For neoliberalism, market forces are more important than ethics, even when the market causes widespread hunger and poverty. Economist Milton Friedman once said, “Indeed, a major aim of the liberal [market] is to leave the ethical problem for individuals to wrestle with. The ‘really’ important ethical problems are those that face an individual in a free society—what he should do with his freedom.”18

Any focus on individual and personal issues of faith and redemption poses problems for ethicists, especially those working at the margins. Daniel Bell best captures this new neoliberal attitude toward ethics: “Capitalism has put a new twist on Augustine’s famous dictum, ‘Love and do as you please.’ Now it is, ‘Produce for the market and do as you please.’”19 The pursuit of gain for the few creates scarcity for the many. Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez insists “[i]n the Bible, material poverty is a subhuman situation, the fruit of injustice and sin.”20 Here, then, is the crux of the conflict between neoliberalism and the gospel message of liberation: neoliberalism lacks a global ethical perspective because it reduces ethics to the sphere of individualism.

The dichotomy between communal and personal ethics—or between market forces and human development—allows people of faith to accept the market as a “good.” The market, then, determines the fate of humanity, and humans exist for the market. Maximization of wealth becomes a virtue in and of itself, as well as a reason for being, and competition separates the sheep from the goats. Economic “losers” result from a lack of personal ethics to manage their own lives properly. Failure in being employable indicates a collapse of moral duty to maximize one’s potential in the labor marketplace. Transnational corporations also compete by eliminating competitors through mergers and acquisitions, which usually result in job losses. As technological advances reduce the need for manual labor, humans become dispensable—nonessential units are rendered superfluous. Although raw material remains in high demand, the populations of the Global South are no longer needed.21

Neoliberalism tends to encompass and dictate every aspect of human existence. Nothing can exist outside the market. Even nations are reduced to “companies” with which the transnationals form alliances. Each thing and every body is reduced to a consumer good. If a nation is unable to compete in the global marketplace, then a process of financial prioritizing—“structural adjustments” or “austerity programs”—takes place so that the nation can become a stronger player, usually at the expense of their populations, whose living conditions worsen. In the end, the state bows its knees to capitalist structures responsible for maintaining “law and order” by squelching any resistance to the status quo. Human freedom and liberty are redefined to mean freedom for the flow of capital and goods, access to a ready and flexible labor pool, and the dissolution of a state’s rights to determine a separate and contrary destiny. Those who question neoliberalism are not necessarily opposed to globalization, which has become a reality of modern life. Rather, they are against how globalization has come to be defined. This new political, social, and economic order called neoliberalism negatively impacts all humanity, especially the marginalized.

What, then, is the hope of the world’s marginalized? Is Novak right? Is there no other system but neoliberalism? Although capitalism won, as witnessed by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, are we left with just one choice? And if not, what other choice exists? I would argue the alternative to the spirit of neoliberalism can be found within the faith of the people. Daniel Bell insists that within the present postmodern condition, a space has been opened—perhaps inadvertently—for the sacred. In this space, Christianity (and, I would add, any other faith tradition) can directly challenge global capitalism.22

Karl Marx, in the nineteenth century, saw religion as the “opiate” of the people. For the twenty-first century, the opiate is the emerging global entertainment culture, which derives from neoliberalism, effectively drugging much of the world’s population. The political and economic thrust of neoliberalism seduces the world’s marginalized through a global culture which to a great extent is based on US middle-class tastes of music, movies, television entertainment, and the desire for the occasional Disneyland excursion. Ironically, what Marx once saw as the cause of people’s despondence to the devastating effects of the prevailing oppressive economic social structures—religion—is becoming the source for their liberation and salvation. For the real struggle is not between Christianity and Islam, or Hinduism and Buddhism; rather, the struggle is between the world’s disenfranchised and the materialistic religiosity of the world’s elite. The faith of the people as a world view understood by the world’s disenfranchised can very well hold the revolutionary message for a new vision of justice for all of humanity by providing the masses the spiritual strength and courage to resist the imposed neoliberal construction of reality.

I would argue the alternative to neoliberalism for the vast majority of the world’s population will be found within their own faith traditions—specifically how those faith traditions equip the marginalized within their midst to seek their own liberation. Although the actual tenets of any faith are important, the poor and disenfranchised usually approach their faith tradition differently than those who usually serve as the academic or ecclesiastic spokespersons of the faith. Any attempt to understand the faith of the people from the margins of the community will find itself rooted in the everyday, attempting to discover how their faith provides the means of surviving the condition of their disenfranchisement.

Wherever oppression resides, there one can also find resistance. This resistance, this cry for liberation, uttered from the depths of the inhuman economic condition in which vast segments of the world’s population throughout history are forced to live, becomes a cry encompassing the spiritual. To use Christian imagery, any faith expression which brings or is complicit with institutional violence and death brought about by neoliberalism is by definition satanic. Arguing for a global preferential option for the oppressed means any belief system with a liberating message about the inhuman conditions in which the faithful find themselves serves as salvific against the false religion of neoliberalism and the traditional faith traditions worshipping at neoliberal’s altars—appearing in the form of shopping centers, where the masses go to find inner peace, joy, and happiness through shopping. How different faith traditions manifest liberationist tenets becomes crucial in understanding different world belief systems from the underside of the power structures indigenous to where these faith traditions are located. I believe when world faith traditions are explored from the margins of society—specifically those who are normally disenfranchised due to their race, class, and gender—readers who are accustomed to studying world religions from a Eurocentric academic paradigm can be jarred from a normative way of thinking. To view a faith tradition from the margins of power is to move beyond a traditional understanding of religion which fuses and confuses how those privileged by the faith tradition present their religion to the Euro-American audience with how the vast majority of believers, who exist on the underside of power and privilege, interpret that same faith for daily survival. To believe from the margins, and commit to the praxis belief engenders, provides a salvific approach to dealing with the overarching false religion of neoliberalism.


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