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Richard Norgaard:

"The word economism has been around for over a century. Vladimir Lenin introduced the term in 1899 to refer to social movements that sought to improve the wages and working conditions of laborers without also seeking the overthrow of capitalism.

Antonio Gramsci expanded its meaning, reserving its sharpest use to characterize the work of scholars who saw economic issues as independent of other social spheres—which would include that of most non-Marxist economists.

Gramsci attributes a religious character to the term, an indication of his disregard for both economism and religion. Over the past few decades, the term has experienced a revival. Environmental theologian John B. Cobb, Jr., used the term to denote a new era of Western history following nationalism and Christianism.

Ecological and heterodox economists use the term as an indictment of how neoliberal economics reduces all social relations to market logic. To such economists, neoliberal economics is merely reactionary politics disguised as value-free science. Economism replaces belief in God’s control over human destiny with the belief that markets control our fate. The term also appears in critiques of development, particularly when international and national economic experts have advanced markets at the expense of democracy and cultural values in developing countries." (


Economism as Everyday Religion

Richard Norgaard:

"Economic beliefs now reverberate through our individual and collective discourse and are invoked routinely in political rhetoric.These beliefs explain one’s place in the world, play a normative role in guiding social relations, and define the purpose of individual and collective life. They even offer new creation stories and houses of worship.

The moral dimension of economism becomes apparent in how it is invoked to justify the status quo. Since the neoliberal transition that accompanied the election of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl, it has become increasingly common, in both private conversation and political rhetoric, for people to argue that markets correctly determine who gets what. The achievement of great wealth is a sign of merit, even moral probity, whereas poverty is a result of individual moral failings. Because wealth is “earned,” it should not be taxed, even to provide for basic needs such as public education. The wealthy are the “job creators” on whom the system depends, and increased taxation would hinder them in performing the “good work” of getting rich. Economism, by rationalizing market outcomes, becomes the new “opium of the people,” playing the role Marx once attributed to religion in keeping people from rising up against the system.

Each of us is now connected to more people than ever before in history. The vast majority of these connections, however, are impersonal, mediated through markets both locally and globally. Child care and elder care, education, health services, and domestic work are increasingly based on contractual agreements rather than familial or communal connections. While care may still exist in market-based relations, it is a lot easier to terminate contracts than personal relationships. In local markets a century ago, the same people were encountered again and again on the other side of transactions, resulting in friendship and trust. More products were made locally, so the community in which one lived felt the consequences of good or bad work. Today, many urban and rural consumers shop at large chain stores, queuing in lines with strangers and rarely encountering the same checkout clerk (if a human even plays that role anymore). Many of those upon whom we depend live and work much farther away than they did in earlier times, even on the other side of the globe. The logic of the market—that everyone gains from specialization, trade, and mass production—takes the place of the ethical responsibility that once guided commerce.

Economism provides a way to justify the conditions found in the global market economy. Factory workers in developing countries may be paid little and labor under dangerous conditions, but, we are told, they choose to become factory workers because they think it is better for them than staying on the land. This “choice,” as just a little research would show, reflects the commodification of agricultural products through market-led development, specialization, and industrialization, developments that are crippling rural communities and pushing people off the land. But that additional information is more than most people seek. We are also told that expanding markets benefit everyone because they make goods cheaper. We hear these economistic invocations whenever moral issues concerning the social and environmental consequences of our actions arise, the impersonal nature of global market economy making it easy to evade the traditional criteria of interpersonal morality.

Just as markets distance us from each other, so, too, do they distance us from nature and our impact on it. Economism justifies both forms of distancing in comparable ways. As distance increases, caring weakens, and local governance faces increasing difficulties managing problems that arise from afar.

In response to this weakening of personal relations and increasing distance from nature, economism glorifies the individual and rationalizes material greed. Economic models focus on the individual, assume utility maximization, treat society as the sum of individuals, and omit society’s influence back on the individual. Care for others and the land may give people utility, but there is no obligation to care. This view runs contrary to all major religious traditions, effectively competing with the teaching they provide.

Growing the economy—that is, increasing the rate of GDP growth—is put forward as the solution to problems of poverty, unemployment, crime, and even pollution. The economy, of course, has grown and grown. Yet the problems persist, and some, like homelessness in our cities and mountaintop removal in coal mining communities, have become accepted as the way things are. Continuous economic growth has become the goal of almost all nations, and ever-increasing material consumption and the acquisition of possessions are presented as forms of personal transcendence.

The Econocene has even spawned its own creation stories: economic parables of entrepreneurs, investment, and transformative growth explain the emergence and character of the world in which we all now live. Churches and other places of worship, with spires reaching toward the heavens and names commemorating important religious figures, now cower beneath skyscrapers named after corporations and their founders. According to both textbooks and popular understanding, markets have expanded naturally, with the demise of the former Soviet Union a testament to the superiority of markets over central planning. For those areas not yet so materially developed, economics offers a guiding hand. Follow the wisdom of the economic gurus and growth will come. Of course, there will be sacrifices along the way, but the gains will be more than worth the costs.

Realizing the religious character of economism raises the question of how religions have responded to this secular competition. Theologians have pondered the rise of economic man in a Judeo-Christian world. Some portray the two as complementary, with religion serving to tame materialism and ensure that markets serve the common good. There has been a modest, but important, greening of religion that admonishes against worshipping Mammon and causing social and environmental harm. Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical released in June, is a powerful indictment of human greed and an economic system that pays insufficient attention to the environment and the poor. In August, sixty Islamic leaders from twenty nations issued a shorter statement emphasizing the responsibilities of rich nations and oil-producing nations to correct the disaster their economic success created. Going further in this direction, efforts are now underway to portray a wondrous universe, consistent with that described by science, within which people are only very recent beneficiaries and novice players.16 Similar greening is occurring in religions around the world.

However, at the same time, a large number of people have been brought into the fold of Christianity through the rise of prosperity theology. It is not surprising that this development, emphasizing how God bestows economic success on the faithful, has been especially well received among the poor and by people in developing countries. Much as slaves from Africa blended African and Christian beliefs to create systems that provided meaning and supplied comfort, economism frequently works alongside and through religion in overt syncretism." (

More Information

Tom Bottomore, “Economism,” A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 2nd edition, eds. Tom Bottomore, Lawrence Harris, V.G. Kiernan, and Ralph Miliband (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991).

Antonio Gramsci, “Some Theoretical and Practical Aspects of ‘Economism,’” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, eds./trans. Quiten Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 158-168.

John B. Cobb, Jr. The Earthist Challenge to Economism: A Theological Critique of the World Bank (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

Teivo Teivainen, Enter Economism, Exit Politics: Experts, Economic Policy and the Damage to Democracy (New York: Zed Books, 2002).

Ross Emmett, “Is Economics a Religion,” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 21, no. 1 (2003): 229-38;

Frank Knight and T. W. Merriam, The Economic Order and Religion (New York: Harper, 1945).