Privatizing the Millennium

New Protestant Ethics and the Spirits of Capitalism in Africa, and Elsewhere

Publication Date:

Journal: Afrika Spectrum

Reissue Date:

Page start: 293

Page End: 312

Volume: 3

Edition: 35

The first is from post-apartheid South Africa.

The New Life Church in Mafikeng-Mmabatho, capital of the North West Province, was established just before the fall of apartheid. It typifies a brand of upbeat, technically-hyped Pentecostalism that aspires to fill the moral void left by a withering of revolutionary ideals and civic norms in the postcolony. While New Life is the creation of a talented pair of pastors, a husband and wife who have shaped it independently of denominational oversight, their community belongs to the International Federation of Christian Churches; this is a global network of congregations, all of which combine a lively charismatic realism with a frank materiality, the latter embodied in a subject not embarrassed by this-worldly desire. Congregants pay a tithe, and are encouraged to expect that their investment, both spiritual and monetary, will yield tangible empowerment. They are offered a range of services, from marriage guidance to financial counseling, that recast the pastoral in a distinctly service-oriented, therapeutic key. As in many such movements, the stress on divine manifestation is accompanied by a preoccupation with cutting-edge media: “It might sound heretical,” noted the founding pastor, “but we strive above all to make our services exciting, affecting. Our competition, after all, is the video arcade, the movie house, and the casino.” Remember the casino. We shall return to it. In New Life’s sparkling suburban sanctuary, a sophisticated sound stage replaces the altar. Services are punctuated by lilting hymns and love songs to Jesus, crooned by a modishly dressed, youthful band–or “worship team”–equipped with electronic instruments. Overhead, a large karaoke screen flashes the lyrics; in a booth to the rear, a technician monitors the acoustics. Meetings draw large crowds that span a wide spectrum of race, age, and class. They center on stylized personal testimonies that narrate, in psychological terms, a self-reborn into an individualized world of transparency, purpose, and prosperity.

The second comes from post-Soviet Russia.
The messiah has arrived. He is to be found in East Siberia, wherein lies “the Promised Land of the Future.” More prosaically, he lives in a compound near Minusinsk Depression, east of Abakan. Sergei Torop by name, he prefers to be called Vissarion. He had his own webpage in the 1990s,1 on which he explained that Vissarion–also the name of Stalin’s father–means “giving the life” in “the language of the Universe.” In the event that that language is not understood by ordinary mortals, seven more conventional vernaculars conveyed his cyber-message, which promised that his Word would soon spread across the World. The 40-ish year-old, ethereal looking savior established the Last Testament Church in 1991, after the repressed memory of two millennia flooded back to him, after he came to realize that he was not the child of Siberian construction workers but the Son of God, after he learned that “all religions are inserted in him”; the origin myth of the movement, significantly, dates these revelations roughly to the fall of the USSR. Vissarion acquired a substantial following during the 1990s, the Vissariontsi, composed largely of “disenchanted [former] Soviet intellectuals and idea lists.” While their exact number is uncertain–it is said to run into tens of thousands today–they soon attracted the attention of the Orthodox Church, which took to monitoring them carefully; also of the state, which appears to have left them alone, largely because the arrival of the church breathed life into a dying local economy. The movement has a strong green orientation, seeing itself as “A Siberian Global Experiment targeting Human Survival under Circumstances of Social and Natural Cataclysm.”

Vissarion himself was a traffic warden until he turned messiah, persuaded his disciples to hand over their earthly wealth to him, and established the City of Sun, which is what he calls his rural dominion. This dominion is reminiscent of a Soviet collective— although, some time back, it formed a joint stock company, Tabrat Ltd., to bankroll its material existence. In short, the Second Coming here envisages a future in the past, a hereafter (or there-before?) that revivifies the glories of a socialist commune by lodging it securely in the global capitalist economy. Vissarion has not escaped skepticism. He has been portrayed as an enchanted entrepreneur who earns a lucrativeincome from service delivery in the God business, a business flourishing anew in these turbulent times,2 a business, suggested Tom Whitehouse in 1999, that often yields high profits to its High Priests. Torop, he went on to note, lived in lavish circumstances. No wonder that Orthodox clergy saw him as an “evil pyramid schemer,” an image which we shall have cause to revisit. Whether or not he is a charlatan, a con man with a Christ- like appearance and a creative line in income redistribution, is beside our present point. The various features of his religious movement–its entry into the world of the joint stock ventures, its presence on the web, its global outreach, its appeal to eco-technical solutions for planetary problems, its promise of instant redemption at a price in hard currency, its well-requited head of operations–are all of a piece. They tell a story at once very old and very new.

The third is from the American heartland.

In Columbus, Indiana, a small town some four hours drive from Chicago on Highway 64, there is an extraordinary array of churches. Columbus is known for its public architecture because the local captains of industry came to a decision, at some point in the past, to make their town into a shrine to the built form. As a result, many internationally famous “names” erected buildings across the flatlands of this otherwise unprepossessing corner of the Midwest. One of them is a profoundly beautiful, profoundly spiritual, edifice. Designed by Eero Saarinen, the North Christian Church houses a congregation of Disciples of Christ, whose journal, Cutting Edge, is unusually revealing. Volume 29 no.2 of 2000 is dedicated to the topic of “Buildings for the Post- Christendom Church” (Blankenship 2000: 1-2). “Christendom,” it declares, “is dying” (p.1). What began in the fourth century of the common era is over, a new reformation is under way. But what, precisely, are its signs? Among other things, “the adoption of market driven planning to replace tradition”; this in order to appeal to a generation that wants “choices, convenience, quality, and specialized services” in religion as in everything else (p.2; after Schaller 1999). By extension, church facilities, like prayer itself, require “above all [to be] useful, adaptable, and marketable.” And so, in the most conservative crannies of Christian America, the church enters the new millennium by making common cause not with a capitalist ethos grounded in virtuous work, in the production of the self through the production of value, but with a world of convenience and consumption, of free choice and flexibility; a world in which the provision of services, religious services like other customer services, is paramount.

Each of these vignettes evokes the ghost of Max Weber. Each speaks of a new moment in the history of capitalism, of its Second Coming, this time in neoliberal guise, this time on an even more global scale than before. They also speak of a new religious spirit to go with that moment, a spirit which, as we shall see, is rampant in Africa. But not only in Africa. Note that our three instances come from what used to be called, respectively, the third, second, and first worlds.

All of which raises a number of conundrums for our understanding of economy and society, culture and history, faith and identity in the early years of the new millennium. Some of the corollaries of the Second Coming –“plagues of the ‘new world order’,” Derrida (1994:91) calls them–have occasioned heated debate. Thus, for example, populist polemics have dwelt on the planetary conjuncture, for good or ill, of “homogenization and difference” (e.g. Barber 1992); on the simultaneous, synergistic spiraling of wealth and poverty; on the rise, like a disfigured phoenix, of a “new medievalism” (Brownlee et al 1991; cf. Connelly and Kennedy 1994). For its part, scholarly debate focused, at the turn of the century, on the confounding effects of rampant liberalization: on whether it engenders truly transnational flows of capital or drains them off to a few major sites (Hirst and Thompson 1996); on whether it weakens, sustains, or reinvents the nation-state (Sassen 1996); on whether it frees up, curbs, or compartmentalizes the movement of labor; on whether the current fixation with democracy, its resurrection in so many places, betokens a measure of mass empowerment or an “emptying out of [its] meaning” (Negri 1999:9; Comaroff and Comaroff 1997). Equally in question is why the present infatuation with civil society has been accompanied by alarming increases in civil strife; why, in like vein, the politics of consumerism, human rights, and entitlement has coincided with puzzling new patterns of exclusion, patterns that refract long-established lines of gender, sexuality, race, and class (Gal 1997; Yudice 1995); why, also, there has been a palpable rise in many countries of domestic violence, rape, child abuse, prison populations and, most dramatically of all, criminal “phantom-states” (Derrida 1994:83; Blaney and Pashsa 1993); forms of organized crime, in short, that mimic the state, arrogating its powers and providing some of its services for a fee.

Other features of our present predicament were less remarked at the millennium, although they have become more so in recent times. Among them are the odd coupling of the legalistic with the libertarian, constitutionality with deregulation, and–at the core of our concerns here–hyper-rationalization with the exuberant spread of innovative occult practices and money magic, of pyramid schemes and prosperity gospels; the enchantments, that is, of a decidedly neoliberal economy, whose ever more inscrutable speculations seem to call up fresh specters in their wake. Note that, unlike others who have discussed the “new spectrality” of that economy (Negri 1999:9; Sprinker 1999), we do not talk here in metaphorical terms. We seek, instead, to draw attention to the distinctly pragmatic qualities of the messianic and the millennial; not merely in the tenor of organized religion, of which we shall have a lot to say, but of capitalism itself as a gospel of salvation. As this suggests, in speaking of Millennial Capitalism we intend not merely capitalism at the millennium–capitalism, that is, in its chronological contemporaneity–but also capitalism in its messianic, salvific, even magical manifestations; capitalism as a cultural and moral economy with the capacity, if harnessed properly, to enrich the poor and further enrich the wealthy, to solve social problems, to heal the sick, to elicit divine favor, to add material value to the commonweal.

The question, patently, is why? Why has capitalism taken on these features? What is new about them? And how, exactly, have they reconfigured the religious world in their wake? It is on this last issue that we focus here.

Let us, then, cut to the heart of the matter. If we are to understand the spirits of our age, the place to begin, as Marx noted for another historical juncture, is with epochal shifts in the constitutive relationship of production to consumption. This is not to say that the essence of neoliberal capitalism is reducible purely to that relationship. Quite the opposite: there is now a large literature on the various dimensions of the new global economy–from the workings of finance capital, the electronic commons, and transnational corporations through the changing, labile character of work and labor, its mobility and its transience, its gendered and generational inflections, to the impact of space-time compression, of flexible accumulation, and of the planetary flow of signs, styles, and commodities upon old sovereignties, old loyalties, old identities. All of these things are crucially important in understanding the shape of the world we live in (see Comaroff and Comaroff 2000). For now, however, we have perforce to take them for granted. In any case, we would suggest, it is specifically by interrogating the shifting articulation of production to consumption, of the pro to the con in capitalist economics, that we might make sense of the emergence of new forms of enchantment–and of the kinds of Neoprotestantism to which they appear to be giving rise in postcolonial Africa. And elsewhere.

Capitalism at the millennium, millennial capitalism

Consumption, recall, was the hallmark disease of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: of the First Coming of Industrial Capitalism, an age in which the ecological conditions of production, its consuming passions, ate up the bodies of producers. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first, semiotically transposed, it is often said to be the “hallmark of modernity,” the measure of its wealth, health, and vitality. An over- generalization? Maybe. Yet the claim does capture popular imaginings. It also resonates with the growing Eurocultural truism that the (post)modern person is a subject made with objects. Nor is this surprising. Consumption, in its ideological guise–as “consumerism”–refers to a material sensibility actively cultivated, for the common good, by Western states and commercial interests, particularly since World War II. Also by some noncapitalist regimes: in the early 1990s, even Deng Xiaoping advocated “consumption as a motor force of production” (Oirlik 1996:194).

As consumption became the moving spirit of the late twentieth century, so there has been a concomitant eclipse of production; an eclipse, at least, of its perceived salience for the wealth of nations. This has heralded a shift, across the world, in ordinary understandings of the nature of capitalism. The workplace and labor, especially work- and-place securely rooted in a stable local context, are no longer prime sites for the creation of value or identity (Sennett 1998). The factory and the shop, far from secure centers of fabrication and family income, are increasingly experienced by virtue of their replacement at the hands of nonhuman or “nonstandard” means of manufacture. Or by their removal to an elsewhere–where labor is cheaper, less assertive, less taxed, more feminized, less protected by states and unions; in South Africa, for example, 80% of employers prefer to hire non standard workers. Hence the paradox, in many economies, of high official employment rates amidst stark deindustrialization, joblessness, and growing carceral populations. In the upshot, production appears to have been superseded, as the ur-source of wealth, by less tangible ways of generating value: by control over intellectual property, copyrights, franchises, and licensees; by owning the means of communication and the conveyancing of people and things; by the provision of services; and, above all, by the capacity to direct the flow of finance capital.

Symptomatic in this respect, we argue in another essay (2000b), are the changing historical fortunes of gambling. Risk has always been crucial to the growth of modern economies. But, removed from the dignifying nexus of the market, it was treated until recently, alike by Protestant ethics and populist morality, as a “pariah” practice. Casinos were set apart from the workaday world, being situated in liminal places of leisure rather than sites of honest toil. Living off the proceeds of this form of speculation was, normatively-speaking, the epitome of immoral accumulation: the wager stood to the wage as sin to virtue. Over a generation, betting, in its marked form, has changed moral valence and invaded everyday existence almost everywhere, being routinized in high risk dealings in stocks, bonds, and funds whose fortunes are governed largely by chance. It also expresses itself in a fascination with “futures” and their populist counterpart, the lottery. Here the mundane meets the millennial: “Not a lotto tomaro,” proclaimed an ironic, inner-city mural in Chicago in 2000, large hands grasping a pile of casino chips, beside which nestled a motherless baby;3 this at a time when, increasingly “operated and promoted” by government, “gambling [had become not just] the fastest growing industry in the US,” but one “tightly woven into the national fabric.”4 Indeed, life itself is now a common object of bookmaking; it is no longer the sole preserve of the “respectable” insurance industry. Take, by way of an example that has always fascinated us, a report in Newsweek from early 1999:5

In America’s casino culture, no wager is outre. So how about betting on how long a stranger is likely to live? You can buy part or all of his or her insurance policy, becoming a beneficiary. Your gamble: that death will come soon enough to yield a high return on the money you put up. The Viatical Association6 of America says that $1 billion worth of coverage went into play last year.

In the era of millennial capitalism, securing instant returns is often a matter of life and death. Also in 1999, the India Tribune7 reported that one of the Indian states, Madya Pradesh, was “caught in a vortex of lottery mania” which had led to several suicides. It described “extreme enthusiasm among the jobless youth towards trying their luck to make a fast buck.” More mundanely, efforts to enlist divine help in tipping the odds, from the Taiwanese countryside to the Kalahari fringe, have become a regular feature of what Robert Weller (2000:482) terms “fee for service” religions. These are locally- nuanced fantasies of beating capitalism at its own game by drawing a winning number at the behest of unseen forces.

The change in the moral valence of gambling also has a public dimension. In many countries, lotteries have become a favored means of filling national coffers and generating cultural capital. The defunct machinery of a growing number of welfare states, to be sure, is being turned by the wheel of fortune. With more and more governments depending on this source for quick revenue fixes, notes George Will, a well-known conservative commentator in the U.S., betting has “been transformed from a social disease”–subjected, not so long ago, to scrutiny at the hands of Harvard Medical School8–“into social policy.”9” Once a dangerous sign of moral turpitude, “it is now marketed almost as a ‘patriotic duty.”10

And yet crisis after crisis in the global economy, and growing income disparities on a planetary scale, make it painfully plain that there is no such thing as capitalism without production. Apart from all else, Fordist manufacture has not disappeared. It has been transformed, dispersed, and reorganized–with the effect that sites of fabrication have been removed from sites of consumption in such a way as to give the appearance that proletariats, sensu stricto, are a thing of the past. This displacement, this rendering absent of visible production, has convinced the likes of Derrida (n.d.; after Rifkin 1995) that we have reached the end of “the world of work” as we know it: the end of the epoch of homo faber, of class consciousness, of the modernist idea of self-construction through virtuous labor. All identities seem to be contrived through self-fashioning, all wealth by means of the entrepreneurial. All of which, tautologically, affirms the putative primacy of consumption. And makes the operations of capital appear arcane, quixotic, magical. If Western scholars have been somewhat slow to reflect on why this is so, their “others” have not; especially those others who live in places where there has been a sudden infusion of commodities, an explosion of new forms of wealth, and a simultaneous shrinking of the labor market. Like South Africa. Many, to be sure, have been quick to give voice to their perplexity at the secret of this wealth: of its sources and the capriciousness of its distribution, of the mysterious forms it takes, of its slipperiness, of the opaque relations between means and ends embodied in it. Our concern here grows directly out of these perplexities: out of world-wide speculation, in both senses of the term, provoked by the shifting conditions of material existence at the end of the twentieth century. The revalorization of speculation, we have also argued before, is itself a corollary of the experiential paradox, the doubling, at the core of neoliberal capitalism, of capitalism in its millennial manifestation: the fact that it appears to produce desire on a global scale yet to decrease the certainty of work or the security of persons; that it appears to magnify class differences but to undercut class consciousness; above all, that it appears to offer up vast, almost instantaneous riches to those who master its spectral technologies–and, simultaneously, to threaten the very being of those who do not.

This doubling is most visible in postcolonies; especially in those like South Africa- -set free by the events of 1989 and their aftermath–that entered the global arena with distinct structural disadvantages. A good deal is to be learned about the historical implications of the current moment by eavesdropping on the popular anxieties to be heard in such places: on the mounting disenchantment with liberty under libertarian conditions; on the nostalgia for past regimes, some of them immeasurably repressive; on moral panics occasioned by rapidly rising suicide rates; on the upsurge of assertions of identity and autochthony; on the widespread fears, in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Central Europe alike, concerning the apparently preternatural production of wealth. The close of the Cold War–and, in its wake, the death of apartheid in South Africa and democratization movements elsewhere on the continent–fired utopian imaginations. But liberation under neoliberal conditions has been marred by a disconcerting upsurge of violence, crime, and disorder. The quest for democracy, the rule of law, prosperity, and civility threatens to dissolve into strife and recrimination, even political chaos. Everywhere there is evidence of an uneasy fusion of enfranchisement and exclusion; of xenophobic reaction to the bleeding of national borders; of the effort to realize modern utopias by decidedly postmodern means; of the waxing, in many places, of conspiracy theories; of the fetishization of human rights, the rule of law, and civil society, a construct whose populist appeal seems everywhere to rise in rough proportion to its inchoateness as a principle of praxis.

Gone is any official-speak of egalitarian futures, work-for-all, or the paternal government envisioned by the freedom movements of yore. Transformed, too, is the modernist nation-state as we once knew it, its hyphenation more or less ruptured under the impact of global economic and electronic integration, amidst unprecedented flows of people, commodities, and currencies, amidst changes in the very nature of citizenship and the construction of identity. These transformations have expressed themselves increasingly in a spirit of deregulation, with its taunting mix of emancipation and limitation. As those citizens not fortunate enough to win the lottery of life try to find salvation in enterprise, they find themselves battling the eccentric currents of the “new” world order, which shortcircuit received sovereignties, received means and ends, received connections between personhood and place. And as the great containers of modern social order have been fractured, so have the cultural, ethical, and spiritual coordinates on which they were founded; coordinates that charted a conceptual and institutional terrain long taken for granted in classic Western (for which read JudaeoProtestant) ideology and its civil extension–among them, the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, the transcendent and the temporal, the material and the moral, the pious and the pecuniary, and, most of all, modernity and enchantment. Which, by turn, focuses our gaze on occult economies and new religious movements?

Occult economies and new religious movements

A striking corollary of the Age of Millennial Capitalism has been the global proliferation of “occult economies.” These economies have two dimensions: a material aspect founded on the sustained effort to conjure wealth–or to account for its accumulation–by appeal to techniques that defy practical reason; and an ethical aspect, grounded in the moral discourses sparked by the manufacture of value, either real or imagined, by arcane, “magical” means. It is difficult, of course, to quantify the presence of the occult–and, therefore, to make any claim that it is on the increase. As we have already noted, finance capital has always had its spectral enchantments, its modes of speculation based on less than honest toil, on less than rational connections between means and ends. Both its underside (the pariah forms of gambling of which we spoke a moment ago) and its upper side (a fiscal industry embracing everything from insurance to stock markets) have been rooted, from the first, in two inscrutables: a faith in probability, itself a notoriously unreliable way of predicting the future from the past, and a monetary system which depends for its existence on confidence, a chimera knowable, tautologically, only by its effects. Wherein, then, lies the claim that occult economies are presently on the rise? In the specific context of South Africa, we have demonstrated (1999a) that there has been an explosion of occult-related activity–arising out of accusations of ritual killing, witchcraft, and zombie conjuring–since the late apartheid years; also of fantastic Ponzi schemes, of the sale of body parts for “magical” purposes, of allegations of satanic practice, even of tourism based on the sighting of fabulous monsters. Middle class magazines run “dial-a-diviner” advertisements, national papers carry front page articles on medicine murders, prime-time television broadcasts dramas of sorcery, and more than one “witchcraft summit” has been held. Whether or not the brute quantum of occult activity exceeds that of times past, it is clear is that their reported incidence, written about by the mainstream press in more prosaic terms than ever before (Ford red 1999), has forced itself upon the public sphere, rupturing the flow of mediated news. It is this rupture–this focus of popular attention on the place of the arcane in everyday production–to which we refer when we speak of a global proliferation of occult economies.

It is not difficult to catalogue the presence of these economies in different places across the planet. In West Africa, for example, Geschiere (1997) has shown how zombie making is an endemic feature of everyday life, how sorcery has entered into postcolonial political economy, how magic has become as much an acknowledged aspect of mundane survival strategies as it is indispensable to the ambitions and machinations of the powerful. Nor is all of this based in rural situations or among poor people. In Nigeria’s lively national press, Bastian (1993: 133f) shows, witchcraft is a frequent topic, both in quality broadsheets and in tabloids. Far from falling into the domain of the “customary” or the “exotic,” it is a vital idiom for understanding contemporary life–urban and rural, political and personal. One might add, parenthetically, that accounts of Nigerian supernaturalism are frequently recycled in the popular American press, where they have an avid readership, both black and white.

Occult economies thrive in various parts of Asia, too, as Rosalind Morris (2000) indicates. In Thailand–where fortune telling has been transformed by global technology and email divination has taken off–one “traditional” seer, auspiciously named Madam Luk, reports that her clients nowadays ask three questions to the exclusion of all others: “‘Is my company going broke?’ ‘Am I going to lose my job?’ and ‘Will I find other employment?,,,11Here, as well, the fallout of neoliberal capitalism is having a profound impact on magical practice, a process splendidly captured in Morris’s account of the career of one of Thailand’s most renowned spirit mediums, who recently staged a dramatic, mass-mediated confession: he declared himself a fake. This, no less, so that he might take up a career as a distributor for Amway, a global pyramid scheme run by two Christian patriarchs in a small rural town in Michigan. Such schemes, says Morris, are the economic counterpart of mediumship: they “occult” the production of value with a disarmingly personalized, hyper-real directness. The verb is hers, after Zizek (1997:10); of the point itself, more in a moment.

Sometimes dealings in the occult have a more visceral, darker side. Throughout Latin America in the 1990s, as in Africa and Asia, there have been mass panics about the clandestine theft and sale of the organs of young people, usually by unscrupulous expatriates (Scheper-Hughes 1996); violence against children has become metonymic of threats to social reproduction in many ethnic and national contexts, the dead (or missing) child having emerged as the standardized nightmare of a world out of control (J. Comaroff 1997). There, and in other parts of the globe, this commerce–like international adoptions, mail-order marriage, and indentured domestic labor–is seen as a new form of imperialism, the affluent north siphoning off the essence of poorer “others” by mysterious means for nefarious, often ritual ends. All of which gives evidence, to those at the nether end of the global distribution of wealth, of the workings of potent magical technologies and insidious modes of accumulation.

That evidence reaches into the heart of Europe itself: hence the scares some years back, in several countries, about the sexual and satanic abuse of children (La Fontaine 1997);12 also about the theft and abuse of human tissue and genetic material by an unholy alliance of Godless scientists and corporate Frankensteins. An extreme instance is the urban myth that traversed the internet in 1997 about the secret excision of kidneys, by arcane means, from business travelers waylaid at international airports. Several police departments, moral commentators, and mass media in the USA took these stories seriously enough to investigate them.13

Note a persistent theme in all this: the anxiety that has come to surround transformations in the everyday economic world occasioned by two things. The first is the opening up of new kinds of translocal markets, of an inscrutable traffic in people, labor, services, and things; the second, the explosion of new forms of financial speculation and investment that are at once seductive and dangerous. If the former is epitomised by the sale of persons and their bodies, part or whole, the latter reaches its apex in the extraordinary intensification, lately, of pyramid schemes, many of them tied to the electronic media. These schemes and a host of scams allied with them–a few legal, many illegal, some alegal–are hardly new. But their recent mushrooming across the world has drawn a great deal of attention; this partly because of their sheer scale and partly because, by crossing national borders and registering at addresses far from the site of their local operation, they insinuate themselves into the slipstream of global capital, thereby escaping control. Recall those whose crash sparked the Albanian revolution early in 1997, several of which took on almost miraculous dimensions for poor investors; one pyramid manager in Albania was “a gypsy fortune teller, complete with crystal ball, who claimed to know the future.”1414 Even in the tightly regulated stock markets of the USA, there has been a huge rise in illicit dealings that owe their logic, if not their precise workings, to Ponzi operations; this because investors have become ever more “disposed to throw dollars at get-rich-quick schemes.” $6 billion, infact, was lost to scams on the New York Stock Exchange in 1996.15 Voodoo economics is alive and well at the financial center of the Western World.

These scams also bring to mind others, different yet similar, that arise from a promiscuous mix of scarcity and deregulation; also of enchantment, mystery, even salvation. This was the case with the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy, a US pyramid created “to change the world for the glory of God.” On the basis of a promise to double their money in six months, its founder, John Bennett, persuaded 500 nonprofit organizations, Christian colleges, and Ivy League universities to invest $354 million.16 Miracle 2000, a South African “empowerment” scheme that promised a 220% return on investments in 42 days, also had a strongly millennial side to it. So popular did it become that it drew crowds from across the land to the East Rand home of its 39-year- old founder, Sibusiso Radebe, crowds that would wait days to make their deposits. When an elite crime-busting unit of the South African Police Services cracked down on the scheme, arresting Radebe, hundreds of outraged investors marched on the Directorate of Public Prosecutions in Pretoria, carrying placards that proclaimed him as their “Messiah.” He was, they said, “doing more to alleviate poverty than the government.”17 In something akin to a memorial service, these protestors sung hymns and prayed for the return of both their savior and their savings.18 When Radebe was eventually released on bail, “ululating investors carried [him] shoulder-high and described him as a biblical Moses, who had delivered the downtrodden Israelites to God’s promised land.”19

All of these things have a single common denominator: the allure of conjuring wealth from nothing. In this respect, while they recall older magicalities, they are the offspring of the same animating spirit as casino capitalism; indeed, perhaps they are casino capitalism for those who lack the fiscal or cultural capital–or who, for one or another reason, are reluctant to gamble on more conventional markets. Like the wizardry that made straw into gold (Schneider 1989), these alchemic techniques defy reason in promising to return unnaturally large profits on small investments, to yield wealth without work, to produce value without effort. Here, again, is the specter, the distinctive spirit, of neoliberalism in its triumphal phase. In its shadowy penumbra, the line between Ponzi schemes and prosperity gospels is very thin indeed.

This, in turn, brings us to the spread of new religious movements across the planet. These, we suggest, may be seen as the apotheosis of the occult economies of which we have been speaking; as their holy-owned subsidiaries, if we may be forgiven the pun. Such movements take on a wide variety of guises. Some, like the Vissariontsi with which we began, sound perennial themes of apocalypse and utopian communitarianism, albeit tuned to a distinctively local key. But the followers of Vissarion also share a good deal with other Neoprotestant denominations elsewhere, among them the New Life Church in South Africa: a propensity for seeing congregations as joint stock companies, offering the faithful a tangible return on their investments; a fascination with new technologies and media that seem to condense the numinous magic of global enterprise; an eclipse of the ideal of patient toil and paradise postponed by the promise of prompt reward; the fusing of a millennial spirit with the speculative force of finance capital, so that the instant accumulation of wealth becomes synonymous with the unmediated power of God; a tendency, because of all this, to be viewed by orthodox believers as being mercenary, Satanic, magic-ridden.

These features are even more palpable in the socalled “fee-for-service” faiths, those consumer cults alluded to above, which are challenging established Christian denominations in Africa and elsewhere. Typical of them is the Brazilian movement, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal do Reina de Deus), which, since 1994, has grown rapidly all over southern Africa. Controversial in its country of origin, this church is reforming the Protestant Ethic with enterprise and urbanity. It owns a major television network in Brazil, has an elaborate website, and sponsors high- profile religious rock groups and soap operas (Kramer 1999). Above all, it promises swift payback to those who embrace Christ, denounce Satan, and “make their faith practical” by “sacrificing” all they can to the movement.20 Here Pentecostalism meets neoliberal enterprise head on; here the theological waxes psychotherapeutic. In its African churches, most of them–literally–storefronts in town centers, prayer meetings respond to candidly mercenary motives, offering everything from cures for depression through financial advice to remedies for unemployment; itinerant passers-by, clients and customers really, select the services they require. Even the smallest churches have elaborate electronic sound systems; pounding music, indistinguishable from any other rock music to all but the best trained ear, beats out a distinctly this-worldly ethos. A collage of advertisements for BMWs and lottery winnings adorned the altar in one such church that we visited. Above it was the banner heading: “Delight Yourself in the Lord and He Will Give You the Desires of Your Heart (Psalms 37: 4).” Tabloids stuck to walls and windows carried stories, told in the first person, about those whose rebirth in the fold was rewarded by a rush of wealth or an astonishing recovery of health.

The ability to deliver in the here-and-now, itself a potent form of space-time compression, is offered as the measure of a genuinely global God, just as it is taken to explain the lively power of Satanism. Both have the instant efficacy of the magical and the millenniary. As Kramer (1999:35) says of Brazilian Neopentecostals, “innerworldly asceticism has been replaced with a concern for the pragmatics of material gain and the immediacy of desire … [T]he return on capital has suddenly become more spiritually compelling and imminent … than the return of Christ.” This shift is endemic to many new religious movements nowadays. For them, and for their many millions of members, the Second Coming evokes not a Jesus who saves, but one who pays dividends. Or, more accurately, one who promises a miraculous return on spiritual venture capital.

It might be argued that, as neoliberal forces have eroded the provenance of liberal democratic states in respect of education, health, and welfare, religious movements– above all, those flexible “prosperity” movements that mimic the workings of business– have expanded their institutional reach into formerly “secular” public domains. In South Africa, as a rising sense of entitlement runs up against the reality of privatization and limited state resources, churches have invested ever more heavily in building schools, clinics, and sports centers. They have extended their ministry in time and content, offering a host of individualized, special services–from exorcism to book-keeping–to members and nonmembers alike. Ever more aware of their role in civil society, these denominations involve themselves actively in current politics, both local and national. As a consequence, notions of the sacred and profane, of membership and congregation, of the calendar and the institutional scope of organized religion are all being reshaped. So, too, are the means of mediating and manifesting divine power.

Why? How, to put the matter more generally, are we to account for the current spread and impact of occult economies and prosperity cults? In framing the problem, of course, we have already pointed in the direction of some answers.

Toward a privatized millennium

To the degree that millennial capitalism fuses the modern and the postmodern, hope and hopelessness, utility and futility, the world created in its image presents itself as a mass of contradictions: as a world, simultaneously, of possibility and impossibility. This is precisely the juxtaposition associated with cargo cults and chiliastic movements in other times and places (Worsley 1957; Cohn 1957). But, as the growth of prosperity gospels and fee-for-service movements illustrates, the chiliastic urge in neoliberal times expresses itself in a privatized millennium, a personalized rather than a communal sense of rebirth. In this, the messianic meets the magical. In the here-and-now, the cargo, glimpsed in large part through TV and the Internet, takes the form of huge concentrations of wealth accruing, legitimately or otherwise, to the rich of the new planetary economy. It is enigmatic wealth, derived mysteriously, as we said earlier, from financial investment and management, from intellectual property and other rights, from electronic expertise and the command of cyberspace, from transport and its cognate operations, and from the supply of various sorts of post-Fordist services. All of this points to the fact that the covert mechanisms of changing markets, not to mention abstruse technological and informational knowledge , hold the key to hitherto unimaginable fortunes: to capital amassed by the ever more rapid flow of value, across time and space, into the fluid coordinates of the local and the global.

Herein, of course, lies the other side of the coin: the sense of impossibility, even despair, that comes from being left out of the promise of prosperity, from having to look in on a global economy of desire from its immiserated exteriors. Whether it be in post-Soviet Central Europe or postcolonial Africa, in post-Thatcherite Britain or the neoliberal USA, in a China edging towards its own form of capitalism or in Neopentecostal Latin America, the world-historical process which came to be symbolized by the events of 1989 held out the prospect that everyone would be set free to accumulate and speculate, to consume, and to indulge repressed cravings in a universe of less government, greater privatization, more opulence, and infinite enterprise. For the vast majority, however, the millennial moment passed without visible enrichment.

The implication? That, in these times–the late modernist age when, according to Weber and Marx, enchantment would wither away–more and more ordinary people see arcane forces intervening in the production of value, diverting its flow toward a new elect. They also attribute to these arcane forces their feelings of erasure and loss: an erasure, in many places, of community and family; a loss of human integrity, experienced in the spreading commodification of persons and their bodies, in the unyoking of the market value from the social value of objects and relations, in the substitution of quantities for quality, abstraction for substance. None of these perceptions is new, as we have said. Balzac (1965 [1847]) described them for France in the 1840s, as did Conrad (1957 [1911]) for prerevolutionary Russia, and neither were alone. Gluckman (1959) spoke long ago of the “magic of despair” which arose in similarly dislocated colonial situations in Africa.

Nonetheless, to reiterate, many people across the world are experiencing these disruptions right now in ways that make them appear ever more acute, ever more devastating, ever harder to grasp or to rationalize to themselves. Which is why the ethical dimensions of occult economies are so prominent, why the mass panics of our times tend to be moral in tone, why they so often express themselves in religious movements that pursue instant material returns and yet condemn those who enrich themselves in unGodly ways. And why, more generally, occult economies consist, at one level, in the constant quest for new, magical means for otherwise unattainable ends, and yet, at another, voice a desire to sanction, even eradicate, people held to have accumulated assets by those very means. Satan and salvation, it seems, remain the conditions of each other’s imaginings.

In sum, occult economies in general, and Neoprotestant religious movements in particular–in Africa and elsewhere–are a response to the perception of an epochal shift in the constitution of the lived world: a world in which the most promising way to create real wealth seems to lie in forms of power/knowledge that transgress the conventional, the rational, the moral, thus to multiply available techniques of producing value, fair or foul. In their cultural aspect, these economies bespeak a resolute effort to come to terms with that power/knowledge, to account for the inexplicable phenomena to which it gives rise, to plumb its secrets–a byproduct of which is the invention of new occult specters. Thus, for example, the unprecedented manifestation of zombies in some parts of the South African countryside has grown in direct proportion to the shrinking labor market for young men (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999b). The former provide a partial explanation for the latter: the living dead are commonly said to be killed and raised up by older people, by witches of wealth, to toil for them, thereby rendering rural youth jobless. There are, in this era of flexitime employment, even part-time zombies, a virtual working c1ass–of pure, abstract labor power–that slaves away at night for its masters. In this context, moreover, the angry dramas through which ritual murderers are identified often become sites of public divination. As they unfold, the accusers discuss, attribute cause, and speak out their understanding of the forces that make the postcolony such an inhospitable place for them. This is an extreme situation, obviously. But in less stark circumstances, too, changing moral and material economies tend to spawn simultaneous strivings to garner wealth and to make transparent the means by which that wealth may be produced.

As all this suggests, appeals to the occult in pursuit of the secrets of capital generally rely on local cultural technologies: on vernacular modes of divination or oracular consultation, on spirit possession or ancestral invocation, on sorcery busting or forensic legal procedures, on witch beliefs or prayer. Whatever. We stress, though, that the use of these technologies does not imply an iteration of, a retreat into, “tradition.” Per contra, their deployment in such circumstances is frequently a means of fashioning new techniques to preserve persisting values, of retooling culturally familiar signs and practices. As in cargo cults of old, this typically involves the mimicking of powerful new ways of producing wealth (Comaroff and Comaroff 1993:xvf).

The rise of occult economies–amidst and alongside more conventional modes of economic practice, shading into the murky domains of crime and corruption–seems overdetermined in the early twenty-first century. This, after all, is an age in which the extravagant optimism of millennial capitalism runs up against an increasingly nihilistic, thoroughly postmodern pessimism. As the connections between means and ends grow increasingly opaque, the occult becomes an ever more semantically saturated metaphor for our times. Note how commonplace it is nowadays to pepper media-parlance, science-speak, new age psychobabble, and technologese–even the law21–with the language of enchantment. But, we insist, occult economies are not reducible to the symbolic, the figurative, or the allegorical alone. Magic is, everywhere, the science of the concrete, aimed at making sense of and acting upon the world–especially, but not only, among those who feel themselves disempowered, emasculated, disadvantaged. The fact that the turn to enchantment is not unprecedented, that it has precursors in earlier times, makes it no less significant to those for whom it has become an integral part of everyday reality. Maybe, too, all this describes a fleeting phase in the long, unfinished history of capitalism. But that makes it no less momentous. Especially in the white heat of the millennial moment.

Towards a beginning

However we wish to characterize this Uncommon Age–as an epoch of death (of ideology, politics, the subject) or rebirth (of the spirit of Marx, Weber, and the Adams, Ferguson and Smith)–ours are perplexing times; times caught uneasily between Derrida’s “end of work” (n.d.; see above) and Zizek’s (1997) “plague of fantasies”; times in which the conjuncture of the strange and the familiar, of stasis and metamorphosis, plays tricks on our perceptions, our positions, our praxis. This conjuncture appears at once to endorse and to erode our understanding of the lineaments of modernity. And its post-ponements. Here, plainly, we have tried to do no more than offer some preliminary observations about the passage from the apocalyptic perplexities of the present to the mundane realities of the future, interrogating, with due respect to Max Weber, the elective affinity between the spirit of a rising millennial capitalism, the occult economies which are growing up in its penumbra, and those Neoprotestant religious movements that give voice to its ethos.

As we have already intimated, and as we all know well, the inscription of materiality in moral economy, of the pursuit of this-worldly wealth in other-worldly religious faith is hardly new. In the Protestant Ethic, Weber (1958: 175) himself italicizes a passage from John Wesley that says: “we must exhort all Christians gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.” What, then, is new? We have suggested that the answer lies in a historically concrete conjuncture. One side of that conjuncture is a post-Fordist, salvific form of capitalism, a capitalism that no longer waits for the messiah–with due respect to Vissarion–but acts like one. It is a form of capitalism that is experienced, to invoke Marx’s camera obscura, upside down; that appears to have done away with production, and productive labor, as its fundamental source of property, personhood, family, identity, community, moral order, even “society”; that has altered the sovereignty of the nation-state and displaced its established public institutions; that has reconstituted space and time, expanding their virtual and global coordinates; that has elevated consumption into a prime mover, into the foundation of being in the world, into an epistemic act that makes the legal, psychotherapeutic, self-contracting individual of the “new” world order into a stakeholder, itself a trope that fuses gambling with corporate citizenship.

On the other side of the conjuncture is the religion of the Vissariontsi in Siberia, of the New Life Church in South Africa, of those Disciples of Christ in Indiana, and many others besides. It is a religion of free choice and a flexible architecture, of instant materialities and dealmaking with the divine, of radically voluntarist subjects and repressed memories, of mass-mediations, global imaginings, and enchanted investments. Old time religion, it seems, is, at least in its Neoprotestant manifestation, being compressed into space-time religion. Thus it is that, as the past becomes the future, new spiritual movements, especially in African postcolonies, seek to harness the numinous magic of global enterprise, to fuse a messianic spirit with the speculative force of finance capital, thereby “taking the waiting out of wanting.” And thereby separating salvation from saving and/or this-worldly ascetism. This is not to say that the [old] Protestantism is dead and gone. Quite the contrary: there are many contexts in which it is putting up animated resistance, in which the first incarnation of Max Weber is alive and well. However, a Second Coming seems imminent in more and more places across the planet. It is a Second Coming that heralds a new Protestant Ethic, a new Spirit of Capitalism, and a new historical anthropology to make sense of both.


In 2002, as we were walking on a street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we were given what looked like a check by an eager, clean-cut young man. It was a check. Issued by the “Jesus Christ Bank of Unlimited Resources” (Matthew 6:33), dated “Now,” and made out to “Whosoever Will” (John 1:12) for the sum of “Eternal and Abundant Life” (Romans 6:23), it bore the signature of “The Blood of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 26:28). The account number, in the name of Love, Grace and Face – which sounds like a combination of a 1960s rock group and a law firm – is Romans 5:8/Ephesians 2:8,9. On the back are instructions for cashing the check “Secure your heavenly passport and visa today,” they advise. “Cash this check daily for your every need as you strive to stay away from sin…And if you need prayer and counseling, contact Pastor [email protected].” We share this promissory note in the spirit of its final message: “Please pass this tract on.”

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